The significant Women’s Dreaming site Angkerle Atwatye (also known as Standley Chasm) is an incredible, narrow, soaring gorge carved into the MacDonnell Ranges in Australia’s Northern Territory. Travel writer Kerry van der Jagt explores the site’s deep connection to the culture and history of the local western Arrernte people.
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Northern Territory’s MacDonnell Ranges are a puzzle: a mountainous backbone in the middle of central Australia, where inland beaches laze against desert landscapes, palm trees sprout from dry riverbeds and slot canyons slice through towering red cliffs. To see it is to stand in awe and be reminded that the land we walk on is an ancient one.
Believed to have once been the same height as the Himalayas, the formation of this now weathered range continues to baffle geologists. But there is no confusion for the local Arrernte Aboriginal people; as part of their Dreaming story, the landscape was created by giant ancestral caterpillar beings – Yeperenye, Ntyarlke and Utnerrengatye.
Of all the rifts that perforate the range, none is more wondrous or closely protected than Standley Chasm – Angkerle Atwatye, an 80-metre high, three-metre wide passage through the towering, rust-stained rocks. Once a tributary of the Finke River system, the narrow gorge has been carved out of the sandstone by rain and floodwaters.
One hundred per cent owned and operated by the western Arrernte people, Angkerle Atwatye is located in a private flora and fauna reserve surrounded by the Tjoritja West MacDonnell National Park, an easy, 40-minute drive west of Alice Springs.
“Angkerle Atwatye means Gap of Water,” says General Manager Nova Pomare, a direct descendent of the Arrernte people who have lived in this area for tens of thousands of years. “As a significant Women’s Dreaming site, the chasm holds deep, cultural significance to my people.”
Pomare explains that there are two versions of the Euro Dreaming story. “The one about the creation of the cleft caused by euros [black-footed wallabies] fighting, can be told to visitors,” she says. “But the second version, with more intimate details of the Dreaming story, can only be shared amongst women in our family.”
Walking through the narrow canyon, its sheer sides aglow with a life-force of its own, it’s easy to imagine generations of women coming here – giving birth, collecting bush medicines and sharing stories of life, love and loss.
As Angkerle Atwatye is a community-owned enterprise, all visitors must pay a $12 entry fee, which goes towards employing and training staff, maintenance and up-keep of the track and surroundings. From the kiosk it’s an easy 1.2km walk (15-minutes each way) along a well-maintained path to the gorge. While photographers will love the blush of brilliant red light on the walls at midday, mornings and afternoons are best for spotting wildlife. The splash of Jurassic-era cycads against flaming rocks can be enjoyed anytime.
Visitors can take a self-guided walk or book one of the cultural tours. Experiences range from a three-hour guided tour to a half-day cultural experience including a guided walk, morning tea, lunch and a dot painting workshop. The opportunity to have open discussions about kinship, sorry business, Aboriginal history and contemporary issues are a highlight of all tours. Powered and non-powered camping sites, with access to toilets, hot showers and camp kitchens, are available year-round. There’s also a kiosk café and gift shop (open weekends only).
For the last two years, the Standley Chasm – Angkerle Atwatye experience has won a much-coveted Brolga Northern Territory Tourism Award, the industry’s highest accolade in recognition of tourism excellence and authenticity.
“For me, it is very important that we have the opportunity to share our culture in a positive way,” says Pomare. “By sharing our knowledge, we unite people, while also educating them in our ways.”
Pomare’s connection to Standley Chasm – Angkerle Atwatye goes back to her childhood when she’d visit her auntie and uncle who ran the place back in the ‘70s. “Four years ago, when I returned to take over as manager, we had just one guide.” she says. “Today we have four, with plans to increase to seven guides.”
“Tourism provides employment and training opportunities for my people, but it’s also good for the wellbeing and confidence of our community.”
One such guide is David McCormack, a proud Alywarre/Arrernte man, who now leads visitors on cultural tours on the country he grew up on. Although McCormack cannot share the women’s Dreaming stories, he is a wealth of knowledge about bush tucker, medicinal plants, weaponry and dot art. “During the painting workshop, I like to explain what each of the symbols mean and how to interpret a painting,” he says. “I also show guests the kind of things my people would paint.”
Walk through the gorge with a local guide and you will feel the pull of invisible threads that connect Aboriginal people to their country, culture and community. Taste the sweet flesh of a bush coconut and be startled by the sudden movement of a black-footed rock wallaby, the thud of its tail bringing the Euro Dreaming story to life. Step by step, the puzzle unravels as you gain insights into a deeply spiritual and nurturing way of life. When seen through Indigenous eyes, there is nothing confusing about it.
The writer is a descendant of the Awabakal people of the mid-north coast of New South Wales.