In the remote Abner Ranges of Australia’s Northern Territory stand the bizarre stone pillars of an ancient Lost City.
Cape Crawford is not the kind of place that allows itself to be easily located on a map. Despite the name, it is over a hundred kilometres inland from the Gulf of Carpentaria to this tiny township, whose only establishment is the somehow appropriately named Heartbreak Hotel.
From Cape Crawford, it would take the hardy a couple of days to make the trip southeast to the Abner Ranges in a four-wheel drive. Or it could take the hardier still a week to trek across the severe red savannah and up into the ranges. But for those less willing to brave the harsh elements of the Northern Territory, it’s easier to take the helicopter to the Lost City.
Racing clouds cast shadows over the strange megalithic pillars and domes of the Northern Territory’s ancient Lost City. Displaying some of Australia’s most impressive geology, the aptly named ‘Lost City’ looks for all the world like the high-rise central business district of a forgotten civilization.
Rising from the ground and covering an area of around 10 square kilometres, sandstone spires, pillars and bizarre-shaped pinnacles jut skywards to heights of up to 60 metres. They are quite unlike any other rock formation in Australia, and very different from the beehive-shaped formations of the Olgas found near the famed Uluru (Ayers Rock) further south in the Northern Territory.
The pinnacles have formed from pre-Cambrian sediments laid down 1.4 billion years ago, on the floor of an ancient sea. Subjected to compression, faulting, uplifting and tilting over millions of years, and eroded by the processes of wind and water, of which there is in abundance during the flooding rains of the monsoonal ‘wet season’, the Lost City’s quartz sandstone spires are continually undergoing change.
Made up of medium grain quartz sandstones, the outer crusting consists of particles of iron, silicas, calcites and algae. Spectacular though the rocks are, there is little here for the rock climber. The rocky ledges that run around the columns are deceptive, with hand and foot holds that crumble under the slightest pressure. Rocky ledges run rings around the columns, providing what would look to be strong hand and foot holds, but are in fact very brittle, crumbling under any pressure.
Anyone standing at the base of these geological giants is dwarfed by the glowing red and gold walls as they pass through narrow ravines and chasms. At every turn, there are yet more weird and wonderful towers and corridors. Some columns stand alone, leaning or balancing precariously, others huddle together in clusters, presenting a whole gamut of potential walkways at their bases.
Every structure is different. Fabulous joint lines and tilt lines create a smorgasbord of textures and visual stimulus. By the vertical nature of the spires, eyes are inevitably and repeatedly drawn skywards. Plants strike a hold in joints and crevices high above, having adapted tenaciously to the extremes of climate found in the Gulf Country.
Evidence of this tenacity can be seen where rock fig trees cling to sheer vertical walls, their survival dependent on the success of their network of grasping gnarled roots that seek out trapped nutrients and moisture in every nook and cranny.
The entire area is dissected by dry creek beds which during the height of the wet season flow with swirling floods, sweeping around the base of these geological giants, cascading down the red and gold walls, carving away more and more surface rock in the on-going process of weathering and erosion.
Deep within the Lost City, the labyrinth of narrow corridors, chasms and tunnels condenses into a dangerous maze. Here the needlepoint of a compass would be of little use due to deviation caused by the presence of iron in the surrounding rock.
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In shadowy recesses, Aboriginal art can still be found and depicted in ochre are emus, goannas and even a mounted policeman painted in the late 1800s. In these cool and quiet places, freshwater pools would have proved an attraction to the Aboriginal people who had once passed through on their seasonal forays.
Like Central Australia’s Uluru and the Olgas it is highly likely that the Lost City would have had a strong spiritual significance for the Aboriginal people.
Unfortunately, much of the Aboriginal history associated with the Lost City, which would have been handed down from generation to generation over thousands of years, has been lost. Though the Lost City would have exerted its power on the imagination of the Aborigines, just as it impresses the modern visitor, most of the stories and legends tied up with the place have, like its former name, long faded from memory.
The Heartbreak Hotel (also known as Cape Crawford) is located 275 kms from the Stuart Highway and 106 kms south-west of Borroloola at the intersection of the Carpentaria and Tablelands Highways.
Accommodation consists of air-conditioned motel-style rooms (with optional fridges for keeping your beer ice cold) in addition to powered sites for caravans and campervans set amidst well-kept lawns and shady trees. Other facilities include a restaurant, laundry, ice, bottled gas refills and a service station come general store.
Airborne Solutions operate helicopter flights from the Heartbreak Hotel (and also from Darwin) to the Lost City, and it takes around 15 minutes to reach the columns, flying over the Abner Ranges on the way. The landing point in a natural amphitheatre is spectacular, where you then walk around the more eroded part of the city. You then enter a cave that goes right through the rock, to emerge on higher ground offering excellent views. Airborne Solutions