Introducing the McDoualls … (and the McDoubtfuls) – peak bagging in the Northern Territory
Defining the peaks and high points in the Northern Territory with an elevation of at least 1000 metres above sea level and with a distinct elevation change on all sides of at least 150 metres.
Australia’s Northern Territory is a place of vast red deserts, the monolith Uluru, and a tropical north. But it is also home to some of the highest peaks and most rugged terrain in Australia. Many peaks of the arid rangelands of Central Australia rise hundreds of metres above the scrubby plains, including Mt Zeil (1531 metres) which is the highest peak in Australia west of the Great Dividing Range.
After living in Central Australia for ten years and climbing some of the high peaks, I set out to collate the ‘distinct’ high points of the Northern Territory to use as a resource for future hiking adventures. Using the Tasmanian Abels (which defines 160 peaks as being at least 1100 metres in elevation with an elevation change of at least 150 metres on all sides of the peak) as a model, I began to define the Northern Territorian McDoualls. (The name McDouall recognises the explorer John McDouall Stuart, the first non-Indigenous person to enter Central Australia in 1860 and climb some of the high peaks including Brinkley Bluff, Mt Freeling and Mt Leichhardt.)
The high rangelands of the Northern Territory are mainly confined to the southern portion of Central Australia, in the Harts and Strangways Ranges east of Alice Springs, the extensive MacDonnell Ranges (including the Heavitree Range and rugged Chewings Range) and western ranges extending towards Kintore near the West Australian border, the Petermann Range, and the Mann and Musgrave Ranges which extend further across the South Australian border in Pitjantjatjarra country.
Accurately defining and compiling the list of McDoualls proved to be more difficult than I imagined. Unlike Tasmania, very little of the NT is topographically mapped at a suitable scale for bushwalking – 1:50,000 with 10 metre contour intervals – and the area thus mapped covers most, but not all, of the East and West MacDonnell Ranges and Strangways Range. The Harts Range (northeast of Alice Springs) is also mapped at 1:50,000, but from older aerial photographs with 20 metre contours. Some additional parts of the MacDonnell Range are mapped at 1:100,000 with 20 metre contours. But for the most part, the unsatisfactory scale of 1:250,000 with 50 metre contours was used. That’s right – 50 metre contours! Consequently, there is a degree of doubt about whether some peaks are distinct enough (i.e. they have an elevation change of at least 150 metres on all sides) or they are merely another high (but not the highest) point on an extended ridge or plateau.
How do peaks qualify as a McDouall?
As an example, imagine the following scenario. On the 1:250,000 map there is a high ridge. At each end of the ridge is an unnamed high point (which I will call Peak A and Peak B) above the 1100 metre contour. Between the high points (Peak A and Peak B) is a saddle between the 950 and 1000 metre contour lines. Surrounding the high ridge is a plain 300 metres below. Is Peak A and/or Peak B a McDouall?
Peaks A and B both exceed 1000 metres in elevation, so they both pass the first criterion. But are they distinct? Is there an elevation change of at least 150 metres on all sides of both peaks? And if not, which peak is higher?
The precise elevation of the peaks and the saddle are not stated – Peak A and Peak B are somewhere between 1100 and 1149 metres and the saddle is somewhere between 950 and 999 metres. The maximum possible elevation change (peak is 1149 metres, saddle is 950 metres) is 199 metres; but the minimum possible elevation change (peak 1100 metres, saddle 999 metres) is 101 metres. In a best-case scenario, both peaks are distinct, and therefore both will qualify. But in a worst-case scenario, whereby the two peaks are not distinct from each other, only one – the higher of the two peaks – will qualify. But which is higher? So it could both Peak A and Peak B, or it could be just one of them (Peak A or Peak B, but it is unclear which). Due to this uncertainty, I have not included either of the peaks as a McDouall. But rather than exclude them completely (because one or both may qualify), I have placed them both in a separate category: McDoubtful. Peak-baggers wishing to climb the McDoualls should include the McDoubtfuls in their plans, just in case. If and when more accurate topographic information is made available, then the McDoubtfuls can be reassessed as a McDouall, or not.
Comparing the same topographical information presented at 1:50,000 scale with 1:250,000 scale produced some slight variations in elevation of peaks and high points on extended ridgelines. The 1:50,000 scale with 10 metre contour intervals provides far greater and more accurate topographic detail. At this scale (1:50,000), peak elevations are often slightly higher, and some ridge contours of less than 950 metres at 1:250,000 scale actually exceed 1000 metres. If ever the entire mountainous regions of Central Australia are mapped at 1:50,000 then more McDoualls may show up.
The McDoualls and the McDoubtfuls
I determined there to be 44 distinct peaks with an elevation of at least 1100 metres, and a further 62 distinct peaks with an elevation between 1000 and 1099 metres. Given the relatively small number of peaks above the 1100 metre threshold and the number of peaks above 1000 metres with elevation changes of 300 or more metres (indicating that the peaks are very prominent), I decided to make the qualifying elevation for McDoualls to be 1000 metres – 100 metres lower than the Tasmanian Abels. So, that gives a sum total of 106 McDoualls – Northern Territory peaks with an elevation of 1000 metres or more, and an elevation change of at least 150 metres on all sides.
In addition, I identified a further 32 peaks that exceed 1000 metres but their elevation change may or may not exceed 150 metres; since there is not enough information available at present to categorically include or exclude them, they are classed ‘in doubt’ and form the sub-category McDoubtfuls. Six of the McDoubtfuls have multiple peaks, and since it cannot be determined which is higher, both are included as sub-peak McDoubtfuls. For two of the six (22a, 22b and 32a, 32b), one of the sub-peaks will definitely become a McDouall once it can be established which of the two sub-peaks in the group is highest; the other will be eliminated. For the remaining four (5a, 5b; 7a, 7b; 24a, 24b, 24c and 26a, 26b), either one or none of each group of sub-peaks may eventually qualify.
The final list also includes 50 other peaks of interest, being those that are very distinct but do not quite reach 1000 metres (i.e. 980+ metres, 150+ metre elevation change), and those that exceed 1000 metres but are not quite distinct (i.e. 1000+ metres, 120+ metre elevation change). These are neither McDoualls nor McDoubtfuls. They are ‘Almost but not quite’. They are included for reference only.
Climbing the McDoualls is a challenge. Only a small number of the McDoualls are on or close to walking tracks (such as the 220-kilometre Larapinta Trail in the Chewings and Heavitree Ranges of the West MacDonnell National Park). There are 3 McDoualls (Lorettas Lookout 1151 on section 3 high route, Brinkley Bluff section 4, Hilltop Lookout 1010 section 11) and 1 McDoubtful (Counts Point 1140 section 8) on the trail. (Mt Sonder Lookout section 12 does not qualify as it is a subsidiary peak on the ridge.) The rest of the peaks require walking off-track. While the terrain is typically open, offering vast panoramas, the actual walking is rough, tramping through spinifex, and steep, loose and uneven rocky terrain. The McDouall peak-bagger should be comfortable with rocky scrambles and experienced at route finding through cliff bands.
Most of the McDoualls are in the West MacDonnell Ranges (which is comprised of Chewings, Heavitree and North MacDonnell Ranges) with 37 McDoualls and 13 McDoubtfuls (with the Chewings Range itself having 20 McDoualls and 5 McDoubtfuls). Other ranges of note are Harts Range (8 McDoualls and 4 McDoubtfuls), Belt Range (8 and 1), Mt Chapple ridge (7 and 0), Mann Range (6 and 0), Amunugurra Range (5 and 1), Strangways Range (5 and 1), Idirriki Range (4 and 1), and Olia Chain (4 and 0).
Key to map:
GREEN pins – McDoualls
YELLOW pins – McDoubtfuls
RED pins – Almost but not quite (for reference only)
Download the Excel list of NT McDoualls and McDoubtfuls: nt-mcdoualls-and-mcdoubtfuls-version-1-1
Version 1.1, 2017
Notes on the list of McDoualls
Sequence: Some users might prefer the list of McDoualls to be ordered by elevation from high to low, but I have instead grouped them by region and access. This should assist the McDouall peak-bagger in targeting several peaks in one trip. Using Alice Springs as a hub, the sequence flows radially out on the road network, starting towards the east, and then moving anti-clockwise to the northeast, north, northwest, west and southwest.
It is possible to sort the list by elevation or in any other way the user prefers.
Peak name: The stated names of peaks are taken, where available, from the 1:50,000 map. Where no name is given, either the spot height (eg. Spot height 1042) in metres is given, or the highest stated contour interval (eg. Contour height 1100) in metres. Where there are several peaks with the same name, a suffix is appended to the name to make it distinct. A few of the peaks in the West MacDonnell Range have been given unofficial ‘local’ names.
Elevation: The stated elevations of the peaks are taken, where available, from the 1:50,000 map. If there is no spot height, the relevant contour interval range is given.
Contour intervals: Where 1:50,000 topographic maps are used, contour interval is 10 metres. For the few AGD66 1:50,000 maps, contour interval is 20 metres. The 1:100,000 national park series topographic maps use 20 metre contour intervals. For 1:250,000 topographic maps, contour interval is 50 metres.
Coordinates: The stated latitude and longitude are taken from NATMAP 1:250,000 digital maps using GDA94. Position accuracy is plus/minus 5 seconds. Their purpose is to aid the user in locating the peak on the relevant 1:250,000 topographic map.
Wherever the peaks are mapped at a more detailed scale (1:50,000 or 1:100,000), 6-figure grid references are also given. Position accuracy is within a 100 metre by 100 metre square. Unless otherwise stated, all grid references are AGD94 (which are equivalent to WGS84) grid datum.
Several maps (such as those of Harts Range on map titles Arltunga, Harts Range and Riddoch) use the older AGD66 grid datum. To convert an AGD66 grid reference to AGD94 grid reference, increase eastings by 1 and northings by 2. For example: GR743868 (AGD66) becomes GR744870 (AGD94).
Land tenure and permissions: Climbing some peaks is strictly forbidden, including Mt Olga and all of the peaks and domes of Kata Tjuta.
Obtain permission from the appropriate land management authority before attempting to climb any of the McDoualls. In the NT, almost all land is owned and/or managed by an Aboriginal Land Trust (ALT — refer to Central Land Council), NT Parks and Wildlife (NP), or by a pastoral leaseholder (PS) for the purpose of running cattle.
McDoualls and McDoubtfuls conceived and compiled by Michael Giacometti, 2016