Fire over the Devil’s Marbles
140 days on the road moving away from our starting point, we finally hit the last big leg of our roadtrip. Whilst we headed south from Katherine with mixed feelings, what lied in front of us was yet another exceptional part of Australia: The Red Centre.
Australia’s actual centre point is debatable, depending on which method one prefers (read more on Australia’s centre points), but we were driving towards its cultural (and touristic) core, Uluru. Driving from the tropical North, where heat and humidity (and mosquitoes) make the days physiologically challenging, we embraced the cooler nights along the Stuart Highway.
770 km south of Katherine lies the Karlu Karlu Conservation Reserve, more often referred to as The Devil’s Marbles.
Karlu Karlu, a sacred Aboriginal site
The traditional owners of the land are the Alyawarre people, but other nations have spiritual connections to the place: the Warumungu, Kaytetye, and Warlpiri. The name Karlu Karlu means rounded boulders (don't ask how). The Reserve was officially reclaimed from Parks and Wildlife Service of NT in 2008, and has been continuously used by the local people for various ceremonies, whilst visitors are welcome to certain parts only.
The significance of the site appears in multiple Dreamtime stories, most of which cannot be told to the unitiated public, as is often the case with Indigenous law.
One accessible story tells of the Devil Man Arrange, who was walking through the hills. He was knitting a hair-string belt (an item used by men in ceremonies), and dropped clusters of hair along the way. These then morphed into the big red boulders we can admire today. As he turned around to see what happened, he spat on the ground and his saliva turned into the central boulders, which are not to be photographed (we didn't).
Magnificent ancient rock formations
Of course, geologists have had their go at explaining the origin of the boulders. The marbles are not meteorites dropped from the sky, but they have been around for about 1500 million years (although they were not always round). They would have been part of a larger rock formation, which gradually cracked under the pressure of the elements. Natural erosion rounded and shaped them, and continues to do so to this day.
The rocks are actually granite, isolated in the middle of a sandstone desert. Granite originates from the hardening of magma from the Earth’s crust. As the crust folded under the tectonic movements, the hard granite generated enormous pressure on the softer layer of thick sandstone, ultimately piercing their way to the surface. Water and wind erosion did the rest of the sculpting. If you want to know more about the process, search for rock exfoliation or chemical, physical and spherical weathering.
An interesting feature of the “marbles” is linked to the local temperature amplitude, which creates a phenomenon called thermal strain weathering; during the daytime heat, the rocks undergo expansion, whilst there is contraction during the cool nights. Let’s call it the “marbles tide”, an oscillation which eventually produces cracks.
Yep, if you travel Australia, be ready for the geology lessons! Fascinating place, we’re telling ya.
"This is the Devil’s country; he’s even emptied his bag of marbles around the place!" - John Ross, 1870
By the way, the English names may come from a quote by John Ross, traveling on the Overland Telegraph expedition in 1870: “This is the Devil’s country; he’s even emptied his bag of marbles around the place!”
Marvel at the Marbles
Now that we have bored you with the funky facts, here’s our bit of storytelling.
As we pulled in from Stuart Highway late in the arvo (that means afternoon, for the non-Aussies reading this – get your lingo straight, mate!), an incredible landscape opened up in front of our eyes. It really looked like some giant with pockets full of red marbles had walked in the valley, unaware of his precious treasure bleeding through the hole in his shorts.
We ignored a few cars in the carpark and followed the signs towards the campground at the back. As we turned the corner boulder, we saw another surprise panorama, albeit less inviting: a very tight and imperfect (random?) alignment of caravans and campervans. We had booked, but it appeared not everyone had. Our site luckily was free from unwanted intrusion, we parked the van and off we went ON the Devil’s Marbles.
You literally hike 50 meters from your van into the Devil’s Marbles’ site. And what a sight! The sun was already fairly low, and the round boulders were showing their orangy-brown tones. The path allows you to climb on top of the rocks to get a higher perspective of the surroundings. There were a few people wandering up and down, not that it bothered the kids. They were quick to jump from boulder to boulder, finding the hidy spots and disappearing in the cracks. The cameras and various other devices were overheating as quickly as the sun was dropping.
The light gradually changed to dark red and orange and we started playing with the shades, and even gave a shot at our sinister tripod (we have a bit of camera-damage history). This camera survived, but our hearts got their shot of adrenaline; forget bungee jumping, just lose a camera to clumsy tripod manipulation, and repeat the manoeuver with a new one. Thrill guaranteed.
Finally, we settled down to enjoy the peaceful moment in this exceptional place as the light faded. We had to come back for more, which meant up in the wee hours of the morning, find a good spot on our Marbles before anybody else comes up. Sit back and enjoy. Can you feel the serenity?
Interesting how a place can be so busy, yet hardly anyone gets up for a spectacular sunrise. We did. And we enjoyed every minute of it.
The Aboriginal people have a very good radar for unique places like Karlu Karlu. Arrange has been very keen to leave them right next to the Stuart Highway. Or maybe it is the other way around… Anyhow, we felt blessed once again that the traditional owners of Karlu Karlu invited us to experience a special communion with the Beautiful Marbles.