The Devil's Marbles, Northern Territory

David Whitley
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Tourism NT
If that's the size of the eggs, you certainly don't want to be messing with the snake that laid them. Come to think of it, how close are they to hatching? Because, um, if thousands of giant baby snakes are about to burst out, then it's probably time to get back in the car and speed as far away as possible.

The "eggs" are the Devil's Marbles, a mysterious group of granite boulders, 114 kilometres south of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. They're completely unconnected to the other major sites of the Red Centre, such as Uluru, Kata-Tjuta and Kings Canyon, and are the major highlight of that numbing stretch between Alice Springs and Katherine Gorge. In the middle of barren nothingness, they are quite a sight.

According to geologists, the marbles have gradually been shaped over the years by various erosion processes. However, if we listened to the rock-botherers, even the most magical of natural phenomena would be reduced to barely noticeable earth movements — and that would be very dull. Besides, no amount of dry, logical plodding through textbooks and graphs really accounts for why all these boulders are in one place and can be found only here.

A much better explanation is that of the indigenous Arrernte people, for whom this is a hugely sacred site. They believe that the smooth, rounded boulders are the eggs of the Rainbow Serpent. In the Dreamtime stories passed down through the generations, this great, colourful snake is a key character. It is the guardian and inhabitant of all the desert's permanent watering holes and is thought responsible for all the ridges, gorges and valleys that dot the outback.

As with most Aboriginal sites, we Johnny-come-latelies underestimate the importance of the Devil's Marbles. In 1953, one smaller rock was removed from its structure and hotfooted to the big smoke (which, in these parts, is what Alice Springs passes for). It was a classic case of good intentions going badly wrong, ironically in the name of someone who had worked wonders to help those who dwell in the most remote regions of Australia. It was moved so that it could be put on the gravestone of John Flynn, founder of the Royal Flying Doctors Service. Obviously this was intended as a tribute and chosen to emphasise his links to the outback, but taking it without the consent of the Arrernte tribal elders was a big no-no.

Eventually, after years of complaints and wrangling, the rock was removed from Flynn's grave and replaced by a similar, but non-sacred, stone. A truce was reached, but it was one that shouldn't have been needed in the first place.

It's not difficult to see why the site is held in such reverence. As the sun creeps up, the lighting on the boulders provides a vision to rival anything Uluru can muster. Even the most bungling disposable-camera wielder can get a photograph that is genuinely postcard-worthy at sunrise.

The colours are astonishing, ranging from timid pinks to booming reds, and the Marbles themselves seem to take on supernatural properties. You can moan all you like about having to rise at absurd o'clock to capture the moment, but once you're there, the tiredness instantly dissipates and the contrasts of the sheer white trees against the morphing eggs takes over.

Get to the highest boulder, though, and you have a majestic view. The boulders are all around, some stacked, some loose, some looking like they're having serious thoughts about becoming loose. In the middle of nowhere, it's a wonderful king-of-the-world feeling.

You do need to be careful, however. This isn't some weird and wonderful version of a climbing frame and people do get hurt. As our group leaves, we have the sad sight of a man who got over-ambitious being carried down with a torn hamstring.

Whether you believe in the story or not, it clearly pays to respect the Rainbow Serpent; those who think they can take on the scattered wonders of this harsh land with ease often find out the hard way that it's not so simple.