Are the ‘Ochre Pits’ the Pits?

If the ‘Ochre Pits’ sounds like the ‘pits’ to you, you’re wrong!

I have to be honest, when one of our group on this trip to the Red Centre said they particularly wanted to stop off at the Ochre Pits, in the MacDonnell Ranges west of Alice Springs, my heart didn’t particularly sing 😉

Scanning the Internet prior to our visit to the Red Centre I’d found a somewhat uninspiring non-descript image and these ‘Pits’ looked like…. well, the ‘Pits’ 🙁

Were they just a bit of old mud on the banks of a creek bed?

Ochre Pits, MacDonnell Range

So… next stop, 80km west of our first stop at Standley Chasm was the Ochre Pits!

And it just goes to show you can’t believe everything you see on the Internet! Some places really have to be experienced to appreciate their cultural influence and their colour in the flesh!

Ochre Pits Australia

The colourful curves and swirls of these soft-stoned and fragile cliffs tell a story rich with tradition and geological history. Since the beginning of time they’ve played an important role in the culture of the local Aboriginal people, the Western Arrente.”

Aboriginal women painted with ochre

While the photo above of Arente women ‘painted-up’ with ochre and feathers ready for a ceremony was taken over 100 years ago (by the anthropologist Walter Baldwin Spencer) ochre is still widely used in religious ceremony and for decoration.

Ochre Pit colour

In traditional western Arrente society ochre was an essential daily household item, and was central to the preparation of many medicines.

Aboriginal Medicine


“The different coloured layers are caused by the presence of iron oxide in varying amounts. The more iron oxide present, the darker and redder the colour. The whiter stone has little or no iron and a high level of kaolin, a white clay mineral”

Ochre Pits, West MacDonnell Ranges

Ochre Pits colours

Ochre Pits colours

The colours in the ochre cliff were every bit as attractive as colours seen in other geological delights from further afield such as the Coloured Sands on Fraser Island or Rainbow Valley, NT.

Ochre deposits are found across Australia but in varying qualities so was frequently traded with pituri (bush tobacco), boomerangs, spears and down feathers used in ceremonies. Trading has always been an important part of Aboriginal society.

Aboriginal coolamon on Head ring

Today, ochres are used in Aboriginal artworks from certain regional communities in Australia.

The Warmun Art Community in the Kimberleys are renowned for their artworks painted with ochres, where each artist personally collects their medium from the surrounding country and prepares it with pestle and mortar.

Turkey Creek artwork

As an example of this technique is the above artwork by Nancy Nodea, from Warmun at Turkey Creek, WA.

Ochre Pits Alice Springs

 Beautiful seeing the medium of coloured ochres come to life on the canvas in her work against this image of them in their natural environment 🙂

So, with our route plotted and dotted to the Ochre Pits on my Central Australia map…

pictorial map of central australia

…Next stop, Orminston Gorge (which I’ll post next Tuesday)

Have you seen ochres in their natural environment?

Or aboriginal artworks in this medium?

Would love to hear in the comments below 🙂

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13 thoughts on “Are the ‘Ochre Pits’ the Pits?

  1. Pingback: The Sheer Walls of Standley Chasm

  2. Hi Linda,

    I’m loving your serious on the West Macs (as we locals call them), which also just happens to be the national parks Gary is in charge of.

    I especially like this post on the Ochre Pits, as it’s getting the message out about living Aboriginal culture.

    In real life, I’m an anthropologist who works for the agency responsible for the protection of Aboriginal sacred sites in the Northern Territory. I’ve had the privilege of working with the Apmereke-artweye (the custodians and traditional owners) of the ochre pits AND of being ‘painted up’ and dancing in women’s secret rituals.

    The huge message I’d like to give to anyone visiting Ochre Pits is this: the custodians of the ochre pits DO visit and DO use the ochre there, so please DO NOT take any of it.

    The ochre is especially significant in Jan-Feb of each year when boys are put through ‘Business’, which is the local way of saying that they undergo a ritual which turns them from boys into men. Ochre from the Ochre Pits is sought by Aboriginal people from all over Central Australia for these ceremonies.

    What’s really great about visiting the Ochre Pits is that you’re going somewhere that is a big part of Western Arrernte culture today – not just an historical account from the past.

    • Thank you so much Amanda for adding both a professional perspective and your very special personal experiences to this post.
      I must say it’s great to hear that Aboriginal culture in the centre is alive and well.

      Your sentiment reiterates the old saying…
      take only photos, leave only footprints!

    • Namatjira Drive that takes you out west of Alice Springs has many pull-offs to all sorts of sights in the Macdonnell Ranges –
      My post next week will be on Orminston Gorge, which we visited after the Ochre Pits and was gorgeous! 😉

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  5. I wasn’t expecting the reaction I had when I came around the corner on the path to the Ochre Pits…an audible gasp!!! It might be the most beautiful place I have seen in Australia. The contrast of colours between the ochre, gums and deep blue sky could not be replicated outside of nature. To then see the Namatjira Ghost Gums against the MacDonell Ranges and sunset at Rainbow Valley? Possibly my most perfect day in 7 weeks of amazing adventure. So many people think Australia is the Rock, Reef, Opera House and Apostles. They have no idea what they are missing!!!

    • Thrilled to hear you had such an awe inspiring trip in Australia, with the highlight here at the Ochre Pits!
      Great that you managed to get past the Rock and Reef –
      You’re so right – there is so much more to Oz than those famous icons 🙂

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