Introducing the McDoualls … high points of the Northern Territory

by Michael Giacometti

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.

Mt Sonder

 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 only the Harts and Strangways Ranges, and some of the MacDonnell Range. Some additional parts of the MacDonnell Range are mapped at 1:100,000 with 10 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?

Sunrise from Mt Giles

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 all 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 ridges. Generally speaking, 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

Elephant Hill 1040m in Ormiston Pound

I determined there to be 44 distinct peaks with an elevation of at least 1100 metres, and a further 66 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. So, that gives a sum total of 110 McDoualls – Northern Territory peaks with an elevation of 1000 metres or more, and an elevation change of at least 150 metres on all sides.

There are 25 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.

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 included for reference only.

Only a small number of the McDoualls are on or close to walking tracks (such as the 220 kilometre long 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.) In addition, 21 McDoualls and 4 McDoubtfuls use the trail as access to rough off-track climbs. 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.

And, a note of caution – climbing some of the peaks is strictly prohibited (such as Mt Olga and Kata Tjuta), and permission must be sought from the relevant land management authority before attempting any peak.

Download the list of McDoualls, McDoubtfuls and other high points of note here.

View the McDouall locations on Google Maps here.

Notes on the list of McDoualls

Ascending Mt Razorback

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.

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.

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).

Several maps (such as those of Harts Range) use the older AGD66 grid datum. To convert from AGD66 grid reference to AGD94 grid reference, increase eastings by 1 and northings by 2.

Land tenure and permissions: 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 (refer to Central Land Council), NT Parks and Wildlife, or by a perpetual pastoral leaseholder.

Climbing some peaks is strictly prohibited, including Mt Olga and all of the peaks and domes of Kata Tjuta.


McDoualls and McDoubtfuls conceived and compiled by Michael Giacometti 2016