Climbing Mt Zeil – The NT’s Highest Peak

Mt Zeil, highest mountain in the Northern Territory

The scene was set…..we were climbing Mt. Zeil, the highest mountain in the Northern Territory.

Mt Zeil is located in the western end of the Tjoritja/West MacDonnell National Park.

Late in the afternoon Friday the 20th of July, participants in the climb headed out from various locations to meet at the turnoff to Mt. Zeil on Derwent Station.

Amanda came from Alice via the Tanami and Papunya roads, Gary, Stretch, Mark and Sam came from Ormiston Gorge via Beer Can corner and the Haast Bluff/Papunya roads.

We were all supposed to meet at around 6.00pm at the turnoff.

The intention was to drive in to a pre-determined spot using the remains of the day for navigation purposes as the track is only vaguely marked but often as we know, Murphy plays a part.

Mark and Sam had a flat and arrived just on dark and we had to try and find our way without the aid of daylight.

The area is heavily grazed by cattle and one of the few bores around is located adjacent the track, with the cattle completely obliterating any sign of it. After some time looking for the track we reverted to heading for a set of co-ordinates I had gotten off ArcView before leaving.

So after tracking through the scrub for about an hour we eventually decided to call a halt some 300 metres short of the original destination, adjacent a creek with a good supply of firewood and set up our camp for the night.

The rest of the night was spent washing down some tucker with some drinks amongst much flatulence and frivolity.

The Ascent

Early the next morning we arose, had a quick breakfast and then headed off by vehicle to a spot on the NW side of Mt. Zeil, about a km or so away.

We parked the cars, packed our packs and headed off on foot by a route decided by pouring over Google Earth and an aerial photo of the topography surrounding the mountain itself.

It was about 7.45am Saturday and it was expected it was going to be a long day. It was quite cool and windy with everyone still wearing a fleece or jumper as we began climbing up a ridge line which we hoped would not become too steep.

Mt Zeil

Ridge line after ridge line, we gradually crept upwards occasionally stopping for either a breather or to confirm the optimal path.

Every so often we would crest a hill thinking we had erred but only to find we had indeed chosen this path wisely.

About half way up the others thought they had chosen a better way than I and ended up almost climbing along a rugged, rocky ridge cloaked in cycads. I had stuck to my planned path and had forged along reaching the top of a ridge where I ended up waiting 15 minutes for the others to catch up….oh ye of little faith!

Some half a km further on we decided to break for lunch where we had a cuppa and enjoyed the aerial exploits of a couple of wedge-tailed eagles, one of which landed in a native pine close by.

The views from this point were outstanding enough but only got better as we continued our ascent about an half hour later.

Finally the summit loomed ever closer and I for one was glad to crest the top of the last rise and see both the highest point marker and the VHF repeater station closeby.

The 360 degree views from the summit are absolutely splendiferous and, from this vantage point, we were able to see all of the top ten peaks in the Territory.


We all took the obligatory photos next to the marker, and of the surrounding countryside. It’s totally awesome standing at the top of Zeil, the tallest mountain west of the Great Divide and also a significant cultural site to Traditional Owners.


Coming down

After an half hour or so of enjoying the views and feeling the emotions attached to being on top of the Territory, and with time running down, we had to start our descent so as to ensure we made it back to camp prior to nightfall.

With the going much easier downhill we headed off pausing briefly to assess a fire we could see way off in the south and hear the King’s Canyon ranger staff bantering  over the UHF.

About three quarters of the way down a group decision was made to take another route down a gully in an effort not only to have to go up another rise but to get to the bottom quicker to beat the setting sun.

As I have found previously these routes are not always easier and, as with this particular way down, it provided its own challenges.

The first part wasn’t too bad but all too quickly we ended up having to push our way through thick vegetation, climb around and over rocky ledges and make our way around waterholes in our path.

Finally, and I was well and truly over what we were doing, we made it to the bottom and thankfully, flat ground.

The sun was setting as we made our way over stony ground towards where our cars were parked and where we would camp overnight once more.

After trudging through the mulga and with only 10 or 15 minutes before darkness set upon us we arrived back at the cars.

Everyone sat down almost immediately and sighed in satisfaction at not only the achievement of the day but being able to relax and anticipate that first drink.

Again, albeit a little more slowly, we enjoyed our remaining night camped in the scrub at the base of Mt. Zeil with nice food, drink, damper and oh I forgot, chocolate and again much flatulence.

The following morning everyone took the opportunity to rise a little later and then, after enjoying breakfast, we followed the track, yes the track, you know the one we couldn’t find at night back out to the main road.

After saying our goodbyes we headed off for whence we came and that, my friends, was the story of our walk up Mt. Zeil, the highest point west of the Great Divide.


  • alex czerny says:

    Does location of VHF repeater mean there is a kind of rugged track up to the summit of Mt. Zeil negotiable by a 4×4 vehicle? I am not all-terrain vehicle maniac, but have in mind locating there some automatic sky&environment tracking device.

  • gadget says:

    Hi Alex,

    The VHF repeater was constructed entirely by helicopter in the early 1990s. There are two small helipads on the mountain, simple clearings about 3m x 3m. There is absolutely no 4WD access to the summit; indeed, there is no real 4WD track even to the base of the mountain itself. The summit can only be reached by foot or helicopter. If attempting on foot, good navigation skills and lots of water are essential.

    Some points to note: Mt Zeil is in a very isolated part of the West MacDonnells National Park and access should be discussed with the rangers beforehand.

    Vehicle access to the base of the mountain is across Narwietooma Pastoral Station, and the pastoralists should be contacted as well.

    I advise you to contact the Chief District Ranger, Chris Day on 08) 8955-0310 for help in this matter.


  • Damo says:


    My partner and I are planning to ascend Mt Zeil somewhere near the end of April. By the looks of it the best approach is from Kintore Road, then bear south along one of the unnamed tracks that head towards it (Google Earth shows several that look drivable). I was wondering what sort of condition these unnamed tracks tend to be in and if you have any suggestions. No 4WD for us so hopefully it is not deep sand 🙁

    Looking in more detail at Google Earth it seems there is a large water course that runs from nearly the top of Mt Zeil all the way to the bottom, it sounds like that might be what you went down which is a shame because from above it *looked* easier. Anyways I am rambling, did you know yours is the most detailed site on the internet about Mt Zeil. The other 7 peaks are not much better. We have done Binberi, Bogong and Ossa (and of course that other peak which will remain nameless, mainly because I cannot spell it but also because it is about as challenging as getting on a chairlift (literally) and walking along a raised walkway) and it suprises me how little information is on some of them.

    Have fun with the RC Helicopters, they can seem as expensive as the real thing 🙂


  • gadget says:

    Hi Damo,

    Thanks so much for your kind comments. We had no idea this was the most detailed site on Mt Zeil. We might put up a proper track notes page (like in Wild magazine) to assist.

    Gary will email you on this week with some more info and a fact sheet/map etc to help you bag the peak. The rangers have made up a PDF file with the GPS points that show our exact path and a few other things.

    On the approach – the way that we drove into the base of the mountain was across Narwietooma station. There was one sandy creek crossing where I used 4WD, located neat the bore and cattle yards that Gary has written about in the post. On the way back out (which was in daylight) we found an alternative route and did not require 4WD. Provided you don’t mind a bit of rough stuff, you should be able to drive your car on the main access roads (such as the Papunya/Kintore Rd), but to get to the base of the mountain, there is no track and you do have to just make your own way cross- country. As the area is heavily grazed (flogged!) by cattle, this isn’t really as bad as it sounds. About a dozen groups climb Mt Zeil every year, and there are some faint vehicle tracks. Allow 2 days & nights to do it comfortably, which includes travelling time from Alice Springs. Also, there hasn’t been a lot of rain about this year, so make sure you bring all your own water. The gully we came down did have some water in it – and may still have some, but I wouldn’t rely on this at all.

    As an added bonus, when you get to the top of the mountain, if you have CDMA or Next G, there is mobile phone reception to send celebratory text messages. There is also a visitor’s book in a steel box located at the cairn.



  • Paul says:


    I read your Mt Zeil climb with interest as I’m planning to have a go at it sometime in the future. I intend to hire a 4-wheel drive to make life easier to reach the peak.

    In an earlier comment, your reply to Damo was “…will email you on this week with some more info and a fact sheet/map etc to help you bag the peak. The rangers have made up a PDF file with the GPS points that show our exact path and a few other things…”

    Can you also email me ( ) these fact sheet/map and pdf file?

    Thanks a million,

  • Rico says:

    thanks to make easier to climb mt. Zeil for all of us…

    I’m planning to reach the base of the mountain with a dirty bike, and to explore the base looking for water. In case there is enough water we’d like to go in the area to climb the summit and to do some rock climbing as well. It will be easy to organize the logistic for us because we’re based in Alice Springs. I’d love to have some suggestion and your GPS details and your fact sheet.


  • Stephanie says:

    Damo was indeed right, there is bugger all information about Mt Zeil. Anyway, I want to organise a fundraising trek to the summit to raise money for Camp Quality NT and would love if you could email me the GPS and track details. Also, any advice you could give me on the organisation of this mission would be great. Im looking at doing it in March 2010 over a three day period. One day to get there set up camp and prepare, the second full day to do the climb and then the third day to relax, pack down and head back into town. Would that be a feasible enough idea? Also, do you happen to know where I could advertise this to get other climbers interested in participating. Thanks heaps for all your information.


  • Chris says:

    Hi Steph, let me know how you go with your plan.
    We are a couple from Melbourne and we would like to join your group in the ascent of Mt Zeil.


  • Steve says:

    Great site and yes definitely the best description of Mt Zeil I’ve seen. A mate and I are planning to do the trip in late April. Our plan is to approach from almost due north of the summit. Our route will take us south up the ridge to the west of the main gully then south west as we reach the 1000m elevation gaining the saddle at the 1300m mark then ESE to the summit. We’re both 50yrs old so although we’re moderately fit I have doubts about making it up and back in the day. The planned route will be steep (1:2.5 grades in places). Are you able to comment on our plan? What would it be like camping out on the peak? Can you please send me the GPS details and your fact sheet?
    Much appreciated,

  • Steve says:

    If you read this when you get back any information on your attempt will be much appreciated.

  • Steve says:

    Well we tried and failed. Got to about 1200m but legs starting to cramp up. Would never try again without a satalite phone. Injury would be far to easy on the route we took and we were hearing a lot of howling from wild dogs (presumably) early afternoon. The only good thing was that even with a 2WD we were able to get within 4km of the base of the mountain. A 4WD could probably get right to the base. If we’d been younger and fitter we would have made it but found it took nearly as long to get down as to get up since the route was so rough and steep.

  • Hello. I am well equipped to climb such a mountain. I plan to climb it in March 2012 at the end of summer. I do a lot of mountain biking through the Great Divide. I have only just begun planning this trek and someone told me in Alice Springs that the best way to Mt Zeil would be to hike from Glen Helen. My plan at this stage is to use my mountain bike basically as a trolley which I’ll push (not ride) through the desert to carry 20-30 litres of water. I carry a satellite phone always when I hike. My biggest problem is not having anyone else to accompany me. I have attached a link to my youtube channel so people can see me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *