Outback 3 Kata Tjuta
When people talk about the Red Centre, they usually mean Uluru, as iconically Australian as Sydney's Opera House. Just as mystical, however, is the seemingly nonsensical pile of lumps and bumps 50 kilometres down the road towards the Western Australian border.
Ernest Giles, a UK-born Australian explorer, was the first Westerner to spot Kata Tjuta, in October 1872, from a ridge 100 kilometres north, near Kings Canyon. It was a year before he went back to investigate, when he was mortified to discover that William Gosse, of the same provenance, had been there a couple of months before him. Giles compared Uluru and Kata Tjuta on this second visit: 'Mount Olga is the more wonderful and grotesque, Mount Ayers the more ancient and sublime'. I think that's a pretty accurate description. Giles went on: 'The appearance of this mountain… almost baffles description… it is… composed of untold masses of round stones of all kinds, mixed as plums in a pudding.' Here's a mini plum pudding.
There's a dune-top lookout before you get to Kata Tjuta, which provides a panorama of the weird and wonderful shapes. As with Uluru, it seems totally improbable that the large humps rise out of a near-flat far-reaching plain. They become stranger, the more you stare at them. Even more difficult to grasp is the fact that Kata Tjuta, like Uluru, is just the tip of a huge slab of rock that extends much further beneath the surface – by as much as five or six kilometres – than protrudes above it. (SeeOutback 3 Uluru: round and round the Rockfor an explanation of the geology.) Kata Tjuta is Anangu for 'many heads'.
At the lookout we learned more about the Desert Oak's adaptations for survival on these arid dune plains. The tree is a tall and lanky adolescent, with leaves close to its trunk and downward pointing, directing any rainfall towards the roots. Only when the root system has developed enough to reach down to the water table does the tree mature and grow side branches. The Oak's dense droopy foliage avoids direct sunlight: small leaves and needle-like stems reduce water loss.
This was the day we travelled from Yulara to Kings Canyon (see map below), but via Kata Tjuta, ostensibly in the wrong direction but essential for comparison with Uluru; and because I had been here once before. Our tour guide had indicated we might have to choose between the Walpa Gorge and the Valley of the Winds because of time constraints. But my friend was here for the geology, and such a choice was not an option.
First we had a picnic breakfast – in the company of a Grey Honeyeater (above), 'uncommon to rare' according to our book.
The Walpa Gorge was created by erosion along a major vertical fracture or joint in the Mount Currie Conglomerate. Photography was a challenge. It was early and the sun was still low; the high Gorge walls created obstinate shadows, making it virtually impossible to combine blue sky and orange rock effectively in the same frame. The cold wind was biting once you were out of the sun. The walk is 2.6 kilometres return, 1 hour, grade 3.
The north wall of the Gorge is pock-marked by small caves that highlight the bedding in the conglomerate. At the foot of the Gorge walls lies debris that has fallen from the holes above. Blocks of conglomerate litter the Gorge floor, in fact.
Despite the temperate extremes of the desert, shady caves and moisture from the creek running through Walpa Gorge sustain a wider variety of fauna and flora that you would expect in such a potentially harsh environment. Spearwood vine (to the left in the lefthand image below) clings to slopes, and Kata Tjuta Wattle grows near the course of the creek (in the foreground in the righthand image below). Some plants are highly specialised and only flourish in these rare conditions. Similarly, the Hill Kangaroo is unique among roos in being able to detect and dig for underground water, and eat spiky grass such as Spinifex. Unfortunately, when we were there they must have been hiding in their caves. Sometimes in this special place the creek runs liquid gold.
It had warmed up a lot by the time we reached the Valley of the Winds – and this was the end of winter. It had been windy in Walpa Gorge, but the second part of our Kata Tjuta experience was windier still, as you would expect from the name, especially by the Karu Lookout. This point is 2.2 km return, 1 hour, grade 3. We didn't have time to go further: to the Karingana Lookout (5.4 km return, 2.5 hours, grade 4 ) in the central valley, or the full circuit walk (7.4 km return, 4 hours, grade 4). The track beyond Karu Lookout is closed after 11 am on days when the temperature reaches 36 degrees or is forecast to do so.
Mulga and Spinifex against rusty rock make for pleasing photos. As with Uluru's arkose, much of the conglomerate surface is cloaked in reddish-brown iron oxide and clays, the result of the weathering of certain minerals in the conglomerate.
With one last look back at the bumps, we headed east, along Kata Tjuta Road. It's a good job I was driving: my friend had his eye on the Western Australian border some 200 kilometres west of Kata Tjuta, beyond the Petermann Ranges. He has a thing about borders, and Corners. Oh, and the centre point of Australia, which we'd passed within 115 kilometres of on The Ghan, just over the border into the Northern Territory. And so our to-do list gets ever longer. The Lasseter Highway took us back east from Uluru as far as Luritja Road, where we turned north towards Kings Canyon.