Outback 3 Kings Canyon
When visiting Australia's Red Centre, Kings* Canyon – in Wartarrka National Park – is a must. You can do a day trip – requiring a very early start – from Yulara (Uluru), but I think it deserves more time. If you're road-tripping south from Alice Springs, take Ernest Giles Road off the Stuart Highway 131 kilometres south of Alice. This joins Luritja Road 99 km to the west, thence to Kings Canyon. From Yulara, head along the Lasseter Highway as far as the Luritja Road (137 km): Kings Canyon is 169 kilometres north, and northwest, from the junction.
The sealed road stops just beyond Kings Canyon Resort, but you can carry on, round the Mereenie Loop, with two options eventually for returning to the Alice. (Otherwise, you'll have to go back the way you came.) The track is hard-going in places, and you'll need a Central Land Council permit, available from Kings Canyon Resort or the fuel station, to travel through Aboriginal-owned lands. More than half the land in Northern Territory is owned by its Traditional Owners and a permit is required to visit remote regions outside communities.
Kings Canyon was the destination I didn't have time for on a previous visit to this part of the world. Often I have unrealistic expectations of places that have long existed in my imagination. Invariably, I get it wrong; and Kings Canyon was no exception. It was much more impressive.
The Canyon lies in the George Gill Range which, together with the West MacDonnell Ranges to the north, make up the Central Ranges. To the south and west are the sand plains and deserts of the Lake Amadeus Basin. To the southeast is the Simpson Desert. These three bioregions overlap at the Watarrka National Park, producing many varieties of plant life. The desert continued to be much more vegetated than I remembered or expected. On approach, the George Gill Range doesn't appear remarkable in any way.
We devoted a day to the Rim Walk. It is a 6-kilometre loop and on average takes 3-4 hours. There are two optional side walks off the main track: to a great gorge lookout, and the aptly named Garden of Eden. Alternatively, the Kings Creek Walk is about 2 kilometres return without any climbing and takes about an hour. This is more suitable for families and those preferring a less strenuous option. As at Kata Tjuta, on summer days when temperatures climb above 36 degrees, you are advised to have finished walking the Rim by 11 am.
At the start of the Rim Walk there's a steep climb up hundreds of rocky steps to the top of the Canyon wall. There are few clues at first of the drama about to unfold. Once at the top, the track across country takes you away from the Canyon before bringing you back. It was beautiful and beguiling: wavy sediments evidencing their watery origins; MacDonnell Ranges Cycads clumping in shady nooks; pretty banded shale or mudstone; curious cross bedding; Mereenie Sandstone domes from which this landscape has been sculpted; plants thriving in seemingly inhospitable crevices; and vegetation striking against its rocky backdrop, some of it perilously perched.
Kings Canyon was formed by the erosion of vertical joints, first through a layer of Mereenie Sandstone, which was laid down about 400 million years ago, and then through the softer Carmichael Sandstone below it, deposited 440 mya. Between the two is a narrow bank of purply shale or mudstone which originated when the area was covered by a shallow inland sea.
The domes of the Mereenie Sandstone are old sand dunes. Cross bedding occurs when sand is deposited in one direction by prevailing winds, and then, over time, when the wind direction changes, the tops of the dunes are removed and the sand deposited in another direction. Deep cracks, or joints, in the Sandstone are eventually weathered, forming blocks of rock. Further erosion smooths off the corners and sides of the blocks, creating dome shapes.
The Canyon walls are between 100 and 150 metres above Kings Creek.
There were more European (mainly French and German) and Asian visitors than Australian. We did our usual thing of avoiding people wherever we could. We correctly judged that a large organised party who were gaining on us at one point would not take the first side walk off to a lookout. It involved slightly trickier climbing over rocky outcrops, which wouldn't necessarily have suited all fitness levels in a group, and they probably didn't have time for diversions. We would probably never have seen this little creature had they been galumphing around us. I believe it's a Painted Dragon, which exhibits a range of colours. This may be a female, which tends to be rusty brown, or a male master of camouflage.
Mammals of the plateau that we didn't see include Black-flanked Wallabies and Euros, the most common kangaroos found in rocky country. Both are mainly nocturnal, and wallabies often hide behind boulders. The Fat-tailed Antechinus eats insects and is a marsupial about the size of a mouse. So it's difficult to spot in such a huge landscape, but it, too is a creature of the night.
The views from the lookout were lovely, including far beyond the canyon, to the south.
The descent into the Garden of Eden comes soon after the lookout. There is luxuriant vegetation in this secluded oasis. A spring-fed waterhole has been created where rainwater trickling down through the Mereenie Sandstone is halted by the hard shale layer, creating a water table that intersects the bottom of this deep gully. Plant species include endemics and exotics.
We were enjoying lunch in the Garden and listening to at least four or five types of birds flitting about when our peace was shattered by the arrival of a party of young people, led by an Aussie bloke with a foghorn of a voice. We held back from going to the waterhole, hoping they would leave. But they sat on the rocks comparing notes about champagne parties on Fraser Island. The leader wasn't telling them anything about how the Canyon was formed, its unique plants, or animals they might spot if they'd only keep quiet. I think he was oblivious of how far his voice carried, and the extent to which he was spoiling everyone else's visit to a place considered sacred by Traditional Owners; a special place in which to sit quietly and perhaps observe wildlife. So I told him, politely. With a 'no worries', he and his party upped and left. A couple who'd been sitting behind a rock by the waterhole, thanked me for having done what they'd wanted to do. For a while we listened to birdsong instead of Mr Foghorn.
From the waterhole we climbed back up to the Canyon Rim and crossed to the southern rim over what at that point is a narrow cleft. From here the north face is spectacular…
Each of the spectacular colours of the north wall tells a story. The rich red-browns are merely thin veneers overlying the much paler Mereenie Sandstone base rock, consisting of compacted white beach and dune sand deposited some 360 million years ago. The paler patches on the wall indicate where the most recent rock falls have occurred. The dark rusty vertical streaks have been created by rainwater filtering down through the rock and soaking up iron oxide As water trickles out from the rock face it evaporates, leaving rusty iron stains behind.
I wonder if this numpty realised the potential danger he was in, posing on a tiny ledge of fractured unstable rock**. The Canyon floor is littered with rock pieces, large and small, that have fallen from the sides. An emergency rescue would certainly have impacted on our visit to this iconic landmark, and his position right on the edge of the north face almost certainly spoiled a good few photographs. For what? To pump up his sense of bravado and machismo? Because it was there? I couldn't see a selfie stick…
A related question is why some people feel the need to leave their mark upon the landscape. They wander off track to build a cairn, or chisel their names on a prominent rock slab; they attach brightly coloured 'love padlocks' to fences, gates or bridges and then throw away the key, never stopping to consider how, over time, a mass of metal might affect the structure; not to mention the disfigurement of a thing of beauty or a view. All along the walking track at Kings Canyon visitors had used small light-coloured rock fragments to scrawl something or other. I don't care that Nate loves Makayla, and stunning rockscapes don't need enhancing with patterns and scribbles.
Meanwhile, on the south side… it's that tree again.
The descent from the Rim wall back to the car park is gradual and lengthy, taking walkers away from the Canyon but still with striking rocky vistas and vegetation along the way.
We spent two nights at the Kings Canyon Resort, which has seen better days. It's the only place to stay (you can camp there, too), and I had been warned that it was not good value for money. It was worse than that, however. Our room was shabby and grim: there was cold strip lighting and no bedside lights; rough concrete walls; broken patio floor tiles; holes in the walls where fixtures had once been; dead stuff overhanging the balcony. We waited an eternity to check in, behind campers who'd turned up on spec: we'd booked months before. The room cost $280 a night, which was daylight robbery. So, bring a caravan with you. The Desert Oaks Bistro, Outback BBQ & Grill and Thirsty Dingo Bar represent better value, but diesel from the fuel station was by some way the most expensive of the trip.
We had tea lights among our travelling provisions, so at least we could sit by candlelight in our miserable room. Our wonderful day's walk helped distract us from an overwhelming sense of being ripped off. Onward to the West MacDonnell Ranges…
*You will not see apostrophes in Australian place names, unless they are on old signs
** Only yesterday, 5 October, came this report.
This post was last edited on 10 October 2016