Louise Southerden peers over the edge of one of central Australia’s natural wonders.
There’s more to the Red Centre than Uluru and its famed Base Walk. An hour’s drive northeast of Uluru is a lesser known but equally spectacular landform; Kings Canyon, in Watarrka National Park.
Explorer Ernest Giles first cottoned on to its appeal when he wrote, in 1872, “could it be transported to any civilised land, its springs, glens, gorges, ferns, zamias [cycads] and flowers would charm the eyes and hearts of toil-worn men…in crowded towns”. The park now attracts 215,000 visitors a year, half as many as Uluru – which makes it twice as attractive to walkers looking to sidestep the tourist hordes who visit The Rock.
There are two main walking trails in Kings Canyon: the easy, 2 km Kings Creek Walk along the creek bed and the more challenging, and more rewarding, 6 km Kings Canyon Rim Walk.
As its name suggests, the Rim Walk skirts the edge of Kings Canyon, allowing you to peer (carefully) over sheer sandstone cliffs into the shadowy depths of the gorge, 150 m below. Its other offerings include 400-year-old cycads, a mini-Purnululu of striped stone domes and an oasis called the Garden of Eden, which has a permanent waterhole and (after winter rains) waterfalls.
It’s a good idea to start walking before dawn, not just to avoid the hottest part of the day (the rangers don’t close the walk due to the heat or high winds so it’s important to check the weather forecast before you set off) but to catch one of the highlights of the walk; seeing the canyon walls change colour (like Uluru) as the sun rises and shines on them. Starting early will also maximise your chances of encountering native birds such spinifex pigeons and white-plumed honeyeaters.
Though the walk officially takes three to four hours, it can be spread over a whole day; there are plenty of secluded picnic spots along the way. That’s one of the great things about the Red Centre; despite being one of Australia’s most iconic destinations, it is possible – particularly in a place like Kings Canyon – to find solitude, and to get a sense of the enormous spaces that dominate the desert heart of this country.
Since 2002, the walk can only be done in one direction, clockwise, starting from the main car park. It’s a safety issue (the steep start deters those who might not cope with the entire walk) and enhances the sense of remoteness because you don’t meet walkers coming the other way. Head up the stone steps that start near the cairn erected in honour of Jack Cotterill, who pioneered tourism in Kings Canyon in the 1950s. Ten minutes of uphill slog brings you level with the rim of the canyon, 100-150 m above the surrounding country and 600-700 m above sea level. It’s a good way to warm up on a chilly central Australian morning.
2. The next section leads over rocks and along the western side of the canyon. Follow the markers to avoid getting lost, and to avoid stepping on delicate desert vegetation nearby. To give you an idea of how fragile this environment is, there’s a fenced area that has been out-of-bounds since 1996; despite being relatively undisturbed for 13 years, only a few stunted trees now grow there. This is a fractured sandstone plateau, eroded by wind, water and walkers. The honeycombed cliffs are created when carbonates in the sandstone mix with water (rain), resulting in a very mild carbonic acid that eats away at the rock. Keep an eye out for wildlife such as euros (hill kangaroos) and the rare dusky grass wren.
3. The track curves right then goes up and through a wide gap between high walls called Priscilla’s Crack. The terrain is uneven as you walk over rocks. This is a great part of the walk to stop and watch the shapes and shadows that move across the rocky landscape as the sun rises.
4. About 30 minutes into the walk, you’ll reach the first lookout. Stand well back from the unfenced edge, especially if it’s windy, or lie down on your belly to get a safe view of the canyon floor. Looking across to the other side of the canyon, you’ll be able to “read” the history of this landscape in the layers of rock: there’s 70-80 m of 330-million-year-old Mereenie sandstone on top, then a layer of hardened slate, then a 440-million-year-old scree slope of Carmichael sandstone. Rock climbing is not allowed on these spectacular walls: the sandstone is too fragile and the traditional owners prefer that people keep to the walking tracks.
5. Five minutes on from lookout number one is the second lookout, called North Wall Lookout. The coloration in the rocks opposite is due to the oxidisation of iron in the sandstone. When you get to the other, southern side of the canyon, you’ll see a white patch on the wall below where you were standing – this is where a huge chunk of sandstone broke away 70 to 80 years ago. Locals believe the canyon is due for another rockfall, so be careful when standing near any part of the canyon rim. A little further on, there’s a 600 m side-track to Cotterill’s Lookout, also on the edge of the canyon.
6. A wooden staircase, made of jarrah, leads down into a gorge called the Garden of Eden where a footbridge crosses Kings Creek (which only flows after the winter rains). Turn right after the bridge and continue past another set of stairs (which leads back up to the canyon rim level) for 600 m along a gently undulating side track that leads past river red gums and cycads that are 300 to 400-years-old (we also saw the bower of a western bower bird). The shady pool at the end, surrounded by high sandstone walls, is a cool and shady refuge for wildlife as well as walkers. It looks inviting on a hot day but the rangers and the traditional owners discourage swimming (it is the only waterhole for miles for most of the local wildlife). Retrace your steps 600 m back to the staircase and climb up into the sunshine again.
7. The last landscape you pass through, en route to the other side of the canyon, is a spectacular “lost city” of striped sandstone domes that wouldn’t look out of place in the Kimberley. Take a last look into the gorge before leaving Kings Canyon itself and walking around a side-gorge and Kestrel Falls, a waterfall that flows after heavy rain. From there, stone steps lead down to the car park where you started the walk.
Fact file: Kings Canyon Rim Walk
Distance: 6 km.
Time: 3-4 hours.
Start/Finish: Kings Canyon car park.
Best Season: Winter is not as hot as summer, and after rain is ideal, when waterfalls are flowing and there is plenty of new growth and wildlife around.
Nearest towns: Uluru/Yulara (300 km) and Glen Helen (260 km).
Maps: Not necessary; follow the blue arrow markers on posts.
Accommodation: Voyages Kings Canyon Resort is 7 km from the canyon itself and has accommodation ranging from camping to deluxe spa rooms (website). Kings Canyon Wilderness Lodge is about 30 km from the canyon and has luxury air-conditioned tented cabins (website). Kings Creek Station, 35 km from the canyon, is a working cattle station with campsites and safari cabins (website).
Food/drink: Carry a litre of water for each hour you expect to be walking. There is a small shop at Kings Creek Station, 35 km away.
Getting there: Watarrka National Park is at the western end of the George Gill Range. From Uluru, Kings Canyon is a three-hour drive along the Lasseter Highway and Luritja Road. Kings Canyon is also on the Red Centre Way loop road which starts and ends in Alice Springs and links the Red Centre’s main landmarks, including Uluru and Kata-Tjuta.
More info: Travel NT website.