It feels like you’re on top of the world with nothing to prevent you from stepping over the edge…
We’d been told that while Uluru and Kata Tjuta encapsulate the spiritual heart of the Red Centre, Kings Canyon is the natural wonder that tops the Grand Canyon. Challenging four blokes like that was like Malcolm Turnbull telling the Libs that he was the grandest. We decided we needed to check it out for ourselves, hoping we wouldn’t be disappointed like the Libs.
It’s blacktop all the way if you’re coming from Yulara, or you can take the more challenging Ernest Giles Road from the Stuart Highway or the Mereenie Loop from Alice Springs. Our heads were tender so we pulled into Kings Creek Station for a breakfast of hot roasted coffee and a pile of toasted sandwiches (and one tasty camel burger).
BUSH CAMPING RESORT STYLE
The Ernest Giles Road is a great shortcut across to the Luritja Road from the Stuart Highway. Follow the signs to Henbury Meteorite Conservation Reserve and check them out on your way through. The craters were formed when a meteor crashed to Earth 4,700 years ago. It’s no Wolfe Creek, but still worth exploring. There are five campsites here with a drop toilet; bring your own wood for a million-star view next to a warming fire.
From the highway, it’s 100km on a corrugated, narrow (and often winding) red dust road. The colours are magnificent and the scenery worthwhile – but this is definitely a dry weather road and recommended as 4WD only. Around halfway, you will come to the seasonal flowing Palmer River and the turn-off to Finke Gorge National Park. Keep tracking along Ernest Giles Road and you’ll reach the junction with Luritja Road. Turn right and within 60 klicks Kings Creek Station will appear on your left.
A working cattle/camel station, it also offers a selection of camping options (including luxury glamping); a café serving home-cooked meals, snacks and beverages; and fuel. You can also enjoy a good old Outback experience on a quad bike or by helicopter. Kings Creek is also Australia’s largest exporter of wild camels – selling them for live export, live domestic sales and meat. Don’t forget to sink your jaws into a famous Kings Creek camel burger.
Kathleen Springs is only 17km up the road, and the first attraction inside Watarrka National Park. The car park has a shelter and a couple of newly installed LPG BBQs, making it a great lunch option. The 2.5km return walk to the Springs is lined with info boards along the way, retelling the stories of how important the permanent waterhole was to the nomadic Luritja people.
The hunters would wait for kangaroos and emus to venture down to drink from the springs where they were easily speared. When pastoralists arrived, they used water pumped from the springs for their cattle. There is still evidence of old stockyards along the walking track. The final stretch to Kings Canyon Resort only took us 20 minutes. You can enjoy four-star accommodation in one of the rooms, or head across the road to the campground with a choice of ensuite, powered or unpowered sites. Had we known better, we would have paid the extra $5 and chosen the powered sites.
The number of bindies and three-corner jacks that existed everywhere except the stoned powered sites and bitumen driveways made walking barefoot or in thongs a very painful experience. The resort campground was dry and dusty, with only the areas around the ablutions and tent camping areas having any covering of grass – nothing like the last time I was here.
Once set up, we lined up our chairs and settled in for happy hour as the sun lit up the Gorge Gill Range with rain clouds building all around.
A NATURAL WONDER
Rising early we enjoyed a carb-filled breakfast, knowing our day was going to test our fitness levels (or lack thereof). The tip is to get to Kings Canyon before the tourist buses; otherwise, the climb to the top of the escarpment will be crowded.
An elaborate, rusted sculpture welcomes you at the start of the walking trail. If the rim walk sounds too much of a challenge, you can still enjoy jaw-dropping views of Kings Canyon on the 2.6km Kings Creek walk or the 4.8km South Wall return walk. An electronic message board fills your head with information, maybe in an attempt to stop you thinking about the massive challenge that awaits around the next bend. That challenge has a tag: Heart-Attack Hill.
The highly recommended 6km Rim Walk begins with an extremely steep 100m climb to the top of the gorge. Rock steps are cemented into the ground but they are not evenly spaced. Not only will your lungs be screaming, but your calves and quads will be too. But, when you reach the top, you will be rewarded with the greatest of views. Kings Canyon was originally a crack in the Mereenie Sandstone, deepened and widened by 20 million years of wind, rain and floodwaters.
The trail takes you past ‘The Lost City’… weathered beehive-shaped domes similar to those found in Western Australia’s Purnululu National Park; before leading you out and onto the rim of the canyon. Offering breathtaking views of the south wall and down along the valley, it is highly recommended that you keep two metres from the edge. It is a long fall.
We detoured out to Cotterill’s Lookout and suggest that you do too. A bridge spans a crack in the sandstone and it led us to an area that gave us views down into the Garden of Eden and a longer expanse of the southern wall. It was ‘hold onto your hats’ windy, but we found a sheltered area where we could fuel up on protein bars and water and relax for half an hour. We felt small in this amazingly beautiful place.
There are a couple of sections with wooden steps that take you down into the Garden of Eden which is another special place. We sat there for nearly an hour, watching Fairy Martins flying around catching bugs. Everyone who entered the garden sat and spent time reflecting, nobody talking above a whisper; it was a surreal experience. Climbing back to the top of the canyon was another test of leg muscles, but the views along the north wall certainly made up for it.
The north wall is like a patchwork quilt with each colour telling a story. The broken pieces of the Mereenie Sandstone show that the red-brown colouring is only a thin veneer. Hidden underneath is paler rock made up of compacted white beach and dune sands that were deposited 400 million years ago when the centre of Australia was covered by an inland sea. The dark, rusty vertical streaks are created by rainwater filtering through the rock, soaking up iron oxide. The colours leech against the cliff face as the water evaporates. Algae also adorns the cliff face, coloured green and black.
The boys were beginning to get thirsty, so after capturing a few images we quickened our pace back down to the car park. A ‘Wi-fi Available Here’ sign distracted the boys and they took the time to catch up on social media and message their loved ones. My phone was on its last legs so I begrudgingly headed to the Prado to get the air-con cooling the cabin.
Back at camp, we showered before walking the short distance to the Thirsty Dingo Bar for some cold refreshments, reflecting on the day’s experience. Having now shown Rod, Andre and Craig the Big Three of Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon, they all agreed that it was hard to say what the highlight was. What we did all agree on was that (as far as we were concerned) the Grand Canyon had nothing on Kings Canyon.
PS: None of us has actually seen the Grand Canyon in the flesh.
WHERE: Kings Canyon is located 450km south-west of Alice Springs. It can be accessed via the sealed Stuart and Lasseter Highways and Luritja Road (470km), the sealed Larapinta Drive and 4WD-recommended unsealed Mereenie Loop (329km) or the Stuart Highway, 4WD-recommended Ernest Giles Road and Luritja Road (326km). Kings Canyon is accessible from Yulara via Lasseter Highway and Luritja Road (301km).
CAMPING: Kings Canyon Resort offers powered or unpowered sites, ensuite sites and hotel rooms. It also has a bar, restaurant and petrol station. Kings Creek Station offers powered and unpowered sites, safari cabins and luxury glamping. It also has a café and fuel pumps, quad bike tours and helicopter flights.
CONTACTS AND INFORMATION: NT Tourism
RESTRICTIONS AND PERMITS: A $5 permit is required to travel the Mereenie Loop and it can be purchased from the Alice Springs Visitor Centre, Glen Helen Resort, Hermannsburg Petrol Station or Kings Canyon Resort.
SUPPLIES AND FACILITIES: The resort has a service station with limited supplies.