Category Archives: Going home

Kings Canyon

Walking boots, sunglasses, water bottles? Yes. We are ready for the Kings Canyon rim walk. A stiff breeze keeps us cool as we make our way to the start.

I look up and point. “There’s someone climbing the canyon wall”.

“No. That’s the path”, says Richard.

Up to the rim

Up to the rim

Up we go. The track climbs almost vertically from ground level up to the rim. It’s steep, a five hundred step climb. Hearts pumping and slightly breathless, we get to the top.

What a view. We can see for miles and miles across the spinifex plains.

The rust red golden hues of the canyon surround us as we walk further along the rim. Massive rocks with tessellated angular surfaces like crocodile scales, loom ahead. Hardy white cypress pine trees force their roots deep into crevices in the rock to find water to survive. Palm like cycads sprout from rocky corners. The rim has its own thriving ecosystem, including rock wallabies and euros. It is surprisingly green up here.

Richard in Kings Canyon

Richard in Kings Canyon

The path takes us through a narrow space between two huge rounded masses of rock. We catch glimpses of strange otherworldly shapes on the other side. When we step through we are transported into a forgotten village of beehive shaped stone dwellings. The flat rock at our feet could be a man made pavement from ancient times. I touch the rock, to reassure myself that this is real, not a dream. Where are the ancient people who lived here? I see why the local people tell tales of a dreamland race who live here in the rocks.

Red holly grevillea grows here in profusion. A beautiful plant, it has the delicate red flower of a grevillea and spiky, grey green leaves, shaped like holly.

I lean down to touch ripples in the rock at my feet. They are cold and hard. I am touching the frozen memory of wind rippling the dunes that formed this sandstone. I am travelling in time.

It is wild and windy. Cool bright weather like this is perfect for the walk. It is about six km walking on rocky surfaces with little shade. On a hotter day, the rock would reflect the heat of the sun and it could be unbearable.

Canyon view

Canyon view

We are totally immersed in the world of the canyon rim. Everywhere we look we see the intense rust red colours and strange, awe inspiring structures sculpted by the wind and rain. I’ve never been anywhere like this before.

The path takes us to the edge of the canyon and we walk down a black wooden walkway into the chasm. Below us we can see the creek. We look down on the tops of tall gum trees growing out of the lush green oasis created around the waterway. Birds are singing. They call this place the Garden of Eden.

Canyon wall

Canyon wall

Climbing again to the other side of the rim, we catch a view of the walls of the canyon. The craggy rock has split through to form a wall that is flat and smooth, as if a knife had cut it. The heart of the rock exposed is paler than its craggy skin suggests. The flat walls are amber and white, contrasting with the deep red gold around us.

Two small figures can be seen on a precarious rocky ledge opposite us. Some foolhardy tourists have diverted from the path and have clambered down on to the edge to get a better view of the walls of the canyon. I feel my stomach dip in vicarious vertigo. From our vantage point we can see that the rock breaks away beneath them and curves way back into the wall of the canyon. What madness.

We walk on, way back from the edge. The flat rock catches the rays of the sun and glows. The camera will not be able to capture the intensity of the colours around us.

Canyon walk

Canyon walk

We glimpse the view in gaps between the hard glinting surfaces of the towers of red gold rock. It is as if we are looking into the dreamland world again. We see a plateau apparently densely populated with stone villages from another time and place. The beehive shapes intrigue me.

The walk begins to descend and we catch sight of the car park far below us. Gradually we climb down from the rim leaving that strange, beautiful world behind us.

The red centre is a wonderland. Every day we are in awe of the land around us. Tomorrow we visit Uluru then Kata Tjuta. No doubt I’ll fall in love with them too. But it’s the landscape as a whole that inspires.

Travelling long distances, I see the beauty in the ever changing shape and colour of this country in its natural state. It’s a rare privilege. Most of the landscapes we see have been so manipulated to our needs that we have lost this. We’ve lost the horizon. We’ve lost our connection to the natural world.

I’m not suggesting that travelling in a car over long distances is the best way to get in touch with nature. Of course not. But the real attraction of the red centre for me has been the ability to see not just the tourist sights but the form of the land itself. Walk it, cycle it, drive it, fly it, it doesn’t matter. If you travel in this country you have an opportunity to see natural beauty without human intervention and on a grand scale.

West from Alice

We start the day with hot milky coffee from a tiny cafe in Alice Springs. Today we drive west.

Our route follows the West Macdonnell Ranges out of Alice along Namatjira Drive around the Mareenie Loop and finally to Kings Canyon. We are driving into the heart of Australia, the true red centre.

The ranges stand tall above us, red and rugged. Their scale is immense. Once again I am in awe of this landscape. The red centre is everything I imagined and so much more. On our left the Macdonnells extend far into the distance, their pointed peaks like the serrated edge of a giant saw. To the right the country rolls in a softer female form. Gentle green-grey curves hide the rock underneath, as if a blanket has been thrown over the bony peaks to protect them from the winds.

The sun climbs in the sky, it’s a cool, bright day west of Alice.

The road has been paved and marked with clear white lines to ease the way for day trippers. It’s a comfortable, but unexciting drive. We see a sign for Standley Chasm and turn in to take a look. I’m in two minds about this place. The natural beauty of the chasm is visible, but it has been tainted by handrails, walking paths and a poorly positioned waste bin. A phrase comes to me, “taming the wild”. The chasm is just too close to Alice.

We drive further west. The Macdonnells stay with us, constant companions guiding us on our way. I’m intrigued by a sign for Ellery Creek Big Hole. It’s not a romantic name, but it’s time for a cuppa so we park and take a look. We stroll down the walking path admiring the wildflowers and the red black cubist shapes in the rock faces ahead of us. Then we stop, stand and stare. The “big hole” is the waterhole of your dreams.

The craggy red sandstone walls are reflected perfectly on the surface of the deep dark water. The water is cold, too cold for a swim. A fish jumps, sending ripples across the width of the pool. A ghost gum stands to one side, white limbs leaning like a hesitant swimmer over the water. The water continues through a small passage in the rock and on into the distance. A canoe, and some more time, and we could explore. Perfect.

On our way again, it suddenly feels strange to be travelling alone, without the convoy. We miss the banter on the radio. We miss sharing the beauty of the waterhole with our travelling companions.

Fewer and fewer cars pass by. We begin to distance ourselves from Alice. We are once more in the outback.

The ranges running alongside us become a living aboriginal painting, grey green dots of spinifex against a yellow and red ochre background. The lines formed by the terraced structure of the rock create a wave effect, undulating through the ranges.

We take a detour to look at the ochre pits, where the local people have mined ochre for thousands of years. Imagine the white cliffs of Dover striped in gold, green, white, red and yellow. The walls of the pits are vivid with these earthy colours, red and yellow with iron oxide, white with lime. The colours lie in waves and stripes showing how the seabed that once lay here has been twisted and turned by forces from below.

It’s way past time for lunch and although we need to keep moving to get to Kings Canyon before sunset, we decide to stop at the next rest area.   It is a lookout.  We climb to the top of a steep incline that levels out to give a panoramic view around us.   The plains below are green and grey with spinifex and white cypress pine. That’s when we see Tnorala for the first time – a circle of red rock, like the crater at the top of a volcano.  I find out later that Tnorala is the imprint of a celestial body that fell to earth millions of years ago.  Wow.

We drive down to take a closer look.  A sandy road takes us inside the circle of rock, sheltered from the wind. This is a special place.  Beautiful, yes.  But it is more than beauty that holds us spellbound.  There is a spirit here that is soft and gentle.  This a sacred place, and not just because the local people, the Arrernte, say so.   I can’t explain it, but I will remember this place in my dreams.

And then it’s fun time, we turn on to the 4WD section of the road, the Mareenie Loop. Hang on to your hats! The sand and gravel road that winds its way towards Kings Canyon is not for standard road cars or the faint hearted. It is slippery. The car slides around the wide road.  The driver needs to focus to keep us on track. I look at him. He’s loving it.

I shout “Dip!” as the road drops away suddenly. Just as well we upgraded the shock absorbers. Tight turns, sharp left, then sharp right, arrive with no warning.

The sun is low in the sky and long shadows fall across the landscape. It is stunningly beautiful, but Richard can’t risk taking his attention off the road.  The car drifts in the bends from one side of the road to the other before gripping the road again to drive into the next bend.   Can this be fun? I look at Richard’s smile. It says it all.

We are both tired when we arrive at Kings Canyon Resort.  It’s been another unforgettable day.

Katherine Gorge, Land of the Cicada

We listen to our ranger guide. He tells us Katherine Gorge is Nitmiluk, Land of the Cicada.

I like the name. I can hear the cicadas chirping in it.

The park has thirteen gorges. We only have a few hours to spare so we decide to see two of them on a tourist boat trip.

Dying trees surround the jetty where we board our boat. They bend and sag, weighed down by fruit bats, or flying foxes. Thousands of the bats cling upside down to the branches, wrapping themselves tightly in their wings, like miniature vampires in their black capes.

Bats

Bats

A tourist wearing bright red lipstick, wrists laden with bracelets, shakes her head in disgust when the indigenous guide tells us they will leave only when they have broken down all the branches of the trees where they are roosting. “What pests!”

“No, no”, calls back our ranger guide. “It’s good for the trees. The bats prune them and fertilise them with their dung. They grow back to be much more healthy. When the bats have done their work here, they will move on and do some gardening for us further upstream. That’s how the system works. Everything has its place”.

The boat glides through the clear water between the towering amber red rock faces of the gorge. We shield our faces from the intense heat of the sun. The water sparkles and shimmers ahead of us. In the Wet, the water is 7-8 metres higher than it is today. The guide points out the marks on the sandstone rocks above us.

White, black and red ochre stains streak down the rocky walls, as if a giant artist has daubed paint brushes up and down in a frenzy of earthy colour. The rocks glow as we glide past, then darken as they fall into shadow behind us. Hardy trees sink their roots deep into crevices in the sandstone to find moisture and nutrients. Somehow they succeed and make their precarious homes on the rocky ledges above us. Twisted and knarled, they survive and provide shelter in the gorge for bird and insect life.

Freshwater crocodile

Freshwater crocodile

A crocodile lies snoozing on a small sandy beach to our left, her silvery scaled skin reflecting the sun’s rays. “Don’t worry, she’s a freshie, a freshwater crocodile. She won’t do you any harm. She might put a few holes in your arm if she’s rattled, but they only eat what they can swallow whole. You are quite safe”. I glance at the toddler sitting sleeping in his mother’s arms in front of me. Sleep safely little one.

Saltwater crocodiles on the other hand are extremely dangerous. “Salties” enter the gorge in the Wet, when water is flowing into the park from the estuaries where they normally live. Some of these prehistoric predators are left here when it stops raining and the water goes back down, closing off their exits. This is not great for tourism. The park rangers put out traps and relocate any they catch before the park is opened to tourists.

“We always feel a bit nervous when we send the first canoeists out there”, the ranger guide jokes. We all stare at the trap he is pointing towards and hope he really is joking.

We have to transfer to another boat half way through the trip, because the water is too low in the dry season to pass through to the next gorge. Our walk along the side of the gorge to reach the second boat passes an example of Jawoyn rock painting that is around 8000 years old. There are paintings dated 25,000 years old in other places in the park, we are told. They are some of the oldest artefacts in the world.

I find these periods of time almost impossible to imagine. The first fleet came to Australia in 1788, not much more than 200 years ago. We are so new to this land compared with our guide’s people. Our history here is recent even by our own Western standards. I sit and ponder this as we glide further into the gorge.

There are many paintings in the park that are kept secret as they mark sacred places. The painting we pass by is different. Rock art was also used to communicate information to travellers. It told them the type of food available and any fresh water nearby. We are reading signposts and tourist information maps from another culture.

In the second gorge the guide slips the boat into a small cave to one side. “Listen”. A high pitched squeaking sound reveals the presence of a population of tiny horseshoe bats. They snuffle around as we approach, keen to be left in peace to continue their siesta. They are the modest, shy cousins of the fruit bats we left back at the jetty.

Canoeists in yellow life jackets paddle by. Children shout and splash as they dive laughing into the water from a rocky ledge. Two men are fishing. The park is well used.

As the boat turns back towards the jetty, I look up in wonder at the beauty around me. It really is magnificent, how lucky we are that the Jawoyn have chosen to share it with us.