Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Kings Canyon – Walking the Rim

We drove the Mereenie Loop Road west and then south from Tnorala. This was a first long stretch of dirt track. It was sandy, rocky, and corrugated. I had to focus on both the track ahead, like normal driving, but also on the road immediately in front of me. Loose rocks and other perils are only visible at short distances. It’s also impossible to drive in a straight line on such a track. I had to constantly weave in search of the least bumpy and safest route. Fun, but intense and active driving. Not much traffic.

The Mereenie eventually returned to bitumen. Our next destination was Watarraka National Park, which featured the Kings Canyon locality; the rim walk there was recommended as one of the best walks in the Red Center.

But first, to swag out. The Kings Canyon Resort was full of clean people and felt too antiseptic after the first nights under the stars. We pushed on, hoping to find a track leading off into the bush. We found tracks with locked gates. I spied an ungated track and took it. It quickly dead ended on the margin of a sand dune. I turned the truck and stalled. Whoops. 2WD wouldn’t get us going, so 30 seconds of 4WD got us going. Good for Louis to learn how to lock the hubs.

Presently Kings Creek Station appeared. This may have originally been a working livestock ranch, but now it’s a campground with camel rides, helicopter tours of Kings Canyon, and other organized activities. It was time to camp. We put up with the constant drone of generators, an occasional helicopter and a runaway camel or two for access to running water (showers, ah) and electric light to cook by.

Kings Canyon is a more or less east-west trending gorge cut into a couple distinct formations of flat-lying Mesozoic sandstone. It looked similar to the rock of the MacDonnell Ranges, but is much younger; I think it’s at least partially debris shed from them during the Alice Springs Orogeny. Whatever its origin, the rocks for yet more layers of red strata.

Kings Canyon is abruptly truncated on the west by erosion. The Rim Walk thus began with a steep climb up several hundred stone steps. The ascent felt fine; all my time running and at the gym paid off. The upper sandstone formation is eroded into “beehive domes”. In essence, the sandstone beds originally fractured in a rectilinear pattern. The corners of these blocks have long since been eroded away. The resulting mounds – the beehives – are the result. That said, they’re really cool. Most of the beehives are three or four meters high. Their surfaces are defined by thin beds, which are cut by vertical fractures. The skin of the beehives is thus covered in a checkerboard pattern. The morning light picked out these textures nicely. The trail wandered through the domes for a couple of kilometers. Nice morning light; much to photograph. At one point I looked back on our trail; the tops of the beehives looked like a series of frozen waves.

We weren’t alone on the trail. We played tag up the steps with an older Aussie couple. The husband charmingly helped his wife over the rough parts. I think he’d told her it was an easy walk. More than once, I almost photographed a young couple who stopped and smooched on a regular basis. Paul and I took so many pictures that our progress was slow; we were overtaken by several tour groups: young Aussies, Japanese, maybe Germans. We eventually passed families with small children who were dragging towards the end of the walk. This population was typical for people we had met earlier in the MacDonnell Ranges. Everyone was typically gregarious and cheerful: a favorite Aussie trait.

The trail eventually came near the Kings Canyon rim. At its narrow western end, the beehives recede and the cliff became knife sharp. This was the Kings Canyon featured on postcards and travel posters. Well, it was dramatic, but small. Paul and I could not help but to compare it to similar canyons in Utah: deeper longer, sharper. I kept telling myself that this was Australia, and it was a spectacular landform compared to the rounded hills and flat plains that surround it. I was happy to sit and watch the light change. We eventually descended.

The road continued on towards Uluru.

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