A highlight of my recent trip to the Territory was my first ever visit to Kings Canyon. Four hours out of Alice Springs, the canyon swings into view along the road to the Kings Canyon Resort where I was staying the night. I looked forward to a closer view and I was not disappointed.
The area is the home of the Luritja people, who call it Watarrka. The first European here was Ernest Giles in 1872 who named the creek for his old friend Fielder King and also named the Gill Ranges for expedition funder George Gill. However with no access roads the area remained mostly unknown until 1961.
A shallow sea once filled this land 440 million years ago. By 400 million years ago Watarrka was a windless plain covered with sand dunes. That became the Mereenie Sandstone, hard and brittle due to tough quartz grains cemented with silica.
Huge forces pushed up the rocks 350 million years ago cracking the brittle Mereenie Sandstone. Kings Canyon was one of those cracks, gradually widening over 20 million years of erosion. Wind, rain and floodwaters seeped into the Carmichael Sandstone below further weakening the Mereenie layer.
The George Gill Range lies at the intersection of three major landforms: the MacDonnell Ranges to the north-east, Lake Amadeus south-west, and the Simpson Desert south-east.
The beehive-like domes on the top of the range provide evidence of the sand dune past due to its cross-bedding (groups of inclined layers). The wind deposited sand in different directions over time. The sand on the windswept plain gradually subsided compacting layers below and silica-rich water cemented the grains together.
Wind, rain and floods deepened the crack in the Mereenie getting down to the softer Carmichael below which now forms the rubbly lower slopes of the canyon. As it eroded it sent huge blocks tumbling down the cliffs. Markings on the south wall were probably formed by the release of stress as the sandstone cracked.
Tempe Downs cattle station was established here in 1896 until a run of bad seasons forced the stockholders out to Kathleen Springs. But the cattlemen were here to stay. In 1983 the station surrendered 1000sqm so a national park could be established. The resort opened in 1992.
Ripple marks are evidence there were once shallow lakes here.
Jack Cotterill pioneered tourism here. His son Jim and Aboriginal man Leslie built a bridge of timber and sandstone slabs across a deep crevice in 1962 to give people access to the North Wall of the Canyon.
The view back out of the Canyon from the North Wall.
The red-brown colour is formed by two processes. It is either water that has seeped in and soaked up iron oxide which deposits a crust on the outside or it is iron-rich dust blown onto the surface and chemically fixed to the sandgrains by a fungus.
According to NT Parks the 6km loop of the Kings Canyon Rim Walk takes “3-4 hours”. As usual this is grossly inflated. Even with all the interesting features to look out for, it takes around 90 minutes.
The Garden of Eden is a sacred place of the Luritja people, especially for male dreaming stories. They ask people do not swim here as human activity and contaminants like sunscreen can affect the hundreds of species that call the garden home.
The beehive domes give the canyon a “lost city” feeling. They are the result of erosion of vertical cracks in the sandstone.
The Lutitja say the domes are young kuninga men who came here during the Tjukurpa (Dreamtime). Kuninga are western quolls who still inhabit the area.
There is a longer walk of 22 km which takes two days along the Giles Track. It crosses the top of the range from Kathleen Springs to Kings Canyon with a halfway entrance/exit point at Reedy Creek/Lilla.
The many colours of the North Wall tell a story. The red-brown is a veneer, underneath is a pale-coloured rock, compacted white beach and dune sand, 360 million years old. The dark rusty streaks are from rainwater filtering through the rocks soaking up iron oxide. The green and black patches are algae.
The Luritja named the area Watarrka, after an acacia tree found within the park.
Watarrka’s cycads are among 17 relict species that are up to 400 million years old.
This dry cliff becomes a spectacular waterfall called Kestrel Falls after heavy rains. It takes its name from the Nankeen kestrels that roost in the cliffs.
After doing the cliff side walk, I did the shorter walk up the creek bed. The Luritja call King’s Creek Watarrka Karru and it is a ceremony place on the quoll dreaming track.
The Kings Creek Walk path comes to an abrupt end 500m meters from the official end of the track. A heavy rainfall event caused a rock fall blocking access to the viewing platform. The NT Parks and Wildlife Commission are building a new platform.
After my walks I retired to the Kings Canyon Resort, 10km away, where I watched the Canyon change colours as the evening progressed.