A visit to Kings Canyon

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The George Gill Range lies at the intersection of three major landforms: MacDonnell Ranges to the north-east, Lake Amadeus to the south-west, and the Simpson Desert to the south-east.

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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.

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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.

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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 1000 sq m so a national park could be established. The resort opened in 1992.

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Ripple marks are evidence there were once shallow lakes here.

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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.

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The view back out of the Canyon from the North Wall.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The beehive domes give the canyon a “lost city” feeling. They are the result of erosion of vertical cracks in the sandstone.

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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.

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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.

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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.kings18

The Luritja named the area Watarrka, after an acacia tree found within the park.

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Watarrka’s cycads are among 17 relict species that are up to 400 million years old.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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After my walks I retired to the Kings Canyon Resort, 10km away, where I watched the Canyon change colours as the evening progressed.

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A drive through the Territory

After a visit to Nitmiluk National Park it was time to head south from the Top End deep into the Red Centre. Here are a few highlights of a couple of drives to and from Alice Springs.nt1

The first day was a long 1200km slog from Katherine to Alice as I wanted to get there before dark. There weren’t too many stops to enjoy the scenery but I did check out the Telegraph Station at Barrow Creek 200km south of Tennant Creek.  Barrow Creek was named in 1860 by John McDouall Stuart after South Australian MP J H Barrow. One of the 15 telegraph stations of the Overland Telegraph exploring party was set up here in September 1871 by John Ross as it assessed Stuart’s route through Central Australia. The site was chosen due to surface water and for a well site. It was completed by 1880 with an elaborate stone fence, wagon shed, blacksmith’s hut, cemetery and a verandah. A century later the microwave telecommunications link replaced the telephone carrier wave system making the station redundant.

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I landed in Alice late that evening and the following morning I headed further south. My destination was King’s Canyon and then on to Uluru, but my travels there deserve a blog post of their own so I won’t talk about them here. But when I was looking at the ways to get to King’s Canyon I thought there were two ways, a shortish way via the Mereenie Loop but which involved getting permits to go through Aboriginal land and also had long stretches of dirt. Then there was an all bitumen-route via the Stuart and Lasseter Hwys but considerably longer in distance. Then a mate told me about the Giles Road, a dirt road of 100km named for explorer Ernest Giles but a short cut to the Canyon and some beautiful desert views along the way.

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On my way from Kings Canyon to Uluru, I passed another monolith. Mt Conner is visible from the Lasseter Hwy and so resembles Uluru many people are fooled into thinking it is Uluru. Indeed I made that mistake when I first took this route 16 years ago and was surprised to see Uluru when I thought it was at least 150km away.  Fool-uru strikes again. Mt Conner is an impressive rock in its own right, a 650m-tall flat-topped, horseshoe-shaped mesa, part of the same substrate beneath Uluru and Kata Tjuta.  Known as Artila in Dreamtime stories it was the home of the feared Ninya, or Ice Men, the creators of cold weather. Explorer William Gosse gave it a European name in 1873 after South Australian politician M. L. Conner.

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Mt Conner is now on a private property called Curtain Springs, a pastoral lease on 416,400 hectares that is a combined cattle station, roadhouse and tourist resort. With no room at the Ayers Rock Resort I stayed the night here at its free camping and checked out its pub for a beer and a meal. I didn’t have time but the property runs walks to Mt Conner and the equally impressive nearby salt lakes.

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I caught the red desert dawn the following morning on my way back to Alice Springs.

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But I did a quick detour back 10km on the Giles Road to check something I missed on my way out – the Henbury Meteorite Craters. Around 4000 years ago, a large meteorite travelling at 40,000 kilometres an hour broke up before impact and hit the ground at Henbury. Several tonnes of nickel-iron alloy were scattered around a wide area and a 44kg piece is now in the Alice Museum of Central Australia. At the site there are 12 impact craters from seven to 180m wide and up to 15m deep. Over time the sharp outlines were worn down by wind and rain to become board undulating mounds.

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My time in Alice is also worthy of a separate post so I’ll fast forward a couple of days to my drive north again to Tennant Creek and back to Mount Isa. First stop is Aileron 150km which has a hotel and roadhouse and also one of Australia’s curious “big things”. In Aileron’s case it is two big things “the Anmatjere Man” and ” the Anmatjere Woman And Child”. The larger statue of the man on the hill is 17 meters tall and weighs eight tonnes. The 2005 sculpture by local artist Mark Egan is made from steel frame, mesh wire and ferris cement.  The same artists added the woman and child monument three years later.

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Further north again is Wycliffe Well, self-styled “UFO centre of Australia”. Situated 375km north of Alice it has the inevitable roadhouse which is covered in otherworldly art. According to Vice magazine which drove through here in 2017 it was originally developed by former owner Lew Farkas who tried to capitalise on Wycliffe Well’s notoriety as the spot for UFO sightings. There have been UFO sightings around Wycliffe Well for decades apparently “because of its cosmic alignment of landforms, tectonic plates, and manmade structures, which emit a type of UFO-friendly energy.” and its proximity to US military intelligence base Pine Gap. “So, you know, aliens,” Vice concluded.

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My base for the last night before heading for home was the Devils Marbles Hotel at Wauchope another 40km up the road. Here I took the time to do a couple of late evening hours walk around the Marbles, or Karlu Karlu to give them Aboriginal name. I was there most recently in January and wrote about it in more detail here.

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A visit to Nitmiluk Gorge at Katherine

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After a long day’s drive from Darwin and a refreshed night at one of Katherine’s motels it was time to drive 30km out of town to what I and countless others come to town to see – Nitmiluk Gorge. This deep gorge carved through ancient sandstone by the Katherine River draws thousands of visitors to the Nitmiluk National Park each year. The park is owned by the Jawoyn people.

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Entry to the park is surprisingly free but your feet have to pay the bill. A steep set of stairs takes you into the first part of the walk, the Baruwei Loop Walk.

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The reward for the climb comes quickly with terrific views over the Katherine River and beyond. The Katherine is part of the Daly River system and its headwaters are in the national park. Scottish explorer John McDouall Stuart was the first European to see the river on 4 July 1862, and named it after Catherine Chambers, daughter of expedition sponsor James Chambers, though he changed the spelling.

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This is the view looking back to the visitor centre. The centre has a restaurant, souvenir shop and cultural displays and I enjoyed a beer there as a reward for a long walk. But that was much later in the day.  In the meantime I headed away towards the Southern walks to explore deeper the Gorge system and surrounding escarpment away from the daytrippers who just do the Baruwei Walk or who take a boat trip.

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I’m headed towards Pat’s Lookout but first a detour and a clamber down to the Southern Rockhole. Situated 4km from the entrance it is a seasonal waterhole and there was nothing flowing when I arrived in June in the middle of the dry season. But with no-one around the croc-free waterhole, there was enough water for a refreshing skinny dip before continuing on my way.

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This was the view from Pat’s Lookout, looking out on to the Second Gorge. There are nine gorges in total, though the ninth is a good 20km into the park.

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This is another view from Pat’s Lookout. At the bottom of the picture is one of the Katherine Gorge cruise boats. Nitmiluk Tours are run by the Jawoyn People and leave from a jetty near the visitors centre.

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While at Pat’s Lookout I bumped into a Danish man in his 70s named Sven who asked me to take his photo overlooking the Gorge. I did that and then kept going. I missed one of the directional signs (sometimes placed on the rocks, sometimes placed in the foliage) and was backtracking the way I came when I bumped into Sven a second time. He had been here a couple of days and said the signs got harder to follow as you got deeper into the park and he had got badly lost the day before. We agreed to accompany each other figuring we had a better chance of finding the signs together with two pairs of eyes instead of one. This proved a smart move as one more than one occasion one of us would miss a sign, but the other spotted it. At the next turn-off we decided to head to Butterfly Gorge. The cliff in the photo above is on the way to Butterfly Gorge.

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As the name suggests it is a popular spot not just for bushwalkers but for common crow butterflies which were in abundance. Though they refused to pose for any of my photos. The Gorge itself is a tranquil paradise tucked at the base of a low sandstone plateau. Sven suggested we get in for a swim. I told him that was not advisable given the number and size of crocs my colleagues in the Katherine Times keep writing about in these parts. Sven thought better of it and we just admired the view and moved on.

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But we did want to get our feet wet and from our trip down we knew there was a pleasant waterhole back on the walk just up from the river. We backtracked to the waterhole and discarded shoes and socks and talked of life in Australia, Denmark and Ireland. We were at least a couple of hours from the entrance and it was getting late so we went back to the visitors centre to enjoy that aforementioned beer. I thanked Sven for his company, he said he wouldn’t have gone down to Butterfly Gorge if we hadn’t met. But I’ll be back – There is still plenty of Nitmiluk National Park I need to explore.

From Darwin to Katherine

After four days in Darwin it was time to start up the car and hit the road south again. The first stop was only 15km out of town at Charles Darwin National Park. The park has national significance for its ecological diversity and Aboriginal and war history. It also protects part of the nationally significant Port Darwin wetland and contains 36 of the Territory’s 51 mangrove species. The Second World War era bunkers were fenced off and locked up as a storage area for military explosives while the shell middens in the area date back for thousands of years.

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This view of the city from Charles Darwin National Park shows why the park was so significant to the Larrakia people. It was only a short canoe ride away and a good spot to keep an eye on who was coming on to country.

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Another few kilometers further south is the turn-off to Humpty Doo and the Kakadu National Park. I did not have the time to detour to the Kakadu but I did check out Fogg Dam on the traditional lands of the Limilngan-Wulna people. This spectacular wetlands is just 70km south of Darwin with great birdwatching and is also a haven for water pythons, freshwater turtles and other wildlife including saltwater crocodiles. Fogg Dam has one of the world’s highest biomass of predator (water pythons) to prey (dusky rats) ratio. The pythons make their homes in the cracked mud during the hot dry season from August to October while waiting for the rains.

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The next detour was via Batchelor to Litchfield National Park. Home to the Kungarakan and Marinunggo peoples the park is named after Frederick Henry Litchfield of the Finniss Expedition that travelled from South Australia in 1864. This was the first European expedition to visit the Top End by land with orders to explore and survey a site for the new settlement in the Northern Territory.  A highlight of the National Park are the hundreds of termite mounds mostly up to two metres high, some a century old.

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The termite mounds are enormous magnetic compasses, with their thin edges pointing north-south and broad backs pointing east-west. This minimises exposure to the sun, keeping the mounds cool for the magnetic termites inside. The four metre high cathedral termite mound is the outstanding feature of this part of the park. To create the mounds, the termites cut up grass stalks and store them around the outer chambers foraging from underground and displacing the sediment on the ground. As the mound grows, the termites fill the outer chambers with soil and start again on the next level.

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Another 15m further on in the Park is the turnoff for Florence Falls. There is a short walk from the carpark to the Falls but I take the longer option via Shady Creek walk which loops along a stream through the rainforest-filled gorge and woodlands back to Florence Creek. The falls are ideal for a cool dip on a hot day and plenty of others have the same idea. It helps the waterhole is croc free.

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This is the view of the Falls on the short walk back to the carpark. dar2d

Refreshed it’s back to the Stuart Hwy and the town of Adelaide River. An hour south of Darwin, Adelaide River played an important role in the Second World War and many fled here after the bombing of the city and the port.  Its war cemetery is home to 434 military graves and the adjoining Civil Cemetery honours 63 civilians including the nine Darwin post office workers killed in the February 19, 1942 bombing. The cemetery also has a Memorial to the Missing, where 292 service personnel who were killed in Timor and New Guinea campaigns are remembered.

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Next stop is Pine Creek, another hour down the road.  In the early 1870s, workers on the Overland Telegraph Line discovered gold in the area starting a rush that lasted two decades. The telegraph station opened in 1874 and a large influx of Chinese workers came in to work in the goldfields. By the mid-1880s, the Chinese outnumbered Europeans 15 to one in Pine Creek and many went into business. But they were devastated by a 1892 fire that destroyed the town. When the gold ran out, the population of Pine Creek dwindled and most of the Chinese returned home in the 1890s.

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A steep road from the centre of Pine Creek leads to a lookout with panoramic view of Enterprise Pit. The Pit was an open cut mine, now full of water 135 metres deep. It began as the Enterprise Shaft in 1906 and was worked until 1985 when Pine Creek Goldfields developed the open cut mine extracting 764,000 ounces of gold in its 10-year life span. dar5

My detours had turned what is normally a two and a half hour trip from Darwin to Katherine into a five hour haul. I was happy to get into Katherine and relax before a big day following to check out the Nitmiluk National Park, with its world-famous Katherine Gorge.