The Red Centre abounds with spectacular destinations and breathtaking scenery but majestic Kings Canyon, a natural gem hidden in the heart of Central Australia, tops the must-see list. Located in Watarrka National Park, the impressive canyon features 300m sheer vertical cliffs rising straight up from Kings Creek.
It was Ernest Giles who first laid eyes on this geological wonder on 30th October 1872 and named it after an old friend, Fielder King. This famous explorer led five expeditions between 1872 and 1876 into Australia’s then unknown interior and became the first man to cross the continent from east to west.
Yet, only fifty-five years ago this awe-inspiring gorge was practically unknown. Jack Cotterill and his son Jim were the first people to recognise the potential of Kings Canyon as a major tourist destination and cut a 100km road to the base of the climb in 1960. They built Wallara Ranch which received the first tourists in 1961 and, by the end of that year, 600 people had seen the gorge. The Cotterills’ foresight signalled the start of tourism in the Red Centre while Jack Cotterill’s significant contribution continues to be remembered in the monument that was erected at the foot of the canyon’s climb.
Today, Kings Canyon is an attraction in its own right and gains more popularity as the years go by. Many years ago, tourists ventured into the Central Australian desert to experience the wonder of Uluru, never giving a thought to Kings Canyon. Most people now make the detour to see the towering cliff walls with their own eyes.
As visitor numbers grew so did the accommodation options. Nearby Kings Canyon Resort offers powered and unpowered sites along with a playground, swimming pool, shop, petrol station and several restaurants. Camping fees start at $40 per two people per night.
Kings Creek Station is further down the road but offers a true outback experience. This working cattle and camel station was established by modern-day pioneers Ian and Lyn Conway who purchased the 800,000 hectare property in 1981 and lived under a tree for five years with their two young children, without electricity or running water. Ian is a visionary, not unlike Jack Cotterill, who recognised the immense commercial potential of the region.
Ian and Lyn built a successful tourist venture which offers camel rides, quad bike tours and scenic helicopter flights. Best of all, a stay at the station will show you what outback hospitality looks like. Powered and unpowered sites are available, starting at $43 per two people per night.
Bushwalking is the best way to explore this rugged landscape. At the southern end of the national park, the 2-hour return walk to the springs at the head of the picturesque Kathleen Gorge is fully sealed. The final section consists of a boardwalk and a viewing platform next to the spring-fed pool. Along the trail you’ll learn about the nomadic Luritja people who used the narrowing gorge as a hunting ground to spear kangaroos and emus. The permanent waterhole is believed to be the home of the Rainbow Serpent who protects this precious water source. For this reason the Luritja people never camped near the waterhole and will not swim here – out of respect for their culture it is asked you do the same.
When white settlers realised the potential of this area in the late 1800s, they used the gorge as a trap for cattle and built stock yards. As a result, Aboriginal people became stockmen and an important part of the Northern Territory pastoral industry.
The main attraction of the area, Kings Canyon, can be traversed via two walking tracks. The easy 2km return Kings Creek Walk meanders up the stream to a viewing platform where the full height of the massive cliff walls can be experienced. The 6km Kings Canyon Rim Walk is regarded as one of the most scenic walks in Australia and can be completed in 3-4 hours.
The short walk along Kings Creek is usually a stroll along a dry creek bed but, in our case, torrential rains had battered the region, flooding the creek. Fast-flowing water rushed down Kings Creek, giving life to the wide variety of plants and animals that call this hostile habitat home. Parts of the track were still flooded so getting your feet wet was inevitable. At the end of the walk we were astonished to find the viewing platform destroyed by a huge boulder, which had become dislodged from the cliff wall due to the heavy rain. It’s a reminder that closure of parks is necessary in order to ensure everyone’s safety.
The highlight of any visit to the canyon is the Rim Walk. It is recommended to start the hike early as temperatures quickly soar in this arid climate. The walk starts with a steep climb, incorporating 500 steps, and is also known as ‘Heart Attack Hill.’ There’s no reason anyone with reasonable fitness cannot complete this magnificent walk, as long as you are prepared.
Unfortunately, some people still attempt this 3-4 hour walk without carrying enough drinking water or wearing appropriate clothing and footwear, not to mention a wide-brimmed hat. It is recommended to bring at least one litre of drinking water per person per hour.
As you make your way to the top it pays to have a couple of breaks to admire the stunning views across the George Gill Range and the desert plains. Once you’ve reached the rim you hike along a rocky track, rewarding with breathtaking vistas of the gorge.
The next section traverses the ‘Lost City’, a maze of beehive formations not unlike the ones seen in Purnululu NP. From here the track descends into the lush Garden of Eden where a permanent waterhole provides the perfect conditions for a tropical oasis, the ideal place for an extended break.
Another steep climb takes you up to the southern gorge rim and an awe-inspiring lookout on the edge of the canyon. After heavy rain you’ll be able to see a waterfall plunging into the Garden of Eden, a spectacular sight to say the least.
The final part of the track wanders away from the gorge past sandstone domes and rugged valleys until you start the steep descent to Kings Creek. Most people experience a sense of exhilaration once they’ve reached the end of this memorable walk.
Kings Canyon truly is a majestic landscape which has to be seen to be believed. Make sure you visit this outback oasis on your next trip to the iconic Red Centre.
Watarrka National Park is situated about 330km south-west of Alice Springs and can be accessed in several ways. The sealed, and longest, option is via the Stuart Highway, Lasseter Highway and Luritja Road which adds up to 460km. Alternatively, access the park via the Stuart Highway, the 99km Ernest Giles Road (4WD recommended) and sealed Luritja Road, or 320km via Larapinta Drive and Mereenie Loop Road (unsealed for 198km – 4WD recommended). The Mereenie Loop Road passes through Aboriginal land and a permit is required.
Camping is available at Kings Canyon Resort, 7km from the national park, or Kings Creek Station which is a working cattle and camel station, situated 36km from Watarrka NP.