Another early morning start. By this time we have gotten used to the bright start and quick breakfasts and a quick run to pit toilets. You don’t fancy reading books there, so do the job and come out. :-). Readers who may not know what pit toilets are, please google. All I can say is that they are environmentally better waste systems, used by remote campers and third world countries.
We were ready for another hike. This time it was the Kings Canyon. Located in Watarrka National Park, Kings Canyon known for its 100-meter-high sheer cliff walls. The idea was to take a guided walk (Rim Walk) to see the towering walls, crevices, and plateaus of Watarrka. Soaring 270m above sea level, this canyon has been forged over 400 million years and is made from layers of sandstone with hard shell between layers. The Rim Walk took us on a 6km circuit transcending down into the ‘Garden of Eden’ and back to the top to get a 360-degree view. The start of the walk was very difficult. From the base, we could just admire the steep climb, somewhere around 500 steps to climb. The first thought was not to do it at all. But that’s what we were there for and not doing it didn’t make any sense. So we began the climb. After few steps, we all were exhausted, panting, looking for some shade and looking down where we started. We were already high up and still more to go. With all the panting and huffing, we ultimately reached the top. The view was breathtaking and magnificent. It was worth the climb.
Continuing our walk on the rim, through Priscilla’s Crack (made famous by the classic Priscilla Queen of Desert) we came to our first lookout at across the canyon. From here, we were exposed to all the elements and were experiencing the grandeur of our surrounding. In front of us were the marvelous sandstone domes (a mini-Purnululu) known as the ‘Lost City’. (I wish I could share more photos so you can experience what I did, but have to restrict due to the storage capacity.) After a long walk, we now started our journey towards the ‘Garden of Eden’. The name sounds interesting and we were all looking forward to it. We undermined and were skeptical of how could there be something sounding an Oasis in the middle of such a harsh geology. I thought our guide is bluffing just to raise our spirits. But in no time we were all proven wrong. There was literally the Garden with lush forestation and shimmering water. This is the picture taken from above a cliff. The water had a strange copper color due to the iron deposits in the sand and probably many other elements from the Periodic Table…!!.
We took the stairs down to the picturesque Garden of Eden filled with lush greenery, where plants thrive along the line of permanent rock pools. Crossed the secured bridge over the sacred watering hole. It was a welcoming relief from the blistering sun and the soaring temperature hovering close to 45-degree Celcius, probably more. We all sat down in the shades taking it all in. This place is very serene and of a great significance to the original landowners, whose only request to visitors is NOT to swim in these waters. It was so tempting but we resisted. It was time to make a move so left with heavy-hearted back to our descent. We had another adventure waiting for us, rather planned.
The group left Kings Canyon to travel on the famous Mereenie Loop Road. The 93 km loop road lets you drive directly from Kings Canyon to West MacDonnell Ranges. This is an unsealed road with pretty bad corrugations. We shook all the time through the entire journey praying it would stop soon. The road took us through the Aboriginal Country and a permit is a must. You are not allowed to do anything here. Shouldn’t leave the road, shouldn’t park and go walking, no picnicking, no camping, no nothing. We were all by ourselves on the red road with just one or two camper vans passing by. Aircondition was on full mode inside the van but wasn’t sufficient. If we chose to open the window, the red dust settles in very quickly, so no chance of doing that. Glad that I wasn’t wearing complete whites that day. Our guide and his accomplice were cool like cucumber and were smiling and laughing at our predicament – the shaky state we were in. This area was far from any habitat so much so that the nearest accommodation options or fuel station were at 197 km and 225 km (source: Internet).
While looking out into the nothingness, I could see scores of dead animals, vultures swirling around and an occasional red kangaroo. The thought of being there all alone was too scary. What if we get stranded? What if the van breaks down? Every bad thought crossed my mind – most probably everyone’s – along the journey. The shaking stopped and the van was now back on the paved road, a great sigh of relief from all the passengers. Today’s trip was about to end as we approached another permanent camp located at Glen Helen.
Glen Helen is a sublime gorge carved through the MacDonnell Ranges by the Finke River. A truly beautiful waterhole edged by red quartzite cliffs. It is known that the first pastoralist in the district, Alan Braeden called the home he established on Ormiston Creek, Munga Munga. The Arrernte Aboriginal people called the gorge ‘yapalpe‘ and knew the Finke river as ‘Larapinta‘ which means serpent, a powerful Rainbow Serpent. (source: http://www.aussietowns.com.au/town/glen-helen-nt)
As soon as we arrived at the camp, we picked up our tents, as usual, left our belongings and stretched a bit before beginning the evening rituals. Don’t remember if there was a facility for a shower, but must have. Once we were ready, all of us took on our duties. The woods were half collected on the way collected more from the surrounding (remember, at no time we cut the trees, only picked up what was fallen on the grounds) and built a massive fire to make coals. Cooked our dinner, dined around the fire, chit-chatted for a while, picked up our swags and soon we were all snoring…!!. Though I was very tired, I had a feeling of achievement, a certain sublimity. Was already looking for the next day adventure.
The next day was an early start, woke up at 4am, I suppose. Tidy up the swags and ourselves and moved out before the sunrise. Bundled up, we drove to a nearby lookout and waited for the sun to show up over Uluru and Kata Tjuta (many heads). I should be honest here to say that though it was told to us that we will experience an amazing view of the rock bathing in the morning early lights, we had a bit of a setback either due to the angle of viewing or the location or the fog cover. Nevertheless, we got to see the sunrise. As soon as that happened, we drove back to our campsite to have a quick breakfast and morning rituals (!!). Once ready, we were off to Kata Tjuta for a 7.4km hike through the magnificent “Valley of the Winds”. The idea behind moving quickly in early mornings is to avoid getting scorched. Soon the sun starts beaming up in the sky the temperature rises and by noon it becomes unbearable. It is hence advisable to complete high effort activities by or before noon.
Kata Tjuta (a.k.a. The Olgas) is a massive pole of 36 weathered domes (steep sandstone monoliths), estimated to be around 500 million years old. It is graded level-4 (Difficult) walk and not for the light-hearted. It has steep ascents, and descents and few rocky patches. This walk retains a sense of wilderness and is by far the best walk. Most of our group members were young, few in the mid-40s and a couple in their early 70s. We had a cultural celebration amongst us. There was a group of 3 from the UK, a group of 4 from Holland, an Indian-English young lady, me and my family and the senior couple from Melbourne, Australia, one young lady from Sydney, Australia and another woman from Germany, visiting her son studying in Australia. Frank (name changed), who was almost 70+ was seen as someone who might get dropped out of the climb due to his recent knee surgery. To everyone’s amazement and his own willpower he never backed out of any hiking trips in those 5 days and was always the enthusiast bloke in the group.
We completed the hike and gathered at a shed to prepare our lunch. Required stuff was taken out from the trailer and every one of us helped to prepare a quick lunch. Mostly it was a sandwich, both veg, and non-veg. After a leisurely lunch under the shade, we head to Curtin Springs Cattle Station. Originally known as Mount Conner Station in the 1930s, became known as Curtin Spring in 1940 after John Curtin. We got a close look at the typical working cattle station. Water for the station and livestock is supplied by pumping it from underground with diesel or solar pumps and windmills. We then traveled to Kings Creek Station for our second nights remote outback campsite. This is where the feeling of ‘way outback’really start to take hold.
We were all tired and sore and were in need of a good warm bath. Now the fun begins. In the outback where there are no commercial establishments, there were no bathrooms and toilets either.
Then we were introduced to our luxurious shower room. It was a bit farther down from our tents, but a bit hidden. As shown in the picture, there are no doors, just a thin plastic sheet as a wind cover – maybe..!!. Though you may see a mixer, the cold water doesn’t work. It had just one pipe coming from the backside and into the shower hut. It also had a solar powered light inside. But just opening the faucet won’t get you a warm water. There’s another thing to be done. See in the next picture a guy (our tour co-expert) is leaning down and doing something. The upright copper/iron thingy is nothing but a boiler He is starting a heat for the water in the boiler to boil. Once the fire starts and keeps burning, the faucet delivers warm, rather hot water. This was so cool. Having a HOT water bath in the middle of a desert. The key was someone had to watch over the fire and keep it live everytime someone was in the shower. For example, when my son was in the shower, I had to keep watch, add woods to the fire and keep it burning. The shower time was rationed to 5 mins per person due to an acute water shortage.
Once we took turns and everyone had their showers out next assignment was cooking. As usual, on the first night of camping, we gathered to do our chores. Few of us gathered woods (some were already gathered on our way to the campsite), burned them to form coals. Others helped in cutting veggies. The damper was on the menu too. 🙂
While the dinner was cooking we all sat around the fire, shared stories, our experiences so far, cracked jokes (the group really had to restrict themselves in cracking adult jokes due to my son around who wasn’t even a teenager that time), passed comments on others and had so much fun. Our guide and his companion were so knowledgeable about the area and the landscape, in general, kept sharing secrets about staying and surviving in such a harsh environment, the various plants and shrubs and their existence, the grubs (witchetty edible grubs, worms, called as Maku in native language) that are found beneath a certain shrub and much more. That day on the way our guide asked us if we would like to find out the grub. An adventure of its own. Not knowing what we are finding out we all said YESSS. He spent some time in finding out the exact shrub. Once located we had to dig the area to get to its roots. But none of us had any sharp object to dig through the hard ground. Few of us searched for a strong wood which has a pointed edge, some just tried their fingers. Later one of us took a stainless steel plate from the kitchen utensils. After spending a long time we barely could go an inch or two but never got near the root. As an environmental factor and the law, we were not supposed to uproot the shrub or damage it and hence were using all the methods to go under. We soon gave up as it was already HOT. Our guide had his laugh at how he made us work..!!.
After another campfire dinner, it was time to kick back and be mesmerized by the millions of stars on the display above. Like the first night, we all once again opted for sleeping outside in the swag. We were looking forward to it all day. It was something out of the world to see the sky full of stars on a dark night with no artificial light to diffuse this phenomenon. We all slept in the cold night, thinking of the next day adventure.