Don’t make the mistake of assuming Uluru is the only reason to visit Australia’s red centre.
With a maze of spectacular sculpted domes, lush oases and deep canyons, Watarrka National Park is a setting fit for a king. Or queen, as Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert memorably depicted.
The fact that the magnificent scenery around Kings Canyon shared top billing with those Oscar-winning costumes is testament to just how beautiful this part of Australia is.
A Grand Canyon
Unlike Uluru, which is instantly recognisable from a distance, Kings Canyon is hard to see until you’re right upon it.
From a sunbaked plain, the George Gill Range rises up like a sheer wall of sandstone that slowly reveals cracks and crevices as you get closer. The most significant of these is Kings Canyon, which is notable not just for its beauty, but because it has water year-round, which makes it a rarity in the Central Australia desert. As a result, it has long been a place of great cultural significance to the Luritja traditional owners.
The best way to appreciate the region is still on foot and the most iconic views are from the top of the plateau. It’s best to get an early start when tackling the six kilometre Rim Walk, both to see the rock glowing in the early morning sun, and to beat the heat. Even in the cool desert mornings you’ll warm up quickly thanks to a strenuous climb that locals have christened Heart Attack Hill.
Keep an eye out on the way up, some of the rock slabs used as steps are still rippled from when they lay under the sea more than 400 million years ago — it’s a reminder that the landscape is both ancient and full of surprises. You might even spot fossilised marine creatures.
Get to the top of the steps and instead of a barren plateau, you’ll discover a lost city of orange and black striped domes that look like granaries or terraced stupas from some ancient civilisation. It’s easy to lose yourself in both the detail of the finely layered rock and the sheer number of the domes, which seem to multiply out in every direction.
As you walk, be sure to remember the two metre rule. This time it has nothing to do with covid, but is in place because there are no fences anywhere, making it important to stay well back from the edge of the cliffs. Fortunately, there are plenty of spots where you can admire the stunning views in safety.
An Island In The Desert
Orange and black are the main colours on the rim of the canyon, but on the valley floor it’s a different story. River gums, grevillea, emu bushes and mistletoe turn the creekbed into a river of green, even when there’s been no rain for months.
But these are just warm ups for the main event. Halfway through the Rim Walk, an avenue of cycads (ancient palm-like trees that have barely changed since they were dinosaur food) leads to a hidden waterhole. This is the Garden Of Eden, a stunningly peaceful spot that sits in shade for most of the day and attracts plenty of local birds.
Water is the key to life here, so it’s important to take plenty with you when you go for a walk. And keep an eye out at the refill stations; flocks of chattering zebra finches and white-plumed honeyeaters have stationed themselves nearby and quickly descend to take advantage of any overflow.
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Part of the park’s beauty lies in its remoteness, which also means getting there takes effort. Kings Canyon is around five hours’ drive from Alice Springs on sealed roads, though there are some short cuts for the adventurous. And because it’s in the same direction as Uluru, it’s easy to combine both sites in one epic road trip.
Staying The Night (Or 10)
There are only two accommodation options nearby, but each caters to a range of travellers. Within the National Park, Kings Canyon Resort is a less than ten-minute drive from the canyon and has traditional hotel rooms, as well as camping and glamping.
Just outside the park, Kings Creek Station is a little further away, but has camping, bush tents and a secluded all inclusive glamping site that’s geared towards very special occasions.
(Lead Image: Tourism NT/ Mitchell Cox)
After spending years as a music journalist and beer-taster, Alexis Buxton-Collins now travels the world searching for new adventures to write about, from navigating the Alps with Austria's last nomadic shepherd to hiking through the Central American rainforest in search of ancient Mayan pyramids.