King's Canyon

Northern Territory, Australia

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

We stood at the edge of King’s Canyon early one summer’s morning.  The twisted outcrops of the edge of the George Gill Range, a heavily eroded sandstone plateau in the heart of Australia, were silhouetted against a pale blue sky.

The hills above us consisted of flat layers of sandstone, laid down when a vast shallow sea covered much of what was to become Australia.  Ayers Rock (Uluru) dates from the same period.

Over the years, fissures in the rock had been carved into outlandish shapes, including the superb King’s Canyon itself.

We clambered up a long slope of jumbled sandstone boulders in a side valley to the south of the main canyon.  The cliffs of the upper layer of harder, later sandstone loomed above us, black and implacable against the pre-dawn sky.

The vegetation here was dry, sparse spinifex grass, scrub and the odd struggling tree.  Somewhere around us, still awake but completely invisible, were a colony of rock wallabies.  A large slab on the path provided one of their heavily used, clean-scraped shelters from the harsh daytime sun.

Some of the trees carried mistletoe, which has an extraordinary relationship with the mistletoe bird.  The bird eats mistletoe berries, the seeds of which only germinate in the bird’s stomach.  The excreted seed is sticky and, to rid itself of it, the bird wipes itself on the tree on which it is sitting, thus depositing the seed in a perfect place to start its new life. Or was our leg being pulled?

A steep climb up a gap took us to the top of the cliffs.  Below us, the dim rocks and trees of the valley; on the far side, the sun had just climbed over the contorted clifftop, and was already promising a scorching day.  We were glad to have made this climb early: labouring up that path, over bare rock in 40 degrees or more, would have been miserable.

In front of us was a series of great uneven terraces rising up to the very top of the mesa, broken by clefts and huge cracks from which the odd tree struggled for its precarious existence.  The first terrace wall loomed some 20 feet above us.

At our feet, sand ripples frozen into the stone whispered of the time when it was the floor of the great sea.  The rock was composed from white silica sand, both hard and extremely brittle: once its red oxidised iron carapace had been broken, it could be crumbled in our fingers.

Behind us, the cool, undemonstrative colours of the bush slumbered over 100 meters below.  It was extraordinarily deceptive: following unusually heavy rain over the last year, the pale green grassland, dotted with desert oaks, looked like proto parkland: the rare burnt sienna sands of the Red Centre in which the vegetation struggled was invisible from where we stood.  Despite this harsh environment, the local Aborigines had found plenty to sustain them as long as water was available.  The desert oaks were fascinating: stubby, tenacious, up to 1,000 years old, very slow growing.  The young ones looked like entirely different plants - flimsy, sickly little conifers, perhaps; all their growth happens below ground until their roots hit the aquifer some 70 ft below; only then do they begin to assume their adult shape.

Sheltered under a great sandstone wall were living fossils: cycads, stubby palm-like trees whose ancestors, little different, had been one of Australia’s dominant species when it was lush rainforest. They have seen whole families of dinosaurs come and go.  They now survive, improbably, in sheltered gorges and lush corners in a few ranges in central Australia.

Up though a little defile, we came upon a tiny cycad lost world, a lush little oasis 100m across, surrounded by walls of uncompromising sandstone.

A further scramble took us up and across the top of the ridge to the southern rim of the main King’s Canyon.  We gingerly sidled up to the cliff edge; the walls were sheer, smooth, almost polished sandstone, tender orangy-pink on the far side, evidence that it had been carved out or sheared off relatively recently, and burnt umber on our side, which has evidently survived for centuries.  Far below, rocky slopes, scrubby trees and little pockets of cycads.

To our right, at the head of this part of the canyon, a waterfall dribbled timidly out of a deep cleft; beyond, a glimpse of a deep black pool under sheer crimson cliffs and trees: our destination, the Garden of Eden. To our left, the canyon walls subsided among the crags and broken slopes of the plateau edge.

The plateau top has weathered into fantastic shapes, often compared to beehives or the ruins of a lost city.  Primeval cracks in the sandstone, in some places an almost perfect grid, have eroded into deep crevices and terraces, a seemingly regular pattern of domed tops, with “courtyards” and “streets” between them.  They were eerily reminiscent of the roofscape of an ancient mud-brick city somewhere in remote central Asia, the sort that Genghis Khan sacked.

We headed east around the southern wall of the gorge, crossing a deep crevice on a corner, where we turned north. The far-side plateau top was particularly regularly sculpted and did look like the product of a manic ancient urban planner.

A steep flight of wooden steps brought us down the cliff face into the cool shade of the Garden of Eden, an extraordinary little lost world hidden in the harsh sunburnt rocks of the plateau.  The King’s Creek stood, deep and dark, in the bottom of the great cleft.  Trees, cycads, shrubs and grass fought for their place along the watercourse in a riot of fecundity. This permanent water was important to the local Aboriginal tribes, although it had never had the spiritual importance of Uluru (Ayers Rock).

We walked down the gorge to the great black pool, which we had glimpsed earlier above the waterfall.  A bowl of smooth sandstone cliffs glowed a pregnant burnt sienna to herald the imminent sun.  It was gorgeous - but shared with at least 20 others, who sat by the pool while 3 of them swam, their chatter and splashings echoing off the rock.

Every group has its prat (if you haven’t spotted who, then it’s you), and this one was an English girl, who kept up a look-at-me flow of inanities.  She decided she wanted a photo of herself, repeatedly demanding someone go her camera out, no-one initially moved.  With an supressed groan, an Irishwoman with a humorous, cynical face rummaged in the pratette’s bag and extracted her camera. “I want a really scenic view” said our friend.  “Well get out of it, then” muttered the Irishwoman to sniggers, even scattered applause.

A haul up some more wooden stairs took us onto the far cliff top.  The plateau top was at its most spectacular here. We wound through the ancient Romanesque churches, squares and alleys of a sun-seared Spanish town.  Little patches of greenery clung on tenaciously in the hostile rockscape.

Several times, we emerged from the maze to dizzy clifftop views of the dozing canyon bottom way below.

Our final descent followed a steep spur of broken rock, carefully taken, in Pommie Snake Paranoia, so that we never stepped anywhere that had not been reconnoitred.  We were glad to get to the end - it was only 9:30, but already sweltering.

Back at the trailhead, we met 9 busses and 15 minibuses, campervans and cars.  There must have been at least 350 people around King’s Canyon at that time; while it had never felt crowded, except by the great pool in the Garden of Eden, we were seldom alone.  An odd feeling, with the thousands of empty square miles all around us.

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