Northern Territory: The big dry

By Greg Dixon

Kings Canyon is situated in the Watarrka National Park, some 450km southwest of Alice, with incredible sheer cliffs and domed rocks that look like piles of pancakes. Photo / Greg Dixon
Kings Canyon is situated in the Watarrka National Park, some 450km southwest of Alice, with incredible sheer cliffs and domed rocks that look like piles of pancakes. Photo / Greg Dixon

Lordy, I was thirsty. After a day on the road in the middle of goddamn nowhere in heat that beat mercilessly through the windows of the 4WD - a heat no blast from the air conditioner could defeat - the very thought of an ice cold lager seemed like something close to glimpsing God's face.

And in that terrible heat, my mind was starting to drift as Brad, my tour guide and laid-back Ocker driver, flogged the Toyota for all it was worth toward my final destination, Uluru, the most famous rock in Australia's Northern Territory and, quite possibly, the world.

"Is that Uluru?" I asked.

"Nah, mate," Brad hooted. "That's a mesa called Mt Conner. But plenty of people think it's Uluru. The locals call it Fooluru."

"Yes, now that you mention it, Uluru isn't flat-topped ..."

Crikey! Clearly my thirst, my terrible, terrible thirst, was more serious than I'd thought.

Worse, Uluru and my hotel room - and, more importantly, my hotel room's mini bar - were still more than an hour away.

The signs for gas, beds and food started some miles out from Curtin Springs on the Lasseter Highway, a wide, meandering asphalt channel that cuts west to Uluru from Australia's famous Stuart Highway, the 2834km boulevard of broken axles that runs between Darwin and Port Augusta in South Australia.

With another 80 or so kilometres left of our two-day scoot from Alice Springs to Uluru - by way of Kings Canyon, a self-proclaimed "black fella" with a French name and a camel called Goldie - Curtin Springs would be the last gas station before the big red rock itself.

With the tank showing a quarter, Brad pulled into the Springs' wide, metal car park to gas up. I jumped out and into the afternoon heat's full sear and made for the Springs' Roadhouse.

As my eyes adjusted inside the quaint, stone facade building and took in a narrow room with shelves filled with things like pickled snakes and other bizarre ephemera, I realised there wasn't just water and coke in the fridges.

As relief and gratitude roared in my ears, I could just hear myself saying "One Crown Lager, please".

IT IS in the nature of deserts to offer unexpected oases. At least it is in the deserts of the mind of someone who has watched Lawrence of Arabia and Khartoum far too many times.

Yet not long after leaving Alice for the 700km-plus trip to Kings Canyon and Uluru - much of it off sealed roads - it didn't take long for the reality of travelling in real desert country to dawn.

You are on your own. If you are thirsty or hungry, the only water and food you have is what you are carrying. If you run out of gas, the nearest gas station is the spare tank of petrol strapped to the roof rack. If you blow a tire, you'd better have spare and know how to change it yourself.

Running south from Alice, there is pretty much nothing and no one. Well not quite nothing. There is low scrubby bush and mostly unseen wildlife. And there is not quite no one. There are cattle ranches - you see the fences, but almost never the cattle - which hint that this vast, flat, red and dusty landscape is peopled, sparsely peopled, but peopled all the same.

The big red remoteness of this part of Northern Territory, not to mention the skill it takes to keep a 4WD going at 100km/h on a dusty red road, made me thankful I'd chosen to take one of Wayoutback Desert Safaris' guided trips rather than doing it by my own townie self.

And if Brad and I had perhaps eyed each other slightly warily when he'd picked me up at Voyages Alice Springs Resort, it took us barely to the outskirts of Alice to establish an easy, on-the-road mateship. He - a Queenslander no less - has an authentic, honest love for a part of Australia he's known for only a few years and was not shy in sharing it.

But what he seems to love more, or maybe talking about more, is a fine feed of cooked roo tail. You throw it on the fire, leave for a bit, pull it off the fire, peel off the skin and ... I suspect I would rather have the steak sandwiches he made for our lunch near the Hugh River, about 100km south of Alice, at the Oak Valley Aboriginal Community, the first stop of our first day.

Dressed in jeans, boots, T-shirt and - despite the oppressive heat - a yellow Hawthorn Hawks beanie, community elder Craig Le Rossignol stuck out his paw in welcome. This 40-something bloke's family has lived by the Hugh River for, oh, something like 35,000 years he reckoned, but has never, in the European sense, "owned" it.

"We don't own anything," he said in his careful way. "We belong to this area and we are located by its water sources."

The family's name wasn't always Le Rossignol, of course. It seems a Frenchman entered the picture last century, leaving little else but a displaced name to be borne by a displaced family.

Inevitably (it is the Australian story) the Le Rossignols' land was taken by people who wished to own rather than belong - the government and settlers. Inevitably, too, it took years for this 100 sq km patch of aridity and history to be restored to the family. However, in the three decades since it was returned by the government, only 70 of the 350-strong family have come home.

"Some people want to live in the ice-cream-and-air-conditioning world still," offered Craig, "and they just lose touch."

The Le Rossignols who have returned offer camping and encounters for tourists wanting some insight into Aboriginal life and their unique stories and traditions. They also grow olives and run cattle.

However, the family have just 60 head on land that could feed 2000. "We've got to make room for the native animals because we've got to keep hunting otherwise our children will forget."

During my four hours at Oak Valley, Craig would show me the community's amazing fossil field, his artwork and tell me stories of a rainbow serpent.

But what was truly moving was the family heirlooms. In a tiny, half-formed cave above a gully carved by that rainbow serpent, were drawings made perhaps four millennia before the hot, sweaty day I visited.

There are painted round circles signifying masculinity and drawings shaped like bowls representing women. But it was the small and large hand prints - symbolising that transition from childhood to adulthood - that astonished me.

Imagine, I found myself thinking, being able to wander down the back of your property to find, well, traces left millennia ago, not by just any old people, but by your very own family.

THE GLASS of sparkling Rosemount 2008, handed to me by the crackling fire, slipped down very nicely indeed.

And so did the tomato and saffron consomme with lobster ravioli, the smoked kangaroo, barramundi fillet topped with a scallop mousse, the baked wild lime cheesecake and the various wines matched to these delicious courses.

But it's fair to say that Brad and I were the odd ones out at the celebrated Sounds of Firelight dinner at the posh Voyages Kings Canyon Resort; of the six couples dining this night, it was pretty evident we were the only ones not in love.

Still our host Danni and chef Fia, a Cook Islander, made us most welcome at the resort's nightly dinner for romantics and lovers of fine food by firelight, and it was a pleasant end to a long day, a day on which I had my first - and I expect last - ride on a camel.

Goldie, a 20-year-old male, was eating hay when I arrived at the Stuart's Well camel farm, an hour south of Alice, and he didn't bother standing up to welcome me. Rude bugger. Still he bore me with as much grace and dignity as a camel can around the farm's riding circuit, first at a walk, then at a gentle trot and finally with me yelling, Lawrence of New Zealand-style, "no prisoners!"

The farm offers half-hour to two-hour rides for up to $75, or 3-5 day treks for mad people. Or you could do as I did and pay $5 for a quick jog around the riding circuit and save your bum the punishment.

Camels, I'm told, are bloody everywhere in the Outback. There are said to be as many as two million ferals, the offspring of the domesticated camels used for exploration and transport in 19th and early 20th centuries, and you are likely to see them on the sandy roads between Alice and Uluru.

Curiously enough - given the cruel, arid landscape - it wasn't camels but horses that made up the baggage train of famed Aussie explorer Ernest Giles when he came across and named (for his mate Fielder King) Kings Canyon in 1872.

Situated in the Watarrka National Park, some 350km southwest of Alice, Kings Canyon and its surrounds have been home to the Luritja people for the past 20,000 years. Frankly, I can see why they stayed. Kings Canyon is the sort of place that is good for the soul.

Even as the temperature goes over 30, this gorge is a place of cool shadows and waterholes, of cycads (one is 1300 years old), sheer cliffs and domed rocks that look like piles of pancakes, and hidden fossils and rocks with surfaces covered in "long, curved washes of ripples", to quote poet Judith Wright.

The Kings Canyon walk is just 5.5km long, but it takes three hours and plenty of drinking water. Beginning with a steep climb up Heartbreak (or, more commonly, Heart Attack) Hill - the track carries you up, up, up to the cliffs above the canyon's massive fissure, which began opening some 350 million year ago during the Alice Springs Orogeny (a tectonic or mountain-building period) and has progressively been carved out by wind, rain and flood waters.

The walls of the canyon are formed by two types of sandstone, Mereenie and Carmichael, which lay one on top of the other. They are sheer, marked with what might be strange hieroglyphics by wind and rain, and have the dramatic beauty of a primordial cathedral.

The strange pancaked, or perhaps beehive-like, domes seen above the canyon are Mereenie sandstone too, which have formed from prehistoric sand dunes before being shaped into these domes by the elements. Some are named, by the Luritja people, the Kuninga men, travellers through the canyon in the Dreamtime.

On both sides of the canyon the track takes you near to sheer edges, but I was wary of going too close. Since a bloke called Jack Cottrell opened up the canyon to tourists in the 1960s, about nine people have fallen to their deaths here.

Ambling safely across the flats between the pancake piles, we came to a wooden staircase taking visitors down into (and then out of) the "Garden of Eden", an oasis at the head of this giant fissure, said to have 600 different plant and animal species.

The bird life is abundant. There are little grey birds called the cuckoo shrike, yellow-faced honey eaters, ring-tailed dragons, willy wagtails, wood ducks and mistletoe birds, which eat the sticky mistletoe seeds.

Brad pointed out small nests beneath trees, the "bowers" of the male western bower birds, which use white objects to attract females.

Occasionally you might see peregrine falcons high above and, at ground level, and more worryingly, perentie goannas. They're the fourth biggest lizard in the world, grow up to 3m and can crush bone with razor-like teeth.

In the garden's deep fissure, half way around this wonderful walk, I sat down by a green waterhole to nibble on a muesli bar and listen to the wind in the rocks. It was a simple and ageless pleasure.

But then Kings Canyon is magical even for people like Brad, who come here all the time.

"Out of all the walks we get to do, including Uluru," he told me as we climbed back in the 4WD, "it's the only one where you're right in there with it.

"For some reason it just relaxes me, I love the sight of it. Walking up that big-arse hill to start with and then you just come out into monstrous beauty."

As Brad gunned the Toyota on the final four-hour run through to Uluru, my mind stayed wandering with the Kuninga men in the heat among the cycads of Kings Canyon. Suddenly I was developing a thirst.

Greg Dixon visited Kings Canyon with help from Northern Territory Tourism, World Expeditions, Air NZ and Qantas.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies every day to Sydney. Qantas offers daily flights between Sydney and Alice Springs.

Getting around: Wayoutback Desert Safaris.

World Expeditions operates several expeditions into Outback Australia.

Further information: To find out about visiting the Northern Territory click here.

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