The Outback Made Personal

There are steps leading to the Garden of Eden (just ignore those helicopters)
Kings Canyon
The Outback's Royalty: The valley within Kings Canyon (courtesy, Tourism Australia)
The Long Haul
For those people who love to escape the crowds, consider an overnight trek on the Giles Track, a 13.6-mile hiking route that links Kings Canyon to Kathleen Springs. This overnight trek carries an added bonus: the ability to explore Kings Canyon at dawn and during the night, times when even the helicopters have gone silent.

As you head west from Alice Springs, the Outback unfurls from the Western MacDonnell Ranges like a massive, weathered carpet laced with rugged dirt roads, a scattering of scrub brush, wisps of blowing sand, and the intermittent, low-horizon rock formation. Occasional explosions of color—blooms of yellow and white desert flowers—within this semi-arid landscape, stained a dull red from the oxygenation of the iron in the soil, offered the only indication that we were traversing the Red Center during the winter. That and the comforting truth that the day’s temps wouldn't render us inert due to heat exhaustion.

As we drove out into that expansive landscape early one July morning, Jason—or Jays, as the Aussies affectionately called him—explained that we had two options: Drive south on the Stuart Highway and gun it straight to Uluru by hooking a hard right onto Lasseter Highway, or route through Kings Canyon first.

Mid-quandary, our nimble 4x4 zipped past a fleet of massive tour buses.

"They're all heading for Uluru, I reckon," Jays informed us.

Unanimously, we opted to go to Kings Canyon first—and as we sped past the bus convoy, one of the chief attractions of a Wayoutback desert safari became evident: small groups and a low guide-to-guest ratio meant changing the itinerary was simply a matter of everyone agreeing. And, as we closed in on yet another batch of slow-moving tour buses, Jason demonstrated a second great advantage of 4x4 transport: you can leave the pavement behind. He took a hard right off Stuart Highway and onto Ernest Giles Road, a bumpy dirt track named after the British explorer who penetrated the Outback five times in the 1800s, leaving the bitumen-bound hordes to choke on their exhaust.

But our respite from the hordes was short-lived. After a few hours of off-road jostling, the Ernest Giles Road dumped us into the Kings Canyon parking lot, our 4x4 dwarfed in a phalanx of idling tour buses.

Kings Canyon lies within the Gorge Gill Range some 190 miles north of Uluru, which means the people aiming solely for Uluru don't make it here. Too bad for them.

What they're missing is a narrow sliver of sandstone that plunges 328 feet into a valley of fern, water pools, and woodlands—a fertile, utterly surreal landscape that you'd be mistaken to overlook.

Regardless of whether you opt to hike down the less strenuous Valley Walk into the canyon, or trudge to the top of the canyon for the Rim Walk, the first two things you'll likely notice about Kings Canyon are the pervasive flies, seldom discouraged by a swatting hand or hat, and the other flying annoyance: helicopters, which take to the air at regular intervals to loop over the massive abyss and the rest of 261,930-acre Watarrka National Park.

Miraculously, as we followed Jason's lead up Cardiac Hill—the near-vertical ascent at the start of the Rim Walk—and stepped onto the expansive canyon rim, the noise pollution and pesky distractions seemed to disappear. Over the next few hours, we wandered along the meandering 3.7-mile path, first stepping through a narrow pass between two boulders into the region dubbed "The Lost City"—Dali-esque mounds of sandstone that were once massive dunes, eroded to resemble enormous bee hives. Its ancient streets then led us further along the canyon surface, around wind-shorn rocks that looked like sandcastles pummeled by rainwater, to the vertiginous edge of sheer 900-foot cliffs, and through rock formations that felt like massive Roman amphitheaters—staging ground for some odd blood sport more akin to the planet Mars than Earth...

Roughly halfway through the hike, you follow a series of wooden steps that take you down into an unexpected, lush realm known as the Garden of Eden. As you descend, the temperatures cool and your eyes adjust and take in a dense explosion of green ancient cycad fern, the spiny spinifix, and the bone-white bark of ghost gum trees. Follow the path as it meanders through the valley and you reach a small beach and a permanent spring that invites a headlong plunge, clothes be damned.

You could probably race through the Rim Walk—and the path that penetrates the valley—within a few hours. Don't. Give yourself over to the hypnotic landscape and shut out the whirr of helicopters, the occasional tour groups in matching shirts, and the persistent flies orbiting round your head, and the spiritual qualities of Kings Canyon will mesmerize you, flooding out all distractions.

I embraced that peaceful calm all the way back to the vehicle and the short drive to the neighboring campgrounds, and when we stopped, I was pleased to see that Jays had led us to a spot—one reserved solely for Wayoutback—that was well removed from the rest of the campers. We cooked dinner by campfire, took brisk showers by starlight, and slept under the persistent glow of the Southern Cross, curled up in our swags (an Aussie bedroll made of padding and heavy canvas). And when the dawn came—stretched out bright and cold across the expansive Outback—we knew Uluru was our next stop.

Nathan Borchelt is the lead editor for

Published: 19 Sep 2005 | Last Updated: 6 Nov 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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