I was loath to leave Trephina Gorge, but I had to if I wanted to see any of the rest of the Red Centre, so I said goodbye to the crowd, who all assembled to wave me off, and bumped back to Alice Springs, where I shopped, checked over the car, filled it up, and struck south. My first target was to have lunch at the Henbury Meteorite Craters, some 15km off the highway down the Ernest Giles Road, a dirt track that goes to King's Canyon – my destination – but which is a bit more strenuous than the bitumen route (which is some 160km longer, but is sealed). The craters are now just dents in the desert, mainly due to erosion, but the thought that something huge and fast shot into the ground 40,000 years ago in that spot was quite something. They're pretty unique, too, and most people don't bother to visit them, as they're down such a juddering road.
Juddering, yes, but quite driveable, so I decided to go against my original plan to stick to the bitumen, and to take the shortcut across the desert to Watarrka National Park, home to King's Canyon. The road was a quintessential dirt road: it had corrugated parts, bull dust, bedrock outcrops, gravel stretches, mud holes where everyone drives round a flooded part of the road, creating corrugation on one side and dried ravines of mud on the other... it had the lot, and hardly any other cars to boot. After the hell of the Gibb River Road and the tyre-shredding roads of Karijini I felt quite at home for the 100km drive to the bitumen, and it was with a note of sadness that I realised this would be my last dirt road drive in Australia: the route to Melbourne from King's Canyon is all sealed, for the sake of the tourists.
I didn't actually camp in the National Park when I arrived, as the only place you can camp that is actually inside the park is an extortionate tourist hole. I stayed at the much cheaper and utterly delightful King's Creek, 35km from the canyon and a world away from the commercial tourism to the north. This is a bone of contention for many travellers and caravan users: there isn't any cheap accommodation or real bush camping to be had in the park any more, which is not only a shame, it seems to go against the concept of a National Park. I'd resigned myself to extortion, though, so I was quite prepared to stay away from the main attraction, and King's Creek was very pretty, well within my budget, and reasonably quiet.
I did notice one thing that disturbed the silence when I parked the car, though: a fizzing noise from under the bonnet. On closer inspection I found that The Last Dirt Road had cruelly wounded my trusty travelling companion by shaking the battery loose and making it leak acid all over the bodywork, where it was having a great time feeding on the metalwork. Poor old Oz! I secured the battery and chucked loads of water over the acidified areas, and I noticed that one of the six cells was shattered and wouldn't hold its water; never mind, I thought, my first Golf had one buggered cell in its battery, and it never had a problem. Besides, ignoring problems hadn't done too much harm this far – if you discount the red light on Andy's dashboard on the way north to Gunnedah – and five-sixths of a battery is better than no battery...
Exploring King's Canyon
Sunday 25th, far from being a day of rest, was my chance to explore King's Canyon. I got up before the sun, showered, breakfasted, and hopped in the car, only to find that Oz had decided it was going to be a day of rest, at least for him... the engine wouldn't even turn over. Mechanical failure never bothered me before, though, so I got a jump start from the couple of lads camped over the lawn from me, thinking that the 35km run to the canyon would charge up the battery, or at worst prove it was totally dead. Whatever, I got there in one piece, and on time.
King's Canyon is pretty spectacular. It's a large gorge carved out by a river that only flows in the wet, with towering 200m walls and overhangs to make even the most hardened cliff-edge-peekers think twice. There are two walks – round the rim for 6km, or down the gorge and back for 1.3km – and both are well worth doing. The rim walk takes you through sandstone domes, like smaller Bungles formations, and into the Garden of Eden, a permanent waterhole that's surrounded by plush and rare vegetation (though it's far too cold to swim in at this time of year, unless your dip is very quick). You can see why the area is a tourist haven, with its easily accessible parks that are beautiful and so rugged.
I met two lovely couples on the walk and chatted away for ages. One couple, Graham and Helen, were from the Gove Peninsula, right up on the northeast tip of Arnhem Land – now that's what I call remote – and I joined the other couple, Dennis and Marion from Adelaide, who were walking in the same direction as me, and chatted all the way round the rim. There's something about being a lone traveller: you pick up conversations very easily, whereas if you're in a couple or group it's not so easy. (People ask me if I'm lonely, being on my own; 'I'm alone, but not lonely,' I reply.) Interestingly, I tend to meet a lot of older people, whether retired or middle-aged; a lot of those who are still working take advantage of 'long service leave', which every Australian job provides by law. With this system you build up leave, year by year, until after ten years with a company you can take loads of time off as paid holiday. That's cool, but with certain jobs you can even transfer long leave with you between jobs, so you're guaranteed a holiday opportunity whatever you do. Actually, middle-aged is the wrong term, too: lots of people in their 30s take off on long trips too, without ruining their careers. How enlightened of society...
After both walks in the canyon, I decided to head out to the only other walk in the park, at Kathleen Springs. Oz, though, had other ideas: the battery was truly dead, so after a push start – good old Dennis and Marion! – I trucked into King's Canyon Resort and tracked down the service station. King's Canyon Resort is the cause of most budget travellers' complaints, but I was very glad it existed, with its stock of new car batteries. A$87 lighter – twice the price of a battery in Melbourne, but worth every cent – and a bit of hacking around under the bonnet, Oz was back in business, but not after both the couples I'd met had come over to check I was OK, and to admire the cheapest and best-travelled car in the whole resort. I'd just broken the 20,000 kilometre mark since leaving Melbourne, and it saddened me to see a battery that I'd bought new on my departure reduced to an acid-charred lump of plastic, but at least it'll be a selling point: 'New battery for sale, comes with free Toyota Corona.' Actually, I shouldn't say things like that... cars have feelings too, you know.
Repaired and refreshed, I pootled off to Kathleen Springs for lunch. I couldn't believe it: after the heaving masses at King's Canyon – bus after coach after car after truckload of tourists were pouring into the area by this time, making me quite glad I had tackled the walk early on a Sunday morning – there was just one other car in the car park. My lunch was totally undisturbed as the occupants of said car were on the walk, and after a ham and cheese sandwich feast, I set off, passing the other drivers on the way, giving me the run of the walkway. And what a lovely walk: just 1.3km into the little gorge, passing through some interesting relics from pastoral days complete with explanatory signs, and at the end of the walk a peaceful, dark water hole, surrounded by thick vegetation and sheer, red walls. I sat there for quite a while, listening to the constant wind whistle through the treetops: it was easy to see why this water hole is extremely sacred to the local Aborigines.
I couldn't understand how this little haven could be so quiet and unvisited when the next-door canyon was being systematically destroyed by tourism. Perhaps it's because the road to the springs is dirt, though at only 500m of very smooth gravel it hardly counts as dangerous. Perhaps I just caught it at lunchtime, and everyone preferred eating in the human melee of the famous King's Canyon. Who knows, but I was sure glad to get away from the bustle for a while.
So that was Watarrka National Park, and it was well worth the effort, even if it was the straw that nearly broke the camel's back and made the camel rider fork out for a new feeding bag. I must say I rather enjoyed relaxing in the outback, with the luxury of real showers1 and indoor toilets that use... wait for it... water. That's quite a rarity in the Red Centre.
1 Australian myths about Pommies, number 70 in a series of 131: Pommies only wash once a week. But apparently we're conscientious: we make sure we wash once every week. Goodness knows where that one came from, but it's a universal joke in this country, despite the fact that a fair number of Aussies themselves could do with sanitary advice...