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 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 for the day – but which is a bit more strenuous than the bitumen route (which is some 160km longer, but is sealed all the way). The craters are now just dents in the desert, mainly due to erosion, but it's quite a thought that something huge and fast shot down from space and rammed into the ground 40,000 years ago in this very spot. They're pretty unique and most people don't bother to visit them, as they're down such a juddering road, but I thought they were well worth the detour.
The road was juddering, yes, but quite driveable, so I decided to go against my original plan to stick to the bitumen, and instead 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 from King's Canyon to Melbourne is sealed all the way.
I didn't 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. Instead 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 been forewarned, though, so I was quite happy 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 poured lots of water over the acidified areas, and then I noticed that one of the six battery cells was shattered and wouldn't hold any liquid; 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, 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 definitely to be a day of rest for him: the engine wouldn't even turn over. Mechanical failure never bothered me before, though, so I got a jump start from the two lads camped over the lawn from me, thinking that the 35km run to the canyon would charge up the battery, or at worst would 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 we 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 another couple, Dennis and Marion from Adelaide, who were walking in the same direction as me all the way round the rim. That'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 a society this is...
After exploring the canyon, I decided to head out to the only other walk in the park, at Kathleen Springs. Oz, though, had other ideas: his battery was truly dead, so after a push start – thank you 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 after a bit of hacking around under the bonnet, Oz was back in business, but not after both the couples I'd met in the canyon 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 through the 20,000 kilometre mark on my trip, 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, and it's still a long way to Melbourne.
Repaired and refreshed, I headed off to Kathleen Springs for lunch. I couldn't believe it; by this point in the weekend, bus after coach after car after truckload of tourists were pouring into the area, making me quite glad I had tackled the canyon early on a Sunday morning, but at Kathleen Springs there was just one other car in the car park. My lunch was totally undisturbed as the occupants of said car were out on the walk, and after a ham and cheese sandwich feast, I set off to explore it myself, passing the other drivers on the way, so I had the whole walkway to myself. And what a lovely walk it was; nice and short at just 1.3km into the little gorge, it passed through some interesting relics from pastoral days complete with explanatory signs, and at the end of the walk I found a peaceful, dark water hole, surrounded by thick vegetation and sheer, red walls. I sat there for quite a while, listening to the 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 ground down by mass 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 people prefer 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.
But despite the crowds and the increased prices, Watarrka National Park was well worth the effort, even if it was the straw that nearly broke the camel's back and forced the camel rider to fork out for a new feeding bag. I've really enjoyed exploring the central outback so far, and I can't wait to get stuck into the most famous place in the whole of the Red Centre: Uluru (or, as it's known by the tourist hordes, Ayers Rock).