Kings Canyon is a spectacle that is best appreciated from the edge of the sheer cliffs on either side. Take the rim walk, start as early in the day as you can, as it can get very hot here during the day. Take plenty of water, and enjoy the 6km walk in Watarrka National park. The steps that climb the sides of the canyon at the start are guaranteed to get the heart pumping. Make sure you stop for a swim in the Garden of Eden to cool down, though it can be icy cold at this time of year. The “Lost city” domes half way around reminded us of the Bungle Bungles, but the precipitous cliffs on both sides take your breath away as you stand on their edge gazing down the tree-lined canyon floor, some hundred metres below.
The Plenty Highway
Alice Springs didn’t have the tyre we needed to replace our worn flat tyre so with no further reason to hang around we headed north up the Stuart Highway again to the junction with the Plenty Highway. This road is almost 500km long, predominantly unsealed, that provided us a relatively direct route into Queensland. Both the car and I are a little weary of corrugated dirt roads so this route offered a compromise. The road is also known for the mineral rich environment it passes through, and a random decision en route saw us pull in to the interesting named Gemtree caravan park.
The kids excitement levels rose when they saw there were tag-along gemstone tours for garnets and zircon so we duly booked up for the next day. The offer of a camp roast dinner that night proved too much too so that too was promptly booked. Then as we settled in to the site, each named after a gemstone, a cry went up that “110AroundOz” were in the camp, another Sydney family that we hadn’t seen for a while.
Kate and Arran, who run the park, won an award for their camp oven dinners in 2014. That evening Kate introduced her team and gave a thorough overview of the development and operation of the camp oven. The dinner was a well-oiled production line operation and the full-stacked plates that swiftly emptied were testament to the quality of the dinner. We have only had one roast dinner since we have been away so it was a real treat, particularly the beer keg-cooked spuds.
Early next morning the car was loaded with pick, shovel, sieves, bucket and a 20 gallon drum of water, and a small convoy followed our guide Greg along the dusty road, pulled off some kilometres later and arrived at an unremarkable spot. Greg demonstrated how to sieve the dug soil, and how to wash it and by looking through the base at the sun garnets can be identified by the blood red glow in the light. The fragments often looked like bits of broken glass, but we hit a good patch, and after a few hours we were the last to leave with a tin full of garnet fragments. Back at the park Kate examined and graded them, commenting that she had never seen so many cutting grade garnets found before. With our beady-eyed fossicking kids it wasn’t really a surprise.
The property also hosts zircon fossicking trips, but I chose to take the self-guided nature trail that highlights many of the native shrubs and trees and their medicinal or other uses. The mulga ant holes lined the walkway, supposedly a sign of impending rain, but little evidence of this being the case on any forecast I have seen. Although I didn’t see as many birds as were found in the camping area itself I was amused to find a few tees for what must once have been a golfing grand plan. From their condition I guessed that maintenance of a big course is actually quite hard and I couldn’t find any evidence of flags where the holes might have been.
Gemtree was truly a hidden gem that we were lucky enough to stumble upon. A few days earlier we never even planned to be in this neck of the woods.
From Gemtree the Plenty Highway provided lots of dust heading east, but the road itself wasn’t too bad. A particularly large termite mound by the side of the road provided a welcome opportunity to stop and let the kids try to scale it. Apparently the insides of the mound can be rubbed on the skin as a mosquito repellent, but you have to break into the concrete-like structures first.
Watarrka National Park (Kings Canyon)
Clutching our permits that allowed us access to the Mereenie Loop we left Palm Valley early choosing to take the shorter route to Watarrka National Park. Travel early in the day is recommended to avoid afternoon sun in your eyes heading west. The unsealed road was rough, but fine to drive and nothing like a few of the 4WD tracks in the area. It passed through typical central Australian landscape of grassy savannah, sparsely populated with the Casuarina or sheoak trees, and the red dusty dirt that prevails everywhere.
It was a hot day and we decided to walk the 5km loop around Kings Canyon, rather than the short trip up the valley. The start was a punishing steep climb up a rock staircase, in searing heat, but once conquered the rest of the walk was pretty comfortable and relatively flat. At various points the unrestrained lookouts give you an eagle’s eye view of the canyon, sheer, flat, often overhung cliff faces disappearing into the treetops below. As soon they put up barricades for people’s safety (or protection from their stupidity) the raw beauty will be lost, but until then it remains a truly unspoilt natural wonder. Unfortunately though, Xavier doesn’t have a head for heights so he is noticeably absent from the photos as we couldn’t coax him to join us.
Around the halfway mark the track allows you to enter the “Garden of Eden”, an oasis below the cliffs that has abundant cycad growth and at the base an icy cold pool provides refreshing relief to the overheating walker. Four of us took what must be one of the shortest “dips” we have had and as the cold took hold it was hilarious to see everyone’s faces change to horror, then the mad scramble to scale the slippery rock-face back into the warm sunlight.
Beyond this there is a section of the walk that resembles the Bungle Bungles, a vista of layered beehive-shaped rocks covering the top of that part of the canyon.
With insufficient energy left to attempt another walk in the 33 degree heat we found an early camp secreted away in the bush, made a campfire and settled in to enjoy an undisturbed evening below a magnificent escarpment near Kings Creek. It was in the fading sunlight that Amanda noticed we had a flat tyre and I was obliged to perform a hasty change lying in the rocks and dirt before the light disappeared.
Garig Gunak Barlu National Park (Cobourg Peninsula)
Clutching our recently acquired permits to visit the Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, we couldn’t wait to cross the famous Cahill (Alligator River) crossing and enter Arnhemland. The crocodiles were off duty so no need to loiter there (they perform best at high tide catching mullet when the river and fish breach the road causeway) and we pressed on. From exiting Kakadu the campground at Garig Gunak Barlu is approximately 320km and there are no fuel stops or shops. All Jerry cans had been pre-filled and all was set for a fun trip. The corrugation torture began early and a strange rattling outside caused us to stop by some wetlands that surpassed anything we saw in Kakadu for birdlife. Magpie geese were everywhere. A few loose screws were tightened on the newly fixed awning fitting and we were off again.
Rock art could be seen clearly under many ledges as we passed through the Arnhemland escarpment, though none is available for public access.
There were numerous bushfires along the edge of the road as we progressed. Once the Woollybutt tree flowers it’s the season to burn, and burn they do very well up here. Even the black and whistling kites, that predate on animals, flushed out of these burning areas, have developed an interesting behaviour that we witnessed. They swoop into the burning flames with long pieces of dry grass in their beaks, set it alight then drop it in an unburnt area to start a new fire. We have seen hundreds of birds circling, swooping and diving around the fringes of bushfires. The intensity of the fires is less than those experienced in the south and eastern states due to lower amounts of fuel.
A side effect of the fires though is that some trees become unstable and collapse across the roads. We weaved our way through a maze of trunks and branches strewn across the road until we met a large tree straddling the road completely. Once side of the road was in flames, the other was strewn with trunks presumably from previous fires. With no axe, or chainsaw using the winch or towing was an option but the trunk was wedged the wrong side of two trees either side of the road. The prospect of turning around was not attractive so after a quick inspection of the smouldering fire we decided it could be negotiated and the Pajero was briefly turned into bulldozer mode and vehicle and trailer deftly steered through (literally) the bush, Amanda trying hard not to melt her new thongs.
From there on all we had to avoid were the abundant hazards, indicated by strategically placed red triangles, giving no indication of what the upcoming hazard was, and often placed in the middle of the road.
Only 20 vehicles are allowed into the national park at any time, and the campsites are huge and private. The park is populated with water buffalo, many saltwater crocodiles (no swimming allowed here), wild pigs and banteng. The latter were introduced from Indonesia where they are now endangered, but have proliferated in the park, where they are tolerated because of their status in Indonesia. They look like stocky cattle but have a characteristic white rump. The ranger shared the bird list with us and it didn’t take long to spot a few new species for the list.
The campsite sits amongst a number of billabongs hidden behind thick bush and pig and banteng tracks disappeared through the middle of them. Xavier and I followed some and stumbled upon what we reckoned were a couple of large crocodile nests, conical sand mounds, several metres high in the middle of swampy ground that would be water in the wet season.
We had enough fuel to explore the wetlands track that traces around the edge of the largest billabong, the coastal track, where Xavier found a dead crocodile on the beach, Smiths Point and Caiman creek for a spot of fishing. Funny how the incorrectly named Alligator rivers and Caiman Creek names have stuck – yes we only have crocodiles here!
Cobourg is also a breeding ground for 6 of the 7 species of marine turtles. Amanda was excited about seeing them laying but only one was spotted in the water all week. No-one caught a glimpse of a dugong here either, another animal that is abundant here and eaten by the locals.
With a boat there are further options to explore up here and judging by the fish being caught it wouldn’t take long to fill your freezer.
Once Hannah had fulfilled her fishing challenge (catching a fish in every state) Oscar and I decided to get serious and went looking for bigger fish. We almost landed a large shark, that shook the hook only a metre from the shore but when the crocs came in to the beach at dusk (to sleep) it got interesting. Sitting well up the beach we watched a croc zigzag ever closer, then just as it reached the shore it appeared to cross my fishing line. Not wanting to entangle a croc I quickly retrieved the line but as it splashed past the croc exploded into action lunging and grabbing the float. “Time to go” was all I could muster as I grabbed everything and followed Oscar, with the croc still chasing the float, dragging along the beach behind me as I ran. A good croc safety lesson for Oscar, as the kids don’t seem to heed our warning them not to go too close to the water. Fascinating to watch just how quick they can be.
A week passed quickly with fishing and shell collecting on the beaches but Cobourg hasto be up on the favourites list and a place that needs to be revisited in the future. On the return trip my recently fixed awning broke due to metal fatigue induced by corrugations, so I’ll be back to Bunnings when we pass through Katherine next.
Our final stop in Arnhemland was the Injalak Art centre, where there was an excellent collection of paper and bark painting and weavings, well worth the short diversion before crossing the river again. Ironically, we finally bumped into another family with kids at our school. They live around the corner at home, were doing a similar trip to ours and we bumped into “Our Roaming Home” finally at Injalak.
Kakadu National Park
Kakadu is another Northern Territory icon that we had all been looking forward to seeing but having recently heard several accounts of people saying how disappointing it was, without much water and that the big name falls were dry, we were a little apprehensive. Undeterred we chose to base ourselves near the Ubirr rock art site and close to the town of Jabiru. In addition this was close to the famous Cahill River crossing that we would be using to get through Arnhemland to get to the Cobourg peninsula. We dragged ourselves out of Noonamah (Where the hell is Noonamah, being its catchcry) and following a cruisy day looking for crocodiles at any opportunity, drawing blanks each time, we arrived mid-afternoon. A quick dinner and with the sun still in the sky I rushed to see the sunset from the lookout. Despite missing the sunset, a fabulous orange glow set a perfect backdrop for the green tranquil wetlands that stretched before us and as far as the eye could see. Hundreds of visitors, like religious disciples, had paid their homage to the sun god and now made an orderly exit from the park, before they got locked in.
The rock art at Ubirr is breathtaking, and a totally different style to that found in the Kimberley or even the Jawoyn art from nearby Katherine. Often referred to as X-Ray art, their depictions of water creatures include their bones and internal organs, often to depict the choicest part of the barramundi or pig-nosed turtle. Amongst the numerous galleries that the public can access are murals depicting stories that have lessons about behaviour, older ones depict images of extinct animals such as the thylacine, and some are just chest-beating efforts of artists showing that they can paint the largest fish, or can paint it the highest up the wall. Another depicts the Rainbow Serpent common throughout aboriginal heritage as the creator. One particularly interesting piece shows a woman with swollen arms and legs, a reference to radioactive sites that made people sick when visited. The controversial uranium mine, Jabiluka is approx. 45km away. A two hour Park Ranger tour by Glen was fascinating as he imparted his extensive knowledge of the subject.
A few hours were spent at Cahill Crossing fishing, unsuccessfully, but mainly watching the crocodiles who, at high tide, congregate at the crossing waiting for the waters to cross the road. When it happens a feeding frenzy commences as they prey on the hordes of fish that have been waiting to move upstream too. It was interesting to see them using their front feet to shepherd the fish towards their mouths, and as soon as they touch one a quick snap sees it disappear pretty quickly. The only thing I caught was an aboriginal spear that was floating down the river!
Despite the park being a rich source of indigenous rock art the public can only access a couple of sites, the other one being Nourlangie Rock. We took advantage of the Parks ranger guided tour. Christian gave three different talks at different points in the park, about the landscape formed by the aborigines and how they lived, then provided some insight into the most famous art piece, painted in 1963/1964 by one of the last true elders in the area, in a last-ditched effort to re-ignite a strong cultural spirit. In his life the number of people living traditional ways had dwindled from 2,000 to around 300. Two languages have been lost in the region since 2000, and another is due to die when the last existing person speaking it oases away. n the next decade there will be no more people from pre-contact days with the “White fella”, when the cultural degradation began as they were exposed to Western ways.
Kakadu and Arnhemland communities do, however, remain culturally strong despite this. Much of their land has been retained or reclaimed to use as they wish, and permits are required to enter many of these areas.
Christian also talked about a famous dig in one of the living areas, performed in the 1980’s. When locals turned up periodically they would ask what the ancestors had left for them to see that day. Looking at some poor archaeology undergraduate trying to identify a tooth dug up from thousands of years ago, they would ask what they were doing. When told the children would grab the tooth and identify it instantly. Another stone tool dating back almost 20,000 years was shown to them and they would reply that the stone didn’t come from around here. They would then explain it came from a region at least two days walk away. Where else on earth can an archaeologist tap into 20,000 years of living knowledge? Language is the law, and the law is the language explained Christian. When nothing is written down in the culture all stories and language have been passed down from all previous ancestors before. Plants only have names if deemed important enough by the ancestors.
We listened for 3 hours and could have spent a day listening to his passionate stories. Being white too he was very wary of ensuring he told stories correctly. The kids were enthralled to the end, and when he pulled out his collection of rock artefacts they were in heaven!
That afternoon we decided to take a path less travelled and drove some 70km along a 4WD track from the Old Jim Jim road back to Jabiru. This was the Kakadu I was hoping to see, beautiful lily and lotus lined billabongs, rich in birdlife, Jabirus, egrets, magpie geese, radjah shelducks and lots more. A few river crossings too to make it interesting.
Kakadu wasn’t disappointing in the slightest.
Litchfield National Park
As we got ever closer to Darwin there was another National Park to visit, Litchfield.
With daytime temperatures exceeding 30 degrees, Litchfield provides a crocodile safe environment where one can swim and cool off regularly, and often. We stopped in the first campsite with a space just inside the park at a place called Buley Rockholes, set-up camp and went in search of water. We found lots of it!
With limited time we packed the activities in. Driving to the northern end of the park we walked up to the Cascades, immersed ourselves in the deeper upper pools, then worked our way down the creek, trying out some of the many pools along the way.
Wangi Falls was a short drive south, the main camping area for the park and when we arrived the pool beneath the falls was more popular than a local swimming pool. By early afternoon every day tour bus from Darwin had arrived and spewed out its contents into the shallow waters near the car park. Even so it was a beautiful spot, with two sets of falls cascading almost 100m down a precipitous cliff into a relatively shallow sandy lake. To get perspective we walked through the rainforest and massive colony of fruit bats, first, over the top of the falls and back down to the lake. At that stage everyone was sufficiently hot and bothered and needing a swim.
Once again Oscar swam out first to the falls and scaled a few metres up the cliff to find the “spa” pool. With forty toes in the pool it was sufficiently squeezy that all other occupants exited to regain their personal space while we enjoyed.
Hannah had seen the Tomer Falls in a brochure and demanded to see them so a quick walk to the lookout made our final stop for the day. They were impressive though Hannah remained unimpressed claiming the photo she had seen (probably in the wet season) was much better.
Back at camp Xavier, Hannah and I dashed down to the rockholes to check it out. All the tour buses had left, leaving a veritable wardrobe of towels and clothes behind, but we could pick and choose which pool we wanted to swim in.
The next day saw us rise early to swim in Florence Falls, before the tour buses arrived. With our first splashes the tranquillity of the place was dashed and shortly after a sole man meditating on the opposite back of the creek got up and left. Hannah and I grabbed a Geocache moment taking in part of the beautiful walk between the falls and our campsite. And as the first trickle of daily visitors appeared we made our exit.
The Lost City requires taking the 4WD track for about 12km into the bush where you encounter sandstone rock formations that could be mistaken (with a little imagination) for an ancient city. We explored the nooks and crannies, seized another geocache moment and realised that by the time we had finished lunch we hadn’t been in the water for a few hours. This needed to be addressed urgently as it was hot, as it always is up here. Another 4WD track, a bit further in, followed by a 1.7km walk and we discovered the less frequented gem at Sandy Creek. Tjaynera Falls there sprinkled lightly on the rocks at the base and Hannah found a rock to practice her newly-found daredevil cliff-jumping antics. She repeated it four or five times before goading her father into reluctantly copying. Here we also shared the lake with hungry sooty grunter who didn’t hesitate to seize any crumbs of snacks dropped into the shallows by the kids.
Then we met the “Grismacks”, just as we were leaving the carpark. On their recommendation we chose to drive further down the track to see Surprise Creek. I was happy because I knew it meant a Reynolds River crossing and it sounded like fun (long and deep). This swimming hole was three in one, the top two pools being 6+m deep, relatively small pools into which you could jump from up to 10m into. Hannah once again lifted the stakes, and after a couple of lower confidence-gaining jumps, leapt from the top of the second pool. Thinking, “If my 8 year old can do it so can I” was my first mistake. After a painfully long and lonely contemplation of the jump from the top of the cliff I forced myself to go – exhilarating? A little, yes. Scary? Absolutely. Never again? Well that’s what I told myself.
With the day fading fast it was a bumpy rushed drive back to give Amanda and Oscar a chance to enjoy Buley Rockholes before we left. As the sun faded we immersed ourselves one last time in the safe waters of this beautiful park.
Katherine and Edith Falls
Further north the attraction of the world famous site of Katherine gorge was one that couldn’t be overlooked. First though we had to visit the Katherine Hot Springs and though we had barely finished breakfast everyone jumped in. They are a very comfortable temperature, rather than hot, running through a shaded pandanus-lined embankment, offering approximately 200m or more fun-packed streams, cascades and small waterfalls. The kids might have spent all day but we moved on to Nitmiluk National Park. More caravan park than national park, this was a bit of a disappointing start for us, probably because we hadn’t researched enough, but when we returned from an afternoon walk to see the Jawoyn rock art to find a tent a couple of metres from the back steps on one side and a caravan reversed on top of the other side, the harsh reality of the commercialism of a popular site hit home. It was school holidays too.
We saw the gorge itself from a couple of vantage points, the entrance, Pat’s lookout, then I did a solo 22km walk to Lily Ponds which overlook one of the higher gorges. Maybe we had overdosed on gorges recently but compared with those we had already encountered in Karijini and on the Gibb River road we found Katherine to be quite average. The Jawoyn art was special though, and worth wading across the river for from Pat’s Lookout. I found some more on the walk to Lily Ponds but the highlight of that walk were the ponds themselves that offered a safe place to swim, and I didn’t see a soul all day. The only visitors were either kayaking up the river or on expensive boat tours. The kids meanwhile were cooling off in the “resort” pool back at camp.
Only too happy to make a hasty exit the next day a short drive brought us to Edith Falls. This is another popular tourist venue but the campsite was a delight run by two gorgeous ladies, who frantically cycled around the campsite making sure there were vacancies. A short walk from the camp leads to the bottom lake, probably 150m across to the waterfall, maybe 200m wide. It was deep but undeterred Oscar led the way with a recently re-acquired strong front crawl. It was deep and murky but he powered on and was the first to jump off the rocks at the waterfall back into the lake depths. Crocodiles live here too but they wait until the 7pm curfew before coming out to enjoy the waters.
We also walked up to the upper pool, even more popular with tourists, and quite a selection of rock outcrops, allow jumping opportunities up to 15m high into another unfathomable pool. Five metres was about the limit I could manage.
We met “JKSJ” another travelling NSW family that we first met in Emma Gorge, always good for the kids to have some socialising time back at camp.
Rob the ranger gave an interesting talk on fire management in the park that evening, explaining the challenges and complexities associated with using burn-off to manage biodiversity and protecting the park. The impact and frequency of fire on different habitats is all taken into consideration but Parks and Wildlife now rely on following aboriginal guidance given that the environment here is man-made and has been shaped over 20,000+ years by aboriginal burning regimes. All the rangers we have met so far have been inspirational and so passionate that it is a pleasure to listen to them. Their breadth of knowledge is astounding too
Zebra Rock Mine, Lake Argyle and beyond
Not far from Sawpit Gorge was the site of the first gold rush in WA, and Old Halls Creek ruins provide a place to explore some of the heritage from that era. Unfortunately, with the prospect of a long drive that day we didn’t stop.
The Duncan Road is a famous 440km stretch of dirt road developed to promote the beef industry in the 50’s and 60’s. Possibly the worst ever memorial, a salmon pink concrete monstrosity, signposted as the Beef Road Monument, lies at the northern end of the road. Apart from that it was a fairly monotonous drive north, corrugated for much of the way, across landscape that didn’t offer much more than some undulating scrub, flat grazing land and lots of termite mounds.
A few kilometres before the end we found the Zebra Rock Mine, an audacious endeavour, commenced 6 years ago by KIm and Ruth Duncan, who hand pegged the 10km square themselves, mine during the wet season and during the dry season pursue other ventures such as the campsite, mine, lake and fishing tours, all important for keeping the operation going. The fish and chips was extremely good despite my reservations about eating a catfish (known as Silver Cobbler), and their scones looked mouth-wateringly good too.
Zebra Rock itself is a unique ancient rock only found in this area, the only other locations now being (or soon to be) underwater in nearby Lake Argyle. At 1.2 billion years old geologists can’t agree whether the unique light/dark colouration patterns are caused by sedimentation or other processes. We scoured the creek bed like hundreds of tourists before and managed to find a couple of small pieces for memories.
Lake Argyle is a huge artificial lake, the second largest artificial reservoir in Australia. Aside from the caravan park overlooking the lake there is very little else there. A lookout gives you an insight to its size, but the best view would be from the air. We had lunch in a very green reserve just below the dam wall, explored the numerous bowerbird bowers for exotic contents (no jewellery yet!) and watched crocodiles cruising the crystal clear waters exiting the dam in the Ord river.
The Zebra Rock Mine has an interesting gallery showcasing many differents types and patterns of the rock, but there are also photos of a young Kim wrangling wild buffalo in the 70’s by hand. It was quite a lucrative, albeit dangerous pastime and when capturing over 100 a day he could earn up to $10k a week! One photo showed a journalist from a national paper in Kim’s buffalo-hunting Landcruiser, jotting notes in a notepad, while Kim ties up a buffalo. That car is still running today and obviously is very dear to Kim’s heart.
On the road north we only had one diversion to see Gregory’s tree. This boab tree was a sacred site for the local aboriginal tribes, however, when early explorer Augustus arrived in 1855 he established camp here as a base. The day they arrived and left is ornately carved into the trunk, an early example of European vandalism, but ironically now has historical significance. Over the 8 months they spent there they explored the Victoria River catchment and travelled inland some 500km to the edge of the Great Sandy Desert.