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Side trip to Watarrka National Park

Published Sat 20 November 2010 21:18 (+1300)
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We figured we were probably only going to go to the centre of Australia once, so we were pretty keen to get things done and so we made a day trip out to walk around King's Canyon, the star attraction in the Watarrka National Park, 3-4h away on the road from Yulara where we were staying for Uluru and Kata Tjuta.

Mt Conner

Mt Conner from the air
Mt Conner from the air
Mt Conner from the highway
Mt Conner from the highway

On the way you go past Mt Conner, which I'd never even heard of until I saw it on Google Earth before I came over. I don't know why it gets no love – it actually looks pretty cool as it is a ‘tabletop’ mesa, very flat on the top, very straight sides down for the first half (at least on the side nearest to the road).

We actually saw it on the way over on the plane – the highway passes by off the left edge of the photo. Looks like you could ascend via the valleys cut into the back side of it, would love to have a go at getting to the top without a helicopter!

Unlike Uluru it's on private land, so you can't just rock up to it and check it out – though there are commercial tours run out to it, which might be interesting.

Apparently sometimes people mistake it for Uluru, which would be surprising – it's a very different shape (Uluru is quite rounded as you can see in the photos from my last post), and the Uluru monolith itself is almost completely barren whereas there's a lot of vegetation on Mt Conner.

King's Canyon

King's Canyon
King's Canyon
Winter desert bloom
Winter desert bloom
Long after fire
Long after fire
The sheer wall of Mereenie Sandstone
The sheer wall of Mereenie Sandstone

From there it was straight on into the Watarrka National Park. No entry fee here, unlike Uluru-Kata Tjuta. There's two walks from the car park, a short one up the valley floor, and the big loop track which I highly recommend despite the heat – amazing rock formations up there.

The canyon cuts through two layers of rock, which you can see in the first photo here. The slopes lower down are roughly the height of the Carmichael Sandstone, which is relatively crumbly, now covered in rubble and vegetated. That was laid down when the continent was wet – no ice caps at that time, so the sea levels were so much higher that the seas extended in to the interior of what's now Australia from both the east and the west.

And the straight-sided rock on the top, the red layer in the photo, is hard, brittle Mereenie Sandstone, which is actually white itself but gets the rusty color from dust containing iron on its surface, apparently affixed by algae. It came from compacted sand dunes in the much drier climate millions of years later – still rivers and lakes, but no ocean here any more – and the amazing pancake-stack rock formations show the layers as the many generations of sand were packed down.

Years later, the surface of the rocks formed cracks. Water would tend to run down via the cracks, eroding them away further, and eventually forming into the main canyon through which the creek runs, as well as many other slices in through the rock layers.

The softer stuff below eroded away so much more easily that it undercut the harder rock on top, weakening the support and straining it till in places it fractured and sheared away in great blocks, leaving great vertical walls in parts of the canyon.

Amazing domes on the King's Canyon walk
Amazing domes on the King's Canyon walk

Stresses in the rock sometimes resulted in patterns of cracks, which then eroded down to cut out whole blocks.

In one of the most amazing-looking places on the walk you can see where these wore down with wind eroding around the shapes, rounding them off more and more until they eventually came to be the rounded dome shapes there today. You can have a good clamber up and over these to look at the canyon.

The 'Garden of Eden' oasis at the end of King's Canyon
The 'Garden of Eden' oasis at the end of King's Canyon
The creek oasis and domes at the end of King's Canyon
The creek oasis and domes at the end of King's Canyon

Near the far end of the loop track, stairs go down one canyon wall and before they start up the other side there is an oasis referred to as the Garden of Eden, a brief burst of green and water (almost still even then in winter) that feeds the creek, stretching along the floor of the canyon.

Years

Very cool area, and I'm glad we made the effort to go out.

The only downer was that some twerp had gone through and scratched out the figures giving how long it had been (mostly millions of years) since various geological events from all the information signs on the walk. Like it's not enough that their own mind was too pathetic to comprehend that some things are much bigger and greater than them and their little beliefs: they want to make sure no-one else comprehends it either.

I don't know whether the signs in the info hut at the car park have already been replaced, or if the idiots were just to cowardly to do their little vandalism where people might have seen them, but either way the info there filled in most of the gaps: the Carmichael Sandstone formed about 440 million years ago, and the Mereenie Sandstone on top about 400 million years ago. 350 million years ago there was a period of massive geological upheaval resulting in a lot of breaking, buckling, and folding of rock. And King's Canyon has eroded down gradually over 20 million years.

End of the trip

Shielas' & blokes' loo on the highway
Shielas' & blokes' loo on the highway

You should leave promptly if you do this as a day trip from Yulara, at least in Winter, because it's many hours of driving, and you aren't supposed to drive outside of daylight hours due to the risk of hitting animals (a kangaroo through the windshield will really mess you up!) – rental agreements generally forbid it. And you'd ideally not be walking around on the exposed canyon rim rock in the hottest part of the day, after midday.

You could also do Watarrka on the way to/from Alice Springs, which was our first idea, but the car hire didn't really support that, and the accomodation situation wasn't great either – there is a hotel place in the Watarrka that is comparable to the Yulara ones, but you get the 4th night free at Yulara anyway and 2 nights wasn't going to be enough for Uluru and Kata Tjuta so the pretty successfully shut out the Watarrka place.

So King's Canyon together with Uluru and Kata Tjuta was our expedition in to the centre of Australia. After flying back to Sydney Sarah and I had an unintended night there – crappy Qantas decided to stop running the flight we had been booked on a month before I left NZ, and so we had to rebook at our own expense – then it was back home, and back to work.

This was a great trip – lots of time outdoors in hot Europe, cold Europe, and moderate Australia, and lots of seeing friends around the world!