Most of our travels around Australia are on the road in our trusty jeep, OTIS. However, we cheated a bit in the Northern Territory, left our car behind in Cairns and flew to Darwin where we had a great time – you can read about it here. We then flew down to Alice Springs for the next part of our trip. Most people imagine that Alice is just down the road from Darwin but it gives you an idea of the scale of Australia when you realise that the distance between them is actually just about exactly 1500 km by road. In hindsight we wished we’d driven, but we booked our visit to Longitude 131 at Uluru, which we wrote about here, some time ago, before we knew what vehicle we would have. At the time it had seemed sensible to fly the long distance from coastal Queensland to the NT.
We had a couple of nights in Alice Springs which coincided with the beginning of the Desert Song Festival. We were able to see the opening concert which included performances by The Central Australian Woman’s Aboriginal Choir and Alice Springs Asante Sana Choir. Afterwards we found a great little bar and restaurant called The Epilogue Lounge for our dinner. They had a rooftop bar where a local band was performing a tribute to Aretha Franklin, as she had sadly passed away earlier that week.
Our wanderings in Alice included a look around The Residency and the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens. The Residency was the official home of the Government Resident when the Central Australian district was a separate administration to the rest of the NT between 1926 and 1931. The gardens are named after Olive Pink who was a botanical illustrator and champion of Aboriginal rights. By all accounts it seems that she was a fearsome woman, a thorn in the side of politicians and fairly eccentric. She lived in a tent for two years in Alice and then a tin hut, and successfully lobbied to have a parcel of land gazetted as a floral reserve. The land became the Botanic Gardens which were named after her in 1985, ten years after her death at the age of 91.
From the top of Annie Myer’s Hill in the garden we had sweeping views across Alice.
Then, at the café at the bottom, we had an encounter with a very friendly rock wallaby and her joey who were intent on joining us for a cup of tea.
We could have spent several more days in Alice as we didn’t visit many of the attractions there. However, we had a hire car booked to continue our journey to Kings Canyon via the West MacDonnell Ranges and then on to Uluru. This journey is known as the Mereenie Loop, hence the title of this post, but has been rebranded more recently as part of the Red Centre way. The first section was a fairly short drive on bitumen to Glen Helen. Along the way we had stops in the West Macdonnell Ranges at Simpson Gap, Ellery Creek Big Hole and Ormiston Gorge. All of them had stunning rock formations, we saw a rock wallaby in a more natural environment, and at the latter we walked up to the top and along the rim of the gorge.
After a night at Glen Helen Lodge we continued on the unsealed section of the Mereenie Loop to Kings Canyon. During our tagalong tour to the tip of Australia we’d learnt that it’s sensible to reduce the tyre pressure on unsealed roads. A full tyre can act a bit like a balloon if it goes over a sharp stone and pop, whereas a slightly deflated tyre is more forgiving. However, the receptionist at the hire car depot had assured us that their tyres and pressures were set for bitumen and dirt roads so we didn’t use the tyre deflator we’d brought along. As it turned out the loop was uneventful and a less challenging drive than many we’d undertaken in Cape York (which you can read about in ‘Duct Tape, Zip Ties and WD40′, ‘The Quest for Pajinka’ and ‘Ants Bums, A Sexchange Hotel and The Sisters of Mercy’).
We checked into Kings Canyon Resort in the Watarrka National Park. It was a comfortable room but the price certainly reflected the location, just down the road from Kings Canyon. We also noticed that the air compressor at the service station was out of order so maybe it was just as well we hadn’t taken air out of our tyres. We watched a superb sunset over the nearby red rocks then were ready for our dinner. There was a choice of restaurants at the resort and we chose the Outback BBQ which turned out to be fabulous. Some of the best steaks we’d had in a restaurant for a long time and a delicious salad bar to accompany. Washed down with a few drinks, it was just what we needed.
We were up at 5 am the next morning to walk the rim of Kings Canyon at first light. Its not a huge walk – around 9 km – but the first section to the top is steep and then you’re fairly exposed for most of the walk so we wanted to do it before the sun got hot. As we drove out, Andy noticed that the handling on the car was peculiar. We got out to have a look and guess what – a puncture. We obviously had fallen victim to The Mereenie Loop but the tyre had deflated over night. We eventually managed to change the tyre but needed to wait until the maintenance staff started work to help us, as we couldn’t find the jacking point on the hire car. It was therefore after 9.30 before we started the walk, not quite the early start we intended.
Despite the delay we made the climb without any problems and had our first glimpse of the canyon rim from the top. We began to see why this is such a popular destination, it was truly awesome. As the walk continued the views just got better, the way the light plays on the red rocks is stunning, photos don’t really do it justice. The gorge is cut through two layers of sandstone which were formed when the land was covered by a shallow sea. The red colour comes from iron rich dust which is chemically fixed to the sandstone by a fungi. You can read more about the geology of the Canyon here:
We were surprised that the walk is not exposed for the whole route. At one point called The Garden of Eden you descend into a sheltered crevasse with a lake formed by the water seeping through the sandstone. It is a sacred aboriginal site so swimming isn’t allowed but it is a great spot to sit, rest and reflect. We took our time on the walk, stopped a lot and it took us three and a half hours. It was starting to get a bit warm by the time we finished so we wouldn’t have wanted to start it any later. On days where the temperature is predicted to get above 36C you can’t start the walk after 9 a.m. We also each drank two litres of water and ate the snacks we’d taken, so you need to be prepared and have a reasonable level of fitness. Having said that, we would definitely recommend the Kings Canyon rim walk as one of the must do activities if you visit Australia. Just be careful if you drive The Mereenie Loop.