The harsh desert landscapes of the 'red centre' of Australia are as unforgiving and brutal as they are beautiful. Stretching as far as the eye can see are miles and miles of sunbaked earth, seemingly devoid of feature except for resilient shrubbery, large dunes and strange geological features. Yet desert regions are becoming increasingly popular with tourists for different reasons- their stark beauty; their vastness; and perhaps the feeling of complete detachment from modernity they provide. The Northern Territory of Australia, because of its amazing array of desert landscapes and the large number of attractions within them, is able to capitalise on this increasing interest. One place that has benefited, and rightly so, is the Watarrka National Park.
Situated on the Western edge of the George Gill Ranges, this park is a 310 kilometre drive west of Alice Springs. Its a very important conservation area, characterised by numerous rock holes and gorges, which together with their river system support over 600 species of plants and many animals. The main feature is the awe-inspiring Kings Canyon, a large chasm that cleaves the earth to a depth of 270 metres in some places. Its high walls protect thick forests of palms and cycads from the harsh sun, allowing them to flourish on the gorge floor and up its sides. A ranger station lies 20 kilometres away from the canyon and provides a worthwhile introduction to the flora and fauna of the Park, as well as to its history.
The only way to truly experience the beauty of the canyon is to go on either of the two walking tracks that take you away from the central viewing spots that can become rather crowded. This allows you to experience the solitude of the Australian outback first hand, and really appreciate the vegetation and the fauna likely to be encountered. There are signs along the way that highlight points of interest, one popular favourite being the Garden of Eden, a secluded valley where large clumps of palm trees surround a deep waterhole. Another central attraction is the 'Lost City', a series of beehive-like rock formations that resemble the ruins of an ancient city. The walls of the king Canyon are especially impressive when the sun is rising or setting, and the soft orange glow reflects off their steep sides.
A smaller gorge lying about 20 kilometres from Kings Canyon is Kathleen Gorge, at the head of which is a delightful waterhole called Kathleen Springs. This tranquil and spring fed waterhole is popular amongst walkers, who make use of the easy going demarcated trail that is suitable for children or the unfit or those with limited mobility. There are signs along the gorge that tell stories about the local Aboriginals and also the cattle industry of the region. The waterhole itself is a cool and moist place that provides a refreshing break after the walk and gentle relief from the hot sun.
A longer and more arduous walk is the Giles Track, which is a 22 kilometre trail running between Kings Canyon and Kathleen Gorge. This should not be attempted without planning and preparation, but along its length you will encounter stunning vistas, impressive natural wonders and the remains of ancient Aboriginal art and culture. Remember to take lots of water, and to register with the rangers before attempting the walk.
Another popular attraction for travellers here is the Kings Creek Station. This is a large camel and cattle ranch where you can stay in a shady camp ground with other tourists or book into the safari cabin set amongst the natural bush. A large swimming pool provides welcome relief from the heat, and you just have to try a Kings Creek Camel Burger, famous the world over! An easy stroll will get you to the George Gill lookout, from where you can see the whole range laid out before you. The owners here are friendly and welcoming in typical outback style, making it a great place to base yourself for your exploration of Watarrka Park.
So if its a holiday with a difference your after, one where you can re-establish your connections with nature and the environment and enjoy some genuine time on your own or with your family in beautiful settings, then look no further than the Watarrka National Park. The best way to get here is to fly into Alice Springs and pick up a hire car there and drive the rest of the distance to the park. You could always make a tour of it and include Uluru (Ayers Rock) on your travel itinerary, as that lies about 300 kilometres south. However you design your itinerary, no doubt you will be blown away by the spectacular desert scenery and the wide open spaces.