The morning is still cold and dark when we walk out to the vehicle. It’s Central Australia’s way of telling us we shouldn’t be outside yet. But Nigel’s pick-up splutters to life and the headlight beams reveal that the outback bushland is still there, spinifex grass being tousled by the pre-dawn wind. He begins driving, and within ten minutes we’ve parked up at the foot of Kings Canyon.
The canyon rim is just a shape a few hundred feet above us, a black mass in the dim light. But I’ve been here before, more than a decade earlier, and I know about the views that are up there. “The first bit of the walk’s the hardest,” says Nigel, as around us and above us the sky starts to show signs of paling. “We should start climbing.”
Kings Canyon doesn’t draw the hype and attention that it might do. Relatively few international visitors arrive in Australia with the express intention of visiting it, but it has the knack of making a marked impression on those that do. Certainly the explorer Ernest Giles, the first white man to clap eyes on the feature, was taken aback when he passed this way in 1872 and saw a mountain range looming out of the surrounding flatness. He christened the focal point of this remarkable landmark after Fieldon King, the chief sponsor of his expedition, and today what the canyon lacks in terms of a rightful apostrophe it gains through an appropriately regal title.
Naturally, even Ernest Giles was late to the party. The canyon, and the range it forms part of, now fall within the protected Watarrka National Park. It covers an area that has been of cultural importance to local Aboriginal groups for tens of thousands of years, a fact Kings Canyon shares with the potent natural attraction just three-and-a-half hours to its southwest: Uluru. For walkers, that’s broadly where similarities between the two end: climb Uluru and you’re contravening a request to keep your hiking boots to yourself, climb Kings Canyon and the journey is more about connecting than conquering.
There are 500 rocky, uneven steps up to the shelf of the canyon. By the time Nigel and I reach the summit plateau, 270 metres up, morning has emerged in a fuzzy half-light. Within fifteen minutes, the day’s first sunlight spills over the horizon, casting the cliffs in a lambent orange and revealing the scale of the canyon itself. Sheer walls of sandstone look down onto a green creek bed far below. This early in the day, the whole cavernous scene is soundtracked only by birdsong.
The rim walk is a 6km undertaking, and although the initial climb gets referred to by some as Heartbreak Hill, it’s really not so bad as all that. And while the whole experience is largely about the grandstand panoramas, it’s the close-at-hand details along the route that underline the majesty of Kings Canyon’s hushed, age-old presence. The ancient marine fossils embedded into the sandstone. The hulking, beehive-like domes standing as improbable remnants of rock erosion. The shaded cliff-top chasm known as the “Garden of Eden”, full of streams and lush cycads.
It’s a walk that in many ways can last as long as you’d like it to. If you linger at the more stupefying lookouts, and stop to consider the feet that have walked these red buttresses and crags in times gone by, it can take four hours. When Nigel and I finish – and to complete the rim walk you have to make a descent from the plateau and return to the real world – the full heat of the day is pounding down on the outback.
Unseen across the plains somewhere, Uluru is being hit by the same sun. A day later I’m there. There’s nowhere, and nothing, like Uluru. When you’re close enough to see it, it’s like a drug – it keeps drawing you in. Before sunset, at the base of one of its faces, I watch a park ranger shutting a barrier, closing off the walking track to the top. Someone berates him, saying that a few climbers are still up there. He shrugs. “If they can walk up that,” he gestures, “then they can get over the barrier.”
A large board next to us is headed PLEASE DON’T CLIMB. I ask the ranger how many people go up Uluru these days. “It’s still more than 25 percent of total visitors,” he tells me. I’m surprised, and must look it. “Yeah,” he continues. “But it’s a certain type of person, you know? What gets me is that if you really want to walk on something, you’ve got Kata Tjuta 25 minutes away and Kings Canyon not far off. Beautiful, both of them. Why the hell would you feel the need to climb Uluru too?”