"Destination Unknown" Day 9 - The Mereenie Loop, Kings Canyon and a camp in the George Gill Range

Saturday, Jul 09, 2011 at 17:44

Mick O

9th July 2011
"Vale of Tempe"
George Gill Range NT


Another magnificent central Australian winters day, sunny with bright blue skies. The dew was also pretty non existent making pack-up much easier. We didn’t mess around trying to get on the road to the Canyon as quickly as possible. We were largely successful and were on the road by eight, the Crown Prince at the lead of the procession in the mighty Tuck Truck.


Today's route would see us back track along the Lasseter Hwy to the Luritja Road. The Luritja Road took us north to Kings Canyon and the start of the Mereenie Loop. The road is all bitumen so we made good time to the Canyon arriving in time for a spot of lunch before undertaking the walk. Kings Canyon remains one of the premier tourist sites in the red centre and always holds a special place for me as I have fond memories of it that are now nearly 40 years old. Named in 1872 by explorer Ernest Giles after Fieldon King, a sponsor of his expedition, the 100 metre high, sheer walls of the canyon rise from the creek bed in which there are numerous rock pools and lush vegetation, including ancient Cycad Palms.


In 1960, the Cotterill family first saw Kings Canyon, realised its tourism potential, and in 1961 opened Wallara Ranch. Jack had been involved in tourism ventures in the red centre particularly surrounding Ayers Rock. In 1960 the owner of Angas Downs station, Arthur Liddle, took Jack and his son Jim to see a place called Kings Canyon, in the rugged George Gill Range. There was no road into the canyon at that time but Jack immediately recognised the potential of the canyon as a major tourism attraction. Back then it took the three men a day and a half then to do the 200 kilometre trip from Angas Downs to the canyon following creek beds, tracks and gullies to find their way in.


Jack moved the family from Alice Springs to the north-west corner of Angas Downs onto property leased from Arthur and establishing Wallara Ranch. With the intent of opening the area to tourism, the first task was to create a road from Wallara to the canyon. Jack and Jim had an old Dodge Weapons Carrier and they built a drag from 2 pieces of Channel Iron and cut their own road for the 100 km to the base of the climb. The ranch in those days consisted of a dining room/bar, an accommodation block of 10 cabins. The first tourists arrived in 1961 and in that year 600 people visited this new and outback attraction.



As a family, we arrived in Wallara in mid 1973 and ventured out to the canyon using a mud-map provided by Jack. It was an exciting excursion and one far removed from our experience of today. The old hand primed petrol pump with the glass bowl reservoir on top was a particular memory for me of Wallara, as were the collection of outback oddities kept in the bar/dining room. The Canyon walk was somewhat less structured than it is today and certainly didn’t have the facilities that exist currently.


Wallara was demolished in 1990 and up to 60,000 people a year were visiting Kings Canyon at that time. Jack Cotterill passed away in 1978 and the business was carried on and expanded by Jim and his brother John.

Kings Canyon was formed when jointing caused fractures in the sandstone layers of the George Gill Range. As the sandstone cracked and fractured, large boulders were left on the surface where they eventually weathered to become ‘beehive-like’ domes, now called the ‘Lost City’. Some fell into the newly formed gorges, where they remain as fractured boulders. The Mereenie sandstone is very porous and collects water like a sponge during rain periods and slowly filters it through to the base of the gorge. There it collects in crevices that act as a refuge for many plants and animals. (Thanks National Parks NT). The Leopold sandstone of the Kimberley and Pilbara does similar in gorges like those at Karajini.



Two walks exists at Kings Canyon. The two kilometer Kings Creek Walk traces the bottom of the gorge. At the end of the walk is a platform, with views of the canyon walls above. The 3 hour Kings Canyon Rim Walk traces the top of the canyon. The steep climb at the beginning of the walk is known as "Heartbreak Hill" (or "Heart Attack Hill" in my case), arrives at the western wnd of the canyon wall and provides great views of the gorge and surrounding landscape. Just prior to the halfway point, a side walk takes you to Cotterill’s lookout. This promontory of rock is accessed by a steel bridge that spans a deep fissure in the rock. This bridge replaced the old bridge of tree trucks lashed with wire and flat rocks placed on top that I recall walking across nearly 40 years back. The walk provides fantastic views back along the Canyon from the lip of the gorge as well as views down to the Garden of Eden. You must return the way you entered to continue the walk around the Canyon rim.


Around the half way mark of the walk, a detour takes descends to Garden of Eden, a permanent waterhole surrounded by lush plant life. The last half of the walk passes through a large maze of weathered sandstone domes that are very reminiscent of the Bungle Bungle’s. A slow descent brings you back to the shelter at the starting point of the walk. We thoroughly enjoyed the walk around the Canyon rim. The diversity of the landscape providing many photo opportunities and a chance for the boys to look and learn (and strut).




After the excursion, we called in at the Kings Canyon Resort so Pete could top off the Lawn Rover before heading out to the north west. The bitumen of the Loop Road finishes here and the dirt starts once again. It was in pretty good condition and only necessitated slowing down a bit. I didn’t intend to travel long hoping find an easily accessible place to camp somewhere along the George Gill Range or just over it.





From Kings Canyon, the Loop Road basically follows the rugged ramparts of the range to the Morris pass. Here the road winds up and across the range providing a lookout at the top before descending and then basically following the range back to the east a distance. Right on the sharp turn at the commencement of the pass, I located a turn into the bush on the left. Following this in for several hundred meters, we came to an old road camp. A less well defined track continued on to the west so I followed that for another 700 meters and it took us to an area at the very base of the range where the soil had been scraped off to get to the underlying rock. While largely cleared, the bush had re-grown over most of the pits and there was plenty of scrub for shelter. Nestled at the very bottom of the range, it was a great place to camp. With camp set up and the firewood collected, the boys minds turned to exploration and the last of the days light was spent climbing the range and launching the odd spud into space.


As an historical aside, our little camp is in the area that Ernest Giles named The “Valle of Tempe” while waxing lyrical over his Australian Explorations. A hopeless romantic, the country is indeed scenic but to draw a comparison with the fabled gardens at the base of Mt Olympus, I just don’t know. The area did provide him with good grass and water though at a time he sorely needed it.

“There was abundance of water for 100 or 200 horses for a month or two, and plenty more in the sand below. Three other ponds were met lower down, and I believe water can always be got by digging. We followed the creek for a mile or two farther, and found that it soon became exhausted, as casuarina and triodia sandhills environed the little plain, and after the short course of scarcely ten miles, the little creek became swallowed up by those water-devouring monsters. This was named Laurie's Creek. There was from 6000 to 10,000 acres of fine grass land in this little plain, and it was such a change from the sterile, triodia, and sandy country outside it, I could not resist calling it the Vale of Tempe. “
Ernest Giles 13-14 October 1872 – Australia Twice Traversed


The ground proved far too hard to get the big BBQ spike into place so the little fellow was bought out meaning a bit of shift work on the BBQ. A very enjoyable evening enjoying the fellowship of the fire, probably our last as a group for this trip as half our number will peel off at Alice and begin the trek south.







''We knew from the experience of well-known travelers that the
trip would doubtless be attended with much hardship.''
Richard Maurice - 1903
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