Pools and streams in and around Australia’s Kings Canyon are sacred to the native Luritja people. // © 2015 Shane Nelson
Feature image (above): Hikers look down into Kings Canyon while trekking with Wayoutback Australian Safaris. // © 2015 Shane Nelson
I inched forward on my belly, pulling myself over rusty red stone toward the cliff’s edge to poke my nose out into nothing. The 100-foot-plus drop below looked up at me indifferently, offering a fresher breeze and the promise of water, hidden by a gathering of bushy green plants and trees.
I wasn’t the only one interested in the view, of course. A line of about 10 other hikers — all of them on their bellies — extended to my right, with each thrill-seeker peering down into Kings Canyon, a remote outback attraction in Australia’s Northern Territory.
We were all part of a three-day guided tour lead by Wayoutback Australian Safaris and had begun our hike up to the canyon early, aiming to avoid as much of the later-day heat as possible. A geological marvel, formed around 300 million years ago, the King’s Canyon region is also known as Watarrka, a name given by the Luritja aboriginal people who have called the national park home for more than 20,000 years.
Although there are a number of different treks visitors can take in the area, including multiday tours, our group tackled the 3.7-mile Kings Canyon Rim Walk. The trail features a steep climb early on but is relatively flat around the rim and ends with a reasonable descent.
Loaded with informative signage, outlining the region’s rich geological history and diverse collection of wildlife, the three- to four-hour trek offers a stark contrast of environments. The austere Australian outback desert surrounds the canyon, which cloisters around a slow-moving stream fringed with plants and trees, a photogenic waterfall during the rainier season and a stunning water hole, known as the Garden of Eden.
Sitting in the shade on a cool stone near the Garden of Eden’s deep-water hole, which was about the size of a tennis court, was certainly one of the day’s highlights. A sacred place to the Luritja people, swimming is frowned upon there or anywhere in the canyon’s stream, in part because the water is so vital to the region’s wildlife and pollutants, such as sunscreen, can have a dramatic impact.
Taking a break from the building outback heat and listening to the sound of the stream in the shadows of the sheer canyon walls, without any splashing or shrieking from swimmers, was definitely worth all of the hiking.
Watarrka is just one of several Red Centre highlights travelers can enjoy on a guided Wayoutback Australia excursion. The company offers a range of products — each commissionable to travel agents — lasting anywhere from one overnight stay in Uluru or Ayers Rock, to a 10-day journey through the Northern Territory, traveling from Alice Springs to Darwin.
Transportation is handled in either sports-utility vehicles with four-wheel drive for smaller groups or the formidable, 17-seat Mitsubishi Canter Bus. The Mitsubishi Canter reminded me of a 21st-century-style military-transport vehicle, outfitted with far more comfortable seats and air conditioning.
Most overnight stays take place in group camp sites, featuring tents with beds. Tour-goers can also opt for swags, which are padded bedrolls made mostly from canvas that keep bugs away and allow folks to sleep under the stars. The night before our Kings Canyon hike, our group camped miles away from any type of town or settlement. We slept in a Wayoutback location that featured brilliant views of the George Gill Range and an orchestra of outback-brand quiet.
Wayoutback Australia’s three-day tours start around $540 for adults and $520 for children, ages 5 to 15. The tour operator also offers a family package costing around $2,000 for two adults and two children.