Sunday, January 11, 2015

Photo Essay - Valley of the Winds Walk at Kata Tjuta

There's another whole aspect of the Red Centre in central Australia besides the iconic Ayer's Rock. The name Kata Tjuta may not have the musical quality of Uluru, and even the English designation, "Olgas," is suggestive of an ugly stepmother. The Pitjantjatjara phrase Kata Tjuta means "many heads," and there are 36 of these steep domes of bald rock an hour's drive west of Uluru, in Australia's Northern Territory.

But the Valley of the Winds loop walk (7.4 km) at Kata Tjuta is an equally spectacular alternative to Uluru, without the crowds. It should not be missed by any visitor to this jewel of Australia blessed with the physical capability. We went on one of only a handful of overcast days in any given year, but the site of monolithic domes shrouded in morning mist is its own unique experience.

Walks apparently used to criss-cross the formation. Today, only two public trails remain open for conservation purposes and out of respect for the the spiritual significance of the site to the local Anangu people. The first 1.1 km section of the Valley of the Winds walk, from the carpark to the first lookout at Karu, is not included in the loop. Posted warnings indicate the track beyond the lookout will be closed at 11:00 am if the day's high temperature is forecast above 36 degrees C. We went on a sharply cool May morning (autumn), and jackets were required. We started relatively early in the morning to avoid crowds, and we were not disappointed.

The view from Karu lookout. An overcast autumn day does take away some of the brilliance of the red, oxidized domes of the Olgas, but it makes for comfortable tramping.

The walk is largely over rocky terrain, with a bit of a climb into the domes, and there is some minor scrambling for a few steps. The signage graded the full loop as "difficult" past Karu. I always recommend good hiking boots or shoes for a walk, though I'm fairly certain the warnings in most parks of the developed world err on the side of caution. I went with a toddler on my back and two ungainly, pre-teen boys. The loop (to both lookouts and back to the carpark) takes about four hours, maybe a bit more if you stop a lot to take in the scenery or picnic, and carrying bottled water is strongly advised, although there are two water tap stations along the route. Unlike terrain warnings, I always err on the side of caution when it comes to water.

On most days the unrelenting southern sun requires a good hat and sunscreen. When I lived in Australia, I learned the backs of the hands are one of the most common locations to contract skin cancer. Don't forget to baste them with an SPF over 30! Loose fitting, long-sleeved clothing is probably the most comfortable in extremely hot weather, and doubles as sun protection.

My male sensibilities found topography of the hillS appealing. Walking through breast-like domes of coarse, sandstone-cemented conglomerate, you may notice a difference in the coarseness of the bedrock from that at Uluru. In geological terms, both sites are part of a "molasse" facies, a wedge of eroded material deposited in front of rising mountains, the Petermann Orogeny about 550 million years ago, then cemented to create the formation known as the Mount Currie Conglomerate. If you look closely, the single conglomerate rock type contains boulders and cobbles of several source lithologies--basalt and other volcanic rocks, granite, gneiss, and porphyry. The coarser-grained Kata Tjuta must have been closer to the uplifting mountains (where material didn't have to roll so far, and contents didn't abrade as much), while the finer grained Uluru was farther away.

Millions of years have taken their toll; the source Petermann Ranges, once as high as the Himalayas, are now only a series of low ridges to the west.

Rest stop at Karingana Lookout

If you only want to get as far as the second lookout, Karingana, follow the southern spur of the loop (right) where the trail bifurcates a short distance beyond Karu. However, if you make it that far, the remainder of the loop is over relatively level terrain beneath and between the domes. It will take only a little more time to complete the loop (and perhaps less) than to go back, and the experience is different. The low forest of mulga  and desert oak is more typical of arid Australian bush. It's vaguely reminiscent of how I imagine part of the African savannah to be.

Food always tastes better out-of-doors after a little bit of exertion. The Karingana lookout is the natural stop for a luncheon, and our hastily-prepared snack of canned tuna spread on crackers-- chased with juice boxes--took on the characteristics of grilled lobster and fine wine.

We came across a handful of hikers taking the clockwise route of the Valley of the Winds loop, and a few paid their respects as we lunched at Karingana, but we otherwise had the wonderland of the Olgas to ourselves. Kata Tjuta can be accessed via Ayers Rock Airport and a 55 km drive to the south, then west. Visitors must pay an Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park entry fee; the standard three day pass is currently $25 for guests over 16 years of age.  Alternatively, the Olgas' carpark is about 51 km from the Ayers Rock Resort in Yulara. Yulara supplies the only food options, accommodation and other services available in the locality for visitors to Anangu country.