At the tail end of our long, semicircular dirt journey, we find ourselves some 150 kms north of Uluru, still 325 kms southwest of Alice Springs. We are taking the scenic route. Each day of our trip involves a stop to gather firewood. Tamara, our guide and guardian, pulls Snooty off the road at places that look as random as the rest of the countryside, but she has chosen spots where permission has been granted to thin out the dead wood on the ground.

We all descend from the bus into the midday heat and scatter. We become hunters and gatherers, not so very different from the natives of this land. We are gathering the makings of fire for our evening meal. Our guide clambers up on to the roof and waits for the offerings of sticks and branches, rejecting those that are too small or too big or too rotten, arranging it all into a bundle that can be secured to the vehicle. It is hot, dirty work, as unfamiliar to us as bringing down an emu with a boomerang. We are glad when it is over.

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At the western end of the George Gill range lies Watarrka National Park. It is a rugged landscape of rock holes and gorges, dominated by the spectacular natural amphitheatre of King’s Canyon, towering 100 meters (300 feet) from the valley floor. Rock wallabies and dingoes live here, but they are shrewd enough to vanish from such a large, noisy group.

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At the top is a massive plateau of red sandstone, shaped by wind and water over thousands of years. Our six kilometre hike will take us up 500 well-formed, but steep steps to the top, then weave across weathered-dome rock formations and gradually down again to a secluded ravine called “the garden of Eden.” The park is named after an acacia tree (also called the umbrella bush) that the Luritja people know as watarrka.

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More than 750 plant species have been recorded here, including one species of fern that is found only in the park. The water at the bottom of the slot canyon optimistically called “the garden of Eden” includes sixty or so rare, relict species, such as the creeping swamp fern. This has survived fifty million years, from a time when a rainforest covered the area. Seed-bearing trees and insects attract eighty species of birds. They keep watch on us while we eat our lunch, ready to take advantage of our crumbs.

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Like many explorers, Ernest Giles seems to have stumbled upon the calling after failing at everything else. He was born in Bristol, England, but he emigrated to Australia when he was fifteen, joining his parents in Adelaide. In 1852 Giles went to the Victorian goldfields, then became a clerk at the Post Office in Melbourne, and later at the County Court. Tiring of life in town, Giles headed for the bush. By 1861, he was exploring on the Darling River, looking for land capable of cultivating hemp, a valuable comoddity at the time.

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Giles didn’t attempt a regular expedition until 1872, when he left Chambers pillar (a sandstone formation 160 kms south of Alice Springs), with two other men around the middle of August. They traversed much previously untrodden country to the northwest and west. Finding their way barred by Lake Amadeus and the horses getting very weak, a return was made to Adelaide, where the party arrived in January 1873. Giles was the first European to see the Olgas, Lake Amadeus, and the rugged formation now called Watarrka.

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The following year, another young English immigrant/explorer named William Gosse traveled through the same region, discovering Ayer’s Rock and one of the most interesting geologic formations in central Australia– Gosses Bluff. The original crater is thought to have been formed by the impact of an asteroid or comet approximately 142 million years ago. The original rim has been estimated at about 22 km (14 miles) in diameter, but this has been eroded away. What remains is about 5 km (3 miles) in diameter, 180 m (590 ft) high, the eroded relic of the crater’s central uplift. The impact origin of this topographic feature was first proposed in the 1960s, the strongest evidence coming from the abundance of shatter cones.

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A Western Arrernte story also attributes its origins to a cosmic impact: in the Dreaming, a group of celestial women were dancing as stars in the Milky Way. One of the women grew tired and placed her baby in a wooden basket. As the women continued dancing, the basket fell and plunged to the earth. The baby’s fall forced the rocks upward, forming the circular mountain range. The baby’s parents, the evening and morning star, continue to search for their baby to this day.

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When we reach our home for the night, the reward is well worth waiting for– a cool, refreshing dip in Pioneer Creek. Like all the other animals, we follow the water and sleep under the stars. On days like this, life is very good indeed.

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