There is, on one of those online review sites, a one-star rating for the Kings Canyon rim walk in the Northern Territory. Too many flies, was the complaint. Frankly, this is like going to India and moaning that there's curry. There are, indeed, a squillion of the little buggers in the Red Centre and they all seem to be on the summit of the canyon, crawling up my nose. Only 20 minutes earlier our guide had laughingly asked a Lithuanian couple how to say "bastard flies" in their language.
Out here, flies are a given. You either pretty much continuously utilise the traditional Australian "salute", wear a bush hat with built-in fly netting or simply get used to it. One poor soul does get inhaled as I pant away at the top of the 500-step, 100-metre climb up what the locals call Heartbreak/Heart Attack Hill, the vertiginous start of the early morning walk up the side and around the rim of this remarkable 450-million-year-old canyon.
We are up at stupid o'clock to catch the sunrise on the top of the canyon after spending a night in the new glamping tents at the Kings Canyon Resort, a 15-minute drive away. I'm not a big fan of glamping. The word, that is. This Johnny-come-lately portmanteau only made the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016 and is, not to put too fine a point on it, a fugly Frankenword, created by butchering two perfectly innocent nouns.
But while I'm aesthetically opposed to the word the same can't be said about the idea. What's not to like about a tent with an outdoor deck, king-sized bed, sexy sofa, comfortable chairs, airconditioning, a shower, Australian-made skincare products and linen of better quality than my first suit?
Kings Canyon Resort opened in 1991 and today consists of 128 rooms, Desert Oaks bistro, Thirsty Dingo bar, a sunset viewing platform and a huge camping area with swimming pool. And now, six luxurious canvas tents in the middle of the resort. Of course, there's glamping and there's glamping. At the uber-luxurious Longitude 131 resort near Uluru, for instance, the rooms masquerade as tents whereas here the tents (made of comfortingly heavy-duty canvas) are masquerading as rooms. The main difference is a zip.
The tents are high enough to include a ceiling fan and are furnished by Temple & Webster, an Australian homewares and furniture company which seems to have a cushion and pillow fetish (I counted 20 in my tent, including two that looked like someone had scalped a yeti). If you go the family tent, the kids won't just be able to build a pillow fort, they'll be able to recreate Notre Dame cathedral.
The canyon after which the resort is named is to be found at the western end of the George Gill Range, about 323 kilometres south-west of Alice Springs and 1316 kilometres south of Darwin in the Watarrka National Park. What this means is that it's pretty much a million miles past woop-woop and straight on 'til morning. To avoid the tyranny of distance we flew from Ayers Rock Airport into the Kings Creek Station airfield (essentially a red earth clearing carved out of a cattle, camel and camping station) and then drove the final 40 kilometres to the resort.
Oddly enough, the main reason people come here is to visit Kings Canyon. The six kilometre dawn rim walk is, flies notwithstanding, the best option but there's also a shorter walk around the base for anyone not up to Heartbreak Hill and the four hours it takes to cover the rim and the descent to the leafy waterhole at the bottom of the canyon, in what's known as the Garden of Eden.
We are lucky with the weather and get to the top of Heartbreak Hill just as sunlight brushes the tip of a sandstone rockface opposite and makes it glow. It's a golden moment in more ways than one and the rest of the walk is peppered with flashes like these, from the gradual creep of the sun across the top of the escarpment to the steep descent into the bosky coolness of the Garden of Eden.
The colours and the textures up here are astonishing, an ever-changing sun-blasted palette of gold, brown, ochre, red and orange punctuated by the bone-white glow of hardy ghost gums. We clamber through a narrow ravine called Priscilla's Crack (parts of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert were filmed hereabouts), edge towards dizzying cliff faces and marvel at the Lost City, a landscape of weathered sandstone "domes" which look like the pagodas of some forgotten jungle civilisation.
The walk is a well-signposted loop which ends back in the small car park at the base of the canyon. Here, in February 2015 the NT government switched on free public Wi-Fi. Good news for some, perhaps, but it's had one somewhat dispiriting effect. Said one guide: "Before they put that in people used to come down from the walk all excited and be swapping stories and experiences and talking to each other about what they'd seen. Now, they come down, get on to the internet and sit looking at their phones."
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO
KARRKE ABORIGINAL CULTURAL TOUR
Christine Breaden and Peter Abbott, of Wanmarra Aboriginal community, have run this tour for the past four years and it's a great, hands-on insight into dot painting, tools, weapons, bush tucker and medicinal plants. There's even witchetty grub to be had and believe it or not, it tastes like buttered popcorn. Honest. The tour costs $65 a person. See karrke.com.au
HELICOPTER OVER KINGS CANYON
Having done the rim walk in the morning it was great to get a fresh, aerial perspective of the canyon and surroundings. The duration of the trip is only 15 minutes but worth every cent of the $160 cost. See phs.com.au
Plans are afoot to offer one-hour off-road Segway tours from Kings Canyon Resort to Kathleen Springs, 22 kilometres away. Full details and pricing are yet to be decided but we took a few of the big-wheeled machines out for a trial spin past the resort's campground. Great fun if you don't get too cocky too quickly. Keep an eye on kingscanyonresort.com.au for details.
Grab a drink from the mobile bar at the sunset viewing platform out the back of the Thirsty Dingo bar and watch the sun do impossibly beautiful things with the colours of the escarpment in the distance. It's pretty in the early morning, too, with fewer people and flies.
DINE UNDER A DESERT MOON
Start the night with canapes and a glass of sparkling wine before heading off to the Kings Canyon Resort's signature outdoor dining experience. Prepared by sous chef Jonty de Camargo, this five-course degustation menu features seasonal, locally sourced produce and native herbs with paired wines. Under a Desert Moon is available from 6pm Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Book before 2pm on the day. Cost is $169 per adult.
Keith Austin was a guest of Kings Canyon Resort and Tourism Northern Territory.
Jetstar flies daily to Ayers Rock airport from all major cities. Professional Helicopter Services flies from Ayers Rock Airport to Kings Canyon Station. Rock Air Charters provides return charter flights from Uluru to Kings Canyon as part of the resort's Overnight Delight package. See jetstar.com; phs.com.au; flyuluru.com.au
Glamping tents at Kings Canyon Resort start at $390 a tent a night, twin share, buffet breakfast included. See kingscanyonresort.com.au
Our itinerary was based on Kings Canyon Resort's Uluru to Kings Canyon Overnight Delight package, which includes return air charters with Rock Air, Guided Rim Walk, Karrke Aboriginal Cultural Experience, accommodation, lunch in the Desert Oaks bistro and breakfast. Rates from $1438 a night, twin share. See kingscanyonresort.com.au