King’s Canyon

I visited King’s Canyon, California when I was a kid.  The California park is right next to Sequoia National Forest not too far from Yosemite in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  And now I’d have a chance to visit the Australian King’s Canyon.  I wasn’t sure what to expect but tour guide Reg gave us an earful on the drive there.  He explained that King’s Canyon is an oasis in the middle of the harsh desert of central Australia.  Due to some unique geological formations water is soaked up into the rocks during rainy season and continues to percolate into the valley all year long.  This water provides life to plants and animals that the Aboriginals could snack on when they didn’t have any other food.  I can imagine crossing this harsh desert and finding an oasis and what a welcomed sight that must be.

In reflection, two things stand out in my mind about this place.  First, it was one of the greatest challenges I ever had shooting a natural setting: there was a huge difference in the contrast between the light at the rim of the canyon and the dark recesses as we viewed it during sunrise.  And second, King’s Canyon truly is an oasis – and a beautiful one at that.

We started our hike early and arrived well before sunrise.  We began the 30 minute hike up to the rim of the canyon and as we hiked ever higher the sun slowly began spreading its rays across the sky.  I began to notice that Reg had done it again; he had put us on the western side of the canyon so that any photos taken would be facing into the sun.  It is almost impossible to get dawn photos of any subject unless you have the light to your back.  I vowed that I would push ahead of the group and get to the eastern side of the canyon before the rocks started changing color in the rising sun.  Just as Reg’s talking group broke up I had someone take my photo next to a white gum tree.

When we reached the summit I began to push ahead with one Swiss traveler that I’d come to know.  Immediately Reg tried to shepherd us in saying that we should all stick together.  He went into another one of his rants about how the proper way to view the canyon was how the Aboriginals did it, by taking a “mental photograph.”  Argh.  Why did we get stuck with the militant lunatic?  The Swiss guy and I tried to make a getaway but Reg called us back to the group.  He wanted to tell us about the gum tree.  Again.  He explained for the second or third time about how the gum tree spreads its roots to collect water under the soil.  No kidding?  Really?  I just couldn’t take it anymore and I just pushed out ahead to get some photographs.  Later I told Reg I needed some “alone” time with nature.  I think he bought it.

Some white men built a road to the canyon and began advertising it as a tourist destination in the latter half of the 19th Century.  Within the park they built stairs, bridges and quite a few trails.  Despite the elevation differences and the length of the hike it wasn’t too difficult.

I was quite frustrated trying to photograph the canyon; my lens wasn’t quite wide enough, the HDR on the camera couldn’t capture the shadows without blowing out the sky or it made a beautiful blue sky but had dark canyons.  I kicked myself again and again for not upgrading my camera before I left.  I don’t think I’ll ever go on another big trip like this unless I am completely satisfied with my photography equipment.  It really is quite frustrating to see something so beautiful that it makes you breathless and a moment later take a photo, look at it and realize that it looks nothing like what you just saw with your naked eyes.  The new camera also has the ability to shoot multiple frame wide angle shots something that would have come in very handy at this venue.

Looking at the Canyon in my photographs it doesn’t really look like much compared to how it looked with the naked eye.  Just like Uluru, it looks a lot larger in real life.  The camera seems to shrink the scale of the size of the valley; it was no Grand Canyon but it certainly had some imposing cliffs.  If you can imagine outside of this valley is flat desert with very little vegetation and right here in this little horseshoe shaped valley you have trees and oasis and all sorts of little critters (food) running around.  It is quite a contrast from the nearby desert.  In the photo below a perpendicular valley runs off to the left side of the photo and the bottom of that little valley is full of pools and trees that are crisscrossed by the hiking bridge that we crossed on (above).

I was surprised again and again as I turned each corner and saw a landscape that looked so foreign; it was red like Mars but had beautiful gum trees and rocks.  As the rocks erode each subsequent layer staggers in such a way that they make natural staircases in the side of the rock.  I looked and looked and tried to take a mental photo of the place; not sure if I was heeding tour guide Reg’s advice or if I was just frustrated by my inability to capture an accurate photographic representation of this place.  The more and more I looked I was just awed by the beauty of this place – the photos don’t really do it justice.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of this place and I’ll give Reg some credit, there is a mystical almost magical feeling about it.  I can see why the Aboriginals held it in such high regard.  Between Uluru, Kata Tjuta and King’s Canyon I completely changed my attitude in regards to central Australia.  On my first day I had worried that it would be just another desert trip with so many rocks and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the tranquil beauty of this place and the camaraderie I’ve found with other travelers.


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Australian Outback

After a few days of driving in central Australia the miles passed and the countryside began to blur in one endless stream of red-earth desert, trees and hills.  The conversation on the bus varied as travelers from around the world shared travel experiences and talked of home and friends.  Every half hour or so I would lean over and look down the aisle and out the front window; the road disappeared over the horizon and rarely I would see a car or truck coming in the opposite direction.  I filled out a post card, did a little typing into my computer, nodded off for a nap and then chatted with my Slovak neighbor who had aspirations to come to America on a working visa and stay for a year.

Reg began talking on the loudspeaker and talked about Aboriginal culture, religion and then talked about how Uluru was on an invisible energy line.  He explained that these energy lines ran across the earth like lines of longitude or latitude and they all (miraculously) ran under the worlds religious sites: Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal (even though it isn’t a religious site), the Egyptian Pyramids, the Vatican and Ankor Wat  in Cambodia.  I try to keep from rolling my eyes into the back of my head.  I hear a few other travelers comment that they will sabotage the loudspeaker system at the next stop.  One of the Italians behind me asks, “Hey Scott, is it true that Osama bin Laden wasn’t really killed and now the CIA has him in captivity?”  I answer, “Well, it is true that he was captured alive but when he learned that his punishment was to be locked in a room listening to Reg for the next 20 years he pleaded for a bullet to the head.”  The murmured quiet of the back of the bus erupts into spontaneous laughter and I feel a sense of satisfaction at my successful joke.

At just the right time Reg announced a stop; we were going to pull over at a large red sand dune for a photo of two nearby landmarks.  We all piled out of the bus and looked left and right before crossing the road.  I looked left to the horizon and then to the right and there were no other cars – we were the only people out here.  I asked one of the other travelers to take a photo of me and then decided on a pose that wouldn’t be safe in most places in the world (top photo).

We climbed the big red sand dune and instantly I felt the fine red dust pour into the tops of my trainers.  That evening when I take a hot shower the water will run bright red like blood.  For now I climb through the thick dust to reach the summit for a view of Mount Connor and the dry bed of Lake Amadeus.

Atop of the sand dune I can see Lake Amadeus to the west.  It stretches out for the length of the horizon on this side of the dune and it looks as if it has been dry for some time.  To the east I can see Mount Connor with its flat top – it reminds me of many of the mesa bluffs in Arizona.

I look around and see that there is nothing out here aside from us tourists.  A lone SUV pulling a camper van appears on the horizon and in a few minutes it pulls over at this photo stop to check out the view.  I wonder if 24 tourists climbing on top of a red sand dune creates extra appeal for this stop.  A family gets out and work their way up the dune.

The stops are infrequent and everyone piles off at every stop.  There is usually a line at the lavatory and many go for a snack or soft drink.  I survive another round of sticker shock as I look at the prices of beer, about $4 per bottle.  I see that a case can be had for about $50 and I lobby the other travelers to go in together on a case.  8 of us split the cost and get 3 beers each for about $6.25, or about $2 apiece – a nice break from $4.  We get back on the road and arrive at our new campsite just before dusk.  We come upon some other travelers who have become stuck in the sand and we all pitch in to push them out.  They were quite thankful that we came along; without us they may have been stuck for days.

After a nice sunset (while sipping a beer of course) we dined on some healthy spaghetti cooked Australian style complete with plenty of veggies and beans to supplement the beef and noodles.  After the dishes were washed we built a grand fire and enjoyed a fireside chat as we sipped cold beer and looked for shooting stars.  Zoe had never seen a shooting star before and watched and watched and when she could wait no more she went to the bathroom and as soon as she left a huge shooting star streaked across the sky leaving a trail of sparkling dust behind it.  We all cheered and she was quite disappointed when she returned.

Spotting shooting stars and satellites was easy in this dark and remote wilderness.  A few of us that had SLR cameras took turns on the tripod to see if we could capture a good shot of the Milky Way.  I was very excited to see the Southern Cross as I’d never seen it before.  The fifth star in the kite shape looked red in color to my eye and I tried to center it in my photo.

I can only remember a few times in my life when the sky was so bright.  Out here in (quite literally) the middle of nowhere, no light from nearby cities and clear air, the Milky Way stood out like a bright ribbon of light across the sky.  I looked up and saw different star patterns than I’d ever seen before; for the first time I saw not only the Southern Cross but also Scorpio with his big tail of stars.  Directly to the north the Big Dipper was just above the horizon and upside down.  Throughout the evening the big dipper would continue to turn on its axis of Polaris that was well below the horizon, by late at night the Big Dipper will be standing vertical in the northern sky.  Following the Sun over the western horizon, Orion sits sideways in the twilight sky.  A few hours into the night and it disappears over the horizon.

My attention turns back to my fellow travelers; Zoe has spotted her first shooting star and we all share in her excitement.  The shooting stars are many and we laugh late into the night before we finally retire to our sleeping bags and tents.


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