Rainbow Valley & Watarrka – Wild Country, Wildflowers, Wildlife and Wild Weather

Late afternoon, Rainbow Valley

It seems like months since we drove away from Alice Springs, our car and camper trailer packed to bursting point with food, water, fuel and all the books and treasures we accumulated over the past year during our stint of town living.  In fact, we’ve been away a week, but in that time we’ve packed in plenty of adventures, and had some thrown our way.

We headed south from Alice, with the expectation of blistering heat in the Australia’s heart.  We also wanted to explore this famous region after a year of record rainfall.  After all, it’s not every year you get to experience Australia’s Green Centre.


First stop was Rainbow Valley, a little over an hour south of Alice.  We had been warned of the rough dirt track in from the highway but were pleasantly surprised to encounter one of the smoothest stretches of dirt of all our travels.  Rainbow Valley takes its white-fella name from the multi-coloured rocks of an impressive formation rising up from the surrounding sand country.  This rugged and dramatic formation, and the surrounding rocky outcrops, are all that remain of an ancient sandstone crust that once covered the region.  The colour variations are due to different mixtures of iron, silica and ochre content in the rock.  Located in front of the formation is a large clay-pan, which fills with rain immediately after heavy rain.  The Southern Arrernte people, who lived in the region for tens of thousands of years, knew Rainbow Valley as Wurre.

We were greeted on our arrival by a profusion of wildflowers and native grasses.  In fact, there was so much greenery it was difficult to see the red sands synonymous with central Australia.  The campground was basic (drop dunny and gas barbecue) but with a gorgeous outlook.  Best of all, it was home to some highly entertaining Central Netted Dragons, which were obviously used to human company.

We were just settling in when the weather took a decided turn for the worse.  First came strong winds, then rain, and then both.  All plans to set up the camper trailer were jettisoned, and instead we used the car and trailer as a windbreak and set up our swags, then sat out the rest of the storm reading in the car.  It was a reminder that conditions can change quickly when you are exposed to the elements.

We survived the night and were happy to rise to a clear sunny morning, indeed a perfect day, allowing us to explore the area around Rainbow Valley.  We were amazed at how healthy the area looked, wildflowers everywhere, and with the heady scent of massed flowering melaleucas filling the air.  The birds had also taken advantage of this bumper year, and we counted over twenty species during our stay.  Zebra Finches in particular must be a highly fertile little bird; they were everywhere!

The boss Central Netted Dragon - the firepit was all his, and he would chase and bite the smaller lizards.  Mean but beautiful

No way through these Desert Honey Melaleucas!  The scent was overpowering

Male Zebra Finch in full breeding splendour

Fringed Lily - the last thing I expected to find in central Australia


Closeup of Central Bearded Dragon.  Mature male - only they have the black beard.  These lizards change colour to blend in with their surroundings.

Sunset above the main formation

Green Birdflower

Rainbow Valley gave us our first opportunity to play with our newest toy – a high-powered hand-held spotlight for spying on nocturnal wildlife (no, not other campers).  Inspired by our nocturnal wanderings at the Alice Springs Desert Park, we covered the lens with red cellophane and off we headed. Success!!  Three different species of gecko and some burrowing frogs.  We were thrilled, and can’t wait to go wildlife spotting at night in other locations.

A beautiful Thick Tailed Gecko - about 5 inches long. We were thrilled to spot this one

Another small Gecko on edge of clay pan.  This one had a longer tail

A Burrowing Frog (I think called the Trilling Frog).  I almost trod on this little fellow as we walked along spot-lighting

The following gallery contains photographs of the many and varied wilflowers we saw at Rainbow Valley:

The following gallery contains photos of wildlife at Rainbow Valley - basically, lizards and birds galore, plus a few invertebrates.

Lots more scenery at Rainbow Valley.  Probably a little unusual to see it so green:


From Rainbow Valley, we set off in the direction of Watarrka (Kings Canyon), planning to shorten the route by travelling along the 100km long 4WD Ernest Giles track.  Well, Mother Nature had other plans for us.  We had barely hit the road when the skies darkened.  Actually, ‘darkened’ is an understatement.  Armageddon is probably a better description. We quickly ditched our plans for the dirt road travel, because the conditions along that track would have become impassable in no time at all with heavy rain.  Instead, we opted to travel to Watarrka by bitumen, adding considerably to the distance but also improving our chances of reaching our destination.

Even so, we had an eventful drive.  At some stages, driving rain saw us crawling along at 40kms per hour, battling to see the road ahead.  Nearly all the floodways along a 150km stretch of road were under water, and Whirly Creek, water around 18 inches deep was fairly racing across.  We thanked our lucky stars for our high clearance vehicle and tough off-road camper-trailer as we sailed across (almost literally), leaving behind a number of stranded vehicles and the envious looks of their occupants.  A little earlier we had stopped to offer help to a driver whose small sedan had lost its rear bumper and panel when he hit one of the many water crossings too quickly, and we later heard of another driver who had aquaplaned off the road into a tree.  It was a day to put caution first.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get any photos of this eventful part of the trip; we were too busy staying in one piece.

But every cloud, no matter how dark, has a silver lining.  Wild and stormy though the day was, it gave us sightings of three separate pairs of Major Mitchell’s (Pink) Cockatoos, filling us with considerable hope that this vulnerable species has also taken advantage of this year’s perfect conditions to restore its population.

There they are!  Major Mitchell's Cockatoos - third pair for the day.  The male with his crest up

Major Mitchell's Cockatoos in flight

We arrived at Kings Creek Station, a little shell-shocked after our eventful drive, and after a tour of the saturated campgrounds on foot, slipping and sliding our way around, we took the wimps’-way-out and shouted ourselves a cabin for the night.  We figured that such luxuries are exactly why we worked for a year in Alice.

The approach to the campground at Kings Creek Station

Budget cabin - no thanks!

Campsite with its own camp kitchen?  And pool. Thanks, but no thanks!

The winner!!  A cabin.  Small but cosy....and dry!

Desert Oak sunset at Kings Creek Station


Next morning was benign and sunny, and we completed our journey to King’s Canyon.  We first visited in September 2009, and though the area was beautiful then, it was also extremely dry and tired-looking.  In the space of a year it had become transformed into a wonderland.  Greenery, flowering shrubs and annuals, water flowing in creeks and over falls, birdlife at every turn.  We loved the walk around the rim of the canyon, although by its end the humid and warm conditions left us exhausted.

Dramatic cliff-face at Kings Canyon

A stunning sight! Waterfall at the head of Kings Canyon.

A gorgeous Dragon.  Not sure if it is a Long-Nosed Dragon.  We have never before seen one with this colouring

Budgerigars on the walk along the base of Kings Canyon

Sturt's Desert Rose

Spinifex Pigeon. This beautiful bird is commonplace along the walks around Kings Canyon

Female Mulga Parrot - our first sighting in three years!

We set up our camper trailer at the resort campground, under a lovely large, shady gum tree, not bothering too much with all the pegs and ropes because conditions were so calm, and we so buggered.  Silly us.

10pm came with us sleeping soundly, when a storm to end all storms hit.  Bloody hell.  This was one we weren’t going to roll over and sleep through.  For the next hour we were pummeled by driving, cold rain and strong winds.  Soon we were out in the rain trying to save our camper.  I was holding one pole of the kitchen awning to stop the whole thing from ending up back in Alice, and Nirbeeja was holding down the edge of the shade sail to stop it from doing the same.  Picture yourself holding the bottom of a spinnaker in strong winds and rain and you’ll get the picture.  We were both drenched and cold.  Nirbeeja had a sheet wrapped around her for cover – though it was soon soaked and I thought to myself that she was at least one sheet to the wind!

Finally, the storm abated, and we retired, exhausted but largely victorious, to try to get some sleep.  Such was the plan.  It lasted until part two hit.  There was less rain and wind this time, but that was more than made up for by the ensuing thunderstorm.  Loud cracks nearby, some really close, everything lit up like midday, followed by rolling thunder echoing seemingly forever around the nearby George Gill Range. We half expected to be hit by lightning to top off a memorable evening, but somehow we got through.  We eventually drifted off to sleep, though God only knows at what hour, probably somewhere close to 3am. We were doing our best to sleep in next morning when ….crash…..a large stick from our ‘sheltering’ tree had fallen on our canvas bedroom roof.  Startled into wakefulness, we raced out, but were relieved to find that no damage had been done.  Nonetheless, we opted to move the camper to another spot in the campground – one with less shelter, but also with less chance of us being crushed.

Our camper looking bedraggled after a night of wild storms.  The branch at bottom of picture woke us at dawn when it crashed onto the bedroom roof.

Once we finished shifting the camper, Nirbeeja sensibly opted for a rest day while I went back to Kings Canyon, marvelling at the amount of water passing down King’s Creek.  Last year it had been completely dry; this time it was fairly racing, filled anew by the overnight rain.

Another storm loomed from the south that afternoon, but we could shake our fists at its face, such were the preparations we had taken, with everything battened down, roped and pegged to within an inch of its life.  Nothing short of a cyclone could threaten us now.  And indeed we sailed through the storm unscathed, though to be honest it proved far less violent than its predecessor, despite its ominous buildup.

Kings Creek in flow along the base of Kings Canyon

Oh hell! Here comes another storm.  At Kings Canyon campground.

View from the campground.  An impromptu waterfall on the distant George Gill Range after heavy rain. What a sight!

To see more photos of Kings Canyon, many showing this normally arid region in a remarkably lush state, check out the following gallery:


Our last full day in Watarrka was perfect.  We explored Kings Creek along the base of King’s Canyon and also enjoyed a walk at Kathleen Springs, some 20kms away, reaching the sacred waterhole at its end.  The Kathleen Springs walk is less spectacular than King’s Canyon, though it is very special in its own right.  The Luritja people believe that the waterhole at the head of the springs is home to the Rainbow Serpent.  Well, all we can say is that the Serpent was active and happy at the time of our visit, for the waterfall above the waterhole was flowing and spectacular.  We sat in seclusion there for some time, uninterrupted by any other human visitors.  Believe what you like, but we know there is power there. That night our sleep was filled with vivid dreams.

Honeysuckle Grevillea at Kathleen Springs

Male Splendid Wren at Kathleen Springs

Mulla Mulla at Kathleen Springs

Butterfly Bush (Petalostylis) wildflower, Kathleen Springs

Waterfall into the sacred waterhole at Kathleen Springs

Sunset on George Gill Range, Watarrka National Park


Today we set off for Uluru, travelling once more through lush green terrain covered in flowers, somewhat surreally mixed with the red sands of Australia’s centre.  We could only shake our heads in wonder and smile as we drove along.

Water pooled beside the road two days after rain.

More beautiful flowers.  The Rattlepod Grevillea. We seemed to be stopping every few kms.

Our rig hiding behind some wildflowers!

Mt Conner.  With all that greenery it's hard to believe we are in central Australia.

Driveway attendant, at your service!  Curtin Springs Roadhouse.

Till next time

18 November 2010

PS This blog is dedicated to our dear friend Janice Needham.  We look forward to sharing another campfire with you and Christopher soon.

  • Roz:

    Absolutely brilliant Pete. Love sharing your journey this way. Wish I was there tho. Glad you’re both enjoying your well-earned hols. Cheers Roz

    • admin:

      Thanks Roz for your kind comments. We had a great week, albeit a bit ‘hairy’ at times, but now have some great stories to tell about our weather experiences. Hope all is well in the Alice with all you workers! Pete

  • Hi Pete and Nirbeeja — Love the photos – they’re a wonderful textural close up look and feel of the bush and travel. Glad to see you back on the road/track in your natural element! All the best Mark

    • admin:

      Thanks Markie! Our unexpected catch-up with you in Alice is one of our treasured memories from our time there. Keep lookng after the country in our ‘absence’.