Finke River's Offroad Oasis

Catherine Lawson — 18 April 2019
An invisible river carving a rugged track through a steep gorge lined with cabbage palms, smack bang in the Red Centre? Yes please!

The sign at the end of the bitumen has us smiling: “Severe 4WD Route – Allow Three Hours”. We rumble past, leaving the Red Centre crowds in our wake and chasing the ancient Finke River downstream into a red rock playground of flat-topped mesas and rugged chasms. 

Realistically this destination – just 150km from Alice Springs – should be one of the most popular in the region, but its 4WD-exclusivity limits numbers to a keen bunch. In relative solitude, we’ll get to enjoy Palm Valley, a rare oasis studded with cabbage palms, their roots digging deep into irresistibly clear pools. Bring it on!




HITTING THE DIRT

In the rear-view mirror, we watch as the string of uncertain offroaders hesitate on the edge of the blacktop. They slowly peel away, taking their shiny paint jobs and caravans back to nearby Hermannsburg to fill their day touring the historical mission made famous by renowned watercolour artist Albert Namatjira. 

With a much wilder escapade in mind, we push on, following the Finke’s riverbed along a course that predates dinosaurs, unchanged in a million years and still just as rugged. As we navigate downstream, our eyes following rock spurs to the top of dramatic ranges, we pull over to watch brumbies feeding on grasslands.  

Known by its indigenous name ‘Larapinta’, the Finke River is an ancient artery that existed long before the landscape rose around it. It rarely flows and its course today is marked by a skinny set of tyre tracks and the pale river red gums that fringe invisible waterholes deep underground. 

We meander across the Finke’s wide river valley on a scenic but surprisingly uneventful hour-long trip to Palm Valley campground. Only later do I realise that it’s the jump-ups yet to come that are to thank for the lack of day-trippers sharing the driving, and for all the quiet, shady campsites that await us, ours for the choosing.  

Palm Valley’s uber cheap camping fees (try $3.30 per person) are a nice surprise too, but it’s the hot showers after our dusty day of exploring, free gas barbecues and a communal campfire big enough to ward off the Red Centre’s sub-zero wintertime chill that really widen smiles. 


SUNSET OVER KALARRANGA

Our easy journey to camp means there’s just enough time before sundown to tackle a climb for sunset views, so we beat a path to Kalarranga Lookout in less than 10 minutes. You’d never know it from the car park but Kalarranga elevates walkers above a staggering scene of sculpted outcrops and chiselled sandstone pillars – all of it glowing crimson and gold with the shifting, setting sun.

There are rocks to shimmy up and sandstone to slide down, and this magical, playful scene occupies us until the light finally fades. Returning to camp we make a pact to start the next day with a walk on Kalarranga’s Loop Trail, an easy 1.5 kilometre long hike that takes around 40 minutes (depending on how many times you stop to ogle the sunrise). 

The longer Mpaara Track through Palms Bend is even better, with dreamy landscape views over the Finke River valley and blissful solitude to tempt early risers. If you arrive in the afternoon, be sure to set out on this 5km long track a few hours before sunset, and end your walk with a climb to Kalarranga Lookout just in time to sit back and watch the show. 


PALM VALLEY EXPLORING

Palm Valley is the destination that entices most travellers onto the Finke, and everyone seems to be up at daybreak, warming their 4WDs for the short, rugged drive into Palm Valley. An oasis full of rare palms awaits – Central Australian Red Cabbage Palms to be precise – but no one really knows why they grow here and nowhere else on earth. 

We set out to solve the mystery. The ride to Palm Valley is gripping good fun: a heart-pumping, low-range jaunt upstream over rocky jump-ups and crumbling slabs, creeping past towering red cliffs and oversized cycads that flourish in Cycad Gorge. 

After 4km we pull up and park, and test our bushwalking boots along the Mpulungkinya (mool-ung-kin-yah) Track to begin a riveting 5km loop. We walk with necks craned upwards, peering at the black-footed rock-wallabies our tiny daughter has spotted on shady canyon ledges, and spooking finches that flit quickly away across reed-fringed rock pools. 

Deep in the canyon we stand beneath dazzling 300 year old cabbage palms and ponder their mystery. Not even scientists can explain how these palms came to be here, or why they chose this 60 square kilometre patch of the Red Centre when their closest relative flourishes 1000km away.

There are plausible theories about the palm seeds’ original journey – perhaps they came in the belly of a migrating pelican or the dilly bags of indigenous nomads 15,000 years ago – but no one knows for sure and the mystery that shrouds them makes them all the more captivating. 

We linger in their shade, poking around rock pools and searching tiny caves chiselled into the canyon’s towering, sheer walls. As the sun rises higher, we stroll on, following a trail of brumby prints that lead us to the shallow pools at Palm Paddock. We never catch up with the brumbies but we imagine them off in the distance, a great mob with these lush green valleys and waterholes to call their own, cut off from the outside world.

Climbing gently up above the canyon, the Mpulungkinya Track beckons us onto an unexpectedly arid plateau where rocky lookouts offer big picture vistas. We pick a path across the spinifex and loop back into the canyon, taking much longer than the expected two hours to complete the walk and blaming it on our endless detours and wild distractions. 

Although unintended, our anti-clockwise loop of the trail proves to be the gentler, easier way to tackle the walk. Despite the sub-zero wintertime chill, I’d recommend an early start, because the stunted wattles and acacias on the high plateau provide little midday shade. 

The easier alternative if time is short is the hour long Arankaia Walk, which pushes for one kilometre into Palm Valley and lures walkers up onto the plateau for grand views. However you explore, at least one walk through Palm Valley is a must, followed by a more leisurely stroll from the campground, spent tracing dingo tracks in the dry sand of Palm Creek and climbing the rock ledges opposite to gaze across the Finke River.


SCHEMING OUR RETURN

Resting weary feet after a couple of days on the trail, we spend one final, quiet afternoon in Palm Valley’s astonishingly peaceful camp. After hot showers and cold beers, we soak up the last of the day’s sun and retreat against the creeping cold into the camper just as dingoes begin to howl outside. 

That night, we marvel at why it has taken us so long to discover the Finke, and pull out maps to see where wilder drives along this invisible waterway might lead us. After all, though it might be the easiest to reach, Palm Valley is just one tiny patch of wonder in the enormous Finke Gorge National Park.

If we can bear to be without the comforts of our camper, the Finke River 4WD Route promises to reward with adventure, carving a truly rugged path to Boggy Hole, Police Station Ruins, Illamurta Springs and Kings Canyon – a path that few people brave. Which is exactly why it’s on the bucket list, for next time we return and take our Red Centre adventures to another level. 


TRAVEL TO THE FINKE

How to get there

Palm Valley campground is located about 140km south-west of Alice Springs. Just west of Hermannsburg, take the signposted turn off Larapinta Drive and follow the Finke River for 16km to camp. Expect soft sand and river stones. Unhitch the camper before tackling the 4km drive into Palm Valley itself. Access is for high-clearance 4WD vehicles and sturdy offroad campers only.

Camping

Shady and spacious, Palm Valley’s campground has individual sites for rigs and grassy tent sites too. Facilities are excellent: solar-heated hot water showers, toilets, a rainwater tank, sheltered gas barbecues, picnic tables and communal fire pits (BYO firewood). No rubbish bins are provided and no pets are allowed. Overnight fees are $6.60 per adult and $3.30 per child, payable via self-registration on site. 

When to visit

Cool wintertime temperatures (20-27°C) make April to September the best months to visit, but be prepared for sub-zero nights in June. The park is open year-round, except when the Finke is in flood. 

How to help out

Campground hosts are needed at Palm Valley year-round, but especially over the busy May-August travel season. To find out more, email volunteer.parks@nt.gov.au or phone (08) 8999 3821.

Awesome 2019 events nearby

  • Alice Springs Camel Cup (July 13)
  • Finke Desert Race (June 7-10)
  • Beanie Festival (June 28-July 1)
  • Henley-on-Todd waterless boating regatta (August 17).

Tags

finke river palm valley alice springs northern territory nt destination camping offroad 4wd hiking