Let WellBeing take you on a trip to the Spectacular Finke Gorge National Park
Beyond Alice Springs, the most popular travel routes loop east and west, skirting the base of the dramatic Macdonnell Ranges and luring travellers south to Uluru. But in this striking Red Centre landscape sits a vast sandstone wilderness that few roads penetrate and the single sandy track that does follow one of the world’s oldest waterways.
Hidden within a chiselled topography of rarely seen ranges and stark, flat-topped monuments lies a verdant canyon oasis and its mysterious thicket of striking red cabbage palms. Far too tropical for this stark, red rock landscape, Palm Valley baffles the brightest scientific minds. But the setting — incongruous and utterly bewitching — is what coaxes travellers out of their comfort zones to throw down swags under the stars in Finke Gorge National Park.
Into this remote, red rock wonderland I go, in a family-sized 4WD filled with substantial supplies of camping gear, marshmallows, firewood and red wine. From the tiny town of Hermannsburg where renowned watercolour artist Albert Namatjira is still revered, we hit the dirt towards Finke Gorge, pulling slowly past a slightly unnerving sign that reads “Severe 4WD Route. Allow 3 Hours”.
Rumbling off the bitumen in a plume of red dust, this ancient artery known as Larapinta Trail leads us on, following a skinny set of tyre tracks along the sandy bed of an invisible river. That the Finke predates dinosaurs baffles the child in my back seat, but all I can wonder is how 100 million years of water flow hasn’t smoothed the way ahead? Despite its invisibility, the Finke’s presence is absolute, fringed by pale river red gums and lofty palms whose roots find the river deep underground.
Chiselled cliffs and sunlit rock spurs stand sentry on both sides, and barely-there grasses lure wild mobs of downy brumbies that ignore all our fawning. Thanks to solid suspension and a new set of tyres, our drive along the Finke is without mishap and within the hour we are pulling into camp, unloading firewood and devouring lunch.
Back in the 1930s, motor travellers spent two days reaching this spot from Alice Springs. A decade later, entrepreneurial Indigenous guide Tiger Tjalkilyiri shortened the journey by using camels to transport tourists from Hermannsburg, entertaining them around the campfire with songs and dancing and Dreamtime stories of the western Aranda people.
Our own chosen campsite is a spacious and shady surprise, with access to solar-powered hot-water showers, gas barbecues, toilets and a rainwater tank too. There’s a communal campfire big enough to ward off the Red Centre’s night-time chill, and a full afternoon to explore before the setting sun softens the stark, red rock scenery. We set out to find a trail to wander.
Finke Gorge National Park harbours two especially appealing locations that both deserve to be explored in the magic hours that bookend each day. A rugged off-road drive away, Palm Valley requires a full day and an early start, so we head to nearby Kalarranga to climb its golden outcrops instead.
Sunset over Kalarranga
From the car park, we beat a path to Kalarranga Lookout in less than 10 minutes, oblivious as we wander to the dramatic scene that waits up ahead. Once on top, glowing in ostentatious hues of crimson and gold, sandstone pillars and boulders stud the high ground, some crumbling in playful heaps where we hide, slide and shimmy around until the light finally fades. The scenery quite simply blows us away, rivalling more celebrated Red Centre vistas over Uluru and Watarraka’s Kings Canyon.
We can’t possibly explore it all in a single afternoon, so one utterly superb campfire and a grand night’s sleep later, we return to catch the rising sun along Kalarranga’s Loop Trail. This easy, 1.5 kilometre-long hike takes around 40 minutes to walk, but we manage to stretch it far longer with a dozen stops to ogle the sunrise and snap off photos.
Bearing the name of the Mpaara, the tawny frogmouth man, the longer 5km Mpaara Track through Palms Bend proves to be even better, revealing dreamy vistas of the Finke River valley and providing blissful solitude at dawn. If you arrive in the afternoon, set out a few hours before sunset, and finish with a climb to Kalarranga Lookout to watch the show.
The hidden oasis
Palm Valley is one of those insanely beautiful places with the power to pull people on long and sometimes uncomfortable journeys, enticing them out of toasty swags and sleeping bags long before dawn. At first light, our campground is alive with the muffled chatter of people who are trying to be quiet, and the aroma of just-brewed coffee and diesel 4WD engines being warmed up for the day’s adventures.
By 7am, most have left to tackle the short, rugged drive into Palm Valley: a heart-pumping, low-range jaunt over rocky jump-ups and crumbling slabs, creeping past towering red cliffs and oversized cycads that flourish in Cycad Gorge en route. It’s slow going but safe and, for an inexperienced off-roader like me, grinningly good fun. After four kilometres we pull up and park, and get moving along the Mpulungkinya (mool-ung-kin-yah) Track through a high-walled canyon into Palm Valley.
Here we stand beneath dazzling, shaggy, 300-year-old palm trees — Central Australian red cabbage palms to be precise — towering 25 metres overhead. Far too tropical for this stark, thirsty landscape, the trees are a baffling, beautiful sight. No one really knows why they grow here, in a 60-square-kilometre patch of the Red Centre, and nowhere else on Earth.
Some hypothesise answers but the jury is still out: was a seed carried in the belly of a migrating pelican, or in the dilly bag of Indigenous Australians 15,000 years ago? The child in our midst, her head and heart full of magical possibilities, flaunts no disbelief. “If there were dinosaurs once, why not a secret garden of trees?” she shrugs, and skips off down the trail.
Perhaps because we linger so long in the shade of these spectacular palms, our walk takes longer than the expected two hours, but every minute is utterly engaging. We spy black-footed rock-wallabies, camouflaged and reclining on shady canyon ledges, and glimpse brightly spangled finches flitting amongst the reed-fringed rock pools. Tiny caves chiselled into the canyon’s towering, sheer walls demand close investigation, and a trail of brumby poo leads us expectantly 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, impenetrable to the outside world.
The Mpulungkinya Track
Climbing gently away from our palm-filled canyon, the Mpulungkinya Track beckons us up onto an unexpectedly arid plateau. Here, rocky lookouts offer big-picture vistas of distant ranges and outcrops crumbling on the horizon. This higher, drier ground blooms with stunted wattles and acacias, criss-crossed with endless ant trails that we leap across.
Although it was unintended, our anticlockwise loop of the five kilometre-long trail proves to be the gentler, easier way to tackle the walk. An early, albeit chilly start to the day is also recommended since the high plateau provides little midday shade.
If time and inclination are waning, the shorter Arankaia Walk (pronounced rung-kee-ah) is an easier option. Bearing the Arrernte name for the red cabbage palm, it loops for one kilometre through Palm Valley to the groves of red cabbage palms, then pulls out to ascend the sandstone plateau via staircases for great views on the return leg. However you explore, a least one walk through Palm Valley is a must.
Retreating from the midday sun, we throw the Landcruiser into low-range and navigate back along Palm Creek to our campsite downstream. Resting weary feet after a couple of days on the trail, we spend one final, quiet afternoon in Palm Valley’s astonishingly peaceful camp. Dingo tracks along the dry sand of Palm Creek entice us on an easy wander to climb rock ledges on the cliffs opposite and gaze back across the Finke River. After hot showers and cold beers, we soak up the last of the day’s sun then escape the creeping cold to sit by the campfire as dingoes begin to howl from their cliffside dens.
As night falls, we pull out a map and trace our fingers along wilder drives through this enormous national park that western Aranda people call Mpulungkinya. Palm Valley, we discover, is just one tiny patch of wonder, and more rugged destinations await. Further inland, Boggy Hole, Police Station Ruins and Illamurta Springs all deserve a place on our ever-growing Red Centre bucket list, and a much-needed return journey.\
- Go Palm Valley is located in Finke Gorge National Park, 140km southwest of Alice Springs via Larapinta Drive to Hermannsburg. The final 16km is suitable only for high-clearance 4WD vehicles and camper trailers.
- Visit While open year-round, trips are best timed for cooler days from April to September.
- Stay Palm Valley campground provides excellent facilities: solar-heated hot-water showers, a rainwater tank and gas and wood-fired barbecues ($10/adult, $5/child, $25/family). Close to Alice Springs, eco-tents at Squeakywindmill B&B cost from $236 (breakfast included, no kids, squeakywindmill.com).
- Ranger-led walks and talks From May through August, rangers visit the park on Saturdays to host a short walk through Palm Valley (from 10.30am) and a coffee chat back in camp at 3pm (BYO chair).
- Pack Hiking shoes, warm clothing, a power pack for phones and cameras, good food and wine. Collect firewood before entering the national park.
- Don’t Miss In Alice Springs, catch the Beanie Festival (June), Desert Festival (October), and Dark Skies Festival (May).
- Plan Visit discovercentralaustralia.com to plan your stay, and book campsites online at nt.gov.au.
Photography DAVID BRISTOW