Finke River Gorge: Northern Territory

The Northern Territory's Finke River Gorge is a special place on many travellers' bucket lists

The Finke River has existed for a very long time indeed.

Some 340 million years ago, before the dinosaurs and even before geological forces created the nearby MacDonnell Ranges, this ancient river wandered through the centre of the Australian continent, draining to what was then an inland sea.

Having largely followed the same course for 100-million years or so, the Finke is said to be the oldest river in the world.

The MacDonnell Ranges rise spectacularly from the flat plains of Central Australia, but what’s visible today are just the eroded bones of a mountain range once higher than the Himalayas.

With its wide, flat bed and reliable permanent waterholes, the Finke has been important to Aboriginal people for thousands of years as a trade and travel route through this otherwise rugged and inhospitable country.

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Early European explorers also used the river as a path through the MacDonnell Ranges and, following the establishment of settlements like Hermannsburg – 126km west of Alice Springs – it became a supply route from the south.

Starting just outside of Hermannsburg, the Finke River 4WD Route follows the dry river bed south to eventually meet the Ernest Giles Road about 97km away. Considered a difficult four-wheel drive track, authorities recommend against towing trailers along the river.

For the less adventurous, the easier alternative is to camp at the Palm Valley campground at the north end of the Finke Gorge National Park. Just after turning off the main road near Hermannsburg, there is a large sign warning travellers that the track into Palm Valley is 4WD only, severe, and will take about three hours to drive.

However, the most challenging parts of the track are found after the campground, access to which takes less than an hour but does entail crossing a couple of soft sand sections. While these are unlikely to seriously trouble any standard 4x4 towing a camper, reducing tyre pressure to improve traction and momentum is advised.

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Overall, the track into the campground is a pleasant and scenic one. It follows the Finke and is bordered by high, red cliffs that have been cut over millennia by the river.

With its hot solar showers, gas barbecues and communal fire pits, the Palm Valley campground provides excellent amenities. Individual campsites are well separated and set among tall shady trees, providing campers with a degree of privacy. The solar lighting in the amenity block attracts all manner of flying insects, which provide an easy meal for the many small frogs that have taken up residency as a result.

However, atop the campground food chain is a 1.5m king brown snake which also occasionally frequents the amenity block at night, looking for said frogs. Given king browns are not noted for their pleasant disposition, if taken by the call of nature in the early hours it’s not a bad idea to carry a torch and look where you put your feet!

Near the campground are short walks which have spectacular views of a rock amphitheatre encircled by rugged, rocky ranges. The shorter walk to Kalarranga Lookout provides an elevated view over this natural formation. The rich-red rocks of the west-facing cliffs are especially scenic when lit by the last rays of the setting sun.

Palm Valley itself is a few kilometres past the campground and this is where the more extreme driving starts. The track is best suited to high-clearance vehicles because it’s quite rough and rocky. Several parts of it involve climbing over wide rock shelves with ledges and holes that need to be carefully negotiated.

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More than 3000 red cabbage palms grow at Palm Valley, with some specimens more than 700 years old. From the car park, visitors can access a two kilometre and a five kilometre walk, which both meander through this lush oasis of palms and cycads. Palm Valley has long been considered a remnant of prehistoric times, when Central Australia had a much wetter climate.

It’s home to one of only three stands of red cabbage palms found in Australia, however, recent research indicates that the palms here are genetically separated by only 15,000 years from the two other stands found 1000km away near Katherine and Mount Isa. This raises the tantalising suggestion that these widely separate populations may have been introduced by unknown travellers in the more recent past.

Access to the Finke River Gorge from Palm Valley involves driving back to Hermannsburg to pick up the rough, corrugated and sandy track south to the Finke Gorge National Park boundary and the wide, sandy bed of Ellery Creek. So large is this dry river course that you could be excused for mistaking it for the Finke, but remarkably, Ellery Creek is just a tributary.

To avoid impassable rocky sections, the track regularly leaves the river bed to wind through the picturesque ghost and river gums that line the course of the Finke as it wanders through the rust-red ranges. It’s difficult to put the grandeur of this landscape into words. Rarely do you see such an expansive dry river bed or impressive stands of white-trunked ghost gums. With no shortage of water beneath the sand, the trees’ foliage has a lushness that’s not often associated with the hot, dry heart of Australia.

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Like driving the Simpson Desert, travelling the Finke imparts a feeling of wonderment at the landscape’s natural beauty. You feel like a trespasser in country that has an almost-tangible spiritual feel to it and, unlike most of today’s world, shows little evidence of modern man. What evidence there is of man – mainly vehicle tracks in the sand – is erased every few years when the river flows.

Nearby Hermannsburg was the home of Albert Namatjira; the renowned Aboriginal landscape painter. When travelling down the bed of the Finke, it’s easy to see where he obtained much of the inspiration for his art. Ellery Creek joins the Finke River six kilometres from the park-entry gate and a further 10km of travel brings you to Boggy Hole.

Despite its uninspiring name, this permanent waterhole can be up to two kilometres long after rain, and in this dry and inhospitable country a waterhole of this size is unexpected. Things to avoid when driving the Finke are patches of wet sand which can prove to be treacherously soft and can rapidly trap a vehicle. The dampness is caused by the river flowing just beneath the surface. Perhaps this was how Boggy Hole got its name.

Boggy Hole is a recommended bush campsite given its seclusion, inviting swimming hole, large shady trees and the picturesque red cliffs that glow behind the waterhole in the late afternoon light.

On the opposite side of the river from the campsite are the ruins of an old police camp established in 1889. The police presence was considered necessary to manage conflict between the local aboriginals and the recently-arrived graziers, who showed total disregard towards the indigenous people’s lifestyle, hunting grounds and sacred sites.

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Boggy Hole’s past is a sad chapter in local history. Constable Willshire, who was in charge of the police station, became infamous because of his punitive attacks on the aboriginal people. The fact he was charged over the murder of two aboriginals at a time when very few Europeans faced court for such crimes is testament to his cruelty.

Boggy Hole is a three-hour trip from Palm Valley and arguably incorporates the most picturesque and interesting part of the Finke River 4WD Route. As such, for anyone on a day drive from Palm Valley, as we were, Boggy Hole is a good place to take a break before starting a return journey.

Travelling south from Boggy Hole, the river valley widens and the Finke spreads out to become a broad expanse of coarse white sand and gravel punctuated with innumerable river gums. From here it’s around 74km further south to the intersection with Ernest Giles Road.

It’s difficult to put a finger on what makes driving the Finke River so special. After all, it’s just a dry riverbed, albeit a very big one. Perhaps it’s the remoteness or those stunning ghost gums, but, whatever the reason, it imparts a sense of achievement, wonderment and respect to those lucky enough to make the journey.

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