Out of Alice Springs and along the West MacDonnell Ranges, a popular Red Centre travel route loops south to Uluru, skirting widely around a vast and intriguing sandstone wilderness that few roads penetrate.
Deep inside this chiselled topography of rarely seen ranges and stark, flat-topped monuments, one of the world’s oldest waterways provides passage, luring off-roaders along its rugged riverbed and into the unique and astounding Finke Gorge National Park.
You’d think that more than 100 million years of water flow might have smoothed the way, and even though some sections of this ancient watercourse are believed to predate dinosaurs, the road that follows the Finke remains a low-range affair for high clearance 4WD vehicles pulling only the sturdiest of rigs.
The adventure begins at Hermannsburg, a small Aboriginal community located 126km from Alice Springs whose fame belongs to former resident and renowned watercolourist Albert Namatjira. I can’t say if a tour of Hermannsburg’s historical Aboriginal mission or the adjacent gallery and tea rooms are worth your time, so keen were we to hit the dirt and put some distance between ourselves and the blacktop tourist traffic rattling through the Red Centre.
But before the adventure begins, a slightly unnerving sign at the turnoff stops us in our tracks that reads – “Severe 4WD Route – Allow 3 Hours” – and sends our minds spinning at the archaic state of a route, just 20km long, that could possibly occupy us for three hours.
Fortunately those three hours include the return leg of the journey (with a short walk included), and we spend less than an hour criss-crossing the Finke beneath gently rising rock spurs and dramatic sheer cliffs towering to the east. We rumble past brumbies feeding on the grasslands and pale gums rooted alongside invisible water holes, meandering from one side to the other for 16km to Palm Valley’s campground.
Thanks to spanking-new suspension and a fine set of tyres, our drive in is uneventful and nothing like the challenging endeavour faced by motor travellers in the 1930s, who spent two days travelling from Alice Springs to reach Palm Valley. A decade later, entrepreneurial Aboriginal guide Tiger Tjalkilyiri shortened the journey by using camels to transport tourists from Hermannsburg to the park, entertaining them in camp with songs and dancing and Dreamtime stories of the western Aranda people.