Central Australia's Magical Palm Valley

By:Miguel Scaccialupo

Palm Valley is a magical Central Australian tour destination located on hour or two west of Alice Springs in the magnificent Western MacDonnell Ranges. The Finke Gorge National Park covers an area of 46,000 hectares and includes the spectacular Palm Valley, home to over 400 plant types of which more than 30 are considered rare. These rare plants include the Red Cabbage Palm (Livistona mariae), of which there are more than 3000 examples in Palm Valley, many of which are hundreds of years old and form a lush oasis among the rugged red rocks and gorges of the Western MacDonnell Ranges. The palms are relics from a previous age when Central Australia, now an arid desert environment, was a much wetter tropical environment. The nearest similar palms are found 1500-2000 kilometres away on the Australian coast in Western Australia and New South Wales. The cycads found in Palm Valley are also unique to the area. The area's importance was recognised as early as 1923 when some sections were designated flora and fauna protection areas.

Palm Valley and the surrounding country have enormous cultural significance to the indigenous Western Arrernte people, who know Palm Valley as Pmolankinya. The Western Arrernte Dreamtime story for Palm Valley describes a disastrous bushfire which occurred in an area to the north. Many ancestors were burned during this catastrophe, with the younger men being carried off in flames by strong winds and dropped into Palm Valley where they became palms and cycads. According to Arrernte tradition, the suffering of these fire ancestors is represented by the blackened trunks of the palms, while the leaves of the palms represent the young men's long hair.

The first recorded European to come across the palm trees of Palm Valley was the explorer Ernest Giles, who was following the course of the Finke River in Central Australia in 1872 during his first attempt to reach the Western Australia coast from South Australia. Giles did not inspect the tributary of the Finke that flowed through Palm Valley because of threatening rain and the fear of the Finke River's mighty floods, as evidenced by debris tangled high up in the River Red Gum trees along the river. Palm Valley itself wasn't discovered by Europeans until the settlement of Hermannsburg mission in 1877.

Palm Valley has plenty to offer the adventure traveller, including bushwalks and remote camping in spectacular and colourful desert country. The main gorge features high red cliffs, clean white sand, cool waterholes, enormous river gums, and tall palms. The Finke Gorge National Park is about 140 km west of Alice Springs. Turn south off Larapinta Drive just west of Hermannsburg. The last 16 km of road into Palm Valley follows the sandy bed of the Finke River, claimed to be the oldest river in the world, and is limited to 4WD vehicles only. Heavy rains often make this section of the road impassable.

The most popular walk at Palm Valley is the Arankala Walk, a 1.5 km walk lasting about 80 mins return. An easy walk following the creek bed, it offers excellent views of the ancient Red Cabbage Palms, rugged red cliffs, abundant bird life and, in season, large rockpools teeming with fish and other aquatic life. There is also the longer Mpulungkinya Walk, a 5 km walk taking about 2 hrs return which meanders among a lush oasis of slender Red Cabbage Palms. Palm Valley has a camping site and spending a night and exploring the area thoroughly is the best way of experiencing the Finke Gorge National Park. With prior permission from the Ntaria Council at nearby Hermannsburg, a former Luthern Church mission that is another fascinating story in itself.

About the author:
Miguel Scaccialupo writes regularly on Australian tour topics such as Uluru Tours and Kakadu Tours.