Imagine a primeval landscape, a forest all around you, but the trees are not the eucalypts and flowering plants of today but instead you are painfully brushing away the stiff fronds of brilliant green cycads, while ramrod straight palms tower over you and then suddenly there is the roar of a T REX. If you can picture this, you can pretty well visualise the scenery of Palm Valley.
Mark of Sandrifter Safaris collected us at 6:45 this morning from outside our townhouse. The new moon was low in the pre dawn sky. It was chilly as we waited just off the road. Our first stop was on Larapinta drive, just as the sun rose over the gap, and the range before us immediately lit up into brilliant orange. While watching, we all enjoyed munching a fried egg and bacon rolls with some Australia Afternoon tea steaming away in our metal mugs. Yummy. Then we were on our way to Palm Valley. It’s about 120km from Alice and most of the trip is on bitumen but the last bit is a challenging 4WD including climbing over boulders, sand and river beds. There is precious little water around now but the Finke River is still very impressive. Firstly it’s wide, wider than the Sandover. Mmmm perhaps that doesn’t help. At least a 100 meters wide with immense red river gums scattered in the river bed. We cross confidently if not easily tailing briefly in sand before climbing up and out. The Land driver is a terrific car, comfortable, good take off angles, and air suspension which produces a prolonged fart when the car is stopped after a bumpy section.
We turn off from the road adjacent to the Finke , now along the road beside Palm Creek. There are some wonderful views to be had and we frequently pulled over to take photographs of the hills and river below us. The creek has carved out the granite, sandstone of this area into weird formations of abrupt stone, they stand stark and orange in the morning light.
Mark dropped us of to walk along the beautiful Cycad Gorge. It is a space, silent and still, the cycads visible on the rock face. Pillars and immense blocks of rock, had split out from the cliff and lay shattered on the valley floor.
We arrived at the parking area situated at Palm Creek.. There are four walks we could choose from. We opted for a five kilometre walk that went up onto the escarpment, along the cliff with views into Palm Creek , then turning southwards across the plateau, then dropping down along a narrow rocky track back down to the creek bed. We followed this circuit track with Mark, chatting as we do about all sorts of things. By now it was warmer so we had tucked away our jumpers as we walked along. It is a very beautiful walk but with slight squinting and a liberal dose of imagination, you can almost hear the dinosaurs that walked this same area, between the same species of palms and cycads we are seeing right now. The creek bed is rocky not sandy or of loose stone, it’s granite and then sandstone, the fine beds are twisted or more accurately tortured into swirls and folds by the geological forces that have made this place. Yet despite all this geological tom foolery, the Finke River and Palm Creek have had unaltered courses for 190 million years, simply eroding the rocks and even mountains that had the cheek to appear.
After our walk we had a splendid lunch, sitting on the rock, smoothed by eons of water and tumbling stones, we each had a wrap of corn beef and salad, followed by carrot cake and monster strawberries. Above us, the palm trees, livistonias, shimmered in the sunlight. Magic.
After lunch, we drove back to the main highway, turning off to Owen Springs. This is a fascinating relic of early NT history and business enterprise. First built in 1869, it was the first homestead built in Central Australia. Early explorers had fired up the imagination of some men to become pastoralists. Gilbert built a timber structure on the Hugh River, just north of Laurence Gorge, and grew wheat on the rangelands hereabouts. He had three wonderful years, glowing reports from explorers such as Giles, seemed confirmed by the rain and resulting crops. Then ten years of drought. This was not a successful venture so the property was sold to Thomas Elder. Yep, Elder of Real Estate fame. But is wasn’t real estate Elder was primarily interested in, it was transport. The Ghan train connected Port Augusta to Oodnadatta by 1891 but would not be extended to Alice Springs until 1929. So for nearly thirty years, here was a situation when transport was up for grabs between Oodnadatta and virtually everywhere in the centre. The government was encouraging entrepreneurs to enter the field. South Australia still had a lot of camels left over from the ones used to explore the centre. Elder put it together, and bought a vast number of camels and used his properties to service transport needs. The camel trains went from Oodnadatta to Curtin Springs to Owen Springs, then on to Stuart ( Stuart was the name of nowadays Alice Springs until 1939)’ then everywhere else including Hermannsburg and Arltunga. There was absolutely no connection between Darwin and Alice till 1942 when American military Engineers constructed the modern extension of the Stuart Highway northwards for the relief of Darwin.
Owen springs passed to various owners, including Kidman for a time, until in 1999, the property was acquired by the NT government. Though it was a ruin, it’s roof long gone, it remained of great interest to history buffs, and so by 2002, it was repaired and its walls resurfaced to protect them. And so it stands today, with the Hugh River behind it, and the range terminating briefly at Laurence Gorge. This route pioneered by McDouall Stuart, remained the main path for not only Elder and his camel trains, but motor cars beginning the journey in 1929. And in 1957, the first tourist bus to Alice Springs. This route to Alice via Owen Springs continued until the construction of the current Stuart highway.
Elders camels were instrumental in supplying the construction equipment and supplies for the original old Ghan railway. It was only in 1929 that the Ghan finally was extended to Alice Springs ( then Stuart…. Confusing isn’t it). The camels were also used for building the overland telegraph. No wonder Elder grew wealthy from his transport empire.
After our exploration of the old homestead, we carried along the Owen Springs road all the way to Stuart Highway, then back to Alice. What a fabulous day, full of history, nature, landscapes and great company.