Central australia, Travel

Central Australia Road trip 10 Palm Valley

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.

Central australia, Central Australia Work

Central Australia Road Trip number 9 Finke

  It’s 3:40 pm on Thursday afternoon and I’m sitting in the RFDS turboprop as it starts its propellor. We are on the way back to Alice Springs after a stint at Finke. Jennifer drove to Papunya, arguably the capital of the modern aboriginal art movement. We have kept in touch each evening by phone as there is no mobile cover or internet here at Finke. I’m looking forward to seeing her photographs of Haasts Bluff which is on the way. 

Finke was originally built to service the construction and later imagined as a base for the ongoing repairs required for the original Ghan Railway. It fulfilled its function and grew, acquiring churches, police station, post office, a hotel, and many houses for the workers and travellers. Many of these buildings are still here but used but not for their initial purpose. Darren is a white fella who runs the local store and is absolutely passionate about Finke, it’s people, history and possibilities. He accompanied Lana ( nurse manager at Finke) and I into the old Hotel. After opening the front door we walked past the old serving rooms and bars, into the large hall at the back of the building. On display are many of the local artists works. Its planned that this will be an art gallery, a dedicated space but a commercial one where tourists and art lovers can buy local creations. 

I have had the great good fortune to meet many of these artists in my short stay in Finke. Kevin makes wire sculptures, he firmly weaves and twists, wire, into horse and rider, then clothes and paints them. These are tremendously realistic sculptures. I met a lady, who makes tiny coolamon. You would know the coolamon is the food and carry all wooden bowl, aboriginal women carry when gathering bush food, filling them with witches grubs, bush tomatos, and other yummy foods. Her tiny coolamon are beautifully engraved with hot wire, she creates complex designs by burning them into the curved wooden surface. 

Many local painters are also represented, one particularly fine young female artist, who has two delightful young children, produces paintings of bold, confident design and rich, “ in your face” colours. She has he own version of the “ seven sisters story “ which I’d like to see if I have the opportunity to come back. 

Many of the paintings are full of story. Stories of movement through the land, of encounters with dreamtime and bush creatures and of the relationships between tribes. Stories of forbidden love and the consequences of going against law.The Aboriginal people who now live in Finke were not the first inhabitants of the town. However, they lived in the lands far and all around Finke but as time went by, they moved into the houses here, and now the local Aboriginal corporation owns the town. The Aboriginal corporation aims to fully realise the potential of this settlement.

The hotel will become an Art Gallery and a place where artists can actually work, making it a living breathing art space. The police station and post office will be restored and be reborn into new uses. There is a plan to create a museum about the Ghan. The building of it, its maintenance , and its many characters both black and white who worked on the line. Legends about the two floods in 1973 and 1974 that put paid to having the Ghan in its then location, and then getting the line moved eastwards. The floods washed away the railway bridge over the Finke River….. not once, but twice! Darren told us that there is a ton of memorabilia, old photographs and loads of stories that should and could be housed for tourists to look at and experience. This will provide job opportunities and a chance for white and black fellas to be together.
The Finke River is the oldest river in the world and there are plans to make one of the restored buildings into a natural history museum devoted to this awesome waterway. Jennifer has seen it in full flood while I could only imagine what it might be like as I drove over it’s now dusty river bed. It would be a hundred meters across. A few hardy tall river gums are spaced it, gnarled and twisted by loss of branches in previous floods. 

There are serious moves afoot to build a a camping and accomodation area outside the town because as the town itself is “dry” alcohol cannot be served or consumed here. There will be a lot to do for any future visitor. One activity mooted is to walk out in the bush with the old ladies, as they gather bush tucker. I met a wonderful young woman who has turned her health around big time. She decided to live and play and eat, Aboriginal style. She spends her weekends walking in the bush with her mums, hunting for bush foods and meats, camping out in the desert with them, sharing stories and time together. There are enough older ones doing this sort of thing here that the prospects for strong transmission of culture to younger one will occur. I was impressed with the health of many people I saw, slim and strong and exuding warmth and confidence. 

I have thoroughly enjoyed my week at Finke. I have met some terrific Aboriginal people who are also artists and strongly cultural. A truly cheeky sense of humour. I renewed a friendship with Lana and Ross with whom I’d previously worked at Laramba. It’s always a pleasure to work with them. Nicole is an agency nurse who is moving north to work long term with her partner a German man called Nikko. He loves the bush and the desert as much as she does. There are some very competent and friendly Aboriginal guys working at Finke Clinic, including Stanley and Rodney. A great team!
My only concern with realising tourism here is the threat to everyone’s ( including locals) safety from unrestrained dogs. They can move freely around and even a long stick won’t discourage them. I had real problems walking even a tiny distance from the clinic but felt very safe walking kilometres in the early predawn along the roads directly out of town. Tourism will require some changes be made to the freedoms the locals now have. Look, Finke is a great place to visit in a car but the danger from dogs mean I could never live there long term. Walking around is the way to meet and talk to people and it would be a shame if it cannot happen with confidence about ones personal safety.