PAKT in Palm Valley, Northern Territory, Australia
Off Track – Palm Valley, NT, Australia An adventure into The Land Before Time. Oh wait. It was Palm Valley.
When I travel, I like to get out of tourist zones, I avoid cruise crowds like the plague, and get off the beaten track whenever possible. Some of the best sights a destination has to offer are just outside the typical boundaries a tourist may wander, and Palm Valley in the Northern Territory of Australia is one such destination. Located just two hours drive from Alice Springs, venturers are rewarded with a fantastic landscape that surely The Land Before Time was set in. Simply spectacular, any trip to Uluru or the Alice Springs area is incomplete without taking a day to see Palm Valley in Finke Gorge National Park. And, depending on your sense of adventure, an equally fun part of the excursion is simply getting there.
We depart Alice Springs with a high-clearance 4WD drive SUV, gassed to the max. This is the Outback. You need to be fully gassed up and prepared for a day in the desert. See links below to Finke Gorge National Park tips regarding 4WD vehicle travel.
Finke Gorge National Park and Palm Valley is accessible 138km west out of Alice Springs on Larapinta Drive. So, off we go, excited for our adventure to The Land Before Time. We pass an abandoned windmill and several old water storage towers, harkening scenes of tumbleweed from old American western movies. Just before the park entrance, the Aboriginal community of Hermannsburg offers us a bite to eat and tour of the old Lutheran mission. Art lovers shouldn’t miss this stop. Hermannsburg was once home to artist Albert Namatijira, and the Manse on site contains a gallery of local artists.
Continuing on to Palm Valley just south of Hermannsburg, we follow the signs and turn off the main road. Driving conditions are starting to get fun, packed red dirt, sand or rock become our route. And the final 16km of the drive is where conditions really get exciting. Largely following the Finke River bed, signs and markers are occasional at best. In some areas, we need to watch for out for traces of vehicles gone before us to ensure we are headed the right direction, and look for stakes set in the rock to indicate the road boundary. We bounce off boulders and fjord water crossings. Nothing beats four-wheeling in the Outback, and this track is a good beginner’s taste of what it can be like*.
Just the nature of the drive has our expectations set high for what Palm Valley promises to be. When we arrive, it beats them. The valley is a photographer’s dream, with light and color shifts that make the view simply incomparable. Not only is it beautiful, it is ecologically interesting. Home to the red cabbage palm, only about 3,000 adult specimens exist. Beyond picturesque, a variety of palms and other vegetation line the floor of the canyon, crowding pools of water along the Palm Creek bed. Words do not truly capture the beauty of the place. Only by getting there can you understand for yourself what Palm Valley has to offer the heart and the soul of a traveler.
Dingoes! Yes, Palm Valley has dingoes. If you are really, really lucky, you may even spot a black dingo, far less common to see, but known in the area. So, if you like to photograph wildlife, you have a fair chance of spotting some in Palm Valley. My first close encounter with a dingo was right here, and I got some fantastic shots just before dusk. Stay near water sources at dawn and dusk for the best chance of a sighting. Do not feed or otherwise disturb them, and watch from a distance. They are really special to see.
We imagine that due to the difficulty in getting here, we find relatively few other people on our visit. We enjoy a peaceful afternoon exploring the park trails. We do not stray from worn paths and rocks to avoid risk of stepping on any juvenile cabbage palms. They are protected, so trekkers should take care not to disturb them. There is a campground with showers and toilets in the park, so be assured you won’t spend an entire day using bush facilities. The campground is an honor system, with a daily fee registration box, and some camp sites are river fronting. If you like to camp, we recommend staying a night and enjoying the multiple tracks for hiking available in the area. Each is well worth the short 1 to 2 hours they take to complete. If you like to really get beyond the worn path, trekkers can hike well into the park following several creek beds to your content, but make sure to bring enough water for as many nights as you plan to stay out of the campground. There is no food or supplies available, so also be sure to bring enough your own. Pack out what you pack in, and remove your own trash.
*While Palm Valley is completely accessible by a confident driver with a little sense of adventure, this day trip is not recommended to those who prefer city outings and are not confident in remote areas outdoors. I cannot stress enough the requirement of a proper 4WD vehicle for this trip. Be sure you are gassed up before leaving town. The Palm Valley track can flood when the river is up, so be sure to check road conditions before you depart and do not attempt to fjord fast running or deep water. Vehicles must also cross large but smooth boulders, so having a proper 4WD SUV with clearance is also a must. On a day trip, be sure you are able to return to the main road before dusk. Check with your rental car agency, many have this requirement. If you are not confident you can make it on your own, I suggest not missing out and instead finding a local tour operator to take you. Finally, a healthy appreciation for all the risks of touring Australia is needed for any trip Down-under. Aussies take it seriously, so should you.