After playing tourist at Uluru and Kata Tjuta it was time to leave comforts of the Ayer’s Rock Resort camp ground and head back off grid for a couple of nights. Finke Gorge National Park has been on the “must visit” list for quite a while and it was on our way home, so no better time than now. 🙂
The Finke is regarded by geologists as one of the oldest riverbeds on the planet. Because of the stability of the Australian tectonic plate upon which the river bed is centred, there has been nothing to disturb it for millions of years. The river’s course is therefore undisturbed and continues where it first penetrated the James Range.
To get there we headed east from Yulara back along the Lasseter Highway, north on Luritja Road and then turned onto the gravel Earnest Giles Road. This is a popular dry weather short cut across to the Stuart Highway and is pretty well maintained, at least on the western half we drove until we reached our turn off into southern access of the Finke Gorge NP track.
The actual National Park boundary is around 70km from the southern access track intersection and the route in traverses some beautiful desert oak forests, red sand dune country, claypans and mulga scrub – the road is however heavily corrugated in parts there are signs it can get boggy in wet weather.
After airing down our first destination was the old police outpost ruins at Illamurta Spring, just west of the Ilpurla indigenous community. The police outpost was established in 1893 soon after the area was first settled by cattle graziers, its presence being an effort to control spearing of cattle by the traditional owners – Constable Cowie took up the post and soon worked out that the spearing would stop if the displaced aborigines were provided with food, so the police station became a rations distribution point until it closed in 1912.
The historic site is little more than a pile of rocks where the buildings once stood together with remains of a horse paddock fence – the small footprint of the buildings suggests this was very basic and cramped accommodation. The outpost is in narrow opening of a small gorge that leads into the spring itself where water may have been collected, at least until a well was established at the outpost.
After knocking together some lunch wraps we continued toward the National Park and soon reached bed of the Finke River. The track followed the river and occasionally crossed it – gullies and washouts made this section slow going while even the flatter sections of track on the river flood plain had moguls which made the car and trailer lurch around and made for an uncomfortable ride.
At last we reached boundary of the park, from here the track was almost exclusively in the sand and gravel bed of the river itself, including many water crossings and rocky fords. There were some impressive gorge sections where the river has carved between sandstone hills and mesas and the many water holes hosted plenty of pelicans, egrets and other water birds.
Roughly half way into the park we reached our camp for the night, the unattractively named Boggy Hole which is a large permanent water hole under a red rock escarpment.
Other than a single vehicle passing through we had this gorgeous little oasis to ourselves, tent of the TVAN facing across the waterhole to the orange and red escarpment on which we watched black footed rock wallabies clambering around under the watchful eye of brown falcons that soared silently by. Just on dark we were visited by a curious dingo which no doubt smelt the steaks I was grilling on the Weber, though he bolted back into the bush once he realised we had spotted him prowling in the shadows.
As well as a beaut camp site Boggy hole was also location of another police outpost – a flagstone floor and stone chimney are all that remains of the mounted police station established in 1883 and closed a decade later. Unfortunately Mounted Constable Willshire who established the outpost is infamous as the first police officer in Australian history to be charged with murder. Willshire was responsible for death of at least 13 aborigines including those that were in chains when shot – he was eventually charged and tried for shooting two aborigines while they were sleeping, though he was acquitted. The judgement was very controversial, and although he walked free he was removed from active police duties and soon resigned from the service.
A peaceful night by the waterhole guaranteed a good sleep, only waking when the Major Mitchell cockatoos became a little rowdy on sunrise. A leisurely breakfast followed by packing camp meant we were on our way again, exploring remainder of the gorge.
We would like to have included Palm Valley in our trip but had an appointment to keep at Alice Springs later in the week – Hema shows a short cut that would have meant we could pass through the valley on our way out of the park but it is now signed for Park’s Dept use only and we didn’t have time to go out of the park then back in on the main Palm Valley access track. Not all bad however as we now had a great excuse to come back again.
The track continued to wind and wander, following the sandy river bed until it emerged onto flat country near the Mpakaputa community, then a good gravel road to the historic township of Hermannsburg. Our Finke Gorge experience ended at the old Hermannsburg Mission site where we took time to check out some of the old buildings and of course the gift shop.
From here we jumped onto the Mereenie Loop (permit required), a tourist circuit that took us past some beautiful red centre landmarks:
- Gosse’s Bluff is a grand rock amphitheatre created by an asteroid crashing to earth and well worth driving the short (but rough) gravel road into the conservation reserve.
- Tyler’s Pass lookout is a short side trip to a hill top car park that opens up a fantastic vista across Gosse’s Bluff and the West MacDonnell Ranges.
- Redbank Gorge is a little way off the road and requires a fair bit of rock hopping, but eventually the trail opens onto a water filled gorge that would be a great swimming hole in summer (but was way too cold for us to consider)
- There is a worthwhile scenic lookout north of Namatjira Drive at its crossing of the Finke River, from which you can see northward up the old river’s valley and across to the impressive peak of Mount Sonder (tallest peak of the West MacDonnells and 4th highest in the NT).
- Glen Helen Gorge camp ground provided us with afternoon tea though the camp grounds looked quite spartan as somewhere to stay – judging on the photos on walls of the store the rock gorge and waterhole itself is impressive and worth a closer look next time.
- Our next nights’ camp was at Ellery Creek Bighole, a tight little campground beside a beautiful waterhole formed by water rushing through a narrow gorge that cuts through the range. We had to share the camp site with a cheeky ‘squatter’ who had set up his tent in our site without a booking – he was camping with his young son so we didn’t have the heart to protest too much and let him stay as there was room enough for us all.
- We called into Standley Chasm without realising it is a privately managed site for which they want payment to walk into the gorge – by this stage of our trip we had seen some incredible natural gorges for free and couldn’t bring ourselves to pay for the last one….
This leg of our trip ends in Alice Springs where first stop is the local car washdown bay, which we proceeded to fill with red mud and gravel accumulated on the rig over several thousands of kilometres. It was only a quick wash down but made the car and trailer recognisable again and meant we could get in and out of it without getting too dirty ourselves.
Alice Springs is the only place where we didn’t stay in the TVAN owing to its reputation for petty crime. Instead we booked into an apartment at Alice on Todd, somewhere we had stayed previously and where we knew we could park the trailer safely within their secure gated grounds. Our main reason for calling into The Alice was a scheduled service of the Landcruiser and chance to restock with supplies for our final push to home. We also took opportunity for a great café breakfast and purchase of another indigenous art piece for our collection.
This epic trip is nearing its end, if you can call another 3,000km of outback travel over 4 days “close to home” – watch for our next blog to catch up on our adventures as we head back to Brisbane.