Jurassic in the outback

Craig Platt ventures into Palm Valley, a desert oasis of primordial landscape in the Finke Gorge National Park.

'Welcome to Jurassic Park," says our guide. And despite being in the heart of Australia's Red Centre, the description is apt.

We're standing on the edge of Palm Valley in Finke Gorge National Park, looking down at a lush, green oasis in the middle of the desert. In front of us the valley's namesake trees loom, still thriving despite the extreme changes in climate this part of the world has undergone in the past million years or so.

Down in the valley, with its relatively abundant vegetation, it's hard to believe we're only a few minutes' drive away from desolate desert. Indeed, in this primordial landscape, seeing a dinosaur strolling along the riverbed wouldn't seem all that out of place.

There's plenty to see around Alice Springs that doesn't involve driving four or five hours to Uluru or Kings Canyon. Palm Valley is one highlight, just 130 kilometres south-west of the town, and can be reached easily in a day trip.

Our visit starts early in the morning, when we're picked up by Ron from Palm Valley Tours in his four-wheel-drive. While it's possible to rent four-wheel-drives in town, the road to Palm Valley quickly goes from bad to non-existent, so it's recommended only for experienced off-road drivers.

As we bounce along the dry bed of the Finke River, Ron explains that he often finds himself assisting day-trippers whose vehicles are stuck.

He points out debris high in the branches of white gums that line the riverbed's edge, which lodged there during floods. It seems fantastic, given the dryness of the landscape, that water can flow through here several metres deep.

A former Melburnian, Ron fell in love with the outback landscape after a holiday and decided to move here. Now he spends his working day in the environment he loves and his enthusiasm is infectious. I also quickly discover his love for puns.

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"We'll shortly be seeing a lava tree," he announces. "Have you seen a lava tree before?"

I confess I haven't. Shortly afterwards we arrive at the Finke Gorge National Park's main car park, which features a large toilet block. "Here's the lava tree [lavatory]," says Ron, laughing.

To my embarrassment, I still take a few minutes to get it.

The contrast between the landscape of the park and the surrounding desert is stark. With its large rock formations and scrubby plants, Finke Gorge looks more like the setting of a Hollywood western than the heart of the Australian outback.

We stop for a few minutes and meet a couple of grey nomads who are living in the national park as voluntary caretakers: cleaning the lavatory and generally looking after the place. They tell us they were doing the typical grey nomad thing, driving around the country, but after arriving here decided to stay for a couple of months. Like Ron, they've fallen in love with the area.

As we continue along the dry riverbed, the going gets rough – the car has to negotiate large boulders and Ron suggests we get out and walk while he continues on. It will be more comfortable and we'll make better time on foot.

We meet Ron at a small car park on the edge of the canyon that leads to Palm Valley. He joins us and we climb man-made stone stairs to the top and walk along the canyon's edge. It's not long before we see the bright green fronds of the valley's famed palms.

Palm Valley's red cabbage palms exist nowhere else in the world – they are a relic from prehistoric times – and they give the valley the feel of a picture-book oasis.

It's quiet here, with few other tourists about. Lizards disappear between rocks as we walk along the track. Rock wallabies are said to frequent the valley too, though we don't spot any.

We make our way down into the valley, where we discover the location's most surprising form of wildlife: fish.

Towards the end of the gorge there are several small waterholes, some not much bigger than puddles, yet they are teeming with life. It's further evidence of the bizarre and diverse ecosystem that exists in this small patch of the outback.

Strolling back towards the car park along the valley, Ron stops occasionally to point out juvenile palms poking through the surface of the sandy bed. There are about 3000 adult palms in the valley and despite the species' longevity, their survival is precarious.

Ron takes the time to draw a circle in the sand around the small young palm to try to ensure visitors don't trample it. It's not particularly effective; moments later a couple of middle-aged women head straight for it and continue over it despite my own efforts to warn them (they seem surprisingly uninterested).

Ron breaks out a picnic lunch, which we eat in the shadow of another relic plant, the MacDonnell Ranges cycad.

We notice Ron has slipped in another joke. A small sign posted on a large boulder reads: The Real Hard Rock Cafe.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Tiger Airways flies to Alice Springs non-stop from Melbourne for $168. Qantas flies non-stop from Sydney for $267. (Fares are one way, including tax.) Finke Gorge National Park is 138 kilometres west of Alice Springs. Turn south off Larapinta Drive just west of Hermannsburg. Access along the last 16km of track is limited to high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Touring there

Palm Valley Tours operates one-day trips to Palm Valley, picking up passengers from their accommodation in Alice Springs and visiting the Aboriginal community of Hermannsburg on the return journey. It costs $155 a person and includes lunch, morning and afternoon tea. See www.palmvalleytours.com.au.

Staying there

Aurora Alice Springs is on the Todd Mall, the city's major shopping and dining centre, and has large, comfortable standard rooms from $98. See www.auroraresorts.com.au.

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