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Finke River System

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Finke River System
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One of the largest rivers in Central Australia, the Finke River System is also cited as being ‘the oldest river in the world’, with it’s source starting in the MacDonnell Ranges in the Northern Territory. It is the main drainage of the southern part of Central Australia.

It runs from the northwest to the southeast, joined by Ellery Creek and the two main tributaries, the Palmer River and the Hugh River. The Finke River starts at the confluence of the Davenport Creek and Ormiston Creek, just north of the popular Glen Helen. It then meanders for some 600 plus kilometres passing through the Finke Gorge National Park and like the Hugh, Palmer and Diamantina rivers all flowing inland, to the western edge of the Simpson Desert in northern part of South Australia and eventually ending up in Lake Eyre.

Finke River (near Glen Helen) with the West MacDonnell Range in the background.
Finke River (near Glen Helen) with the West MacDonnell Range in the background.

Some 15 million years ago the Finke River would have drained into Lake Eyre by cutting through the sediments of the Amadeus Basin. Now it releases into the sand plains of northern South Australia (Kerle, 1996).1

The Finke River also winds pass Palm Valley, in fact, those visiting Palm Valley will find that part of the route is along the dry river bed of the Finke River. During times of the rare heavy rain in the region, water flows through Palm Valley to feed into the Finke River. Check out some of our water images from Palm Valley.

The Finke River, like many rivers in Central Australia, appear to be just a dry river bed. It is generally a broad sandy river bed with waterholes dotted along its length. There are nine permanent water holes along the route, important sources of water for local wildlife. In flood, the formerly dry river becomes a large, powerful torrent of water, sweeping debris, boulders, pebbles and sand in its path. The body of water could be short lived, flowing only for short periods, from hours to a couple of weeks, depending on the amount of rain, and where the water is flowing from.

The Finke River was named by John McDouall Stuart on 3 April 1860 during his fourth attempt to cross the Australian continent from south to north. Stuart named the Finke River ‘after my sincere friend William Finke, Esq. of Adelaide, South Australia - one of the liberal promoters of the different expeditions I have had the honor to lead’.2

In parts of the Northern Territory the indigenous name for the river is ‘Larapinta’. Depending on your source there appears to be a number of meanings for ‘Larapinta’ including snake and dry river bed. Another interpretation for the word ‘Larapinta’ or ‘Lirambenda’, is ‘creek with permanent water’. The Western Arrernte name for the river is spelt ‘Lhere-pirnte’, with ‘Lhere’ meaning ‘river’ and ‘pirnte’ meaning ‘salt’, hence ‘salty river’.

Information Centre Parks and Wildlife Service of the Northern Territory - Regional Office Alice Springs

Central Australian Visitor Information Centre

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Finke River System Attractions

Some popular destinations found on and around the Finke River System include:
  • Finke Gorge National ParkAngkerle / Standley Chasm
    Located 50 km by sealed road from Alice Springs, Standley Chasm has been gouged into touch sandstone by the floods that, over untold millions of years, have surged down a narrow tributary of the Finke River system. The result is a deep red cleft, with slopes on either side rising 80 metres above the floor.
  • Boggy Hole
    One of the permanent waterholes found along the Finke River. Located on the Finke River route about 2.5 hours from Palm Valley, the Boggy Hole is a large waterhole where visitors can experience bush camping (there are no facilities).
  • Ellery Creek
    Part of the Finke River System, the  Ellery Creek Big Hole is one of the largest permanent waterholes in the West MacDonnell National Park, offering a important source of water for the local wildlife and a popular, refreshing stop for many locals and travellers.

    Located about an hour's drives west of Alice Springs, along Namatjira Drive, the waterhole is a great place for a swim. The park also offers a great spot to camp, especially for those who are happy to ‘rough it’.
  • Finke Gorge National Park
    The park also includes part of the Finke River system, carving a path southwards through the surrounding desert ranges. As you travel along the often dry river bed, you can see evidence of pass torrents having carved its way through the land, often taking debris that get caught up and trapped at the base of many of the surviving River Red Gum and other eucalypts.
  • Larapinta Trail
    Officially opened in April 2002, this iconic walking trail cover a total of 223 km. Composed of 12 sections, the first section starts just west of Alice Springs, at the Telegraph Station through to Simpsons Gap. The western parts of this section pass through the catchment head of the Finke River. The trail runs along the backbone of the West MacDonnell Range and through the spectacular MacDonnell Range National Park, taking in Mount Sonder.
  • Mount Sonder / Rwetyepme
    Mount Sonder (at 1,380 metres above sea level), is the fourth highest point in Central Australia, after Mt Giles (1,389 metres), Mt Edwards (1,423 metres) and Mt Zeil (1,531 metres).
  • Ormiston Pound / Ormiston Gorge
    The Finke River passes Ormiston Gorge in the west and during times of rain, water can be seen in the river from the Mount Sonder Lookout.
  • Palm Valley
    World famous popular destination, with remnants of a tropical rainforest Red Cabbage Palm (Livistona mariae). Access to the valley is along part of the Finke River, in fact to cross and drive on the river several times. During the rare occasions of heavy rain, water flows through Palm Valley feeding into the Finke River.
  • Simpson Desert, NT
    Occupying the south eastern corner of the Northern Territory, the Simpson Desert is a large region of sand ridges, with an altitude dropping to under 200 m and a summer temperature that can exceed 50°C. It is part of a region that crosses borders, both into South Australia and Queensland. Several rivers including the Finke River start in the higher parts of the Northern Territory, before disappearing into the desert.
Dingo © A and H Holden, 2006
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Finke River - Other Links

1 Australian Natural Resources Atlas: Rangelands - Overview. Landforms and hydrology
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