TOP: 4WD tourists arrive at Palm Valley. ABOVE: A montage of photos of Gosse Bluff’s western rim. RIGHT: Magnificent thick vegetation dominated by the unique Red Cabbage Palms. BELOW: A section of Palm Valley from its southern rim. • Palms among the first that you see in the valley. • Nasty Mexican Poppy weed in the bed of the Finke River traversing the conservation park. • Cycads in Palm Valley. • Google earth image of Gosse Bluff.
By ERWIN CHLANDA
You are in a narrow valley formed by sheer red rock walls, studded with cycads and ghost gums with gleaming white trunks.
On its floor, towering over lush vegetation in the cool shade, are some 3000 Red Cabbage Palms which have their origins in Central Australia’s tropical past, survivors in a true oasis now surrounded by harsh dryness.
The annual rainfall is just 200mm but water seeping to the surface forms small ponds, and provides life for the majestic trees.
You’re in Palm Valley.
Some 50 kms to the north-west is Gosse Bluff, believed to have been created 140 million years ago when a comet, 600 metres wide, slammed into the earth, blasting a hole 20 kilometers across.
Erosion has reduced the crater’s height by two kilometers, and its diameter, to five.
The craggy rim holds you captive as you view it from a small rise inside, not in the least because of the stories told by the local Arrernte, who call the place Tnorala: In the legend it was formed by a baby slipping out of its celestial mother’s coolamon and falling from the sky.
This place once rich in food was abandoned, as the story goes, when long before whites arrived, all men, women and children living there were massacred by kadaitcha men from the desert to the south. They in turn were killed by the avenging family.
No-one lives inside Tnorala now.
To the world today it is a prime example of an impact crater. For our tourism promoters it apparently does not exist. Gosse Bluff had 1216 visitors this year up to the end of May.
Palm Valley and Gosse Bluff have two things in common: they could both be major attractions.
And this is a matter to which, judging from election promises, the new Mills Government is likely to be paying a great deal of attention when it dismantles the over-funded and under-achieving Tourism NT.
Both Palm Valley and Gosse Bluff are, in fact, reserved for a tiny fraction of tourists, current or potential: all those who don’t have a big 4WD, don’t want to or can’t afford to hire one, and don’t like going on organised tours are excluded.
There’s a great bitumen road, 120 kilometers, from Alice Springs to Glen Helen.
There is a great bitumen road, 60 kilometers, from Glen Helen to the turn-off to Gosse Bluff.
The distance to the bluff from there is six kilometers. It’s unsealed and marked 4WD.
This means people arriving in The Centre in a two-wheel drive car are discouraged from going there.
If they hire a cheap 2WD ($46.90 a day, according to one company) their insurance would be voided if they go off the bitumen.
To go to Palm Valley they are up for $166.95 a day for a large 4WD (the small ones don’t cut it).
This is surely one of the crassest examples of incompetent road planning, all under the nose of Tourism Central Australia which, it seems to one longtime local operator (speaking on the condition of not being name) is in the final stage of “implosion”.
The access situation is similar at Palm Valley.
You’re on a great bitumen road for the 120 kilometers to Hermannsburg – for which Growth Town tourism enterprise opportunities surely abound.
If from there you’re heading to Palm Valley, just 18 kilometers away, be ready for one of the worst roads known to man. It will take you an hour and a half. Much of the final section you’ll be in first gear low range 4WD.
It’s no big deal in terms of driving skills, just time consuming, irritating, burns a lot of fuel and increases the risk of importing or spreading buffel and couch seeds (the place is heavily infested with those weeds already), and Mexican poppy (quite a few plants are in the Finke River).
No question, 4WD enthusiasts need love, too, but for them we should set aside tracks in other areas, with real driving challenges.
Isn’t there a monorail for sale in Sydney? A slim single rail would be a lot less offensive than this dreadful road. But then that would require thinking big – like Paul Everingham did with Ayers Rock Resort, to which our tourism’s centre of gravity has been allowed to shift.
It is noteworthy that the lousy state of the road to Palm Valley is seen as desirable feature by the Finke Gorge National Park’s Joint Management Plan of October 2011.
“The four wheel drive experience at Finke Gorge National Park is highly valued by visitors seeking adventure and solitude,” says the plan.
Is this a convenient excuse for leaving the Palm Valley access road in the disgraceful state it is in, for not spending any money on it?
The plan mapping out the collaboration between traditional owners (under the auspices of the Central Land Council), and government parks authorities, is long on protecting “cultural sites, springs, seepages and associated ecosystems … and to share the area’s rich cultural heritage with visitors,” and short on specifics about the tourism potential, such as projections of earnings: “The Park will receive a high level of management input from park operations with great scope for the joint management partners to increase Indigenous employment associated with the Park.
“In collaboration with adjoining landowners, opportunities exist to expand biodiversity conservation, four wheel drive routes and explore accommodation alternatives.” And so on. But where are the numbers? Where are the projections of earnings?
The plan says the park gets an estimated 28,400 visitors a year. From January 1 to August 31 this year, 16,562 people visited Palm Valley.
The Ayers Rock – Uluru national park had 298,034 visitors in 2010 and 273,430 in 2011.
The future of the Finke Gorge National Park – including Palm Valley – will be in the hands of the “Management Committee [which] will meet at least once each year”. What dynamic change can we hope to see from that? What venture ever got off to the ground with an annual planning meeting?
The committee’s membership “will consist of at least two senior Parks officers, Traditional Owner representatives and a Central Land Council staff member. Traditional Owners will decide their representatives.”
There is no mention of a tourism industry representative or someone with business nous on that committee although the report says the “partners will work with the tourism industry, the Central Land Council and local operators to foster Aboriginal employment in tourism and assist the development of local Indigenous tourism enterprises including cross-cultural voluntourism [sic] opportunities”.
What are they going to do for Alice Springs?
Chief Minister Mills has during the campaign, in very obscure terms, foreshadowed moves to put the industry in a stronger decision making position.
Will Tourism Central Australia (TCA) still be around to have a say?
The tourism operator says he has not been consulted about these changes, neither by Mr Mills nor by the TCA.
He believes the Tourism NT (TNT) marketing arms may be privatised.
TCA needs to be revamped, he says, it has lost focus on its membership base, its heavy funding from TNT should be re-examined: After all, would a watchdog bite the hand that feeds him?
The operator says there are fewer people on the front counter of TCA, less attention is given to sales, and there’s a lot of duplication: “They are keeping their seats warm until they know what’s going on.”
The Alice Springs News Online has made several requests for an interview with TCA chairman Jeff Huyben. He has cancelled one appointment and so far not agreed to another.
We are seeking comments also from new Ministers Lambley, Anderson, Giles and Conlan.