Day 5: Kings Canyon to Alice Springs
We take time in the morning to walk into Kings Canyon, a spectacular rip in the desert with sheer red rock walls that tower more than 800 feet above the canyon floor. Kings Canyon is home to thickets of palms and cycads and many species of native animals that drink from the cool waterholes. The Luritja people have lived here for at least 20,000 years; the place was unknown to Europeans until explorer George Giles came through here in 1872.

Our destination today is Alice Springs, a town of 27,000 souls situated on the Stuart Highway almost midway between Adelaide and Darwin that is the largest settlement for 1000 miles in any direction. We're taking the scenic route through Hermannsburg, along a road that heads north then east along the McDonnell Ranges. The signs in German, Japanese, and Italian warn tourists that gravel requires "careful driving techniques."

We quickly learn to watch out for any white Toyota Land Cruiser or Nissan Patrol; most have Hertz stickers on the door, and are driven with little concern for what's going on under the wheels. At one point, we're passed by a Japanese guy in a Land Cruiser pounding down the road like it was the Tomei Expressway, neither braking for, nor steering around, any obstacles in his path. I wince as I watch the Land Cruiser crash and bounce all over the place, the springs and shocks taking terrible punishment.

Hermannsburg was founded in 1877 by two Lutheran missionaries, and the old buildings at the center of the town still stand. It's famed as the birthplace of Albert Namatjira, an aboriginal painter whose vivid watercolor landscapes of the McDonnell Ranges once captured the attention of Queen Elizabeth, and have been hung in major art galleries.

We turn off the main road near Hermannsburg to take a detour into Palm Valley, on a track marked "4WD Only." The 18 miles or so into campground take us an hour; the route basically follows the bed of the Finke River, one of the largest in the Northern Territory. The Finke starts in obscurity and finishes nowhere in particular, running some 370 miles from the McDonnell Ranges southeast to the western edge of the Simpson Desert. The Subarus tackle the deep water, loose rocks, and fine sand without raising a sweat, and effortlessly crawl over rocky outcrops.

With all the recent rains, there's plenty of water in the Finke and the waterholes in Palm Valley are full. The tropical palms in the valley look incongruous, yet they are a native species, living remnants of an age when central Australia was a tropical paradise, millions of years ago.