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Desert Rivers region

Alice Springs, 2004

This region is made up of three drainage basins - the Finke, the Todd and the Hay. The south-east portion of the Northern Territory makes up about two-thirds of the area; the other third is in north-east South Australia, along with a fragment of south west Queensland. This is the most hydrologically isolated region of the Lake Eyre Basin. Major rainfalls generate sizeable flows in the rivers, produce local flooding and fill local salt lakes, wetlands and swamps, but few flows reach Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, with most rivers draining into the sands far south-west of Alice Springs.

Rivers and basic 'route'

  • The Plenty and the Hay Rivers rise in the Harts and Dulcie Ranges and flow south-east towards the Simpson Desert. They run roughly parallel to each other, about 50km apart.
  • The Todd and Hale Rivers, and Illogwa Creek all rise in the MacDonnell Ranges on the far west of the Lake Eyre Basin. Again the direction of flow is south-east.
  • Along with its tributaries, the Hugh and the Palmer, the Finke is said to be the oldest river in the world, rising in the MacDonnell Ranges 825km north-west of Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre.
  • The Stevenson, Hamilton and Alberga rise and flow east from the Musgrave Ranges 500km west-north-west of Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre; they all eventually join the Macumba River.

Major flood events

  • After rain, the heavy flows of the Plenty, Hay, Todd and Hale Rivers flood out into the Simpson Desert.
  • Huge flows can occur in the Hugh, Palmer and the Finke, but they are usually short-lived, and the Finke too floods out into the Simpson Desert. After the floods of 1967, the Finke was 11km wide near Andado; floodwaters between the sand dunes can be 6 m deep and last many months.
  • In full flood, the Macumba River reaches the Kallakoopah, which feeds into Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre via the Warburton.
  • Hydrological observations indicate that in the last few thousand years the Finke has reached Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre. Some evidence suggests the Finke flowed into the Macumba in the first decade of the twentieth century.


  • The varied desert landscapes of these three river basins include dunefields, sandplains, stony and gibber plains, riverine floodplains, mound springs, intermittent freshwater/saline lakes and shrub swamps. River Red Gums and Coolabahs occur along creek lines, but more common are chenopod shrubs, tussock grasses, acacias, cane grass, spinifex, and occasional gidgee woodlands.
  • Unlike the rest of the Lake Eyre Basin, the MacDonnell Ranges in the north-west are atypical, having steep gradients and elevations over 600m. These rugged ranges and foothills are characterised by open woodlands with grassy or shrubby understorey.
  • Rare and threatened species include the rare Acacia peuce, the Central Rock-rat and Dusky Hopping Mouse.
  • The Hay River catchment is one of the few relatively pristine watercourses in Central Australia.
  • Dalhousie Springs (link is external) (known to Aboriginal people as Irrwanyere) has possibly the most diverse native fish fauna of any desert mound spring in the world.

Unusual demographic or land use features

  • Alice Springs is the largest town in the Lake Eyre Basin with over 25,000 people (ABS 2011). It is the major service area for most of central Australia, a hub for both industry and tourism, and a major centre for the Aboriginal art industry.
  • Other towns include Hermannsburg, Areyonga and Santa Teresa.
  • The major land use is pastoral, but tourism is critical to the region's economy, along with mining, Aboriginal activities and national parks.

'Famous' places

  • Dalhousie Springs in Witjira National Park.
  • The Simpson Desert - the dream of crossing the endless sand dunes lures many outback 4WD enthusiasts.
  • The MacDonnell Ranges - a 644km long series of mountain ranges with many spectacular gaps and gorges and areas of Aboriginal significance.
  • Royal Flying Doctor Service complex in Alice Springs.
  • Hermannsburg - of significance to both Aboriginal people and the pioneer history of Central Australia.
  • Historic sites such as the Alice Springs Telegraph Station and the ruins of the gold rush town of Arltunga.
  • The Finke Desert Race, the Camel Cup and the Henley-on-Todd (dry river bed regatta).