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Hiking the Larapinta Trail in the red heart of Australia

Lesley Russell writes:

I acknowledge the Arrernte people, the traditional owners of the land on which I walked, and pay my respects to their Elders past, present and future.

At the end of August I finally accomplished a long-term goal – to hike the Larapinta Trail in the Northern Territory (NT). It was an amazing, awesome, exhilarating, exhausting experience with lots of rocks – large and small – red dust and endless vistas.

The Larapinta Trail starts just outside Alice Springs and winds its way west along the West MacDonnell Ranges (Tjoritja) for 231 kilometres, ending at Mt Sonder (Rwetyepme), the NT’s fourth highest peak. It crosses the tribal lands of the Arrernte people who have a significant stake in the management of the trail and the area, and is named after the Arrernte name for the Finke River.

This is beautiful but harsh country, not to be tackled lightly. So I chose to walk in a small guided group on a 6-day trek covering some 80 km of the highlights of the trail. The tour operators, World Expeditions, has operated on the trail since 1995. They have their own semi-permanent campsites, pay great attention to the responsible environmental aspects of hiking in these areas, and have cooperative arrangements with the Indigenous owners to help provide a cultural experience. In addition, they promised the comforts of hot showers, delicious food, evening campfires, swags for cold nights – and we only had to carry day packs.

There were sixteen of us on the trip – mostly women, mostly semi-retired, all keen travellers. We turned out to be very compatible. The three young guides were amazing – they cheerily rose early to have hot coffee ready, cooked and served and cleaned up three meals a day, hiked the trails with huge packs that disgorged not only lunch but endless snacks and first aid needs, and kept the camp sites clean and orderly. They provoked us to be alert to the wonders of our surrounds, answered our endless questions and celebrated our physical efforts. Most days one of the guides made the long drive into Alice Springs to bring back fresh produce and, in one case, a new pair of boots after one walker’s pair fell apart.

This walk is offered only from April to September when the daytime temperatures are milder (15-25C), although the nights and early mornings can be surprisingly cold (sometimes below freezing). We were lucky with moderate temperatures and little wind (and of course no rain).

Day 1. Telegraph Station to Wallaby Gap (13.5 km)

We were picked up early from our hotels and dropped off at the Overland Telegraph Station just outside Alice Springs. The first part of the track follows the original 1907 road from Adelaide to Darwin and there are remnants of the telegraph line that from 1871 to 1928 was Australia’s only direct link with the rest of the world. It was shocking to see that much of the countryside we were walking through had been scorched by bushfires – something that was sadly a feature of the whole walk.

After crossing the dry sandy bed of the Charles River, a sign alerted us to the railway line ahead, and then we also saw the long silver lines of The Ghan coming slowly towards us. We waved cheerily to twenty or so carriages and wondered if our guides had secretly plotted this surprise.

Then we started climbing on rocky paths up and along Euro Ridge (a Euro is a small kangaroo and we saw a few along the trail). The views were spectacular, with Alice Springs in the distance, but already we were learning a cardinal rule: on these steep, rock-strewn trails along the edge of a precipice, you can’t walk and admire the view at the same time.

The jagged outcrop of Euro Ridge looking south west

The trail then descended to Wallaby Gap where we were met by one of the guides with a huge plate of icy cold watermelon as a reward for our first day’s efforts.

A short trip in the truck then had us at Nick’s Camp where we were shown the ropes on how to make up our swags (inside or outside the tents depending on how cold you wanted to be to watch the stars), heat the water for a bucket shower (it’s surprising how far a bucket of water will go), use the self-composting toilets, and recycle the rubbish.

Local woman Rayleen Brown drove into camp to tell us about the local bush foods, bringing lots of samples for pre-dinner snacking. Rayleen is a powerful Arrernte woman who never lets anything stand in her way, as exemplified by the story of how she and a friend started a catering company for Indigenous meetings. Now she also works with women who live on Country to ethically source bush products for food and medicinal use. You can read about her work here.

Day 2. Nick’s Camp to Simpson’s Gap and Standley Chasm (8 km)

The canvas flapping in the wind all night meant interrupted sleep, but good plunger coffee and a hearty breakfast had us ready to go. The trip’s pattern was to have an easy day after every hard day’s walking and our muscles appreciated that. Today we had a leisurely morning walk to Simpson’s Gap (Rungutjirpa), with lots of opportunity to explore the local flora. The tall red river gums stand out in the landscape and mark the watercourses (the creek and riverbeds might look dry but there is water under the sand). The bird life was not as plentiful as I had hoped (presumably impacted by the fires and the drought), but we did see a wedge-tail eagle and a flock of Major Mitchell cockatoos.

The walk into Simpson’s Gap provided a dramatic change of scenery – high red walls of multi-folded rock, tall trees (mulgas, hakeas and gums), cycad palms and water. This area has over 40 rare and relict plants. Several dreaming trails and stories cross at this important spiritual site and so swimming is not allowed in the waterhole.

Simpson’s Gap (Rungutjirpa), a sacred site associated with goanna, eagle and rock wallaby dreamings

It was wonderful to see a group of black-footed rock wallabies casually eyeing us off from their rocky perches, and a noisy flock of zebra finches flitting around the rock pools amused us as we ate morning tea and boosted our blood sugar levels with a packet of jelly snakes produced by our guides.

Black-footed wallabies

We drove to Standley Chasm (Angkerle Atwatye) for lunch (we relished an Asian-style noodle salad that our guides prepared) and a fascinating talk from Deanella (Dea) Mack, a cultural consultant from this country who now works with EY Consulting in Brisbane. Her thought-provoking talk addressed the issues around living within both Indigenous and white culture: I was taken by her description that to do this successfully, she must dial down her culture and dial up ours (and to be responsive we must respond in reverse).

Standley Chasm, or Angkerle Atwatye

Standley Chasm (Angkerle Atwatye) is a private reserve that is run by the traditional owners. It is sacred to women’s dreaming. Dea’s love of Country was obvious as she led us on a walk through the chasm, and it was easy to feel the peace and sacredness of the place, despite the tourists.

That night at Charlie’s Camp there was much conversation over dinner (barramundi and pavlova) about what we had learned. It was wonderful to be among a group of like-minded people who were all keen to know more about Indigenous culture.

Day 3: Serpentine Gorge to Charlie’s Camp (18 km)

I loved the early mornings just before dawn, with the stars and a new moon low and bright in the sky and then the sun suddenly appearing over the horizon. Usually it was cold enough to eat breakfast in down jacket, beanie and gloves, although these were discarded when we started walking at around 8:00 am.

We left camp through a landscape scarred and blackened by fire. January and February 2019 saw a 17-day inferno engulf large parts of the trail (something that was not well-reported down south). The fire/s were thought to have been started by lightning strikes and they caused enormous damage because the native spinifex is being pushed out by introduced buffel grass, which burns some four time hotter. These wildfires razed vegetation cover on the slopes, up the ridges and along the crests and severely damaged big long-lived river red gums and other trees in the gullies. The situation was aggravated because there has been little rain and strong winds are common. We saw small signs of regrowth everywhere but in some areas it was like a moonscape, very dystopian and somewhat depressing.

Extensive fire damage along the trail

Soon we emerged from the fire-damaged areas to a high ridge leading to Counts Point, with spectacular views on either side and ahead. From here we could see the comet crater of Gosse Bluff (Tnorala), Mt Zeil (Urlatherrke), at 1531m the highest peak in the NT, and Mt Sonder (Rwetyepme), which marks the end of the Larapinta Trail and our ultimate destination. On many rocks beside the trail you could see the ripples from when they were the base of the inland sea aeons ago.

Then it was a long, steep descent over rocky terrain and through the burnt out remains of mulga stands back to camp. By now we were experts at showering and the team effort required to heat the water in the “donkey”, get the temperature right, and hoist it into the shower bucket. A roster naturally established itself and once refreshed we could retire to the lounge areas of the communal tent for drinks, banter with the cooks, stories about blisters and photo sharing.

Mt Sonder (Rwetyepme) from Count’s Point
The descent from Count’s Point to Camp Charlie

Day 4: Charlie’s Camp to Ochre Pits and Glen Helen Homestead (10 km)

Fuelled by oatmeal cooked in a camp oven we headed out to see a nearby oddity – Serpentine Chalet Dam. This was built in 1960 to supply water to the tourist facility at Serpentine Chalet, but quickly fell into disuse when the road to Glen Helen improved. I have no idea how they got the concrete etc into the site. When we visited, there was very little water, although you could see the surprising high-water mark on the rocks.

Then our guides encouraged us to walk separately and silently through the burnt-out countryside, observing and absorbing everything around us. This was a very successful experiment (so much so that we repeated it several times in the days ahead) and I found that the stark beauty of burnt tree trunks, glimpses of green shoots among the ashes and the odd sighting of a bird or lizard reaffirmed that this landscape would recover.

When we all caught up for morning tea at Inarlanga Pass, there was a super surprise – hot thermoses of real coffee and Tim Tams emerged from the guides’ packs. That made everyone happy, especially the coffee addicts, and we had time to laze in the sun and admire the cycad palms.

Red river gum and cycad palms at Inarlanga Pass

Then we walked on to an ochre quarry – a wave-like wall with a range of ochre colours. Our truck met us at the nearby campsite where we had lunch, and then we headed to Glen Helen Homestead on the Finke River for an afternoon of swimming, lounging, ice-cream and ginger beer (well, that’s what I had, I think some others had something stronger to drink!).

Ochre cliffs
The Finke River at Glen Helen Homestead

Around the dinner table that evening there was some nervousness as we were briefed on a 2:00 am reveille for a 2:30 am departure to the base of Mt Sonder. Out guides were honest about how tough the climb (8.5 km) would be, done in the dark over very rocky terrain, with just head torches. There was much discussion about what to wear (How cold would it be? How many layers were needed?) and what the wind forecast predicted. We all made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for our breakfast and the guides produced hardboiled eggs with encouraging messages written on the shell (mine said “You are amazing”). Most of us slept (or tossed and turned) that night in our clothing.

Day 5: Early morning sunrise walk up Mt Sonder (17 km)

I actually did manage to sleep and woke up, shivering in temperatures around freezing, to feel around in the dark for my strategically-placed gear, most important of which was my headtorch. We ate our sandwiches and rode with our own thoughts on the truck to the starting point for the climb. Presumably like me, everyone was wondering if their fitness was up to this test.

Climbing in the dark turned out to be somewhat easier than I had imagined, mainly because our headtorches combined to give adequate light to see where we were placing our feet and because you couldn’t see or even predict what lay ahead (it was rocks and more rocks and always up). There were regular stops to check everyone was OK and to make sure plenty of liquids were drunk, but it went on relentlessly. When the first streaks of colour appeared in the sky, I was still some way from the top, but made it just before the sun came up (3 hours and 45 minutes to cover 8.5 km).

The wind was blowing (although not the 45 km/hr gusts predicted) and it was cold, but the spreading golden glow was glorious. And our guides miraculously produced hot coffee and tea and banana bread. As the sun rose higher, you could see the shadow of the mountain on the landscape below and we could look back at the incredible climb we had made along the so-called “shark fin”, so close to the precipice, and up the final slope.

We were encouraged to walk back down carefully and at our own pace – this was no place for accidents, and just a few days later a young man died from exhaustion on this climb. The work done to maintain tracks such as this is admirable, but the fact is that there is still a lot of rock-hopping involved. I was grateful for knees in good condition and my walking poles.

Before sunrise, before the top

Then it was back to Camp Fearless where hot showers and a huge brunch and an afternoon of lounging and local exploring awaited. The place buzzed with pride and happiness at our achievement. The celebratory dinner included roast lamb and chocolate cake made in a Dutch oven on the campfire, and there were celebratory toasts as we drank the last of the wine.

Day 6: Ormiston Pound and Gorge (8 km and a lot of rock-hopping)

Today’s walk was promised as the best of the entire trail, and so it proved. We reverted to our solitary walking mode to savour the day and the scenery that, after the first few kilometres, was free from fire damage. We climbed up to a viewing point from where you could see the whole amphitheatre of the pound (Kwartatuma) with Mt Giles to the east and Ormiston Gorge to the west.

Ormiston Pound (Kwartatuma)

We walked down into the pound, pausing for a break under a grove of river gums, and then headed off into the gorge. All around were amazing rock formations and the colours we associate with the Red Centre. There is really no track, it’s a matter of hopping from one large rock to the next between the high walls of the gorge. In between there are some patches of river sand. When there is water, negotiating this route must be difficult, and the rounded rocks highlighted how they have been tumbled around over the years. But currently there are just a few small rock pools until the last, which is large enough for swimming (if you are willing to brave very cold water).

River sand trails in Ormiston Gorge

This was the site of our last lunch together. By this stage we were a pretty dusty bunch with red dirt ingrained into everything. Suddenly the idea of a long, hot shower and clean white bedlinen started to sound good. We all wondered if we had enough clean clothes to be decent on the plane home.

There was a two-hour drive back to these luxuries in Alice Springs, much of it past mountain ridges we had hiked. That night we all gathered for one last meal together and to put the seal on a wonderful week with great companions in magnificent country.

Advice

This is not a walk for the faint-hearted or the unfit or those who don’t like red dust everywhere. It is advertised as a trek “in comfort” and to a large extent it is; it is also advertised as “easy to moderate” which it is often not. However, if hikers bring a good attitude, good fitness level and good equipment, then the tour operators certainly provide the rest.

The most important equipment is good footwear and I would recommend the support provided by boots with really solid soles. It is smart to have a second pair of footwear such as sturdy sneakers to wear around camp and in case something happens to your boots or your feet. I have written previously about the attention I pay to feet and socks, and luckily I didn’t have a single problem on this trip.

I wore long pants and did not use gators. Spinifex along the track was not a problem (the fires helped) although I concede that gators might have kept the bottoms of my pants and socks cleaner. During the day it was usually warm enough to walk in a T-shirt but, as indicated, the nights are cold and often windy, so layers are the best approach with a windproof layer in top.

Other essential equipment includes walking pole/s, the ability to carry up to 3 litres of water (I prefer water bottles over bladders), a really good headlamp (aside from the Mt Sonder climb it gets really dark very quickly at night) with additional batteries, and a power pack to charge phone and cameras (there are USB ports at camp but they are very limited in number and everyone needs them). There is next to no connectivity out on the trail and I loved that.

The tour operators give you a good list of what to bring. I would add moisturising lotion (preferably one with sunscreen) and lip balm as it is a very dry climate. We were not very troubled with flies, but there are creams made from botanical ingredients which seem to work well, smell nice and are easier to manage that fly nets.

One final public health note: gastroenteritis is common on the trail and there were signs warning about an outbreak. Take special care with hand hygiene and it’s a good idea to pack Imodium and Gastrolyte or similar. We all found that electrolyte replacements were helpful on the hotter days – I used Hairy Lemon tablets which I added to a small bottle of water.

It is useful to have done some reading beforehand about the geology and flora and fauna of this area so you know what to look for. The guides are quite knowledgeable and had flora and bird guides, but I craved more information about the amazing rock formations.

I hope I have persuaded you to explore this part of Australia. If you’re not up to a multi-day hike, then there are many day walks that can be done. You will come away inspired.

There are efforts to persuade people to begin using the Aboriginal names for the landscape features along the MacDonnell Ranges and I have tried to provide these. A number of different spellings are used, and I apologise for any inaccuracies.

• Read other articles in the #CroakeyEXPLORE series.

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