Larapinta

by Tim Dawe

065The Larapinta Trail, the Northern Territory’s spectacular long-distance walking track, may not be widely known but is fast becoming an Australian classic. Larapinta (“salty river” in the local Arrernte language) is a “must do” experience for the serious bush walker. From Alice Springs it winds its way along the backbone of the West MacDonnell ranges to Mt Sonder in the west, tracing the ancient songlines of the Aboriginal Dreamtime through a surprising variety of environments.

At 223km it’s not for the faint hearted. And it’s officially not easy; NT’s Wildlife and Parks Service (“Parks”) rates the twelve sections as either moderate or hard or very hard – none is rated easy. But it is rewarding.

While always challenging underfoot, and hard-going at times, the track is safe and in first-class condition with excellent signage, information boards and serviced water tanks. But special credit must go to the thoughtful and respectful walkers. In more than 200km I see not one piece of litter on the track (a sighting of a cigarette but remains unconfirmed).

I am on a 14-day guided tour; a group of eight walking every step of the “Larapinta – end to end”. There is an unguided way: private walkers, unsupported except for necessary food drops, carrying all their equipment. For these hardy souls, Parks recommends a journey of at least 20 days – and only in the cooler (fly-less) winter months.

Our World Expeditions tour provides not only experienced guides but the support of established campsites, water, tents and swags, three-course meals, first aid and emergency communications – materialising each afternoon in a following 4WD troop carrier pulling a trailer kitchen. This allows us the luxury of hiking with just a day pack. Carrying water, snacks and camera mine weighs a comfortable 6 kilograms.

We are led by Rob “Golly” Kirk, whose nickname is obvious whenever his hat comes off revealing long spirals of jet-black, Medusa-like, hair.  He is assisted by driver and understudy, Aran Price, recently returned from a UK desk to “give my dream job a go”. Both escape Tasmania each year to winter in Central Australia.

After our first day walking the easy 25km Alice Springs’s old telegraph station to Simpsons Gap section, we soon settle into our daily routine. First there’s the sleep-shattering call to boots at 6.45am when the July piccaninny dawn yields a temperature slightly above zero. Without the need for a tent in this tinder-dry climate, I sleep in the open under the stars and emerge from my warm, comfortably-padded swag.

The pre-march routine begins: boots (check feet), pack (check water, lunch things), then fall in a single line (check favoured position, rhythm and pace). Most days the track first takes us meandering through lowlands, gullies or creek beds, then on steep rocky climbs followed by glorious long ridge walks on top of the world. Wonderful!

The vast blue sky is luminescent, the red/green plains and khaki/blue ranges run to a curving horizon – and everywhere all around us is busted rock.

Rocks of all dimensions, ranging from coarse sand to house-size boulders in riverbeds, dominate the Larapinta Trail. But this is no barren desert, no amorphous wasteland. The scale and variety of the geology astounds. As with many Australian landscapes, it takes time and effort adjusting the eye to the detail. Golly shows us million-year-old tide marks and even rain drops frozen in rock.

The Chewings Range, our home for the first five days before we cross the featureless Alice Plain, is about 1700 million years old while its southerly sibling, the Heavitree Range, is but a pup at 800 million years. (William Mills, the explorer who discovered that important gap to a town like Alice, named the range after his school.) Quartzite capping gives the ranges’ their distinctive steep-sided shape. The geology’s importance to the Aborigines is through their Dreamtime spirit Yeperenye, a caterpillar-like creature even we can see chewing along these straight, deep valleys.

Growing through this busted rock is a staggering variety of vegetation. Spinifex abounds, but there are small forests of casuarina in dolomite plains, native pines, large mulgas, wonderfully sculptured ghost gums, and now and again, ironwoods, bloodwoods and corkwood trees. Golly shows us bush tucker: native orange and passionfruit. We walk through canyons so narrow that sunlight enters only fleetingly providing ecosystems where ancient plants thrive around cool shady waterholes. But the discovery of cycads – an unbroken link with the Jurassic Age – in the middle of Australia is a real surprise.

It’s no surprise, however, that the most memorable and photogenic camps and stops along the track involve waterholes. There seems a primordial attraction to the pleasure of water. Observing the morning or afternoon light on a waterhole and the unfathomable array of stars that light up the entire desert night sky draws me into nature like nothing else.

Our young guide, shy yet highly attentive, turns out to be a surprisingly good cook – with a camp oven. We expect our tour to give us breathtaking views, exhilarating effort and a modicum of comfort but we do not expect haute cuisine. OK, let’s call it a variety of quality, three-course meals of international flavour – all pulled out of an ember-filled hole in the ground!

As afternoon shadows lengthen and we release our feet from their boot bondage, Aran calls us for hors d’oeuvres around the campfire: bruschetta, felafels, cheese platters and fresh fruit. This is the day’s golden time to relax with a cold can of VB when it all feels deservedly worth it. As darkness draws in and fiery embers glow, we hear: “dinner’s served”.

To our increasing amazement we dine on barramundi (in the desert?), Moroccan chicken, pumpkin risotto, and lamb shanks. We are treated to baked chocolate bananas, ingenious tortilla crepes for our Mexican night and bread and butter pudding. Aran cooks a special pavlova and the oven even yields a delicious fruit cake – but never damper.

Daily walks vary from 13 – 31km depending on the grade and, in some cases, logistics. Day 4 from Standley Chasm to Birthday Waterhole is 17km graded very hard, “suitable for the fit and very experienced” but rewards us with the remarkable Brinkley’s Bluff’s stone cairn at 1200m and views on-top-of-the-world. The jolting, hairpin descent takes us just 20 minutes – a hairy experience indeed.

Excitement grows as does the reclining pregnant outline of Mt Sonder ahead in the distance. But first there is the small matter of 31km from Glen Helen Gorge to overnight at Redback Gorge, and then a dark early morning start to reach our lofty goal and witness the wonder of sunrise at Mt Sonder’s 1380-metre peak.

Woken at 4am, we start the climb fifteen minutes later. It is seriously cold outside the snugness of my swag, with a chilling wind. I wear everything I have. Whether it’s the cold or grim determination, we bound up pregnant Sonder’s left breast, doing 730m in little over two hours – a record of sorts so Golly tells us as he surprisingly pulls from his pack a tiny gas bottle for a welcome cup of tea.

What a way to finish. Eyes and nose stream in the cold but nothing can dampen this exhilarating experience. Former dark blobs become peaks that gleam with gold, mountain chains emerge and behind us we cast a massive triangular shadow to the horizon. We made it!

It takes us fourteen days to walk to this spot; it takes us two and half hours to drive back.

Our farewell dinner is at Alice Springs’s Aurora Grill, mainly to celebrate Golly’s 22nd birthday, secretly celebrated on the day we camped at the aptly named Birthday Waterhole and unwittingly enjoyed Aran’s pavlova birthday cake. No longer travellers but friends, and forever end-to-enders bound by an incredible outback experience that is the Larapinta Trail.

We raise our glasses. “Here’s a toast to…no more bloody rocks!” Clink!

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