Trekking the Larapinta

G'day buddy

This story first appeared on former NRMA site Living Well Navigator on August 29, 2014.

Alice Springs is a sea of reds, oranges and browns from my plane window – a sharp contrast to the blue and grey skies of Sydney that I left behind less than three hours earlier.

I’m heading to Central Australia to undertake part of the Larapinta Trail. Located in the West MacDonnell Ranges, the trail spans a total distance of 223 kilometres and is considered one of the Great Walks of Australia. Divided into 12 sections of different lengths and levels of difficulty, each part can be done as day (or multi-day) treks or completed in its entirety in a few weeks.

I’m doing the Classic Larapinta Trek, a guided six-day walking holiday with adventure travel company World Expeditions. It’s a fully supported trek (you only carry a daypack filled with essentials and the rest of your gear is transported for you or supplied), which covers daily distances of between eight to 16 kilometres.

A heady start

Framed by the East and West MacDonnell Ranges on both sides, ‘‘the Alice’ is an easy starting point for our trip, which begins at the nearby Telegraph Station, the site of the Territory’s first European settlement.

From here, our group, nine females aged from 17 through to 60-plus, follow our guides, Holly, Matilda and Lily, from Euro Ridge into the Larapinta. Only minutes into our walk, a euro (a type of wallaroo) appears on a nearby rock, watching us as we embark on the 13.5-kilometre journey to Wallaby Gap.

It’s a gentle introduction to the treks that lie ahead. A long and steady walk in a landscape unlike any other I have seen in Australia. We trace dusty yellow and orange paths, dotted with trees of green, grey and brown and endless wild buffel grass and pretty mulla mulla bush flowers of soft purple and bone. The sky is cloudless and blue, our surrounds as rugged as they are beautiful.

Afterwards, we head to Nick’s Camp, a semi-permanent wilderness campsite, where we stay for the next two nights. Oscar, our fourth guide, has started the fire, so the line for the ‘shower’ (two minutes of bliss courtesy of a bucket of water warmed by its flames) begins. After dinner, I head to bed early and sleep deeper and longer than I have in months.

Walk this way

Our days start early, the sky still black and the stars of the night prior fading. Coffee and a warm breakfast of porridge and toast help fuel us for the long walks that lie ahead.

We dip in and out of different sections of the Larapinta, visiting many sites of spiritual and cultural importance to the traditional owners, the Arrernte people, along the way.

Our second day, a warm 27 degrees (dropping to a chilly temperature of zero by night), sees us take a scenic, but at times steep, 10-kilometre walk through Hat Hill Saddle to Simpsons Gap. Later we visit the dramatic natural alleyway that is Standley Chasm.

We walk 15 kilometres on our third day, taking in the pretty Serpentine Gorge, with its river red gums and waterholes, then later, up a rocky ascent and across a high ridge to Counts Point. It’s a stunning but challenging trek, with views of the ranges sprawling for miles to both sides, ending with glimpses of Gosse Bluff, a remnant comet impact crater, and Mount Sonder, a challenge that awaits us in coming days.

I make my way down the mountain, tired and reflective, as we walk back to Charlie’s Camp, where we have relocated for three nights.

A visit to the Ochre Pits the next morning is a highlight. The quarry is a sacred site to the local Arrarnta people who still use the ochre for ceremonial purposes. The cliff face is patterned with dramatic swirls and curves of gold, burgundy, orange and pink caused by the presence of iron ore in various amounts, weathered over time by wind and rain.

Later we head to Glen Helen Gorge, which sits on a lush waterhole shaded by reeds and tall gums and is home to an abundance of birds and fish. Here we spend some downtime at the nearby former cattle station turned resort.

These great heights

On the fifth day, we leave at 3am, and in the darkness of the morning, we drive out to the 1380-metre high Mount Sonder. It’s a trek that perhaps best encapsulates my experience of the Larapinta Trail.

Armed with head torches (and some nerves), we make the difficult, four-hour, eight-kilometre climb in time to the top for sunrise. It is almost magical as the sun rises and stretches its rays, warming the cool morning air. The sky awash in shades of orange and pink, the site of the surrounding ranges endless.

I realise in that moment how much quiet and space I have had these last few days, without the modern distractions of phone calls, text messages, social media and emails. It’s been challenging, trying, exciting and rewarding.

After our descent back down the mountain, we enjoy a hearty brunch by the sunny banks of the Finke River and an afternoon peppered with reading and naps.

The trek concludes the next day in relaxed mode, with a visit to the striking Ormiston Pound. Only three of our group of nine decides to take the longer walk (which involves getting a little wet at a river crossing). The rest of us take in the views from nearby lookouts and end with a walk down to the pretty waterhole. We spot a curious young dingo on the sandy banks opposite us. It seems a fitting way to complete our Larapinta experience before we head back to Alice Springs, our outback adventure drawing to a close.

Travel tips:

  • Invest in a good pair of hiking boots (and thick socks) and wear them in before the trek. Your feet will thank you!
  • Pack wisely – think sunscreen, sunglasses, thermals, a beanie, a hat, gloves, blister aids, insect repellent and water bottles (enough to carry three litres of water a day).
  • Get fit. Prepare yourself by walking through all types of terrain and weather as much as possible before you leave.