Larapinta Trail, NT: easy trekking in the back of beyond
The campfire flares like primal television, alive with flickering dragons and Rorschach dogs. I could watch it half the desert night but my trekking companions are already in their tents and we have an early start tomorrow. We’re overnighting at Camp Fearless, a permanent site west of Alice Springs. Come morning and the trill of butcherbirds and bukbuks, I poke my head out of the tent to see the West MacDonnell Ranges awash with pastel light.
There’s time for a hot-water bucket shower, coffee and breakfast. Canteens filled, we toss our bags in the back of our vehicle and head off. There are six of us, plus two guides, as we drive to the trailhead at Serpentine Gorge, slap on sunblock, shoulder our daypacks and begin hoofing it uphill.
My walking companions include a quartet of youthful mums from Perth who hike at an impressive clip. Ponytails bobbing, sneakers tripping, they lope effortlessly along, soon earning the tag of the “Cottesloe Bolters”. I don’t try to keep up — camera gear, photography and all that being excellent excuses.
We’re on a three-day supported trek on the fabled Larapinta Trail, a hiking route that runs west of Alice Springs for 220km — that is, if you have the time and legs for the whole thing. Our shortened itinerary, the Larapinta Experience in Comfort, is less ambitious (I call it Larapinta Lite) but still demanding, with plenty of burning leg muscles, heaving lungs and unspoken groans of “Are we at the top yet?” as we slog up a sun-blasted ridge of shattered quartz and spinifex.
“Pull up a soft rock. Let’s have a break,” says someone. Our World Expeditions guides, Teegs, 28, and Chelsea, 31 — who seem to know every desert plant by name, and in Latin, too — whip out track snacks from their hefty backpacks. We rehydrate, not to mention re-oxygenate.
The West MacDonnell Ranges rise like a ground swell but the local Western Arrernte people have the perfect totem for these ancient ridges — Caterpillar Dreaming. The range, bunched and weather-rounded, stretches to the horizon, inching imperceptibly on its way west. We’re in a national park, traditional lands, where a chain of water holes — Simpsons Gap, Standley Chasm, Ellery Big Hole, Serpentine Gorge, Ormiston Gorge and Glen Helen Gorge — are like oasis beads threaded along Namatjira Drive west of Alice. With a four-wheel drive to deliver us to the trailhead each day (and our gear to the next campsite), there’s no necessity to stick to the sequence of the Larapinta’s 12 defined sections. Instead, each day our guides choose the best stretches according to the weather conditions and temperature.
Having done the Larapinta hike a decade ago, I’m tempted to imagine that little has changed since then in this 300 million-year-old landscape. But a sobering line, a Pink Floyd lyric, comes to mind, putting things in perspective: “The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older. Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.” Totally cheerless but true enough, and we are certainly shorter of breath as we hike 300m up to Counts Point outlook on Heavitree Ridge.
Below us several long, straight valleys run between a trio of parallel ridges — the Chewings, Heavitree and Pacoota ranges — all part of the “West Macs”. The dished valleys look as if they might have been formed by the gods flinging meteors like bowling balls down the lands. Other than a whistling kite and our own our gasps of awe, the panorama, near and far, is silent.
Perhaps there’s something in my meteor fantasy. Chelsea points out nearby Gosse Bluff, formed when a huge comet whacked into the earth — the biggest event here in the past 130 million years. We might be on a range in the middle of the continent but we are also standing on an ancient seabed, on rocks so old that they predate vertebrate creatures. Here, about 1000m above sea level and with the closest ocean 1300km distant, I notice slabs of “ripple-mark” rocks on the ground. They were once sand on a primordial shore where the ripple patterns became fixed in time, carved in stone, so to speak, for eternity. We’re standing in it.
The warm, winter days of May through September are perfect for trekking (other months are far too hot), while the nights are clear and cold, with the Milky Way awash with stars above us. We trek selected sections of the trail, covering on average around 15 fairly rugged kilometres each day. At dusk we retreat to one of the three brilliant campsites that World Expeditions has established along the way; but make no mistake, this is tramping, not glamping.
Our next one is Nick’s Camp, designed by, and named in honour of, the late architect Nick Murcutt. A huge canvas awning that resembles an open-sided Bedouin tent, or perhaps a circus big-top marquee, shelters a broad platform and the eating-lounging-kitchen areas. A log fire crackles on the sands nearby. There’s a bathroom enclosure with an ingenious wood-fired stove to heat showers and, at a distance, composting toilets. We have our choice of a dozen permanent tents, roomy structures with high ceilings, floors, windows, solar lamps and two stretchers.
Our indefatigable guides set about making dinner, which does not involve packets of freeze-dried something with tinned stew and carrots. When their foil-wrapped barramundi fillets emerge from the campfire coals, to be served with fresh vegetables beneath a snow-dome of stars, there is no other restaurant on Earth where I would rather be.
We see dingo pads around the tents in the morning. The dogs themselves remain typically elusive but later, at Ormiston Gorge, we spot tiny, grey rock wallabies amid the tumbled quartzite boulders. There are random skinks, cockatoos and galahs at any time. At Inarlanga Pass we come to the famous Ochre Pits with their vertical bands of yellow, white, orange and red clays on a cliff face. Aboriginal people mined these pigments for decorations and exchanged them along ancient routes that ran as far as the north and south coasts of the continent.
There is no one typical day on the Larapinta. At times we hike along high ridges with infinite views, at other times wade a valley creek or stop to photograph desert roses, native lemongrass or ghost gums. One morning at Standley Chasm I marvel at the camouflage of a spinifex pigeon with a wispy crest that exactly resembles tufts of spinifex. Sapphire skies and Namatjira colours are the constants by day, and ice-storm galaxies by night.
The trail is well defined by way-mark posts and on day three they lead us down from the magnificent Euro Ridge to the outskirts of Alice Springs.
The Cottesloe Bolters bring it home here in signature style, no sweat. They look as if they’ve just done 3km, not three days, along their local beach path.
John Borthwick was a guest of World Expeditions.
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Classic Larapinta Trek in Comfort: Stay in stylish, comfortable semi-permanent campsites during your guided walk along Australia’s most iconic desert trek. Enjoy hot showers, 3 course meals and professional wilderness guides on this rewarding adventure. Winner of the 2016 Ecotourism award in the Brolga NortherrnTerritory Tourism Awards. Find out more.