I’ve been trudging along this never-ending ridge for hours. The air is hot and deathly still, with my breath, the footfall of my boots and the buzzing of flies the only sounds in a vacuum of silence. A weary foot catches on a rock and I shoot forward, falling into a nest of sharp rock and even sharper spinifex.
Rolling on to my back, I lie there bleeding and staring up at the sky. There’s only one thing for it. I rummage around in my pack and pull out a block of “emergency” chocolate.
A breath of wind moves across my face as, slowly and methodically, I eat the whole damn thing. It’s not long before I’m smiling.
Smart people head to the beach to escape winter, but here I am in the central Australian outback spending 15 days hiking the Larapinta trail.
Located just outside Alice Springs, the 231km Larapinta trail traverses the West MacDonnell Ranges national park, the traditional homelands of the Central Arrernte, Western Arrernte and Luritja peoples.
The trail has been in its present form since 2002 and is one of Australia’s premier long-distance walking tracks, alongside Western Australia’s Bibbulmun track and Tasmania’s Overland and Western Arthurs epics.
The Larapinta alternates between high, exceedingly rocky ridges that afford spectacular views, and easier walking over sprawling plains and dry creek beds along the base of the ranges. Hiking through this harsh landscape dominated by reds, greens, yellows and impossibly blue skies, there is a powerful sense of time flowing on a different, deeper level.
The biggest reaction I got from people when I told them about my Larapinta plans was not that I was doing it, but that I would be walking the first week by myself, before meeting a couple of mates at the halfway point. Mum was my most outspoken critic and had half an idea to throw a pack on herself to prevent such a foolish enterprise.
But the dangers of hiking the Larapinta solo are comparatively few.
Through constant refinements, upgrades and maintenance, Northern Territory Parks & Wildlife rangers have made the trail as safe and accessible as possible. Blue arrow trail markers appear along well-defined paths or nailed to trees in riverbeds and gorges every 500 metres or so, making it difficult to get lost for more than 20 or 30 awkward minutes.
The most significant upgrade is guaranteed water no more than a day’s walk apart, with drinking water available at most designated camp sites.
I’m a solitary creature by nature and the most attractive aspect of hiking the Larapinta is the time it would allow for quiet introspection. No phones, no emails … check your life at the door and pick it up again in two weeks’ time, thank you very much.
After I arrive in Alice Springs, a combination of last-minute packing and nerves keeps me up half the night. It seems as though my head has only just touched the hotel pillow before I am woken up by Jerry Livingstone, a 60-something British expat from Australian Walking Holidays.
He’s my lift from Alice to the trailhead at Redbank Gorge and will also play the vital logistical role of dropping off three food caches at pre-determined points along the trail: Ellery Creek, Ormiston Gorge and Standley Chasm. It feels as though I’m putting my life as well as my food into the three plastic tubs he provides. Jerry is a wealth of information, telling me everything I need to know about the walk ahead. The two-hour drive passes in no time – although the return journey will take me more than two weeks.
With a handshake, he climbs back into his four-wheel drive beating a trail of dust back to civilisation. I’m on my own. Finally, I’m walking the Larapinta trail.
The Larapinta can be walked in either direction, and one of the big decisions to make pre-trip is which of these you want to take.
Hiking east to west allows you to finish the trail on a literal and figurative high note by climbing to the summit of Mount Sonder – the fourth highest mountain in the Northern Territory – on the final day. This is the direction in which the trail was planned and most organised groups doing shorter sections will head this way.
I like to do things differently and have chosen to hike in the opposite direction, from west to east. I don’t fancy the idea of walking into the afternoon sun for two weeks, and I find the idea of walking back into civilisation – in this case Alice Springs – unreasonably satisfying.
On my first day I pitch my tent in a sandy riverbed about a kilometre from Redbank Gorge. I’m new to this type of camping, where pegs are useless, and more sand ends up inside the tent than out. From here, the idea is to start things off nice and easy with a return trip to the summit of Mount Sonder.
A few less-easy-but-still-nice hours later, I arrive at the summit. I had tried to avoid looking into the distance on the hike up, and what I see from the top fills me with awe. Here and there, clusters of green mulga trees eke out a living by ancient, now non-existent waterways. Corrugated bands of iron-rich granite and eroded hilltops jut out in all directions, but somehow these protrusions only accentuate the monumental flatness of the Australian centre.
The scale is almost too much, so I cast my eyes to the east, where my path for the next two weeks stretches out beyond the horizon. I’m equal parts excited and intimidated.
I spend the next few days walking shorter distances along the trail, between 10km and 15km a day. I alternate between opportunistically sleeping in dry riverbeds and at the designated campsites that are set up throughout the trail. I slowly get used to the weight of my pack and monitor the assortment of blisters and hotspots that develop on my feet with an intense focus only long-distance hikers understand.
When the wind picks up, a fine red dust permeates everything, but the landscape I walk through is not the arid desert I was expecting. It’s more splintered rocks and sharp edges than rolling sand dunes.
Paradoxically, hiking solo seems to encourage you to meet plenty of different people and I’m getting to know a few of the other hikers who are walking the trail end-to-end. I share rueful laughs with a group of middle-aged Melburnians as we chat about hot days and steep climbs, and I spend some joyous evening meals with an artistically inclined group from Adelaide who have brought their own ukulele. Geert, a Dutch-Australian, has brought a set of watercolours and inks and is creating landscape paintings as he goes – capturing the landscapes we move through in a way my camera simply cannot.
By day five I’m sufficiently comfortable with my progress to attempt to link two days into one 30km-long day. I manage it, shuffling into camp more than 12 hours later in the pitch black with only torchlight and the glow of arthritic fire in my ankles to guide me. I still can’t decide if this was a good idea but it does mean I get to spend the next day resting, reading and writing.
Halfway through my journey, I meet up with Rowan Burckhardt and Romain Gauriot, two mates from Sydney. There’s something comforting about seeing a familiar face in an unfamiliar environment and there are smiles and hugs as we get under way. But I also miss the happy isolation of hiking solo, of keeping my own company and setting my schedule.
Together we cross the Alice Valley, a huge expanse that separates the Heavitree Range from the Chewings Range. This part of the trail is often avoided owing to its monotonous scenery and the lack of any proper shade. Fortunately for us, it’s overcast all day.
We all experience a heightened sense of remoteness plodding through the valley. With a little imagination, we could be travellers in a post-apocalyptic landscape. The only living thing we encounter is the brown snake as thick as a kangaroo’s tail that I almost step on.
After a day of walking, we set up a bush camp on a patch of scrub 20 metres off the trail. There is something specialabout this opportunistic camp site, made precious by its transience. Together and alone under a blanket of stars.
There are crumbling cliffs on either side of Hugh Gorge and, as we enter, we scramble between boulders, trying to keep ourselves out of deep pools of ice-cold water.
Then an unfortunate realisation: I’ve miscalculated my food allowance and I am short two days’ worth of food in my second drop.
So lunch is simplified to a nub of pepperoni washed down with water – so salty and mouthwateringly good. Dinner becomes a tin of tuna in instant soup and it’s delicious. Turns out food tastes even better when there’s less of it.
After another tough day, our group makes it to Standley Chasm. The walk is only 15km to 16km long but there’s a steep climb out of Hugh Gorge and up to Brinkley’s Bluff.
The chasm’s quartzite walls form a natural alleyway and the site is a popular tourist attraction run by the Iwupataka Aboriginal Land Trust, with a kiosk/restaurant, toilet, shower blocks and picnic tables. The kiosk offers a five-course meal for those looking to diverge from dehydrated food supplies, which is all of us.
With three days to go, I’m feeling good – with one exception. I’ve developed a knot in my shoulder so strong that I can’t physically lift my left arm over my head. I’ve been ignoring the constant pain, convincing myself it’s part of long-distance hiking with a heavy pack, but seeing myself in the mirror for the first time in 10 days is confronting. My entire spine seems to be crooked and my left shoulder is three centimetres lower than my right. I hope this new hunchback look is not permanent.
I decide to head out alone on the last few days and I plan to meet up with the others for meals at night. Although this decision doesn’t go down smoothly with my companions, I realise I function better throughout a day’s hike if I get an early start.
Within the first hour, I know I’ve made the right choice. My mind and body are in sync and, for a handful of hours, I feel like I’m part of the flow of this ancient land.
I arrive at Simpsons Gap in the early afternoon positively buzzing. Rozza and Romain arrive separately over the next few hours.
It’s my final night on the trail, and there’s an orange glow off in the distance. A bushfire is burning about 10km south of our campsite.
The night air is still. Smoke billows directly above the flames without reaching us. We watch the fire increase in size but we can’t hear or smell it. As we watch from the top of the Simpson Gap shelter, Rozza calls the emergency services. They tell us five fire trucks are out battling it and to “not do anything stupid like get in a car and drive towards the blaze”. Not bloody likely.
The final day of the trail is the hardest. So much for the zen-like flow state of yesterday, it seems 15 days and 200-odd kilometres have finally caught up with me. My shoulder still aches and I am only able to go a few kilometres before being forced to stop and rest.
Tough, tough, tough. Euro Ridge provides a spectacular view of my destination, with Alice Springs only about 10km in the distance, but I’ve hit a wall. My feet feel like lead while my shoulders are on fire.
With 3km to go, a mountain biker stops to look at me, remarking, “You look like you’ve come a long way.”
Six hundred metres out and I meet a couple well into their 70s – they easily outpaced me and my weary bones.
The end, when it comes, is outwardly anti-climactic. I sign the logbook inside a shelter at the old Alice Springs telegraph station just outside of town, and that’s it.
Inside, I’m experiencing a wave of satisfaction. There is no cheering crowd, no one to welcome this traveller, but that makes it all the more personal. There’s nothing that compares to the peace that follows endeavour, and as I lie down on the grass, the sense of calm is almost overwhelming.