Marsupials and mountains, desert walking, true wilderness and tough hiking. Simon Whitmarsh and Andrew Mok introduce the Larapinta Trail, 234km across the red centre of Australia.
On a recent trip to Australia for a family wedding, as hiking addicts we could not miss this challenge. The opportunity to see the red centre by foot, to see wild kangaroos, wallabies, thorny devils and other creatures unfamiliar to us would be an added bonus. It sounded amazing, and it was.
The Larapinta Trail starts in Alice Springs and extends through the West MacDonnell Ranges to Mount Sonder. The trail is divided into 12 sections, with the final section as a ‘there and back’ walk up the summit (1379m). There are variable facilities at each section trailhead: shelter, campsite, water tanks, toilets and showers. Some can be accessed only by 4WD and others have no vehicular access at all. There are various tour companies that offer support, meaning food and water drop-off points every few days. We were very lucky as our superwoman friend from Adelaide, who lives in our village in Wales, was going to be in Australia at the same time. She had done this trail twice before and decided to be our hiking companion. She gave us advice and assistance regarding luggage, food, water, transport, tent and sleeping arrangements. What more could we ask for!
We decided to do one section per day, over 12 days (the official recommendation for completing it comfortably is 15-16 days), each carrying 3 litres of water per day. It was June, when the daytime temperature is usually below 30°C and drops down to 3-5°C at night.
During the flight to Alice Springs, the scenery beneath us morphed from verdant green to sparsely vegetated red, thence to stony, bony wasteland with hardly a plant to be seen. The outback is classified as a semi-arid desert, with rainfall of 250-500mm rain per year, not the expanse of dead sand that we had imagined.
Day 1: Old Telegraph Station, Alice Springs, to Simpson’s Gap
25.6km, 711m ascent, 8 hours
Larapinta is the Aboriginal name for the Finke River, which this walk parallels. We went underneath the Stuart Highway and quite literally across the Ghan Railway. Lunch was at Wallaby Gap but there were no marsupials to be seen. The trail took us through rolling plains of ubiquitous spinifex grass, which looks golden rather than green and is very scratchy to walk through, and huge mountain ranges of reds and ochres with some good climbs to ridges and crests. The walk is fabulous for solitary contemplation; conversation is difficult because the way is mostly single file.
That evening we stopped at Simpson's Gap, a huge campsite with just one other group of three using it. The stars were simply the best we have ever seen – there were a million, million stars, more than we knew existed.
Day 2: To Jay Creek
26.2km, 610m ascent, 8½ hours
The walk began well, when a kangaroo bounded effortlessly across our track. It paused to examine us nonchalantly and then leapt off. Little did we know that this was to be the only mammal we would encounter on the entire 12 days of hiking.
We strolled along by the side of a massive ridge, at the end of which was an escarpment as large and dramatic as any in Monument Valley. It was greener than we had anticipated, mostly sparse grass, a metre or so of red dust between plants, although highly changeable, from trees large enough to provide shade, to scattered bushes with flocks of Zebra finches. There was no point in the day when we could not see signs of fire; patches of blackened bushes with new growth well established or more recent ones with piles of fresh ash.
We were carrying the extra weight of the tent, sleeping bags, plus two days-worth of food and water as our friend’s 4WD could not meet us that night. This increased the work significantly, and by the end of the day all three of us had tight, aching shoulders. The unrelenting heat, with scarcely a scrap of shade or hint of breeze, made it more difficult still. The flies were also annoying, with the only relief being to wear our flynets (midge nets we got in Scotland), which impaired the flow of what little breeze there was, or to continue walking.
The end of the day saw us walking along the hot and flat plain, getting very annoyed that the campsite was not where it was on the map; there was still 2km to go when we thought we had finished!
Getting to our destination felt wonderful, even though there was only tanked water plus one drop toilet (pretty smelly), shared between nine people.
Day 3: To Standley Chasm via the high route
14.8km, 884m ascent, 8 hours
We wanted to do the high route, which involved a steep but not excessively arduous climb to the start of a brilliant ridge section. There are not many walks that we have done where there are so many ‘wow’ views. Whenever we stopped to pause, the silence was immense. The scenery was a stunning jumble of red rock with a series of views unsurpassed on any of the walks that we have done.
Going down the other side was just as difficult as going up. The next section was a gorge walk, involving more scrambling, and with the weighty backpacks was hard work. The very last section had two significant ascents before the last stretch on well-made steps. The valley was full of cycads, looking tropical and out of place in the arid environment. Finally, we arrived at the campsite: basic, but with showers, electrical charging points and a restaurant (albeit a limited menu), seeming relatively luxurious.
Day 4: To Birthday Waterhole
18.5km, 928m ascent, 8 hours
It was a fabulous steep ascent to the most sublime ridge-walk. The geology of the walk was stunning, moving from sandstone to giant ridges of flysch, the tops of which were solid sheets of crystalline metamorphic quartzite.
The final section was a long but easy and gradual descent through a treed area with many treetops above our heads: not quite a forest but more and taller trees than we had thought existed in the outback. The official campsite was at Birthday Waterhole Junction, but we walked 1.2km further to the hole itself, a scummy billabong but with some clean areas to dip and cool feet.
Our evening meal, cooked in a pot over the camp fire (we were off the Larapinta Trail so the no-fire regulations didn't apply) was stupendous. We polished off the lot, and then sat around the campfire chatting, watching embers float upwards into the star-filled heavens.
Day 5: To Hugh Gorge
16.7km, 939m ascent, 8 hours
The walk was tough, clambering from stone to stone up a difficult gorge. It seemed to take forever.
We began to despair, but actually we were further on than we thought, shortly afterwards arriving at Razorback Ridge. It was as sharp as the name suggests, and slightly scary in places but the views over a landscape of stark, red, corrugated stone, like Mars with plants, was stupendous.
The next section was a superbly well-built switch-back ascent, easy on the knees, leading eventually to Hugh Gorge. As we descended along the gorge, hopping from rock to rock, it was rather tiresome, with no easy strides at all, and we were relieved to reach the end of it. The majestic red cliffs towered above us, in the early afternoon sun glowing as if illuminated from within. They loomed ever higher until eventually they spread apart as the valley widened, now dotted with rush-lined water-pools of brown scummy water, in which fish clung to desperate life. The presence of open water brought more birdlife, with a flock of iridescent green parakeets.
Day 6: To Ellery Creek
29.5km, 554m ascent, 9½ hours
It was so cold that we kept down jackets on into the first hour or so of walking, until the sun's strength went from a meagre glimmer to a warming, lovely heat.
It was an excellent track to stomp along, and we stopped for lunch at Ghost Gum Flat, named after a recognisable tree with three huge burls. Here, a trio of rangers helped us identify a black-shouldered kite, hovering like a hawk above the valley floor.
Later, as we were getting particularly tired, the day was enlivened by a flock of red-tailed black cockatoos, their bright red tails flashing as they flitted from tree to tree. The very last bit of the walk was through a saddle pass in the ridge with fascinating geology: mudstone at the bottom, the holes left by tunneling worms millions of years ago now making it look like lava, then siltstone, post-glacial conglomerate, gypsum.
It was an extremely long day and we were very tired, getting into the campsite just as the sun was setting.
Day 7: To Serpentine Gorge Trailhead
14.2km, 450m ascent, 5 hours
Ellery Creek was another billabong but this one was paradise compared with the surrounding arid redness we had encountered so far. It was a dramatic cleft in the rock, surrounded by greenery and, at its heart, a deep, beautifully shaped pool of cool clear water. And so much life; fish swam between the water-plants, predated on by two different sorts of heron, paradise ducks swam on the lake and a little pied cormorant soaked up the early morning light on the shore. It is a deeply spiritual place to the Aboriginal tribe in whose lands we were, and with whose permission we walked across it.
We began along a tree-lined valley, surrounded in the near distance by hills that had been as high as the Himalaya, but were worn down by time to display a rich wealth of geology. After all the massive treks so far, today's relatively easy short stroll passed in a dream, allowing one’s mind to roam freely until eventually we arrived at Serpentine Gorge.
A short diversion took us up to the lookout point, which gave us a commanding view into the gorge; a deep curvaceous slash through the massive ridge that had been to our right all day, at the base of which was another mini-oasis with unique ferns and shrimps found nowhere else in the world.
Day 8: To Serpentine Chalet Dam
15.9km, 769m ascent, 6 hours
We began with a lovely well-built and fairly steep ascent all the way to the top of the Heavitree Range, to an even better ridge-walk than the previous excellent ones. The views continue to astound and delight. To the right was a valley that looked glacial, and beneath our feet fossilised ripples gave mute testimony to when this was a shallow inland sea 315 million years ago.
We did a short diversion to Counts Point, and in the far distance was our final destination, Mount Sonder (not Mount Doom, although at times during this trek we felt that level of adversity). We arrived at Serpentine Valley Dam campsite to find no water at all because facilities were being reinstalled, validating the advice to carry two days-worth of water.
Day 9: To Ormiston Gorge
30.8km, 1094m ascent, 9 hours
We got up before dawn, had breakfast in the early half-light and set off before the sun had peeped over the horizon. Looking down we saw tiny yet perfect marsupial footprints in the dust beneath our feet: all these miniature desert dwellers are nocturnal so were never seen by us. Then the wan morning light gave the scenery a bright, almost ethereal, air, especially the long wide, U-shaped valley studded with rose-pink rock protruding from the golden grass. We stopped when we had our first good view of Mount Sonder looming majestically and impressively ahead of us: it made us realise that we had a long way to go but the end was literally in sight.
When we got to Waterfall Gorge we were so impressed with the water-carved steps of the dry cascade that we thought it would be rude not to sit and have our lunch, even though it was early. The walk along the gorge was easier than we had feared, with less rock-hopping, less climbing and it was shorter than it looked on the map. From there was a well-built switch-backing climb to the top of the ridge to Lookout Point, from which the views were so good that they are difficult to describe. They deserved all the previous superlatives and more; they appeared boundless, and we felt about a mile high with a huge swathe of Australia's red centre spread out beneath us.
After another ridge walk, the last bit of the walk was long, with more delicious views, yet the whole day's trek was nowhere near as difficult as we had anticipated, despite the humongous length and ascent.
We spent the night in the public campsite, as our friends could drive there. It had a café and a shower: lukewarm and dribbling but after so long it felt divine.
Day 10: to Glen Helen Gorge
13.6km, 219m ascent, 3½ hours
We failed today! We could not resist the temptation to stay at Helen Gorge Resort rather than wild camp. The chance to have an easier day felt overdue and very welcome. After walking for an hour or so, we had lunch at about 10am at Lookout Rock, with great views of Mount Sonder.
We reached the official Larapinta Trail Finke River campsite in no time, then crossed the Finke River, a wide expanse of sand and gravel, and walked the extra 4km from the trailhead to Helen Gorge (which also meant an extra 4km for tomorrow’s walk). We passed through the unimaginatively named ‘hole in the rock’, as that is just what it is, plus the long stretch of sand called Two-Mile Beach. The billabong between us and the beach was a large one, full of water birds and rushes. Bizarre, considering that we were in the middle of a desert.
Getting to the hotel at Glen Helen waterhole – full of terns, cormorants, coots, ducks, splashing fish – felt like re-entering civilisation, even though in most circumstances this ex-cattle station, with bar and perennial country-and-western music, would seem far from the height of luxury.
Day 11: to Redbank Gorge
30.5km, 751m ascent, 8 hours
Last night was very cold; -3°C we were told by a camper whose water bottle had frozen. We returned to the official trail, and then a good, easy ascent took us to yet another superb ridge-walk, this one the closest to Mount Sonder. Unfortunately, the second half of the day was less exciting, the views of our destination blocked by another ridge.
We did consider hiking up Mount Sonder when we were at the junction at Redbank Gorge. However, we would strongly recommend to not be tempted: take your time to climb the summit and either watch the sunrise during the ascent or from the top. Most people camped near Mt Sonder’s trailhead but we stayed 2km away at Ridgetop campsite, giving us the best view of sunset.
Day 12: to Mount Sonder summit and return
21.3km, 946m ascent, 5½ hours
On our last night our travelling companions told us that they suddenly had to leave us with no transport. After an uncertain evening, not sure how to find our way back 260km to Alice Springs, we got up at 5am, packed up camping equipment and started walking in the dark. From Redbank Gorge, we then started the steep ascent, quite easy to follow with stone steps and well-marked paths. Not much later, as the pale predawn light gently unfolded, we could see Ridgetop campsite way below us already.
As the sun leapt rapidly over the horizon, we reached the Lookout to see a mass of rose and gold filling the heavens. To our left the Pacoota range, which had been running almost parallel to the Larapinta Trail for its whole length, glowed in the morning light.
We then met a handful of people who had been at the summit to watch the sunrise and were on their way back. Their transport was scheduled at 11am, and they said they might be able to give us a lift. Spurred on by this easy option we accelerated the pace to maximum, all the way to the summit. The stunning panoramic views, including the one gazing back at the whole of our route, made the 12 days’ hike well worth it. However, we didn’t dare to loiter as we had a bus to catch, and hurried down the mountain in a fabulous, if leg-burning, knee-jarring two hours. Unfortunately, there wasn't space for both of us on the ride and the day became considerably even more adventurous than we planned.
A lift from a Dutch couple got us to the main road, and then we stood hitch-hiking for an hour before we went ahead with our rapidly-arrived-at back-up plan to walk 20km back to Glen Helen Resort, and then call for a taxi. A handful of cars passed us per hour, with none showing any sign of stopping until a work van pulled up and two guys gave us a lift.
About 200km further on they stopped 6km out of town to avoid being seen by their boss. We thanked them profusely, walking all the way to the centre of town to complete the 260km-long hiking adventure, with 8855m ascended over 87 hours (excluding our hitchhiking).
It requires detailed planning, particularly for food/water resupply and transport, which we cannot cover in detail here. We read various guidebooks and used online resources including the website: https://www.larapintatrail.com.au.
We would highly recommend reading:
Be aware, there are hardly any mobile signals, which means peace and tranquility but no rescue. Satellite phones and/or walking in groups of at least three are strongly advised.
All distances and timing are our own.