Along the Larapinta Trail in the Northern Territory. (Photo: Warren Field)

Walking the Larapinta

  • BY Ian Connellan |
  • November 22, 2010

One of the world's best long-distance arid-zone walks weaves through the spectacular ranges of Central Australia.

IT'S BETTER TO STAND to savour the morning view from Counts Point, 95 km west of Alice Springs in the MacDonnell Ranges. To get here you'll have set out early from a campsite - either at Serpentine Gorge, to the east, or Serpentine Chalet, west - and walk mostly uphill. And once you've stopped, you'll cool quickly. Better to stay upright and lively - the quartzite underfoot is too sharp and cold to sit on anyway. Shift from foot to foot. And keep your eyes moving around the horizon.

To reach Counts Point, it's almost certain you'll already have been walking the Larapinta Trail for at least a few days, and getting accustomed to the grandeur of this landscape. But you'll still be speechless at the panorama before you. Distant in the west is Gosse Bluff, a ring of weathered hills rising above a 142-million-year-old comet impact crater. To the north, the distinctively lumpy Chewings Range juts above a spinifex-dotted valley. Deeply eroded ranges extend to the north-west, where steep, striking, prominent Mt Sonder - for all money a dusty version of the Victorian alpine peak Mt Feathertop - sits centre stage. Sonder's 1380-m summit is the end of the Larapinta Trail, and its highest point.

There's 223 km of track between the top of Sonder and the old Telegraph Station at Alice Springs, the Larapinta's eastern-most point. That makes the Larapinta the only marked, multi-day walking track in Central Australia, and one of very few such walks in the world to cross an arid zone. This is no ordinary trek, and the word is getting around.

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Larapinta Trail map View Large Map

Stone and stories

It's barely an exaggeration to say that the Larapinta has been 1.6 billion years in the making. That's the age of the oldest rocks under walkers' soles along the track, and it's the structure and positioning of those rocks that create the Larapinta's greatest asset: its wide, clear-sky, gobsmacking views. One could argue that the track's planners and builders were just cashing in on assets that nature had placed on long-term deposit.

The trail began as an idea to link, via walking tracks, the popular visitor areas in the west MacDonnell Ranges such as Simpsons Gap, Standley Chasm and Ellery Creek. "These places are roughly one to two days apart and have vehicle access, so the idea was that the trail could be done either as a series of shorter walks, or as a multi-day epic," says 'West Macs' senior ranger Chris Day.

The Larapinta's 12 sections have been opened progressively since 1989. Chris has been directly involved since 1999, when there remained two sections to build and open. The entire track was officially opened in 2002. Chris says that from the start, Larapinta planners strove to make the most of the terrain and its spectacular viewpoints. The track spends roughly equal time in each of the West Macs' main components, the Chewings Range and, more or less parallel to the south, the Heavitree Range. Throughout the walk, views from one range are greatly enhanced by the proximity of the other. The ranges are linked by the 31 km Section 6, which crosses the Alice Valley.

Christine Edgoose, senior geologist with the NT Department of Primary Industries, Fisheries and Mines, puts it all down to quartzite and a mountain-building event called the Alice Springs Orogeny. "If you walk the whole trail you spend probably about 85 per cent of your time on quartzite, but there's two completely different stories there," says Christine, who's been based in Alice Springs since 1987. The Chewings Range is on the southern margin of an old and complex geological region known as the Arunta. Chewings quartzite has origins during the Arunta's last period of sedimentation, about 1.6 billion years ago. The Heavitree Range, formed of Heavitree quartzite, marks the northern margin of a vast inland sea known as the Amadeus Basin, which began to form about 900 million years ago.

"These sediments would originally have been sandstone laid down on shallow sea floors, but as they were buried and then deformed - cooked and squashed - they've metamorphosed into quartzite," Christine says. "The grains are really tightly welded together, so the rocks are very resistant to weathering. You can notice the difference between the Chewings and the Heavitree quartzites because they were metamorphosed at different times, but the process was much the same."

It was the Alice Springs Orogeny, which occurred between 400 and 300 million years ago, that brought these rocks closer to the surface. "It's a little bit unusual to get an event of this scale in the middle of a continental plate," Christine says. "It wasn't like continental plates colliding and mountains rising up. The idea is that forces on the Australian plate's margin were transferred through the plate into the centre over a long time."

These forces lifted, folded and fractured rock layers into mountain chains from which softer layers have subsequently been eroded, leaving exposed fantastically angled - sometimes vertical - layers of stone from prehistory's basement. Resilient quartzite has endured the best, and dominates on the higher parts of both the Chewings and Heavitree ranges.

"There's a lot of geological variety to this area - from complex metamorphic gneiss and schist to sediments like limestone and conglomerates - but because the trail mainly follows the ridgetops you mostly get to see the quartzite," Christine says. "The Arunta region is widely acknowledged as one of the best areas in the world to see highly deformed and metamorphosed rocks. But the fundamental thing for the Larapinta is these quartzites of different ages. If they didn't exist out here the landscape would be much less rugged and imposing."

If geology is a little too dry to absorb, walkers can totter along with their minds in the dreamy half-light of Aboriginal lore and history. The Larapinta winds through country of the central and western Arrernte peoples, and throughout it are landscape features associated with the Altyerre (also spelt Alchera), the Arrernte peoples' creation period.

Few walkers enjoy the privilege of hearing traditional stories direct from a custodian, but there's plenty of material available for those interested, starting with the NT Parks and Wildlife Commission's detailed Larapinta Trail maps. These introduce walkers to a small host of traditional creation beings, including the Euro Ancestor at Euro Ridge in Section 1, just east of Wallaby Gap, and the Serpent Ancestor who journeyed through the Chewings Range at Jay Creek, in Section 3 (where custodians ask people to respect traditional law by walking only in the creekbed). Eagle Landing in Section 8, near Counts Point, juts into skies patrolled by a wedge-tailed eagle ancestor, who is believed now to guard the area against human intruders. Wedgies are commonly seen above this grand ridge, and some small understanding of their place in Western Arrernte lore adds a frisson of excitement to sightings.

Best of all for walkers are the unwritten reminders that these stories are part of a living culture. It's routine to hear Arrernte languages spoken in Alice Springs and surrounding lands by Aboriginal people of all ages. Most people who belong to the West Macs country live in the region. Some work in the national park, helping visitors and caring for their country, keeping its dust on their shoes. Seeing the life in modern Arrernte culture is every bit as good as the old stories.

READ ABOUT THE AG SOCIETY EXPEDITION TO LARAPINTA

Silence and stars

Walker numbers have been building steadily on the Larapinta for several years, a trend that began before the track was completed and officially opened. "It's become one of those long-distance walks that experienced walkers have to do," Chris Day says. "One thing that's really blown me away is that people are flying to Alice Springs just to do the Larapinta Trail. They're not doing anything else. Not going to Uluru. They fly in, get dropped out on the trail - usually at the far end, and walk back into town - and fly out the day after they finish."

The track's reputation has spread largely through word of mouth and its impact on the regional economy is beginning to grow. People joining guided Larapinta walking groups - many of whom are older and wealthier than independent walkers - generally linger for a while in Alice Springs. "The guides tell me they stay in the hotels, eat out, visit the galleries and buy art-work," Chris says.

Charlie Holmes, who heads one of the two commercial guiding operations on the trail, puts it all down to the richness of the experience, the light and space and clean air of the desert. "Something gets to you out here," says Charlie, a lean, greying, bandana-wearing career trekking guide. "I came originally for three seasons, and now I've been here 10. I just absolutely love the place."

Charlie's led walks on the Larapinta since 1997. He says he's completed 18 full-length journeys, and climbed Mt Sonder, where all his guided groups end, about 100 times. "I think one of the special things is the lack of people on the trail," he says. "I often say to our groups: 'Let's just walk without talking for a while and listen to the sounds of our footsteps, and the birds and...nothing.' It's just fantastic. I guide in the Himalaya twice a year and it's fabulous, but there, you always have people around you. The solitude and peace out here is outstanding."

Groups on the Larapinta will often walk for several days without encountering other people, except near trackheads. The value of this solitude is taken very seriously. Parties of eight or more - guided or independent - are required to inform NT Parks and Wildlife of their group size and trip plan. This information is posted on the Current Conditions page of the Larapinta website for the benefit of other walkers.

Comments on West MacDonnell National Park visitor surveys suggest that the trail's mix of views, stable weather and splendid isolation are among the Larapinta's top attractions. "Scenery is amazing! After I walked the Overland [Tas.], Bibbulmun [WA] and some walks in the Grampians [Vic.] and Flinders [SA], I think the Larapinta could be right in that line-up," wrote one 2005 visitor. "I think the Larapinta Trail is maybe the best extended bushwalk in Australia in terms of the scenery it passes through. I was not expecting the mountains to be so beautiful, so jagged and so high," wrote another.

"Another thing out here is the absolute pleasure of the night," Charlie says. "Just laying a tarp on the ground and sleeping out like that...it's a stunningly beautiful way to spend the night. The coolness of the breeze on your face, and the sound of dingoes in the distance; it's really very special. And the billions of stars above you!"

Chris Day's not at all surprised that the track inspires such joy. Quiet enthusiasm for the Larapinta bubbles away behind his gentle eyes. "I get passionate about the trail because I've got staff that are passionate about it as well," he says. "Everyone feels the same about Larapinta Trail work. Rangers, planners, interpreters, front-counter staff - they all love it. It's the same for everyone who's worked on the trail, or walked on it. It's a real buzz."


Source: Australian Geographic, issue 85 (Jan - Mar 2007)


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