Larapinta Trail: Iconic Australian trek

By Chris Ord 16 April 2014
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It’s been just 11 years since the opening of the full 223km Larapinta Trail, but since then the spectacular NT hike has become one of the world’s most popular.

JOIN A GUIDED trek along the Larapinta Trail and you’ll find yourself staying in tented camps, eating meals someone else has cooked, enjoying some wine and having 4WDs ferry bags from one site to the next.

Yet, despite the appeal of the (relatively) easy option offered by adventure tour operators, about half of the people who walk the Larapinta do it independently.

“The Larapinta Trail showcases so much that is iconic about Central Australia. It is arguably the best-known arid-zone long-distance walk,” says Central Australian Parks’ acting director Chris Day, who has been involved with the management of the trail since 1999.

“About 50 per cent of walkers take on Larapinta under their own steam as independent walkers organising their own itinerary and logistics. The majority of these trekkers undertake the entire 223km route too,” Day says.

Independent walkers often choose to camp at the more basic sites, with fewer facilities than the well-appointed ones used by tour operators.

“Indeed, so long as you do it responsibly and with respect for others, you are allowed to camp anywhere along the trail, so we find many independent walkers find their own patch of Larapinta away from groups to enjoy the full wilderness experience.”

Larapinta Trail: big sky territory

The Larapinta Trail undulates through the beautiful but brutal terrain of the WestMacDonnell Ranges, with key attractions including Simpsons Gap, Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge and Glen Helen. The trail starts in Alice Springs then heads west for a spectacular finish atop Mount Sonder (1380m).

It travels though Arrernte country; the land’s traditional owners have inhabited this region for 50,000 years. Scenic highlights include unique earth forms, indigenous heritage, big desert skies, and views across vast landscapes. Hikers may come across unexpected oases, hidden amid chasms that harbour fern enclaves, relicts of 22 million years ago when the climate was much wetter.

Larapinta hasn’t always stretched as far across the West MacDonnell Ranges. The first section was only built in 1988, with the full 223km opening in early 2002.
Chris Buykx, domestic general manager at World Expeditions, one of the first tour operators on the trail, says word of mouth about Larapinta has seen it become the company’s most popular trek worldwide.

“In terms of individual bookings through us, this ranks ahead of Everest Base Camp, Inca Trail, and Kilimanjaro,” he says.

Day puts the trail’s popularity down to the fact that it was developed specifically to attract a broad spectrum of walkers. “It accommodates all levels of experience,” he says.

Day believes Larapinta offers the perfect balance of challenge and wilderness immersion for people who are less confident travelling in remote places.

“Walkers appreciate the level of investment that has gone into building and maintaining the trail, and in delivering services like the supply of drinking water along the trail.”

The Larapinta Trail has 12 sections: hikers can start or finish at any trailhead. Day says: “Its 12-section format, with vehicle access to each trailhead, means that people can undertake the Larapinta as a series of single day or part-day walks, or choose to tackle the end-to-end 223km experience over a couple of weeks.”

Larapinta: the land that changes you

Australian explorer Jon Muir, famous for his solo traverse of the continent, is a guide for World Ex and writes evocatively of outback trekking.

“In the desert it can be brutally tough. Yet at the same time extraordinarily peaceful,” he writes in a company brochure. “A big walk in the outback can be transformative, your intuition can expand with the scale of the land itself.”

Although Muir lugged all of his own gear, sometimes for months, on his desert forays, he appreciates the benefits of supported walks. “You don’t need to carry all your supplies like I do…it frees you to connect with the land…all you need to do is get out there where the skies are big and the land is ancient, go for a walk and let the land work its magic.”

Buykx – who has been involved with the Larapinta since 1998 – recognises the transformative power of the trek.

“The biggest thing about Larapinta is that the land itself, the outback, the space, changes you as you journey through it,” he says. “For many, it is the first true immersion in an outback environment that is undertaken outside of the steel, glass and air-conditioned cocoon of a 4WD or bus tour.

“With a trek, you wake with the dawn chorus of the birds; you wander along the trail with the changing moods of the day, and the ever-changing landscape. It’s incredibly diverse. People imagine it to be all blasted red rock – and there is a lot of that – but there are also incredibly lush, ferny gorges and amazing high ridge-top traverses.

Every step, every day is different. Being immersed in that kind of country provides a trekker with the space to be transformed. It invariably exceeds their expectation.”

The late Charlie Holme, a World Expeditions guide, was integral to the trail’s commercial development. His name now graces one of the permanent camps. 

“Charlie was the first Larapinta trail guide and a true a champion of it,” says Buykx. “We’re talking about a professional guide who led a lot of high-altitude trips in the Himalaya – so he’d seen some special landscapes in his time – but he looked to the West MacDonnells and said ‘this place needs a trek’ and then dedicated the rest of his life to it.”

Holme walked the Larapinta end-to-end an estimated 18 times and climbed Mt Sonder more than 100. He was known to order tour groups to “just walk without talking for a while and listen to the sounds of our footsteps, and the birds and…nothing”.

Camping in style on the Larapinta

World Expeditions’ new semi-permanent tented camps are the Nick Murcutt Camp near Simpsons Gap and Charlie’s Camp near Serpentine Chalet. They have hot showers, large kitchens, heated dining tents and sustainable features, including composting toilets.

“We’ve managed to make something that is comfortable and stylish, but the sense of isolation and having that wilderness to yourself remains unchanged,” says Buykx.

No matter how good the facilities, walking in this wilderness is no lightweight task.
“It still requires a good level of preparation and fitness,” Day says. “But the option of doing it with a number of reputable commercial tour operators means that the challenge is a little less arduous for those who need that or want to share the enjoyment with a group.”

The fact that weather is more predictable in Central Australia helps trekkers plan their walks.

“The typical walking conditions, with the walking season being April through to October, is mild (to warm) with clear sunny days, and crisp to cold overnight conditions perfect for stargazing,” Day says. “There is a very low risk of rain compared to many of the other well-known long distance walks.”

Day has many vivid memories of time spent out on the trail, but it’s the sheer joy of being in the wilderness that floats to the top.

“A highlight would be camping on an exposed and elevated site like Brinkley Bluff and enjoying the effects and colours on the landscape as the sun sets or rises; feeling that sense of isolation and being the only person out on the trail,” he says. “Central Australian wildlife including dingoes, euros, rock wallabies, reptiles and myriad bird life are all commonly encountered.”