Learners on the Larapinta Trail
David only had one job. As the baby of the group, we’d limited his responsibilities to a single item. Just one, solitary, yet fairly fundamental thing…
“Oh f**k! Oh f**k. I’m not even f**king joking. Oh f**k.” It was 5:30am and we were 300 metres from the domestic terminal at Sydney Airport.
“What is it Dave?” I asked, but deep down I already knew.
“Oh f**k, I forgot the f**king tent. I forgot the f**king tent,” confirmed Dave.
Dave had definitely forgotten the tent. Not his tent – our tent – the one we were meant to be sharing. Alex, who was on a later flight, was able to pick up the easily overlooked shelter, but already the tone had been set for our Larapinta walk.
Our troop was a five-some of friends and family, young-ish men with little idea about trekking, but all effected by a sense that time was running out to do something ‘profound’ with our lives before work, babies and weekends at Bunnings took over for good. Somehow, we’d picked the Larapinta Trail as our pilgrimage, and now we were en route to Alice Springs with 12 days of walking ahead of us, if all went to plan, which it clearly wasn’t going to.
First there was Ken, a man of adorable puppy-dog-esque naivety, who will say yes to anything (when I’d asked him to walk the Larapinta, Google told him it was a small town in Queensland, and he thought we had two weeks of laid-back rural life scheduled). Ken’s trekking experience was limited to one Oxfam Trailwalker, which had ended in a state of delirium and so much knee-strapping that he resembled Tutankhamen.
Then there was Dave, who had youth on his side, but as you now know (see the tent incident above) possessed the preparedness you’d expect from a live-at-home university student whose mum still did his washing.
Tom, a huge bushranger of a man with a beard to match, had walking proficiency that dwarfed the cumulative total of the rest of our group, and who even had patches on his pack to prove the places he’d been.
Alex was absurdly naturally fit, a marathon runner and pilot, with so many tales of aviation mishaps that you’ll never want to fly again.
Finally there was me, who’d suggested this undertaking in the first place without ever expecting it to actually happen, and who was now filled with terror at the prospect of being without an iPhone for almost two weeks.
“You guys just wait till you see the view as we fly into Alice,” I’d promised, “you’ll get a real idea of the terrain we’ll be walking over.” But as we began our descent, the only view was of a thick blanket of wet, grey cloud, dumping a worrying amount of water onto Alice Springs.
Statistically, the chance of July rain in Alice is equivalent to getting hit by lightning while being ravaged by a Lotto-winning shark in a leap year, but somehow we’d struck it lucky. With the mercury not making it above nine degrees, we shivered away with every other tourist in town, poking despondently at a chocolate brownie in a café that was crammed with sodden Norwegians.
Beginning the Larapinta Trail
Our ‘research’ for the walk ahead had consisted borrowing a guidebook that had been published eight years prior. Less than 24 hours from our scheduled start time, we now furiously scoured its pages as if somehow we could absorb some latent walking ability by running our fingers across the inky words of its expedition-hardened authors.
A particular passage leapt out at us: “whilst some extremely fit and experienced walkers have completed the trail in 12 days, this is not recommended, and a total of 20 days is appropriate for most walkers.” Kenny and Dave looked at me with eyes like I’d just torn up their childhood teddy – “Why? Why did you only give us 12 days to do this? And it’s freaking raining!”
The Larapinta Trail is serviced by a number of tour operators who offer food drops along the way at secure locations and we had three tubs to fill with enough sustenance for five blokes walking 240km. This is a considerable quantity, and perhaps the best considered aspect of our whole trek was managing the weight of all this grub. We’d decided to go down the ‘just add water’ route; dinners were dehydrated meals, breakfast was oats, and lunch consisted tuna sachets with Ryvitas and Babybel cheese. To spice things up, we filled our food drop tubs with delicacies like puddings and musk sticks. These proved a godsend, with the call of “pudding night, boys!” buoying us through more than one afternoon of trudging. Our final ‘treat’, thrown into the trolley with ill-considered fervour, was a half-dozen weighty salami sticks.
Just after lunch on day one that Alex asked, “Ken, did these salamis come out of the refrigerated section?” They did. Alex’s finger hovered over a row of fine print on the packaging: NOT HEAT TREATED, MUST BE REFRIGERATED. We had no choice, the salami, all two kilos of it, had to be eaten that day. And so began ‘Peperilli’s Revenge’: a collective 48hr bout of horrendously flavoursome flatulence.
The Larapinta Trail itself is well trodden, clearly marked for the most part, and has excellent information boards and signage at the trailheads along the way. Of course, in the opening hours, we didn’t yet know any of this, so we were none the wiser when we commenced our journey by following completely the wrong trail.
After half an hour of following the red arrows of the local mountain bike tracks, something didn’t feel right (perhaps it was the banked corners, jumps and lots of tyre tracks?). The guidebook confirmed it for us – the blue arrows marked the path to enlightenment. Day one was already scheduled to be one of the longest at a little over 30km, and we’d just successfully added another 5km to the total.
Taking the time to test your equipment and familiarise yourself with its operation is a core facet of preparedness. Alex had reason to feel confident in his equipment, having done a two-week trek in Nepal using his same pack and boots.
His pack, he was proud to tell us, had been purchased in a Vietnamese market for less than 10% of the price I’d paid for my fancy new Deuter number. Of course, on his Nepalese journey, Alex’s pack had weighed 12kg, with kindly Sherpas carrying the rest of the weight.
Due to Qantas’ baggage restrictions, we’d all been forced to leave our Sherpas at home this time, and with our packs up around the 23kg mark, Alex’s pack raised the white flag. It was just before Euro Ridge, at the 12km mark, that the waist buckle broke for the first time. It kept breaking every few hundred metres for the rest of the day, putting all kinds of strain onto parts of Alex’s body not really designed to bear it.
We didn’t know it just then, but something as innocuous as a cheap-arse Vietnamese buckle almost took down the mighty Alex, laying the groundwork for the nearly complete collapse of his right knee, which would begin on day three.
Hauling packs on the Larapinta
The mood was a tad sombre when we finally arrived in Simpson’s Gap at the end of day one and fired up the JetBoils for our dehydrated dinner; the terrain itself was rated as ‘easy’ by our guide book, but 35km with a full pack was a rude shock to legs that spend most days safely tucked beneath a desk.
Just on dusk, a dusty man strolled into camp. He’d come from the opposite direction to us – he was the first fellow Larapinta walker we’d met, one of many to come. Because the trail is bi-directional, you meet new people constantly. Some want to chat, while others (like the blatantly mad woman in tracksuit pants and carrying two green Woolworths bags who we passed high on a ridgeline) want nothing but the conversation in their heads as company. This fella was a chatter, and his name was Pop. He’d been walking for 18 days, and we were surprised to hear that he was going to take two days to walk what we’d just done in one. Surely he wanted a hot shower in Alice? (He needed one.) I pressed him for a gem of advice about the trail ahead.
“Enjoy every step, boys,” he said. “Because I’m almost done now, and I really don’t want it to end.” Poetic stuff, but we probably could have done with something more practical like ‘there’s no water in Birthday Waterhole’ or similar. I tucked Pop’s wisdom away in the ‘philosophical’ file and assembled the tent.
Camping on the Larapinta Trail
Things didn’t get any easier that night. Dave and I, sharing a tent, took the warnings of a plummeting desert temperatures very seriously and accordingly zipped ourselves into our new sleeping bags and closed up all the tent’s windows and doors. It was the sweatiest night of my life. We couldn’t have produced a more humid environment had we Glad Wrapped our bodies together in a sauna. Without the energy to actually fix the situation, we both writhed about in our noisy, nylon terrarium, gripped by feverish half dreams and a horrible awareness that the sun was about to come up. In the dawn light, the rings around Dave’s dead eyes were impressive to behold. It had to get easier.
And of course, it did. Well, not the actual trail, which got much, much harder, but we got better at it. Up at 5am, get the water boiling, stuffing sleeping bags, farting, checking blister pads, washing bowls – we all quickly found our role in the morning routine. Tom, whose tent ‘the America’s Cup’ looked like it should be sailed into position rather than assembled, would usually be packed up first.
He’d then wait patiently while Ken went through his daily routine of putting on, removing, then re-putting on multiple layers of clothing, until he reached the optimum temperature for the first five minutes of walking. After which he’d make the whole group stop while he removed each of his carefully assembled layers of clothing all over again.
Looking back now, those little routines were really a joy; changing socks at every ‘packs off’, pumping and deflating an air mattress, filling water bottles and packing a tent. Compared to the frantic juggling act of reality in Sydney, that simple checklist approach to existence is something pretty special; one thing after another – eat, walk, sleep, repeat.
“Make rocks your friend,” was the advice given to me by a sadistically grinning, weather-beaten old lady when I purchased my boots. Never was a truer word spoken; the Larapinta Trail is where all of Australia’s pointiest rocks go to practice being extra pointy.Aside from the first two days of relatively easy walking, you barely take a step that isn’t on some variant of piercingly sharp or ankle-rolling loose shale, quartz or granite. For us, the third day was a real eye-opener; rocky creek beds, steep scrambles up dry waterfalls and lots of choose-your-own-adventure walking.
We’d knocked off the first 50km of the trail in relatively easy style, but the final hours into Standley Chasm exposed us as the whimpering soy latté sippers we really are. Faced with an elevation profile more jagged that a Brit’s front teeth, Alex’s knee began to a crumble.
Ever the stoic and always a realist, the look of concern on Alex’s face made it pretty obvious that he was aware this wasn’t an injury that was going to be walked off. With the promise of a Bubble O’Bill ice cream if we made it to the Standley Chasm kiosk before it closed, Alex gritted his teeth and pushed on, but we knew things were going to get harder. Our antiquated guidebook had rated the Standley Chasm leg as ‘hard’ but the next two days were ‘very hard’, and that couldn’t be good.
Toughening up on the Larapinta Trail
“I feel like this whole walk suddenly became a little bit sinister,” said Dave, quietly so that Alex and Ken wouldn’t hear. We were deep into day five, and the going was tough. Alex’s knee had not pulled up well after the previous day’s descent off Brinkley Bluff, and the morning’s boulder-strewn climb onto the ominously named Razorback Ridge had reduced him to a yelping mess more than once. His knee would no longer bend more than a few degrees, forcing him to step up every ledge with his left leg.
A howling wind was blowing with gusts so strong that Alex kept toppling and having to put all his weight onto his injured right leg, eliciting the kind of cries and you really don’t want to hear from a good friend. The bigger, unspoken worry was that Alex would have a fall. On this terrain that would be akin to taking a running jump at a cheese grater, and getting help could mean a trip in a helicopter. It was time for a serious talk.
“Alex, I feel that you’re the only true barometer of how things are going for us,” said Dave. “Tom’s an unknown quantity, Ken’s too optimistic, and Chris is a f**king liar. So, are we f**ked, or not?”
The prospect that one of us might not actually finish the walk wasn’t something we’d ever considered, especially not Alex himself. At the start of the trail, we’d joked about having to ‘put down’ whoever was slowing the group up, but with more than a few marathons under his belt, Alex would’ve been the last person to pick as the weakest link.
Through the grey pallor of the pain, the expression on Alex’s face was one of frustration and anger – Alex was genuinely pissed off at his body for letting him down. “Let’s give it one more day,” said Alex. “If we make it into Ellery Creek and it’s still this bad, I can try to get a lift with someone back into Alice.” We divided Alex’s gear up amongst our packs, strapped his knee in an artistic fashion, plied him with painkillers and pressed on.
Now travelling at a slower pace to preserve the remaining ligaments in Alex’s knee, we found ourselves stopping for more chats with other walkers. We’d never heard of the Larapinta Trail until a Google search of ‘good Australian walks’ brought it to my attention, but clearly it has a healthy international reputation – it was like the UN General Assembly out there, with walkers from all over the globe.
Ellery Creek was decision point for Alex. We were coming off the back of a 32km day, which had been preceded by a grindingly tough slog through Hugh Gorge, and we all expected that Alex would call it quits. His jokes about packing it in and heading to Bali for a few days R&R were sounding less flippant and more like he was constructing an itinerary.
Had it been me, the lure of Bintang and a $2 nasi goreng would have trumped another six days of creek beds and tuna sachets. But it was a food drop night that evening, which meant comfort food aplenty, and the effect this has on the soul is hard understate. As Tom shared around his precious musk sticks, he worked on a plan to split some of the remaining longer days into less arduous distances.
Alex consented to the new itinerary, and we had a pudding to celebrate: we were all going to get through the entire walk, even if meant carrying Alex. That night, sleeping in the soft sand of the creek bed, we listened to a cacophony of dingos howling their approval at Alex’s decision. It was a glorious moment.
But there was more than 100km still to be walked, and as we headed ever further away from Alice Springs, standards began to slip. Personal hygiene standards. Tom, who had just the one shirt, took on the odour of rotting fruit. But the low-point came at Finke River, when I decided I needed a wash.
As I absentmindedly mopped away at the final crevices of my filthy body with a dampened T-shirt, Dave asked, “Chris did, I just see you wipe your body, then dip your stinky arse rag of a shirt into the JetBoil?”
This made me pause. In just over week, my concept of acceptable hygiene had slipped so much that I was now washing my body, my entire body, out of the same container that provided the water for all our cooking and drinking. It would was one step above borrowing a toothbrush to scrub at my tinea. We needed to get back to Alice Springs, and soon, before things got really messed up.
Remarkably, Alex’s knee slowly began to improve, and we found ourselves at the final leg of Mount Sonder a day ahead of schedule. We camped in the beautiful, sandy creek bed at the base of the mountain. The plan was to rise at 3am, climb to the summit in the dark, and to watch the sunrise over the length of the West MacDonnell Ranges we’d just walked.
We were ready for the walk to be over – Dave had begun to lose the plot (“Imagine Miranda Kerr, but with a family-sized bucket of KFC instead of her head”) and if I didn’t have a change in diet soon my insides were not going to ever recover. Alex probably needed a new leg, Tom needed to burn that shirt, and Ken had been talking about a hamburger for 10 days now.
Loving and leaving the Larapinta Trail
Walking up the ridgeline of Mt Sonder at night was like floating in a sea of ink. With a waning moon and not a single manmade light marring the black of the earth below, you felt suspended in the vastness, beneath a roof of stars and an ancient landscape that was down there, somewhere in the dark. We reached the summit with an hour till dawn, with whipping winds quickly freezing our sweaty bodies, so we made coffee and waited for the sun to show itself.
When it did, the result was breathtaking. Like the coil on an old stovetop, the land began to glow as the thousand different hues of the rocks – reds, oranges, purples and brilliant whites – hungrily soaked up the sun’s rays. Behind us, Sonder threw a perfect pyramid-shaped shadow through the mist and across the landscape. From this height, we could trace the path of much of our walk, picking out the ridges and gorges we’d traversed, and as the air warmed up we basked in the feeling of satisfaction that comes from covering such a distance under your own steam.
As we descended back to camp, to watch Tom fight with his tent a final time, Dave strode ahead. As road cycling fanatics, we’d been joking the whole walk about breakaways and winning the each day’s ‘stage’, so I figured Dave was going for the final victory. But with just a couple of kays to go, we found him sitting on a rock, pack off. “You know, yesterday I couldn’t wait for this thing to be done,” he said, “but now I don’t want it to end.” I felt the same way. By that afternoon, we’d be back in Alice Springs, smartphones in hand, answering emails and reading the news, and the thought was surprisingly underwhelming. Or maybe that should be overwhelming – our eat-walk-sleep existence was about to be buried by a social-media tsunami.
The Larapinta Trail is perhaps the most truly Australian hiking experience you can have, a step-by-step demonstration of the vast, ancient, eerie beauty of the heart of the continent, something that’s so romanticised but rarely seen. And I guess it turns out that Pop wasn’t such a wanker, he was dead right after all. The Larapinta Trail is an inspiring journey, and if you ever have the chance take that trip, please make sure you enjoy every step.