Travelling the Larapinta

By Cathy Finch 5 May 2021
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Follow one of the world’s best long-distance arid-zone walks, in the red heart of Australia, and the experience will change you forever.

There are good reasons walkers come from all over the world to tread the red and rocky earth of the famed Larapinta Trail in the Northern Territory. The 223km route, which follows the grandeur of the West MacDonnell Ranges, begins at the historic Alice Springs Telegraph Station then heads west to the summit of Mt Sonder, at 1379m the NT’s fourth-highest peak. It’s a spectacular experience that’s capable of imparting more of the true essence of Australia in two weeks than perhaps anywhere else in the country.

This track intentionally leads trekkers along the tops of high, jagged mountain ridge lines and then dramatically down into remarkable dry riverbeds. (Image credit: Cathy Finch)

Despite its remote Central Australia location, the Larapinta Trail can be experienced by a wide range of people of differing ages and physical capabilities. But it’s vital to be prepared for the challenging environment and weather in this part of the world. Temperatures can be unforgiving, with extremes of both heat and cold, and water can be scarce. Walkers need to be well informed and overly prepared.

The trail is divided into 12 sections of varying lengths and can be enjoyed as a connected series of day walks, overnight walks, or as a challenging two- to three-week adventure. For those who opt to walk the trail unsupported – and there are many who do – care must be taken with pack weights and the planning of itineraries to coincide with food-drop areas. You’ll also need to make yourself familiar with vehicle access points in case you need to leave the trail at any of the trailheads.

For those who prefer a softer option – to not travel with their own tent, food, cooking utensils and clothes on their back – there are guided and supported walks. In 1995 pioneering Australian adventure tour company World Expeditions offered the first commercial Larapinta guided trek. Today the company continues to provide a selection of supported and glamping-style adventures. If you like the idea of having the place mostly to yourself, COVID-19 – and Australia’s consequent lack of international travellers – make this an enviable time to visit a famed attraction such as the Larapinta Trail.

“This track intentionally leads trekkers along the tops of high, jagged mountain ridge lines and then dramatically down into remarkable dry riverbeds,” says Tim Sanders, one of our guides on a World Expeditions six-day Classic Larapinta Trek in Comfort. “It winds through gorges lined with river red gums and out into open woodland forests, showing the huge diversity of the region. Sometimes the morning sections differ entirely from the afternoon, spectacularly showcasing the changing habitats.”

The tour I’ve chosen to do covers the best of everything, handpicked to ensure I get to see all the trail highlights, while being vehicle-supported so that I only have to walk with my water supply and a daypack of snacks and essentials. At the end of each day there’s a welcome warm shower and relaxation time when I get to slide my well-walked feet into cosy ugg boots, while the guides prep a hearty three-course meal for me under a canopy of stars.

Four semi-permanent camps are spaced along the trail so that each evening a safari-style tent is waiting with a stretcher bed, a swag and a pillow.

World Expeditions worked for about a decade consulting with traditional owners, along with the Parks and Wildlife Commission of the NT and the Central Land Council, to establish a camp design that blends with the surrounding environment and uses sustainable technologies and practices such as water-free toilets, solar lighting and hybrid greywater disposal.

Unfortunately, the Larapinta Camps’ architect, Nick Murcutt, didn’t live to see the completion of his dream. However, his daughter, Alice Murcutt, took over and finished the project, which has gone on to win design and ecotourism awards.

Towering ghost gums stand stark against their red rock backdrops. (Image credit: Cathy Finch)

I’m travelling with six other people on this Larapinta tour, including three guides, and our first day’s walk on the trail introduces us to the landscape, snaking along the jagged outcrop known as Euro Ridge. It quickly acquaints us with the sheer size and splendour of the MacDonnell Ranges and provides spectacular views across the country surrounding Alice Springs.

We then descend into Wallaby Gap where we are met by local woman Rayleen Brown, her arms overflowing with bush tucker found in the area, and she teaches us about the native larder of foods and botanicals that can be accesssed here. In particular, Rayleen provides us with a detailed insight to the link between Aboriginal locals and the Australian heartland through bush foods.

“What you may not realise is this strong connection to plants that Indigenous people have – they still sing songs for the plants today,” Rayleen says. “There is this wonderful 60,000 years of history around food. We are so lucky here in the Northern Territory to have a strong connection to those plants.

“A plant is like a totem – where someone has an ownership of something and must take care of it. It is then handed down to the next generation. In this case it is normally women handing the story down, teaching the song and teaching the dance.

“I’ve been able to be a part of this, to witness it and to be on Country with the women harvesting these plants that people have lived and survived on for 60,000 years.

“Without wattleseed, for instance, our people wouldn’t have been able to survive here. Without the mulga tree people wouldn’t have survived. The most wonderful journey for me has been the learning and knowledge that has been shared with me by these ladies.”

Rayleen is a Ngangiwumirr and Eastern Arrernte woman who was born in Darwin. “My mum was adopted by the local Arrernte people, never realising that I would become an advocate for the foods and what they taught me in my childhood. People want to know where their food comes from,” she says. “It’s great to have a story with food. It’s the essence of things. It’s wonderful to know the answer to the question, ‘Where did this come from?’”

Walkers are introduced to an array of tantalising bush foods by Rayleen Brown, owner of Kungkas Can Cook. (Image credit: Cathy Finch)

As I dip my damper into some wattleseed dukkah, Rayleen encourages us to try a lavish spread of bush treats including Kakadu plums, bush tomatoes, lemon myrtle and native capers. She is the founder and owner of a business based on trad- itional bush foods called Kungkas Can Cook – kungka meaning women in the Pitjantjatjara language of the Central Desert people. “Growing up in Alice Springs we had all different tribal groups living in the town, so kungka was a common word for a lady,” Rayleen explains.

During the following days of walking we witness some of Australia’s most spectacular sprawling vistas. Hard days are followed by easier ones, which helps with our recovery and enthusiasm. The wildflowers we see along the way are stunning. The soft purple pastels of mulla mulla often line our path – particularly pretty when backlit by rays of morning light.

Everywhere the terrain is rich red, rocky, sparse and dramatic. Along the way we continually learn about and build a new and stronger connection to Earth and nature. Who knew, for example, that when you lightly rock a eucalypt tree you can hear water? It’s like putting a shell to your ear to hear the sound of the sea. And it leads you to believe that, if you cut off a branch, water would come rushing out, although of course this is not the case. What we hear is the water within the root system, amplified by the woody tissues of the tree.

Tim tells us about the spinifex plant, the ghost gums and the Aboriginal peoples’ ways to find and protect witchetty grub populations. One morning during a spectacular sunrise, rain begins to drizzle and we walk out of camp under the arch of a richly coloured rainbow. By the end of the day, after the land has drunk in a little moisture, signs of new life have already begun pushing through the soil. Living up to its name, the resurrection fern is among the first to appear.

Each day on the Larapinta we experience at least one highlight that takes our collective breath away. Walking through red dirt and granite shingles to sand and boulders, we plunge into ridiculously cold waterholes and roll around in deserted billabongs. We visit the vastly different landscape of the Ochre Pits where Aboriginal people have extracted and traded ochre from cliffs for thousands of years.

To this day, ochre is still used by the Western Arrernte people for ceremonial purposes. These pigmented minerals are integral to the Dreaming stories of Indigenous people throughout Australia. It’s pretty humbling to be standing before a resource that’s been shared and traded for thousands of years. If only these cliffs could talk. These swirling, coloured, fragile walls hold stories rich with tradition and geological history.

Some of the best Larapinta Trail views can be enjoyed from Counts Point, one of the highest sites on the Heavitree Range. (Image credit: Cathy Finch)

Our journey nears its end with a heart-pounding crescendo – a 2.15am departure to climb to the summit of nearby Mt Sonder for sunrise.

“It’s Friday morning and you are some of the luckiest people in the country,” Tim says as he prepares to start us off. “Check everything. Run through your gear; be thorough. There’s no coming back. If you’ve forgotten something important, you won’t be summitting today.

“You’ve got two minutes before departure. If you changed the batteries of your headlamp yesterday, I want them changed again today. You will be walking this morning in pitch darkness. There’s no room for error.”

The excitement is palpable. We walk 8km upwards, to reach an elevation of 1379m. It’s a tough slog, for sure. But all that fades quickly for me. When I come over a peak and the light of the full moon shines down upon me, there is nowhere in the world I’d rather be.

As the stars fade and dawn breaks, our efforts are truly rewarded. As if the landscape wasn’t already red and rich enough, the golden rays of light ignite the plains below, dwarfing me to just a speck of dust on the landscape. It’s the beginning of another perfect outback Larapinta day.

Cathy Finch was a guest of World Expeditions, which offers various Larapinta tours ranging from trekking in comfort to self-guided experiences. The season runs from April to September.