While I am hauling my shopping basket through Woolworths I look at the shopping list: two kilograms of dates, one big jar of honey, dried fruits, sultanas, muesli, coconut flakes, chia seeds and loads of mixed nuts.
What’s all this for?…
Well, today we are making bulk trail bars in preparation for the Larapinta Trail; one of Australia’s most spectacular bushwalking experiences (according to their own website). This 223 kilometres long hiking track runs all the way from Alice Springs in the east to Mount Sonder in the west, traversing the steep red slopes of the Western MacDonnell Ranges.
The trail consists of 12 separate sections which can be completed in 12 days (as we intend to do), although the website recommends taking 15-16 days to comfortably complete it.
This is the route we are going to walk:
View Larapinta Trail and Trailheads in a larger map
I am here with Tanja, a fellow Dutchy I met in Melbourne and whom I successfully convinced that this would be heaps of fun. Tonight we are having dinner with Jack and Steve, two guys I know through the Melbourne Mountaineering Club. We meet up at Rocky’s Diner to have one last, very unhealthy, high calorie meal: pizza night! From now on it will be twelve days of dehydrated meals, noodles and couscous. After dinner we have a couple of drinks but then it’s time to crawl into our sleeping bags since the shuttle is picking us up at 7 a.m.
Early in the morning Tanja and I hitch into town to get to the hostel where the shuttle will pick up. Deborah, ‘Deb’, is our driver for the day. This spirited Italian lady turns out to be a natural entertainer and an excellent storyteller. On the way she talks about aboriginal culture and the history of the surrounding lands, making the 3.5 hour drive fly by. We make one stop at Ellerly Creek where we have our halfway food drop. Initially we intended to carry our food for 12 days, but after careful packing and repacking we came to the conclusion that, even if we are willing to put up with the weight, it physically wouldn’t fit in our backpacks.
On the backseat of the van we are discussing our plans and expectations for the trail. ‘What are your trail names?’ Jack wants to know. ‘Trail names?’ Apparently everybody should have one before embarking on such a trip (Already I feel ill prepared :S).
Jack, a.k.a. “Chip”, earned his name by killing an innocent Chipmunk that was trying to steal some of his food to feed her hungry babies; who were subsequently, being deprived of their mother’s milk, condemned to starve an agonizing death. Ok, I might have exaggerated this a bit for dramatic effect. According to Jack he just threw the rock to scare the unsuspecting rodent, it was still very dead though.
Now what about Steve? Since he is carrying a 85 liter backpack with a 10 liter camelback inside to ensure nobody will go thirsty in the desert, we suggest “Camel” might be appropriate. Steve doesn’t seem too thrilled about his newly acquired title, but when Jack points out that “ass” is the only other beast of burden that springs to mind, he reluctantly settles with “Camel”. Then it is our turn. I consider for a second and conclude that “Oopsie” would make a good name for Tanja: she has a funny sort of clumsiness that can be nerve wrecking at times, especially when she is handling sharp kitchen equipment. By default, since me and her are hiking buddies, that makes me Daisy. And so, with our newly acquired trail names we are ready to head off.
Day 1: Up to the real Mount Sonder (Rwetyepme)
Section 12 (+ ‘section 13’): 16km, 6hrs, grade=Hard
It is around noon when we arrive at Redbank Gorge where we start the trail. Officially the route runs from east to west, but we are walking it the other way around.
It’s a pretty relaxed day since we are just going to climb up to the peak of Mount Sonder, a 16 km return trip. After devouring half a bag of chocolate chip cookies for lunch we are ready to head up. The climb is pretty steep at some points but not too bad, and around 2 p.m. we are at the top. That’s to say, at eyelevel with the top: technically this is not the summit of Mount Sonder but merely the lookout, which offers excellent views of the actual peak about 750 meters to the north east. We figure, since we have come this far we might as well finish at the REAL Mount Sonder.
Because this ‘section13’ is not part of the official trail we have to try and find our own route scrambling up the narrow ridge. At some points we have to down climb in order to continue and as I am looking for some solid footholds I am being treated to some dazzling views down the bottom of the chasm.
I remember standing at the lookout estimating it might take about half an hour to get up to the summit. In retrospect this might have been a bit optimistic but after an hour, including exploring the route, we finally reach the peak. It was more than worth the effort; these extra 20 meters of elevation make all the difference!
By the time we get back down it’s already dark and by now we are feeling quite hungry so we go through our stash of zip locks (or ‘zippies’ as we call them, following Australian custom of shortening their words) to get our surprise meal ( It’s actually not that exciting since our assortment consists of either noodles or couscous).
But first things first: we still have rum left! Which, although it tastes pretty good straight up, also serves as an excellent supplement for our MILO (Australia’s cheap version of hot chocolate, made from malted barley).
As we are lying on our backs in the sand, looking up at the stars and making up constellations to compensate for our poor knowledge of astronomy, I’m not noticing the cold (although the rum might also contribute to that). What a perfect first day!
Day 2: Redbank Gorge-Finke River
Section 11: 26 km, 9.5 hours, Grade=Hard
My nose feels cold as I am pulling my head further into the hood of my sleeping bag, trying to ignore the sound of my alarm. It’s still dark outside when I reluctantly leave the warm comfort of the tent to get some water for breakfast. Today we are walking quite a long section so we don’t want to start too late. At 8 a.m. everything is packed up and we are ready to go. We also have to say goodbye to Jack and Steve since they have the crazy plan of walking the track in 8 days. We are doing it a bit more “cruisy” and are taking 12 days.
The first part of the trail runs from Redbank Creek along the southern flank of Mount Sonder, and then passes through Rocky Bar Gap before climbing up to Hilltop Lookout. The beginning is relatively easy but the climb up to the lookout seems to never end and every time we think we see the top it turns out that there is a higher one hiding behind it. We decide to take a lunch break and then walk the rest of the way. Around 4:30 p.m. we reach the Finke River (locally known as larapinta or serpent) where we will camp for tonight. Jack and Steve are walking on to complete section 10 today, but we are pretty satisfied for now and pitch our tent in the dry riverbed.
Day 3: Finke River to Waterfall Gorge
Section 10 and first half of section 9: 24.4 km, 10.5 hours, Grade=Medium/Hard
Section 10, which runs from Finke River to Ormiston Gorge, is a relatively short (9,1 km) and flat section, so we decided to also walk half of section 9 today. That way we can split this longer and difficult section over two days. The first part of the trail is pretty relaxed, meandering through rolling limestone hills covered in Spinifex (a type of grass typically found in the arid regions of Central Australia). Spinifex has sharp pointed leaves which I assume are meant as a defence mechanism, but sometimes I could swear that this plant is being rather offensive; strategically growing next to some wobbly rock waiting for me to loose balance. As I am walking up the hill I hear a distinctive “oops”, shortly after followed by “ouch”. I hurry towards the sound to discover that the spinifex has just made its first victim: Tanja is stranded facedown trying to balance one hand on the rock as the weight of her backpack is pushing her down. The result is not pretty. Good thing we packed the tweezers “in case of a splinter”. I can already let you know, this is not the last time we will use them.
Around 11:30 a.m. we reach Ormiston Gorge from where we head on to section 9. The first 8 km are alternating up and down to the base of the hill from where it’s a steep climb to Mount Giles lookout.
It is already late afternoon by the time we reach the lookout where we encounter a stranded German trying to pitch his tent between the rocks on the windy peak. “It’s only 5 more kilometers from here”, we try to encourage him. But he is done for the day, “can’t take another step”. So we leave him to it and hurry down the mountain to try and make it to waterfall Gorge before sunset. The last part of the route is a very steep descent over loose rocks and it’s already dark when we are climbing over the boulders down into the Gorge. By now I am feeling quite tired and this time it’s my turn to take a tumble. Luckily I get away with only a bruised ego and butt, which I guess I won’t be using much anyway the coming days.
Finally we make it to Waterfall Gorge Campsite which, despite its name, does not contain much water. There is an obscured waterhole which we manage to find after some wandering around. So we can cook our beef curry noodles and call it a day.
Day 4: Waterfall Gorge-Serpentine Dam
Second half of section 9: 13. 5 km, 5.5 hours, Grade=Hard
After our very long walk yesterday we decide we deserve a bit of a sleep-in, so the sun is already well above the gorge when we emerge from the tent. After a relaxed breakfast of muesli and tea we start walking around 10 a.m. The dusty path that runs through the Heavetree Range is sparkling in the sun thanks to tiny quartz particles that are mixed in with the sand. After a couple of hours we reach the Inarlanga pass where we get to do some proper scrambling.
At 3 p.m we arrive at the Serpentine Dam campsite. As we check the logbook it appears that Chip and Camel have walked the Inarlanga pass last night and arrived at Serpentine Dam at the same time we left waterfall Gorge. “Try and catch up” reads the log entry. That’s a nice idea however we are really looking forward to some quality chill time right now.
So I make myself comfortable in the warm sand of the dried up riverbed to read for a bit. Completely absorbed in Krakauer’s stories I don’t notice the noise of the squabbling crows at first, and when I do it’s too late: one of the birds got into my clothes bag and took off with my only remaining pair of clean underwear. At the time I was packing the bag it seemed reasonable to pack only one extra pair to save on weight, which seems a bit silly to me now….
Day 5: Serpentine Dam- Ellerly Creek
Section 8 and section 7: 27.2 km, 11 hours, Grade=Hard
I wake up to the sound of birds chirping, which seems strange to me as the stars are still bright in the sky. It is just after 5 a.m. and the soothing songs are produced by Tanja’s alarm clock. Fortunately, unlike the real life birds, these electronic ones are easily shut up by hitting the snooze button. After half an hour of snoozing I finally pop my head out of my warm down sleeping bag to face the crisp morning air. We plan to walk two sections today and after our night hike through Waterfall Gorge we decided we prefer walking in daylight.
The path, as pretty much seems to be the norm on this entire trail, is lined with our worse enemy. But after our previous encounter with the Spinifex we have learned to tread with care.
In the beginning we chat a lot, but the combination of physical exhaustion and spectacular scenery quickly manages to shut us up. Walking silently I notice a lot more of my surroundings such as a big stick insect hiding in the Spinifex bushes, some (what I guess in my professional opinion are) wallaby droppings on the track, and the rippled patterns in the rocks; testimony to the fact that we are treading on what was once the ocean floor.
Around 4 p.m, we reach Ellerly Creek campsite, one day earlier than we had anticipated. This is also the location where we have stashed our half-way food drop. I think that when we were filling up our box we were probably starving because, despite our Dutch appetite, we seriously overestimated the amount of food that we would consume in 6 days. We keep the cider and the chocolate, you can never pack to much chocolate ;), and share the extra pasta and muesli with our fellow campers, making some new friends around the campfire and scoring some wine in the process.
Day 6 Ellerly Creek-Hugh Gorge
Section 6: 31.2 km, 11 hours, grade=Medium
The photogenic skyline yesterday unfortunately turned out to be an omen for something less photographer friendly: overnight the wispy white clouds have been replaced by thick dark clouds and not much later it starts pouring! Apparently the first rain in 3 months. Just our luck to get rain in the desert: S. .
After hiding in the tent for a while we realize this is not just an isolated shower and that if we still want to walk 31 kilometers today there is no choice but to head out and hope that it will clear up. Besides, we are Dutch and will not be deterred by a ‘little’ rain! Sadly it did not clear up and within an hour we are completely drenched. Note to self: next time when in doubt, pack the rain pants.
At midday we reach Ghost Gum Flat, a halfway campsite, where we take a short lunch break in the drop toilet; the only place that offers some shelter from the relentless rain. We resign ourselves to a cold, wet walk and double our pace in the hope that this will warm us up.
Although I do not prefer walking in soaked clothes it’s not all misery and I can appreciate how the rain has transformed the landscape, treating my senses to the smells of wet grass and eucalyptus and revealing vivid colours in the rocks. Also the sudden abundance of water lures out different animals in search for a drink. That all said, I still prefer a sunny day.
With a stoic resignation I keep walking, my eyes fixed on the path. Finally around 6 p.m. we reach the second campsite. In an attempt to escape the rain we rush to pitch the tent, as this site does not have the luxury of a drop toilet. As I unpack my bag I discover to my dismay that my sleeping bag, despite using the rain cover, did not stay dry. So we huddle up in Tanja’s sleeping bag and have some Milo and chocolate chip cookies to try to lift our spirits.
For obvious reasons I have no pictures of this day…
Day 7 Tentbound
0 km, 36 hours, grade=not easy
Unfortunately the next morning it’s still raining and our clothes are soaked. Going over the mountains in these conditions wouldn’t be much fun, so we decide to sit it out. Boredom is the main enemy at this point, especially since I am not known for my abilities to sit still for an extended period. Luckily I brought a book. One of the chapters in Krakauers’ Eiger Dreams is entitled “On Being Tentbound”-a humorous essay that seems quite appropriate in this situation. As Krakauer points out, “Books provide a happy escape for they possess an ounce-of-weight to minute-of-entertainment ratio that compares quite favorable to intoxicants.” That’s fortunate, since all our beers are finished.
Flipping through the pages, I am soon dozing off and when I wake it’s already noon. Sleeping is a great way to pass the time! But Krakauer warns of the danger: “There can…be too much of a good thing. Even those with a gift for sloth must finally arrive at the point where sleeping further becomes impossible.” Back in my teenage days (man I sound old now) I could easily sleep for 14 hours straight. Now, after a meager 6 hours, sadly I am wide awake.
So what’s next? Social creatures as we are, we primarily turn to our tent mates for relief from dullness. Being cooped up in a small, damp and smelly tent is a good way to judge someone’s character. Luckily my travel mate has a good sense of humor, in my opinion a vital asset in these situations. We pass the time playing games with matchsticks, solving riddles and telling stories. “Of course, there are dangers here too.” Krakauer notes. “Even more important than an ability to entertain is a personality that doesn’t annoy.” One thing I discovered: my tiny two person tent seems to shrink even further when you cram two soaked girls and their smelly socks in there for over 24 hours. People tend to get quite territorial when they are confined to a small space and the 50cm wide sleeping mat becomes your private kingdom. Respecting personal space and staying clear or someone’s comfort zone is crucial.
In the end I got through this very long day in one piece thanks to; a good book, medium sloth skills, some matchsticks, chocolate chip cookies and, most important, a great tent mate to share Milo, stories and sleeping bag.
Day 8 Hugh Gorge-Birthday waterhole
Section 5: 16 km, 10 hours, grade=very hard
After sleeping for about 12 hours yesterday, it’s not that hard to get up early. So when the alarm goes off at 6.a.m I am up and packing my, dry!, sleeping bag. The moon is still high but it’s not raining anymore and when we start walking at 7 a.m the first rays of sunlight are poking through the clouds. I remember cursing the scourging heat just a few days ago, but nothing like a rainy day will make me appreciate the sun again.
The first section of the trail follows a natural watercourse through Hugh Gorge. The heavy rain has filled the waterholes and made the rocks slippery. At some spots we have to traverse along the steep wall of the gorge in order to keep our shoes dry.
Next is a strenuous steep climb up to Rocky Saddle, which is no more or less rocky then the rest of this trail; the Larapinta Trail is sometimes jokingly referred to as a “shoebreaker and blistermaker”, due to the sharp loose rocks all along the route.
From the top we follow the narrow spine of the Razorback Ridge to Windy Saddle from where we make our way down to Spencer Gorge. During the walk we are discussing some “deep stuff”, like our take on religion. Even though both of us are atheist we conclude that if we have to choose, Buddhism would suit us best as we have a great respect for nature. Whilst I am contemplating this I accidentally step into an ants nest and as the little insects are ferociously biting at my legs I am finding it very hard to summon the respect not to crush them. Looking at the dead ants around me I guess I won’t make a great Buddhist after all…
With itchy inflamed legs I continue the rest of the walk to the campsite. It turns out we are sharing a very beautiful stretch buy the river with June and Malcolm, an elderly couple who are camping for the weekend with their grandsons, Ziggy and Archy. Seeing us with our scratched up legs and meager food supply, June immediately switches to‘granny mode’ and we get spoiled with oranges, Tim Tams (a type of biscuit) and some steroid cream for the bites.
They even have hot chocolate so we can make Tim Tam Slams; which involves biting the tips of the Tim Tams and then sucking a warm beverage through the chocolate covered biscuit. Making a proper slam is a rite of passage when you’re in Australia. I’ve heard someone describing it as‘an orgasm in your mouth’ but I dare say it tastes much better than that.
Day 9 Birthday Waterhole-Standley Chasm
Section 4, 17,7 km, 9 hours, grade=Very hard
After an hour we reach Stuart’s pass. The pass is named after John McDouall Stuart, a Scottish explorer who led the first successful expedition traversing Australia from South to North and return. His explorations resulted in construction of the 3200 km Australian Overland Telegraph Line connecting Darwin in the north with Port Augusta in the south. (The Telegraph station is also where we will end our trail).
From Stuart’s pass it is a very steep climb up to the summit of Brinkley’s Bluff from where the trail follows the sharp quartzite ridges of the Chewing Ranges.
After about 8 hours of walking we see the 1 km mark to the next campsite. I must admit I am relieved since I am limping by now; the wet weather the past few days has turned my skin into mush, resulting in a few impressive blisters on my heels. After what seems to be forever, for some reason the last kilometer always seems to take the longest, we finally reach Standley Chasm Campsite. Compared to the peaceful little camp spots we have had so far this large camping is a huge contrast: It’s equipped with a restaurant, flushing toilet and hot showers! (if you’re willing to put the effort in to make a fire and heat the water, which I was not). The camping is run by a lovely elderly lady named Lyn who is permanently accompanied by her loyal brown Labrador Stan. “Stan, as in Standley?” I ask. “No, this place was named after a lady not a guy.” Lyn explains. The Chasm’s name honors Mrs Ida Standley who, in 1914, became the first school teacher in Alice Springs.
There are quite a few people in the campsite, including a group of young guys from Sydney. They are walking the trail in opposite direction and have just started. They seem a bit apprehensive about what’s to come, but when they learn that two girls from the flat Netherlands managed to make it this far they seem to regain some self-confidence.
Day 10: Standley Chasm-Jay Creek
Section 3: 13.6 km, 5.5 hours, grade=Hard
Today we have a good ‘sleep in’ till 7.am. After I’ve had a warm breakfast and taped up my feet I feel good as new. We start our day with a relaxed stroll through Standley Chasm. The sun only enters the chasm through the narrow gap between its sheer and towering walls around midday for about half an hour, bathing it in a red glow. After exploring the chasm for a bit we take the turnoff that brings us back to the Larapinta Trail. From here we head up the STAIRS?! This is the first time since we started the trail that we have a man-made path to walk on. It sort of spoils it, but my knees are thankful right now.
It’s still early in the afternoon when we reach Jay Creek Campsite. But it’s nice to have some extra time to relax in the warm sun and write in my journal. We are sharing the campsite with Anne and Malcolm, two Kiwis that are both crazy about birds. Between the writing and the bird talks, the afternoon flies by and before I know it I am putting all my layers back on. It is a very clear and cold night, perfect for stargazing. Malcolm also happens to know quite a lot about the constellations. He shows us the Pleiades star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters in Aboriginal Dream Stories. There are many different versions of the story, but in this particular one a man named Wati-Nyiru was so smitten by the beauty of these women that he chased them round the globe while they were constantly trying to escape from his unwanted advances. With little hope of escaping, the Seven Sisters escaped to the Milky Way, where they became the stars of the Pleiades. Wati-Nyiru followed in hot pursuit and today he can be seen chasing them through the night sky. The story bears resemblance to the Greek myth of Orion but that appears to be a coincidence. I guess it doesn’t matter which culture you study, woman are always playing hard to get…
Day 11: Jay Creek-Simpsons Gap
Section 2: 25,1 km, 8 hours, Grade=Medium
The days starts with a beautiful sunrise over the riverbed. This was also one of the most spectacular sites that day: so far section 2 turns out to be the most boring section of the trail and the kilometers creep by painstakingly slowly.
After singing at least a thousand bottles of beer off the wall we finally reach our next campsite at Simpson’s Gap. Here we meet Anna, an artist from the U.K., who is hiking the trail on her own looking for inspiration for her paintings. She is pretty die-hard walking the trail by herself in her Doc Martins with only a swag to protect her from the elements and dingoes. Luckily there is a shelter here at Simpsons Gap, so no need to pitch a tent or swag.
Some cool skylines:
Day 12: Simpsons Gap- Alice Springs Telegraph Station
Section 1: 23,8 km, 9 hours, Grade=Medium
At some points the trail parallels the historic telegraph line. The 3200 km long Australian Overland Telegraph Line was completed in 1872 and connected Darwin in the Northern Territory with Port Augusta in South Australia, allowing fast communication between Australia and the rest of the world.
The Euro Ridge is one of the more scenic parts of the route, offering views of Alice Springs where we left of almost two weeks ago.
At 14:30 we reach the Telegraph Station and the end of our trail. We made it 🙂 223 km in 12 days, 11 if you don’t count the one day we were chickening out in the tent.
This calls for celebration! It’s Saturday so there must be a place were Alice Springs’ inhabitants (Alicians?) go to party. The casino, out of all places, seems to be rocking. So I take off my shoes, the blisters are still killing me, and turn my limping into some dance steps. We party till the next morning and even develop a new dance move which we aptly name the ‘Larapinta shuffle’: (un)fortunately no footage available..