One of Australia’s newest trekking routes, the Larapinta Trail traverses the spectacular backbone of the country’s Red Centre.
It is 1:30 a.m. at the foot of Mount Sonder when our guide’s voice rings out across the camp: “Wake up trekkers, it’s time to get up! You have a mountain to climb, it’s time to get up!” Grudgingly, we crawl out of our toasty sleeping bags to face one last challenge on the Larapinta Trail: an eight-hour loop hike up and over the mountain’s 1,380-meter summit, our ascent illuminated only by head torches and the glow of a full moon. After four days of trekking through some of the Northern Territory’s most dramatic landscapes, I find it hard to muster much enthusiasm for this nocturnal uphill slog. But knowing what waits at the top makes the sting of the near-freezing morning air a little easier to bear.
One of Australia’s newest hiking trails, the Larapinta spans 223 kilometers through the country’s so-called Red Centre, from Alice Springs in the east to Mount Sonder in the west. You can walk it end to end, but it’s a serious 18- to 20-day commitment that will test mental strength as much as physical ability. You can also choose to trek one or more of its 12 individual sections, all of which are linked by Namatjira Drive, a paved road running parallel to the West MacDonnell Ranges. As the trail is well signed and has bush campsites equipped with water reserves and food-drop facilities, many hikers DIY it, carrying their own tents, sleeping gear, and portable gas stoves. But when someone else is taking care of the essentials and all you have to do is slip on a daypack and walk, the scenery just seems so much nicer.
Adventure travel specialists World Expeditions pioneered commercial trekking here in the mid-1990s, when the Larapinta was half its current length. In 2013, once the entire trail became open to hikers, the company was given permission to establish two semi-permanent campsites along the route; a third was added in 2015. The campsites were a long time coming, with close to a decade spent in consultation with the traditional owners of the land as well as the National Parks and Land Council. And then there was the building process, which was neither fast nor easy given the remoteness of the area.
Today, each site features 12 canvas cubes pitched over a wooden base, with room for two stretcher beds and a couple of duffel bags inside. Semi-open dining areas have sculptural roofs that mirror the undulating countryside, and there are composting toilets and nifty bucket showers hidden behind trees. Everything is set up at the start of the season and removed at the end, leaving little trace of ever having been here.
World Expeditions operates guided treks between the three camps, taking in the highlights of the Larapinta along the way. I’ve signed up for a five-day fundraising walk with the Luke Batty Foundation, established by former Australian of the Year Rosie Batty as a way to raise awareness of family violence. The nature of the organization means I’m in the company of some incredibly generous and inspirational people, many with heartbreaking-turned-heart-warming stories to tell. Walking, it turns out, is extremely therapeutic, and it feels natural to share our thoughts and feelings over the week we’re together.
Our group of 12 eases into the first afternoon with a drive out to Standley Chasm, a.k.a. Angkerle Atwatye (“Gap in the Hill”), a private nature reserve west of Alice Springs that’s operated by the Western Arrernte people. A traditional landowner named Deanella Mack guides us on the 20-minute walk from the visitors’ center to the red sandstone gorge, pointing out white cypress and ancient cycads, wild passionfruit and native figs along the way. From here, hikers can continue on to section four of the Larapinta. But we’re heading back to the start.
The first section of the trail begins at the historic Alice Springs Telegraph Station, one of 12 such stations established in 1872 to relay messages across the 3,000 kilometers of wilderness separating Adelaide and Darwin. Some of the original telegraph poles still stand alongside the track that takes us through witchetty bush and mulga scrub into the West MacDonnell Ranges. There’s little shade as we climb Euro Ridge, a jagged spine that allows expansive, unpeopled views of the desert landscape, a collage of yellows and reds bookended by the impossibly blue sky and foothills of green shrubbery. It’s this same palette that pioneering local artist Albert Namatjira employed in his famous mid-20th-century watercolors of the region.
That night we stay at Nick’s Camp, which is named after the late architect (Nick Murcutt) who designed World Expeditions’ three Larapinta campsites. Our tents are backdropped by the Heavitree Range and Alice Valley. Before dinner, Alice Springs caterer Rayleen Brown pays us a visit to talk about native bush foods. She brings along loaves of wattleseed damper that we slather with bush tomato chutney and a zingy pepperberry cheese.
Our three guides—Jai, Alice, and Ryan—are much more than that. While we nibble on damper, they alternate between setting up camp, stoking the fire, heating water for the shower, operating blister clinics, and preparing our three-course dinner. Tonight it’s baked barramundi with mushrooms, but other menu favorites during our hike will include chicken curry, slow-cooked lamb shanks, and an indulgent chocolate pudding cooked in heavy pans over the fire. We walk up to 20 kilometers every day, but no one loses any weight.
The Larapinta traverses some wild and remote places, and though the distances may not seem that great, the reality is much different. The trail is steep and irregular at times, and it can be tough under foot—on day three, we encounter everything from red dust and granite shingles to sand and boulders. We also traverse a dry, rocky riverbed to reach an Aboriginal ocher quarry, a sacred site that is still used for ceremonial purposes. It’s like a rainbow of earthy hues has been smeared on the cliffside using a palette brush. Later, Ryan and Jai prepare falafel wraps (“edible plates,” they call them) for lunch when we reach Inarlanga Pass, its twisted red rock walls spiked with cycad palms that have grown here since prehistoric times.
Most days we have the trail all to ourselves. In fact, the only time we encounter other hikers is on day four, when we deviate from the main track to an official Larapinta side trek: a seven-kilometer circuit through Ormiston Pound and Gorge. Along the way, the geology changes from limestone to quartzite to granite, with tiny slivers of mica gleaming beneath our feet. We scale a ridge to get a feel for the vastness of the pound, a ring of low mountains that encircles a “crater” where cattle grazed until the 1950s. Then we drop down to walk across its lunar-like interior. Before entering the gorge on the basin’s western edge we stop for lunch at the Finke River. Dating back more than 300 million years, the Finke—known in Western Arrernte as Lherepirnte, from which the Larapinta Trail takes its name—is thought to be the world’s oldest river flowing in its original course. Today, it’s a string of waterholes that can become a raging torrent during rare flood events; in extreme cases, it can still flow 750 kilometers from its headwaters to Lake Eyre in South Australia.
The immenseness of the pound makes the soaring cliffs of Ormiston Gorge even more impressive. The uplift events that created these ridges and troughs occurred almost 350 million years ago, and the sedimentary rock formed more than 1.5 billion years ago. Which explains why, in the middle of the Australian continent, we can spot “rock ripples” from an ancient seabed. This is the place to put life into perspective.
It also puts us in the right frame of mind for our nocturnal climb up Mount Sonder, though it turns out that night trekking is actually quite magical. It’s eerily quiet and still, and there’s nothing to do except concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. By the time the summit is in our sights we can turn off our head torches—there’s enough light from the sinking moon on one side of the range and rising sun on the other.
At the top, we refuel on Tim Tam chocolate biscuits and cups of sugar-loaded coffee. Between sips, Ryan tells us that, according to Arrernte legend, the rolling and twisting ranges surrounding us are the remains of giant ancestral caterpillars. He also points out the road back to Alice Springs, 140 kilometers away.
Despite all the canyons and mountains and red dust trails we’ve walked over the last five days, and despite the fact we’ve only seen a handful of people the whole time, it takes less than two hours to drive back to the Northern Territory’s third-largest city. In this part of Australia, it seems real remoteness is closer than you think.
World Expeditions runs a six-day Classic Larapinta trek from April through September. Rates start from US$1,759 per person including all meals, guides, and national park fees. For information about planning your own adventure, visit the Larapinta Trail website here.
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Seeing Red”).