Our March-May 2021 issue is out this week! Read about luxe lodgings and adventure in Indonesia’s East Java province, the growing indigenous tourism scene in Queensland, and a once-in-a-lifetime cruise to Antarctica. Download the digital version on Zinio, find the magazine on newsstands, or visit destinasian.com/subscribe to order a copy.
Cover: The Beach Bar at Banyuwangi’s Dialog hotel, which sits across from Bali on the east coast of Java. Photograph by Martin Westlake.
From its rich seafaring history to year-round sunshine, the Arab country makes a well-rounded destination for adventure-seekers and culture lovers.
1. Making sports history
Qatar is making sports history as the first Middle Eastern country to host the 23rd World Corporate Games in 2019; the 17th World Championships in Athletics in 2019; FIFA World Cup in 2022, and FINA World Swimming Championships in 2023.
2. Visa-free entry
Citizens of more than 85 countries and territories are eligible for visa-free entry to Qatar. Visitors do not require any prior visa arrangements and can obtain a visa waiver upon arrival to Qatar and presentation of a valid passport with a minimum validity of six months and a confirmed onward ticket. Depending on their country of origin, they can enjoy an allowable length of stay of 30 or 90 days.
3. Year-round sunshine
Qatar has a desert climate with year-round sunshine, hot summers, and mild winters.Average monthly temperatures range from 17 degree Celsius in January to 36 degree Celsius in July, sometimes reaching highs of 40 degree Celsius during the summer months. Rain is infrequent, averaging 70 millimeters per year. It falls mainly in brief showers between October and March and rarely hinders outdoor activities.
4. Dress code
Dressing in Qatar is quite relaxed, but both men and women are expected to show respect for local culture and customs in public places by avoiding excessively revealing clothing. It is generally recommended for visitors to cover up from their shoulders to knees.Lightweight summer clothing is suitable most of the year, but some warmer garments may be needed for winter evenings.Beachwear and bikinis are acceptable by the hotel pool but not in public places in the city. Business visitors should dress as they would in their home countries.
Islam plays an integral role in daily life.
5. It’s a Muslim country
Qatar is a Muslim country, and Islam plays an integral role in daily life and traditions of its people. Prayers take place five times per day—at dawn (Fajr), around midday (Duhr), in mid-afternoon (A’asr), at sunset (Maghrib), and about two hours after sunset (‘Esha). The exact timing varies each day according to the sun’s position. Other religions are respected, and Doha’s cosmopolitan population supports many places of worship, from Hindu temples to Christian churches.
6. Its rich Arabian heritage
Qatar is home to Al Zubarah Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Meanwhile, Arabian horse, Marwan Al Shaqab, was foaled in Doha. He holds dozens of international titles and is the winner of numerous world champions.
7. The significance of Arabic coffee
Traditional Arabic coffee plays a special role in Qatar as an expression of hospitality. Freshly ground and flavored with cardamom and other spices, the coffee is served from a specially-shaped pot (called dallah) in tiny cups with no handles. Fun fact: An Arabic coffee cup should be received with the right hand. The server will continue to replenish the cup until you signal you have had enough by shaking it gently from side to side.
Aboard a traditional wooden dhow.
8. Its seafaring history
Qatar has always looked outward to the sea. For generations, fishing, pearl diving, and trading provided a livelihood for much of the population. Traditional wooden dhows, largely unchanged in design over the years, are a remnant of this seafaring tradition and they continue to ply Qatar’s waters today.
9. Incense Burning
Bukhoor incense is very popular in Qatar and throughout the region. Made from scented wood, it is burned in a special incense burner called a mabkhara to produce a rich fume to perfume the home and clothing. As a show of hospitality, visitors are often invited to waft the smoke around themselves.
Needlework and embroidery are among the region’s most enduring traditional handicrafts. In the past, women used to sew all garments themselves as there were no tailors in Qatar—even by the early 1950s, there were just three tailors, who all specialized in men’s clothing. One of the most fascinating techniques is an-naqdah, where women’s garments and headscarves are embroidered with golden and silver threads.
Beautiful henna art.
11. Henna body art
Henna, a natural reddish-brown dye derived from powdered leaves, has been used by Qatari women for cosmetic purposes for hundreds of years. It is still widely used today to decorate the skin with intricate patterns and designs, especially for occasions such as weddings and Eid celebrations. It is also used as a hair dye.
12. Music and dance
Traditional music instruments include tambourines, cymbals, and large drums known as al-ras, stringed instruments such as the oud and rababa, and wind instruments including the flute-like nay and a traditional Arabian bagpipe called a habbān. To perform the traditional ardha dance, men and boys carrying canes or decorative swords form two rows facing each other and chant poetry while swaying to the beats of the music. This kind of traditional music and dance is still widely performed throughout Qatar, especially at banquets, celebrations, and other special events.
13. Falcons on the plane
Falconry is the age-old practice of using a falcon to hunt. It was introduced to Qatar by Bedouin tribes, who trained their falcons to capture birds migrating across the Arabian Peninsula during the winter months. The falcon’s main prey is the houbara bustard. Fun fact: The national carrier, Qatar Airways allows travelers to carry falcons in the Economy Class cabins of its aircraft; a maximum of six falcons are permitted in any one plane.
14. Fishing conditions
Expect ideal fishing conditions between October and May when calm waters and balmy temperatures prevail. Seasoned sailors can rent a vessel and navigate the open waters themselves; less-experienced anglers may wish to organize a fishing expedition through a licensed tour operator. Opt for a sleek and modern speed boat or get a feel for Qatar’s seafaring history in a traditional dhow.
15. Doha’s transport options
Doha’s skyline is in constant flux as new parks, museums, residential complexes, business towers, rail systems, highways, and roads find their space on the sprawling cityscape. Visitors wishing to discover the city, have the options of doing so on the road, in the air or by sea.Local tour operators offer a range of city and multi-stop sightseeing trips and excursions, as well as tailor-made tours to meet any special interest.
Operating 24 hours a day, Doha Bus offers a tour visiting all of the city’s key attractions with the flexibility to hop-on and hop- off anywhere along the bus circuit. For a unique aerial view of the city’s landmarks, there is Samana’s 45-minute helicopter tour. Finally, experience the country’s seafaring heritage by cruising the Gulf’s calm waters aboard a traditional Qatari dhow boat.
This article was brought to you by Qatar National Tourism Council.
From cross-cultural feasts washed down with champagne to all-you-can-eat dim sum, these weekend brunches are worthwaking up for.
Located on level 29 of the One Peking building in Kowloon, Aqua boasts floor-to-ceiling windows framing the city’s skyline from across Victoria Harbour—a stunning backdrop for a leisurely weekend brunch. The menu here is an elegant curation of contemporary Italian and Japanese cuisine, with highlights including king prawn tempura, uni (sea urchin), foie gras and pork gyoza, and elaborate sushi platters. Don’t miss out on the signature cocktails, such as the herbaceous yet refreshing Aqua King cocktail, which comes with rosemary-infused vodka.
Eccentric yet stylish, W Hong Kong’s signature restaurant is photogenic at every turn. With a décor magazine-worthy open kitchen, as well as playful art installations (think trippy stacked-crockery sculptures), Kitchen exudes fun and discovery. Diners can look forward to the bistro’s newly revamped Bubbly Seafood Sunday Brunch, which features fresh seafood, savories of steak and suckling pig, signature Bloody Marys, and unlimited Veuve Clicquot champagne.
As part of The Park Lane Hong Kong hotel’s recent refit, its 27th floor now houses contemporary French restaurant SKYE. The 743-square-meter space comes with a crème-colored dining area, three private rooms, and a sprawling terrace with a curved, illuminated bar. Its weekend brunch is a four-course affair, with two small plates to share, a main course that features lamb, beef, and lobster, alongside free-flow cake and chocolate from the dessert trolley.
27/F, The Park Lane Hong Kong, 310 Gloucester Rd, Causeway Bay.
Located in the heart of Hong Kong’s Central district, this one-Michelin-starred restaurant could be easily mistaken for the humble abode of a veteran art collector, thanks to the contemporary art pieces lining its walls. Spacious and elegant, the dim sum establishment comes with a large garden patio, as well as a sleek salon upstairs. Every weekend, enjoy all-you-can-eat dim sum and glasses of Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label for brunch. Must-tries include fungus dumpling with black-truffle, steamed barbecued Ibérico pork bun, and fried wonton of shrimp and foie gras.
The setting of this northern Chinese restaurant is a brilliant play of a quasi-rustic design juxtaposed against the backdrop of an ultra-modern, shiny Hong Kong seen through the full-length windows. Its famous Feng Wei brunch menu features 18 fiery dishes, such as the signature red lantern crispy soft-shell crab with Sichuan dried chili, and black truffle beef fried with Yunnan mushrooms. Guests can also participate in weekly fringe activities like fortune telling and noodle pulling.
Bold and visually stunning, luxe furniture brand Timothy Oulton’s first modern culinary venture is made for the age of Instagram. Be greeted by a water tank featuring Derek the Diver, Before admiring the restaurant’s mesmerizing patterned marble floor. A fresh take on British cuisine (you won’t find fish and chips here), the Sunday brunch designed by head chef Arron Rhodes features Hereford beef served with Yorkshire pudding, duck-fat potatoes, and roasted parsnips. Round off the meal with modern interpretations of pear trifle and apple crumble, or Colston Bassett Stilton cheese.
15 Gough St, Central.
More information here.
Photo: Lily & Bloom
7. Lily & Bloom
Step into a space where the liberal use of wood combined with vintage and industrial elements conjure up the Manhattan of a bygone era. Tables teem with hearty and healthy salads, muesli and granola with yogurt and toppings, cured meats, and mussels. There’s also a U.S. city-inspired omelet station, and desserts, including a chocolate fountain. Top-up to enjoy free-flowing Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut and house red and white wine.
5/F & 6/F, LKF Tower, 33 Wyndham St, Central.
More information here.
Photo: Theo Mistral by Theo Randall
8. Theo Mistral by Theo Randall
One of the most highly anticipated restaurant openings in the city last year was British celebrity chef Theo Randall’s transformation of the InterContinental Grand Stanford Hong Kong’s The Mistral. Now named Theo Mistral by Theo Randall, the restaurant harnesses the finest Italian seasonal produce in its La Dolce Vita Sunday Brunch. An extensive buffet spread is sectioned accordingly, ranging from antipasti to seafood, pasta to desserts. The seafood bar is a crowd favorite, featuring freshly shucked oysters, poached prawns, mussels, crab legs, sea whelks, baby lobsters, octopus salad, tuna carpaccio, and cured marinated salmon.
B/2, InterContinental Grand Stanford Hong Kong, 70 Mody Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui.
More information here.
Photo: Brasserie on the Eighth and Nicholini’s
9. Brasserie on the Eighth and Nicholini’s
A map is handed out to those who dare navigate through Conrad Hong Kong’s epic Sunday brunch service, dubbed the Champagne Brunch on the Eighth. This feast spans the hotel’s entire eighth floor across two restaurants, the French-continental Brasserie on the Eighth and Northern Italian venue Nicholini’s, with stations set up in the connecting foyer as well. Not to be missed is a visit to the wine cellar next to Pacific Bar, which is converted weekly into a cheese library. Other highlights include pop-up culinary carts carrying mussels meunière with wine and herbs, and Chinese steamed fish of the day, prepared with soya sauce, ginger and scallion.
8/F, Conrad Hong Kong, Pacific Place, 88 Queensway, Admiralty.
With rich decor that harks back to 1900s private members’ clubs, Buenos Aires Polo Club features dark wooden interiors complemented by lush leather banquettes, Referencing Argentina’s vibrant grilling culture, the steakhouse offers a hearty brunch menu with live cooking stations, a carving table with Argentinian Black Angus prime rib, and desserts of house-made cakes and pastries. Complete the experience with a choice of free-flow drinks or enjoy one of the bar’s signature à la carte cocktails, like the Polo Mari.
Following its six-month closure for a major cleanup and sweeping infrastructure upgrades, the Philippines’ most celebrated beach destination is finally back in business.
Heading out for a dip on White Beach, the stretch of powder-fine sand that made Boracay famous.
Standing early one morning on a spotless, near-empty stretch of White Beach, the fabled four-kilometer-strand running down the western coast of Boracay, I can scarcely believe that this tiny Philippine island welcomed two million tourists in 2017. Or that the shoreline here was tainted with algal blooms just six months ago.
Three days after Boracay’s much-anticipated reopening in October, I have come to see how the Philippine government’s push for sustainable tourism has changed the face of the island. New rules mandating the installation of sewage treatment plants in all beachfront hotels, and in all properties with at least 50 rooms, have paid off. “The government did a good job with the overall cleanliness, and the water quality has improved a lot,” says Peter Tay, the Singaporean general manager of Boracay Adventures Travel & Tours. “Before this, they did not have the proper infrastructure, in terms of waste management, to support the increase in tourist numbers.”
Inside Italian restaurant Forno Osteria, part of a brand-new all-suite wing at Discovery Shores Boracay.
But it has been a painful process to arrive at this point. Tay is on the board of directors of the Boracay Foundation (BFI)—a non-profit stakeholders’ group led by local windsurfing champion and environmental advocate Nenette Aguirre-Graf—and he explains how BFI persistently lobbied the authorities for help to deal with the island’s wastewater woes, a result of the uncontrolled development that had taken root over the past two decades. “By 2016 and 2017 we realized that the water conditions in Bulabog were getting from bad to worse. We sent letters to the government and nothing happened. Our appeal was not heard. We were frustrated, so someone from the group made a video about the true state of Boracay.” That clip showed untreated effluent being pumped straight into the sea off Bulabog Beach, the hub of the island’s thriving water sports scene. It eventually went viral. Then in February 2018, several months after the relevant government departments finally took notice, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte infamously branded the entire island a “cesspool.”
Tay notes that the term had an immediate impact on tourist arrivals and misrepresented the bigger picture. “It’s not the whole of Boracay that was a cesspool—it was only the eastern side of the island, and that I will admit.” BFI members were then given the message that Boracay’s closure would take place if the island was not cleaned up over a coming six-month period. But contrary recommendations from government departments won out, and in the end the president ordered an immediate shutdown from April 26.
An electric tricycle plying the road to Bulabog Beach.
While Tay was not against the closure, he says its broad scope and sudden enforcement—with stakeholders given only three weeks’ notice—effectively sabotaged the local economy. “They could have closed the island in phases. Everything was not properly coordinated and now you see the repercussions. Many businesses had to shut down—we have had six months of no income. And anyone who comes here will see that the rehabilitation is not finished.”
Indeed, Boracay’s overhaul remains a work in progress on several fronts. The chaotic tourist verification process at Caticlan Jetty Port on neighboring Panay Island (no visitor can enter Boracay without an advance booking) represents an extra hurdle for holidaymakers as well as hotels. On my visit, I wait in constantly shifting lines for 20 minutes to complete a form, have my booking checked against a list of government-accredited lodgings, and receive a stamp on the back of my hand. It adds to an already complicated arrival experience that involves two security checks, the purchase of a ferry ticket, terminal fee, and an environmental surcharge given on different sheets of paper, plus a passenger data slip that must be filled out before boarding.
Michayla Cordero, director of communications at Shangri-La’s Boracay Resort & Spa, tells me how the property has adapted to the new measure. “We have an exclusive lounge at the port in Caticlan called Mabuhay Center,” she says. “Local government representatives are stationed there to make the verification process smoother for our guests.” Others have resorted to sending out an online version of the form, which one hotelier describes as being “more detailed than those required by immigration.”
Enjoying an early morning stroll on the sands of Bulabog.
Perhaps the biggest inconveniences, though, are the dust and traffic snarls due to the ongoing road-widening project, which isn’t due to be finished until late 2019. Plans are also afoot to make getting around the island a more pleasant and eco-friendly experience. So far, the Philippines’ departments of transportation and energy have donated 200 electric tricycles, while the Filipino division of ride-hailing giant Grab is investing US$1.9 million to provide 50 electric hop-on, hop-off buses (christened “e-jeepneys”) and build at least 20 bus shelters across the island. Come January, it is hoped that passengers will be able to pay for each ride with a card or electronic wristband.
But for now, with the roads still being widened and public transportation not quite in place, the most common way to get around is by motorized tricycles and habal-habal motorcycle taxis driven by people like Kevin Obiso, a 26-year-old who hails from the city of Kalibo farther down the coast of Panay. Obiso is one of the more than 30,000 local workers who lost their livelihoods overnight due to the shutdown. “Actually,” he says, “I’m a waiter at a restaurant in D’Mall. Then the island was closed, so I went to Manila to work, to sell street food. I came back for my job but the restaurant is still not open.”
Other workers were lucky. Global hotel chains like Shangri-La and Mövenpick had the means to offset financial losses and move staff around; Cordero says that some of her colleagues were given the opportunity to transfer to other properties in the Philippines and beyond. And at Subo Boracay, a nostalgic Filipino restaurant running a limited menu at the time of my visit, a waitress who introduces herself as Rosalie tells me she retained her job even as the tourists vanished. Thankfully, business has swiftly picked up since the island’s reopening. “Last night we were so busy,” she says. “We had Chinese, Koreans, people from Manila… every table was full.”
A lifeguard on duty at White Beach.
It’s a similar story at Discovery Shores Boracay, a five-star resort on the northern end of White Beach that was booked out on reopening day. Hotel manager Erwin Lopez says that despite the island’s runaway development since his arrival in 2007, “its vibe has never changed. Boracay has always been a fun place where people come to party and relax.”
And yet, it is precisely the local predilection for wild outdoor parties—especially the annual Labor Day extravaganza dubbed “Laboracay”—that the authorities seem keen to stamp out. Smoking and alcohol are now banned on the beach, as are the famous fire dancers, who must now perform with LEDs. “It won’t really be a party place anymore,” Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat said in an interview with the ABS-CBN News Channel. “We want it to be as it is, more peaceful, and we want to promote sustainable tourism.” To that end, Boracay’s gambling venues were closed down, and the authorities shelved plans for a US$500 million casino-resort development.
Then there’s the beachfront “25+5 meter rule,” which dictates a no-build zone stretching 25 meters inland from the high-tide mark with an added five-meter buffer. Oddly, the regulation applies not just to permanent structures, but also to portable furniture including umbrellas, tables, and sun loungers—a measure that hoteliers like Lopez are not entirely happy with. “The government also has to think about guest comfort. How can we offer a world-class experience—and I mean the beach in general—if we have to tell people, ‘Sorry, here’s a towel to put on the sand’ and let them roast in the sun?” he says half-jokingly. “Beach beds and sun loungers are something we must have.”
Nor is he convinced about the prohibition of unauthorized sand sculptures or the blanket ban on beach fireworks after 9 p.m., which would put a damper on New Year’s Eve celebrations. Lopez stresses that the new rules aren’t set in stone. “I think what they are doing now is testing things out and seeing what works and what doesn’t. My hope is that as time goes by, the government will relax some of those regulations.”
Over on Bulabog Beach, the much-needed cleanup has been a major success, with Aguirre-Graf declaring on social media that she’d “never seen it so pristine since the ’90s.” That has come hand-in-hand with improved accessibility: a new stretch of the coast road sports smooth concrete surfaces, terracotta-paved sidewalks, and a Grab bus shelter above the beach. But that progress has been a blow to the area’s long-established kitesurfing schools and beachside lodgings. Opposite the bus shelter, all that remains of Hangin Kite Center & Resort is a small, two-storied structure where builders are laying down new cement floors.
“The government didn’t give us or the landlord any compensation,” explains its German-born manager Stefan Hund. “We have to pay for everything out of our own pockets. Now we have some more land at the back of the lot from the landlord, but that’s it.” Hund adds that if any school wants to teach kitesurfing, they will need a certification. “Some will not yet have it—first they need to be demolished to follow the 25+5 meter rule. Because of the new road, our school is already 30 meters from the water, so that’s why we can operate.”
How Boracay maintains a happy medium between reaping the economic benefits of tourism and safeguarding its natural beauty will be a lesson for other Southeast Asian destinations. To Tay, it boils down to the question of access via the airports at nearby Caticlan and Kalibo. “It’s very simple. The government should just work closely with the airlines to plan and limit the number of flights.”
As for the stated capacity of 6,400 daily tourist arrivals, a number previously surpassed over the three busiest months of the year (with April reaching an average of 8,300), Tay is nonchalant. “If you multiply 6,000 by 365 days, you’re still going to get more than two million. What I am more concerned about is if they are going to go after mass tourism—backpackers who come and just lie on the beach, not spending anything. I would rather they concentrate on those who contribute to the island’s economy by booking with local operators and spending more.
I will be happier with that kind of tourist.”
While Scoot flies nonstop from Singapore to Kalibo, most travelers coming in from abroad will have to transit via Manila, Clark, or Cebu on carriers such as Philippine Airlines.
Where to Stay
Discovery Shores Boracay (63-2/720-8888; doubles from US$225) has a prime beachfront location. Another favorite is Shangri-La’s Boracay Resort & Spa (63-36/288-4988; doubles from US$410).
DestinAsian’s The Luxe List showcases the new properties that have stood out from the rest in terms of service, setting, amenities, and a singular sense of style. From an intimate tented camp in the green foothills of Bali to a converted 19th-century Jesuit retreat in Tamil Nadu, our editors and reviewers have roamed the Asia-Pacific region to bring together DestinAsian’s annual collection of the year’s top hotel openings. Read on and discover which new properties stood out from the rest in terms of service, setting, amenities, and a singular sense of style. To see our Luxe Lists from previous years, click here.
One of Australia’s newest trekking routes, the Larapinta Trail traverses the spectacular backbone of the country’s Red Centre.
Watching the sun rise over the MacDonnell Ranges from the top of Mount Sonder. Photo by Natasha Dragun.
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.
Crossing the scrubby terrain of Ormiston Pound. Photo by Natasha Dragun.
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.
Resting on the boulders of a dry creek bed on section one of the Larapinta Trail. Photo by Natasha Dragun.
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.
Essential kit. Photo by Natasha Dragun.
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.
Airing out hiking boots after a day of walking. Photo by Natasha Dragun.
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.
The dining pavilion at World Expeditions’ Fearless Camp at the base of Mount Sonder. Photo by Natasha Dragun.
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.
A ridge of ancient sedimentary rock in Ormiston Gorge. Photo by Natasha Dragun.
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.
Trip Notes 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 2018print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Seeing Red”).