Thursday, 5 July 2018

The Larapinta Trail. Northern Territory, Australia.






The Larapinta Trail is around 231 kilometers/ 144 miles in length, a swish little point to point walking path in the desert mountains of West McDonnell National Park, situated slap bang in the Red Heart of Australia.

The Western terminus is Mt Sonder accessed via Redbank Gorge, the Eastern terminus is the Telegraph Station, 3.5km from downtown Alice Springs.  Between them are plenty of easily accessible entry points to jump in or off the trail if you aren't doing the whole kaboodle..

'Larapinta' is an Aboriginal word for the Finke River which starts at the confluence of the Ormiston & Davenport Creeks in the Western portion of the Park.  So there you are.

I took 7.5 days walking West to East from Saturday 23 June to Saturday 30 June, 2018.

                                               Map sourced from www.wikivoyage.org

Safari Track Rating: Easy- Moderate, very well groomed trail, a mixture of sand, rocks and dry creek beds.  Some steep climbs but mostly undulating and well marked.  Views are compulsory and stupendous.  It is a desert environment so I went in the popular Winter peak time to avoid high temperatures.  It averaged 20 degrees Celsius during the day down to freezing most nights.

I used John Chapman's 'Larapinta Trail' Guidebook 2015 & the free downloadable maps from the NT.Gov.au website here

Also highly recommend Cam 'Swami" Honan's  the hiking life & Erin Saver's walking with wired website's which give detailed accounts of logistics and their experiences on the Larapinta.

Campsite in Redbank Gorge.

View while climbing Mt Sonder on dusk.
The last time I had the good fortune to visit the Northern Territory was way back in 2010 when I ran the inaugural Ayers Rock Marathon. Before that I worked and lived in the remote resort communities of Kings Canyon and Ayers Rock for a time- both are a 5 hour drive from the main town of Alice Springs and spending any extended time out there gives you an idea of what 'isolated' truly means.

The trail was being constructed in the Western McDonnell's at the time I was living in resort world but I was keen to get out of the desert so I ran away and hiked the Bibbulmun Track in Western Australia in 2007 instead.  Over the last few years the Larapinta has popped up on my radar again and so on a sunny Saturday in late June I found myself touching down at Alice Springs airport at midday and being scooped up by a local guy named Peter.
Peter had kindly purchased a gas canister for my MSR Pocket Rocket cooker and took me straight out to Redbank Gorge, the starting location for my thru hike.  The trail can be walked either direction, I chose West to East as it meant I was heading towards Alice Springs and didn't require a pickup or hitch back to town.

Many people take weeks to complete the trail and have food drops sent to intermittent locations along the route, however I was planning on banging it out in 8 or 9 days and I am way too much of a tightarse with my moolah to pay someone for that service so schleping the lot was my mode of operation. My pack weighed around 15 kilos all up including a litre of water and dropped everyday until it was around 6.5 kilos empty of food and water cruising into Alice. As you can tell I, ah...eat a bit of chow!

Mt Sonder.
Mt Sonder, the starting point of my trek, steadily increased in size as we drove West.  Soon I was shaking hands with Peter and thanking him and putting my tent up in the riverbed near quite a few others and heading off up Mt Sonder to tag the summit and 'start' my hike proper.

I left at 3:15pm, arriving 2 hours later as the sun floated down on the horizon and scooted into camp via headlamp 2 hours after that. It was a bit touch and go as I hadn't really moved more than half an hour at a time over the past 10 days and was suffering a touch of soreness due to a vasectomy procedure (Ouch!!) a week and half earlier.  Not great timing but all went well and the body performed.  And endured.
Yes, that's right ladies and gents; no mini Safari's in the future for this 43 year old outdoor junkie, ha ha!
One of the many shelters on the trail.


What a buzz!  I was hiking the Larapinta Trail!  I woke early most mornings to freezing temperatures.  My water bottles were completely solid one morning.  The sun would pop up over the mountains around 8am and it was like a heater had been turned on.  All the down layers and merino came off and hat and sunscreen was slapped on. Chugging water and eating miles.

Waterhole in Hugh Gorge.

Holly Grevillea.
The trail is well marked with metal pickets and blue triangles pointing the way.  Water is available from tanks filled by the Parks and Wildlife department about every 15 kilometres and to say the Larapinta is popular would be a sight understatement...there are a number of guiding companies leading people round and I ran into these large groups everyday.  Other walkers utilise the support of a certain organisation that disperses food drops and runs equipment out to them if needed.  Most people seem to camp near or in the shelters which feature prominently along the trail.  
I dry camped at whatever spot I was when the sun went down and basked in my solitude and the vastness of the desert.

A full moon blazed away overhead for the duration of my week on the track and the weather was clear skies the entire time.  There is a certain smell that you drag through your nostrils in the Australian desert that cannot be described so I won't!  But I urge everyone to try it at least once.
Intoxicating and invigorating.


One thing struck me as odd; I saw very little wildlife.  All those big red roos and snakes I remember so vividly from my previous time lurking in the desert just didn't materialise. I spotted one dingo, one snake and a few birds. That's it.  On the other hand, the flies were very friendly from 1pm to 4pm and the spinifex (a short prickly plant) and ghost gums were prevalent and kept things interesting. The spinifex meant I kept my long hiking pants on for most of the walk and to be honest I don't remember being so dirt and sweat encrusted, absolutely filthy on a hike, as I was on this one with 8 days and no shower.
The combination of dry air and freezing nights may have helped produce my first ever nose bleed.

The trail was never hard to follow.
There are a couple of kick arse climbs, especially heading the West to East direction I did.  But even the short, easy pinches got me up onto some cracker view points.  Views everywhere on this pathway.  The most memorable was on top of the Heavitree Range and wandering through the Alice Valley.

My favourite campsite was in lovely Pocket Valley on day 5.  I filled up my water containers on dusk at Hugh Gorge shelter and wandered into the canyon, leaving the yelling, shouting campers behind.  Under a complete full moon I chucked my tent up and cooked up a delicious meal courtesy of my girlfriend Ree who went to a fair bit of trouble dehydrating the tasty dishes she whipped up for me for this hike.  The lush plant life and chattering birds sent me into a feel good mood of peace and I tipped over 10 hours sleep straight through that night. Magic.

View from Euro Ridge overlooking Alice Springs in the distance on the last section of trail.
There are 2 kiosks serving rather good and reasonably priced chow, at Ormiston Gorge and Standley Chasm. Standley is on Aboriginal land and there is a $12 entry fee payable at the cafe. Ormiston is open 10am to 4pm, Standley 8am to 5pm.  I smashed a huge breakfast at both establishments and needed little else the rest of the day.

Done! Covered in sweat, dust & filth, a great hike ends at Alice Springs terminus.
Rolling towards Alice Springs after Standley Chasm involved pushing through terrain that was flatter, dustier, burnt out and really not as wondrous as the other 170km.  Still though I was stoked to be out there and I had really found my trail legs, my pack was far lighter and the endorphins bounced around my brain.
All too soon I was back in the 'other world'.
Alice Springs can seem a little sketchy and run down when first encountering 'civilisation' after an extended period but it's a friendly place with a tight somewhat itinerant community (forget wandering round solo after dark though) and it has some reasonably priced hotels and great pubs and cafes for recovery. I padded into town on the 3.5km connector trail along the dry Todd River, dumped my pack at the Aurora Hotel and attacked a scrumptious burger and tasty craft beers at Montes Lounge.

What a blast.  A week wandering the desert. That was fun!

Travel log:

*23 June- 8km (16km) mark.  Campsite in Redbank Gorge. 16km total going up and down Mt             Sonder.

*24 June- 35km mark. Campsite along Ormiston Creek a kilometre from Finke River Shelter.

*25 June- 70km mark. Campsite near Pioneer Creek.

*26 June- 100km mark. Campsite 5km before Ellery Creek Campground.

*27 June- 139km mark. Campsite in Pocket Valley, Hugh Gorge riverbed.

*28 June- 166km mark. Campsite 2km before Standley Chasm.

*29 June- 201km mark. Campsite 6km before Simpsons Gap.

POSTSCRIPT: Trailhead access & logistics...blah blah rant blah.

This trail was on the 'to-do' list for quite a few years.  The cost of accessing both Alice Springs via air transport and getting to the Western trailhead at Redbank Gorge initially put me off hiking the Larapinta Trail (LT) but the desire was always there ticking away in the background.

When a suitable chunk of time emerged in the (Southern Hemisphere) Winter of 2018, I resolved to stump up for the pricey Qantas flights from Launceston to Alice Springs, and plugged away on alternatives to the unappetising options of paying one of the rip off shuttle operators for a transfer to Redbank, or taking a chance hitch hiking out there.
Neither looked a pleasant option to me... so I chucked an advertisement in a Northern Territory Facebook Buy/ Sell group and received 3 replies in 5 minutes.
I didn't specify what sum of money I would be happy to 'donate' for fuel costs but the 3 guys who replied all suggested $150.

So I went with the first bloke who seemed keen and honest and also kindly offered to grab me a gas canister for my cooker and scoop me up from the airport (saving a transfer into Alice Springs, faffing around in town and a pointless night in a hotel) and then drive me straight out to Redbank Gorge.

I am wording all of this carefully as I posted similar details of my logistical adventure getting to Redbank with minimal fuss and minimal cost on an online Larapinta Trail page, something of which I wouldn't normally waste time doing, especially on Facebook.

However I thought it important to demonstrate to other like minded travelers out there that there is an alternative to getting stitched up by the tour companies and ponying up big bucks.
It was information that I was looking for before I hiked the trail.

The reaction to my post was unexpectedly venomous and angry, the typical echo chamber toxic Facebook rants by upset crazy people easily offended by everything and anything.  Except this was...hiking??

I am surmising that quite a few operators and their lackeys themselves belong to the group and my post was attacked by a keyboard warrior bullyboy mob and slammed incredibly hard for suggesting an alternative and actually doing so outside the parameters set down by the Larapinta Trail Trek Support organisation.
How dare I suggest finding my own way out to Redbank Gorge....

Amusing how much time and pent up anger these keyboard warriors with an agenda have right?!!
Easily triggered little trolls. 😉

Therefore to protect Peter, (the gentleman who graciously trotted me out to the trailhead), and any backlash he may experience as an Alice Springs local from the shuttle bus & taxi mafia of the Northern Territory, I have decided not to upload a picture of him or his vehicle.

I have no problem with the LTTS and whatever other shuttle provider exists out there, only the steep prices they charge for solo hikers and the inflexible schedules.
If someone wants to utilise their services go ahead and enjoy, I couldn't care less.
I chose not to.

Which brings me to the main point of all this blithering on and sooking; there is a weird vibe on the trail (socially that is) I couldn't put my finger on whilst out there encountering the other hikers.
Different, less friendly than other trails perhaps?

Not being judgmental (except I know I am) but I felt there were many cashed up punters, not your usual suspects, walking the track very, very slowly and the LTTS was praised and revered like a rock star- god type entity.  One they couldn't do without and that could do no wrong.
I didn't feel the usual buzziness & happiness.  Only bristling attitudes and curt greetings.
Or maybe it was just me.

People also asked me often how many days it was going to take me to hike the trail, to which I replied 7 or 8 and they got defensive.  They asked, I answered.
They didn't appear to like what they heard.

Much like the presence of the huts on the Overland Track; if it wasn't for the food drops at Ormiston, Ellery & Standley, the shelter toilets complete with paper and the pampering from the tour companies then I doubt most of the walkers would have considered walking the trail.
Not right or wrong, it is what it is.  See for yourself.

Would I hike it again?  Nah.  I like my space. Plenty of desert out there minus the crowds and amenities.

Anyway, pretty funny stuff.  I have thick skin and I like to play the protagonist so I have left the post up online to make my point.
And wind the bastards up. 😉  Hike your own hike.