Legging the Larapinta Trail

We clamber into the “troopie”, three of us on either side in the back of the truck, knees jammed together, four Australians and two Americans. The truck lurches onto the street and we head west out of Alice Springs like a rookie squad on it’s first mission.

It’s all hard-baked ground out in the vast MacDonnell Ranges, a sunburnt, cracked earth covered in mulga scrub, broken red rock and scree, a land of savage wind-scoured formations in broiled stone.

This is the raw heart of Australia, a forbidding place of awesome proportion and isolation yet also a landscape of subtle, incredible beauty. We’re off to Wallaby Gap, from where we’ll walk to Simpsons Gap. Today is a short, softening-up hike, our introduction to the Larapinta Trail.

The two lads up front (at my age I can call them lads) aren’t from the Alice or even the Northern Territory. Liam Mulcahy, our guide, and Jamie Thorp, the driver, provisions officer and camp cook, are both Tasmanians in their twenties working for World Expeditions in the country’s arid centre.

It’s hard-baked ground out there in the vast MacDonnell Ranges west of Alice Springs, a sunburnt, cracked earth covered in mulga scrub, broken red rock and scree, a land of savage wind-scoured formations in broiled stone. This is the raw heart of Australia, a forbidding place of awesome proportion and isolation yet also a landscape of subtle, incredible beauty.

The Larapinta Trail extends west of The Alice for 232 kilometers as it snakes it’s way down, across, up and over this regularly tortuous terrain, following narrow spurs flanking precipitous gorges or winding up steep, rock-strewn slopes littered with massive boulders. Mt Sonder is the trail’s highest point and, in our four days of hiking and camping along various sections of the Larapinta, the mountain proves to be both the hardest climb and the highlight of our journey. As are the cold beers consumed that final evening at the Glen Helen Resort.

In those four days we each come to intimate grips with various aspects involved in traversing such unforgiving yet forever fascinating terrain. For two in our group the pain arrives quite soon in the shape of blisters caused by ill-fitting boots. Fortunately I have comfortable walking shoes. My anguish stems from another source, the abrupt shift from fairly sedentary to superactive, which is quite a shock to my system!

The Larapinta Trail is not excessively formidable. It’s probably a cakewalk for regular, toughened hikers and Liam certainly had no problems whatsoever, maintains a brisk pace with nary a care despite carrying the heaviest pack. But he is only 24 and walks the track on a regular basis, whereas the hike will definitely take me out of my comfort zone at times. And that’s precisely what makes the Larapinta experience so personally rewarding.

Out there in the spacious eternity of the Red Centre, while sweating and struggling up yet another steep incline, I live only in the moment, one step at a time. My full attention is given to avoiding stumbling over a rock, slipping on loose shale or being pricked by the spiky spears of tough grasses lining the track. (I soon ditch shorts for long pants.) But I successfully toss off sloth. City clamour, work and pressure of deadlines no longer exist. Could a day in the life be rendered more simple? It is better than meditation. Or perhaps the Trail is a meditation?

Hiking the stony, steep undulations of the Heavitree Range leading up to Counts Lookout, traversing a narrow spine of scattered, shattered rock with sheer drop-offs either side and fabulous views of parallel ridges to the north and south, I chuckle inwardly, thinking about the popular image of Australia as a flat, eroded land with few distinguishing features!

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