“So where are you going on holiday this year?” my Australian colleague asked.
“For a trek in the outback.”
“Shit, be careful man, it’s serious out there. Watch out for snakes, they have big brown snakes, King Browns they’re called. They’ll grow to three metres and it’s game over if they bite.”
With that encouragement still ringing in my ears, my brother and I went walkabout in the outback, clad in shorts and trail runners.
The Larapinta Trail justifiably lays claim to being one of the best arid-zone walking tracks in the world. Running for approximately 225km from the foot of Mount Sonder back to the town of Alice Springs, it traverses the rugged and remote West MacDonnell range. Trekking is only possible during the cooler off-season and even then you’ll get fried under the midday sun. The scenery is jaw-droppingly spectacular.
It was going to be a sporting challenge to cover the whole route in eight days. We knew we had to be on our game. But that’s why we were here, why we came. To push ourselves, get a little outside our comfort zones and feel alive again.
Dropped at the trailhead early, we stood shivering in the unexpected coolness of the morning. Almost immediately we were drawn away from the main trail to explore Redbank Gorge. Not sure what to expect, we stood in awe of the towering red walls and boy’s-own-adventure-feel of the place. We were the only ones present – a theme that was to become common throughout our trip – and the silence, the stillness of this majestic place was palpable. We spoke in hushed tones, feeling out of place. We’d only just begun our trek and hadn’t yet adjusted from the civilized world, with all its noise, commotion and distractions.
The track was well marked and rocky or sandy underfoot, passing through areas of scrubland and low trees. Spinifex was everywhere, continually scratching our lower legs. Whoever walked first was tormented by the flies, whilst second in line was attacked by angry disturbed ants, pouring out of innumerable nests. When walking through the stretches of long grasses near the edges of creeks, the words of my Australian colleague echoed around my head: “watch out for snakes….”
Naive to the strength of the sun still, we began the trek in shorts, t-shirts and only baseball caps to protect us, a mistake we wouldn’t make again. After both suffering an excess of the sun’s rays, we improvised legionnaire style caps by draping our short sleeve t-shirts under our baseball caps to cover our necks.
Although we never saw the maker of this print, we did receive a visit from a dingo at our camp on night 5 (Fringe Lily camp). He calmly meandered through our camp, about an hour after sundown, coming to within 30 metres of the tent. The beams of our head torches reflected back his beady green eyes. Man and beast stood transfixed momentarily, before he cantered off. Later that night we heard him howling, a sound we won’t forget in a hurry.
Days 2 and 3 were spent walking along the spine of Heavitree Range, a sub-range of the West MacDonnells. Day 4 involved a crossing of the expansive Alice Valley, a full day’s walk – the hottest on our trek – with scant shade from the sun. On the opposite side of the valley was the Chewings Range, which would feature prominently in the second half of our trek.
One quickly adjusts to camp life. Routines fall into place and roles are established. Each day we’d try to beat our previous time for setting up and striking camp, discussing how we’d improve and what we’d do differently on the next adventure. Fast, light and far became our mantra. Camp life was simple precisely because we hadn’t brought a great deal of belongings with us.
Early mornings were my favourite time of day. The solitude and silence was difficult to beat. Anticipating the day ahead; watching the sun slowly but surely turn the dull, brown mountains a rich orange; feeling fresh and well rested, enthusiastic to get miles under our belt. Discussing the plan of action for the day, the likely highlights and difficulties, chatting about anything else on our minds. Living in the moment. It was good to spend this time with my brother. We enjoy too few days like this together.
“No worries, I’ll keep going slowly.”
Moments later I came across the unmistakable track of a snake in the sandy creek bed. A very large snake, crossing the creek bed perpendicular to the direction I was walking.
“Whoa, Pete, look at these tracks, these are some BIG snake tracks.”
My eyes followed the tracks to my left. Towards the side of the creek, towards the rocks on the side of the creek, the rocks on the side of the creek that my brother decided to lean against.
Just as my eyes reached the rocks, my brother looked down at his feet. We both saw the snake at the same time. My brother jumped. Great bounding jumps into the middle of the creek, curses flying once he’d got over the initial shock. The snake, all two and a bit metres of him, was lying right where my brother had been standing, less than 30 centimetres from my brother’s feet.
We were both a little shaken. Neither of us knew whether the snake was venomous but we were just supremely thankful he hadn’t bitten my brother either way. We kept an even more vigilant watch out from this point forth.
(Subsequent research has led me to believe the snake was a Diamond Python, reassuringly non-venomous.)
Some of the most spectacular trekking terrain was encountered in the numerous gorges we passed through. All involved a degree of scrambling; clambering up, down and sideways over boulders above pools of water. I kept expecting Professor Challenger to jump out from behind a rock and start barking orders at us.
The ridges of the Chewings Range were followed on days 5, 6 and 7 – my favourite section of the Larapinta trail. They form a line of jagged, folded rocks, all orange and red, with spectacular views of the surrounding plains. Several rough gorges, steeply wedged between the cliffs, full of water holes and exotic cycads provided exciting interludes between the ups and downs of the mountains.
We camped at the Standley Chasm campground on night 6. After a sweltering afternoon with little water, we arrived tired and dehydrated and were pleasantly suprised to find a kiosk selling ice cold drinks and ice creams. After several nights wild camping alone, the small group of fellow walkers provided welcome company.
Standley Chasm was the standout geographical feature of the route, even though it was not in the least bit wild or remote, having been set up as a tourist attraction. Nevertheless, it was a spectacular place and we once again had it to ourselves. (Note: these photos can be seen here, part two of the Larapinta Trail Story.) The pull up from the valley floor was steep and tough going. All day we climbed, descended and climbed some more. Over mountain tops, through densely vegetated gorges with one sublime vista giving way to the next. Days 6 and 7 were as spectacular as it gets; some of the best walking I’ve had in a long time.
Mulga Camp was a pleasantly sociable end to our trek. Several other parties were established when we arrived and we shared a convivial atmosphere over dinner. Round after round of tea – we had gas and tea bags left over – comparing stories from other destinations and adventures.
The end was now in sight. We could see the town of Alice Springs from the high point of Euro Ridge, although we still had another 10km to walk. Thoughts turned, as they oft do at this stage of a journey in the wilds, to what needs would be first satisfied once we re-entered society (shower, clean clothes) and, more importantly, what that celebratory beer would taste like and what the next adventure would be.
Footsore, and with weary limbs, we walked into Alice Springs after a 41km day that began at 5.45am when we stole away from camp in the pre-dawn light. Mercifully, the day had been overcast and cool.
I was stoked to finish the trek – the successful completion of any goal is bound to bring happiness – but at the same time, a little sad on the inside. Sad to be leaving behind the simple life we’d come to appreciate. Sad that this year’s adventure with my brother had come to an end.
The Larapinta trail had wildly exceeded expectations. We’d enjoyed a splendid adventure together, seen a spectacular part of the world and pushed ourselves enough to feel deeply satisfied.
(Thanks to my brother for his company and some of his excellent photos.)