Tag Archives: Larapinta

Early Exploration of the Interior of Australia (Larapinta Trail Part Three)

This is third part of a three-part series about a thru-hike with my brother of the stunning Larapinta trail. Part one, the story of our trek, can be viewed here and part two, photos from Standley Chasm, here.

The country ahead, Larapinta Trail, Australia

The country ahead, from the summit of Brinkley Bluff, Larapinta Trail, Australia

John McDouall Stuart, a small but incredibly tough Scotsman, led the first successful expedition to cross Australia from south to north and back again, traversing the then blank interior of Australia. He named the West MacDonnell range, the very range that we had spent 8 days crossing as we walked the Larapinta Trail; he named and was the first to climb Brinkley Bluff, a mountain that we climbed along the way; heck, there is even a pass through the mountain range named after him. In short, walking the Larapinta trail is to take a journey back in time to discover the lands and people that played a formative part in the exploration and development of the Australian continent.

Stuart's Pass, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Stuart’s Pass, Larapinta Trail, Australia

After the trek I bought a recently reprinted copy of Stuart’s 1861 Expedition Diary. It is a compelling tale of a journey full of serious hardships and genuine first-hand geographical discoveries. The mention of Brinkley Bluff really brought his journey to life for me – we had also climbed that mountain only a week earlier:

THURSDAY, February 27. [1861] – Owen’s Springs. This morning the clouds all cleared away without any rain. Proceeded up the Hugh [river] to the north-east side of Brinkley’s Bluff. I have been obliged to leave one of the weak horses behind. Three more have given in to-day, and it was as much as we could do to get them here.

Summit of Brinkley Bluff, Larapinta Trail, Australia

On the summit of Brinkley Bluff which was climbed by the early explorer John Stuart during his explorations of the interior of Australia

He probably stood in some of the same places that my brother and I did, seeing an almost identical landscape (nothing man-made is visible from the summit except for the cairn and the trail obviously, and one distant jeep track).

For the information of His Excellency the Governor-in-Chief, I have the honour to report to you my return to Adelaide, after an absence of twelve months and thirteen days; and I herewith beg to hand you my Chart and Journals of the Expedition, from which I have just returned. – John McDouall Stuart, Explorer, from his 1861-2 Expedition Diary

After an absence of only eight days, I returned to Adelaide having taken the considerably quicker and easier option of a flight back from Alice Springs. Whilst staying in Adelaide with my relatives, I took a trip to see the State Library. Incredibly, the library had an exhibition wall displaying memorabilia, maps and books from the Stuart expeditions. It was fascinating to learn more about his journeys and lifetime of work to open up the interior. I delighted in recognizing place names where I had been trekking only a week earlier; places he had named as he laid eyes on them for the first time. It was enthralling.

Adelaide State Library

The magnificent Adelaide State Library

The serendipity didn’t end there however. The Royal Geographical Society of South Australia is housed on the third floor of the State Library and their door was open. A staff member warmly invited us in to have a look round. The large room was a haphazard explosion of maps, old books, objects of exploration, photographs and who knows what else. Like a kid in a candy shop, I excitedly scanned the room trying to take it all in. In one corner was a statue of John Stuart himself. At his feet was a piece of the dig tree from the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition.

Statue of John Stuart, Explorer, in the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia

Statue of John Stuart, Explorer, in the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia

“Do you want to see any of the maps?” asked the volunteer librarian.

“Yes, I’d love to. I’ve just come back from the West MacDonnell ranges, so maybe we can find a map of that area.”

After rummaging through the filing cabinet, he found a facsimile 1886 map of the area west of Alice Springs. Lo and behold! There were names I recognized on this map. Campsites, peaks, ranges from my recent Larapinta trek were marked this ancient map.

Old facsimile maps, Royal Geographical Society of South Australia

Old facsimile maps, Royal Geographical Society of South Australia

Old facsimile map, Royal Geographical Society of South Australia

Old facsimile map, Royal Geographical Society of South Australia

Redbank Gorge, Sonder Mountain, Rockybar Creek, Glen Helen Station, Mt. Giles, Fish Waterhole, Ellery’s Creek, Chewings Range… All names that we had discussed, passed, climbed or camped at only a week earlier.

Old facsimile map showing the area where the modern-day Larapinta Trail runs

Old facsimile map showing the area where the modern-day Larapinta Trail runs

Old exploration tomes, Royal Geographical Society of South Australia

Old exploration tomes, Royal Geographical Society of South Australia

I wonder how John Stuart must have felt as he opened up this country and saw these views for the first time. Did he allow himself to smile at the beauty of it all? Or was he consumed by the task at hand, constantly breaking trail and searching for his next source of water? To be an explorer, now that’s the life!

Larapinta Trail, Australia

Surveying the land ahead on the Larapinta Trail, day 5

Standley Chasm (Larapinta Trail Part Two)

This is part two of a three-part series about a thru-hike with my brother of the stunning Larapinta trail. Part one can be viewed here. Part three, a post for the explorer-buffs amongst you, is coming soon.

Standley Chasm is one of the standout geological features of the West MacDonnell mountain range. It lies close to the trail, so on the morning of day 7 of our trek we took a side trip to see it. The soaring red walls, some 80 metres high, were well hidden until we turned the final corner of the walk in. We stopped in our tracks, craning our necks to take in their full height, in awe of the forces that created such a feature. No one else was there, just me and my brother standing transfixed between those red walls. It was one of those moments that’ll stick in mind; one of the highlights of our time in this beautiful part of the world.

Entering Standley Chasm

Entering Standley Chasm, West MacDonnell Range, Australia

Standley Chasm, West MacDonnell Range, Australia

Standing in Standley Chasm, West MacDonnell Range, Australia

Standley Chasm, West MacDonnell Range, Australia

Looking back at the entrance to Standley Chasm, West MacDonnell Range, Australia

Credit to my brother for taking the second shot in this set.

Larapinta Trail

“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 amazing Redbank Gorge

Redbank Gorge – morning of day 1

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.

Trekking through the West MacDonnell Range, Central Australia

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.

A dingo print and a footprint in the Australian Outback

A dingo print next to one of our own

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.

Mt Giles and the Alice Valley, Australia

Mt Giles and the Alice Valley

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.

Spectacular wild camp in Waterfall Gorge, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Spectacular wild camp in Waterfall Gorge – night 2

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.

Cooking on the camp stove, Larapinta Trail, Australia

One of the most eagerly anticipated moments of the day – dinner time

Flora on the Larapinta Trail, Australia

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.

Trekking along the Larapinta Trail, Australia

Trekking – morning of day 3

Trekking through the Inarlanga Pass, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Trekking through the incredible Inarlanga Pass – day 3

Big sky country, Australian Outback

Big sky country

Spectacular views back west along the Heavitree Range from Counts Point lookout, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Spectacular views back west along the Heavitree Range from Counts Point lookout

Camping in the Outback, Australia

Home from home, camped at Rocky Gully – night 4

Trekking through Hugh Gorge, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Trekking through Hugh Gorge – day 5

“Bro, I’m going to rest on that rock over there.”

“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.)

Diamond Python, Outback, Australia

The two metre snake that Pete nearly stood on in Hugh Gorge – day 5

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.

Trekking through Hugh Gorge, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Trekking through Hugh Gorge – day 5

Blister treatment, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Keep ’em happy and they’ll carry you far: pre-emptive blister treatment

Moonrise at Fringe Lily Creek camp, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Moonrise at Fringe Lily Creek camp

Bird at Fringe Lily Creek camp, Larapinta Trail, Australia

A feathered friend drops in for dinner, Fringe Lily Creek camp – night 5

Fringe Lily Creek camp, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Fringe Lily Creek camp – night 5

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.

Staring into the abyss, Rocky Cleft, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Staring into the abyss – Rocky Cleft, day 6

Summit of Brinkley Bluff, looking east to the Chewings Range, Australia

Summit of Brinkley Bluff, looking east to the Chewings Range – day 6

Signing the summit register on Brinkley Bluff, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Signing the summit register on Brinkley Bluff

Lizard, Outback, Australia

A Central Netted Dragon lizard, one of the few lizards we saw. Thanks to a reader for informing of the name!

Traversing through the Chewings Range, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Traversing through the Chewings Range – day 6

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.

Approaching Standley Chasm camp, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Following a dry river bed approaching Standley Chasm camp – day 6

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.

Climbing steeply out of Standley Chasm, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Climbing steeply – day 7

Reflection in a water holeMulga 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.

Moonlit Mulga Campsite, Larapinta Trail, West MacDonnell National Park, Australia

Moonlit Mulga Campsite, our final camp – night 7

Euro Ridge, West McDonnell range, Australia

The final along climb along Euro Ridge, looking back west over the West McDonnell range – day 8

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.

Trailhead, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Trail’s end, bittersweet feeling – day 8

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.)