With each step Andrew Bain takes along the legendary Larapinta Trail, he is captivated by the wild beauty of our country’s heart. Take a look for yourself .
Days dawn brightly in the West MacDonnell Ranges. Red rocks glow like embers, and white tree trunks flare like strikes of lightning. Across the mountaintops and through the valleys, a line of tiny signposts reflects the rising sun, announcing the presence of one of the world’s premier desert walking trails.
Running the length of the West MacDonnells, from the edge of Alice Springs to the summit of Mt Sonder, the 223-kilometre Larapinta Trail is a showcase of so much that’s great about the central Australian landscape: chilling waterholes, mountain ranges fractured by gorges, and bare ridges that provide vast outback views.
It’s a walk that provides a desert experience without the anticipated desert deprivations. Gorges are typically spaced a day’s walk apart, as if by design. Water is plentiful, cooling swims come regularly and there’s now even the presence of architect-designed, semi-permanent camps to cushion the camping experience on guided walks.
Broken into 12 sections, each one to two days in length, the Larapinta Trail can be hiked in about two weeks, but it doesn’t have to be done in its entirety. Gorges and roads divide the trail into neat, manageable portions, allowing walkers to sample it for a day or select a series of section highlights. So much on this trail shines as brightly as the desert dawns, but a few places and experiences stand tall.
At the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, the call of a dingo is like a starting gun for my walk. The entire line of the West MacDonnell Ranges unfurls ahead, but the first taste of the mountains comes shortly after crossing the Adelaide–Darwin railway line, on Euro Ridge.
Named for the euros – a type of wallaroo – that are common to the area, the sharp, serrated ridge provides the earliest views of the walking to come. The rooftops of Alice Springs glisten in the sun behind,and straight lines of mountains arrow west across the desert, as though pointing my way.
Fittingly, euros watch from the shade of the trees as I wander along the edge of the ridge, and the Ghan trundles quietly past below, its sound carrying away on the wind.
Step out of Standley Chasm and the colours of the Larapinta Trail dim only in their intensity. As the trail journeys across mountain slopes, along ridges and deep into gorges, it’s still the stark colours that resonate – they call this the Red Centre for a reason.
The deep-red sand and rocks contrast with the typically cloudless blue skies. Yellow spinifex clumps dot the slopes and valleys, as if the land itself is an Aboriginal dot painting. The trunks and branches of ghost gums beam as brightly as fluorescent lights.
Looking over this desert palette, it’s easy to see how it inspired the famed watercolours of Albert Namatjira, who regularly painted scenes from the West MacDonnells, especially around Mt Sonder.
Sleeping under a sheet of stars
Night skies here have few celestial equals, with untold numbers of stars spilling across the darkness, casting faint light over the West MacDonnells. Each night on the trail, I pull back the outside cover of my tent and fall asleep looking up at the heavens.
Although I’m hiking one of Australia’s most remote ranges, it’s anything but hard. Public campsites dot the trail, often slotted beside gorges, but last year trekking company World Expeditions also established two semi-permanent camps, leaving walkers to concentrate on just that – walking.
The camps near Simpsons Gap and Serpentine Chalet Dam are framed around a Y-shaped communal tent platform designed by Neeson Murcutt Architects, with separate arms for kitchen, dining and lounge areas. A campfire ring sits in the space between the two living areas, there are eco-friendly showers and safari-style tents sprinkled across the sand.
A night of this and I’m fresh to walk again in the morning.
Later, after almost 200 kilometres, the Larapinta Trail emerges at Glen Helen Resort, sat at the mouth of its namesake gorge beneath a stark rampart of red cliffs. As we plunge into the water pooled inside the gorge, it’s a classic Larapinta moment – a day of hot walking washed away in an instant in an icy waterhole. It’s a theme that recurs along the length of the trail. Who says bushwalking should be all about hardship?
Midday in Standley Chasm
At the end of section three, the trail squeezes into Standley Chasm, a narrow nick in the Chewings Range where rust-red cliff walls rise up to 80 metres above the chasm floor.
Entering the chasm, which is named after Alice Springs’ first teacher Ida Standley, is impressive at any time of day. Eucalypts angle across its entrance, and if you lean back the walls seem to almost clamp shut overhead. But approaching midday, as I wander through the rocky creek bed into Standley Chasm, things are about to get downright brilliant.
With the noon sun beaming directly into the gap, the rock walls radiate orange light, so that they appear almost to be lit from within. It’s a stunning light show, worthy of the world’s finest theatres, but choreographed here by nature.
Almost every step is a viewpoint of sorts on the Larapinta, but the trail’s signature lookout is Counts Point. Balanced at the tip of a ridge seven kilometres’ walk from Serpentine Gorge, it takes effort to get here, but that comes with great reward.
From Serpentine Gorge the trail ascends stony slopes where termite mounds rise like blades, before following a long open ridge to Counts Point. From here the view seems endless, encompassing the meteorite impact crater of Gosses Bluff and distant Mt Zeil, the Northern Territory’s highest peak.
The rest of the Larapinta Trail is laid out ahead like a mud map, with Mt Sonder visible for the first time. If you’re walking the entire trail, it’s still about a week away, but my eyes are on camp, a short distance below.
The Larapinta Trail skirts this most spectacular of West MacDonnell gorges, but Ormiston is not a place to miss. An eight-kilometre side trail cuts through Ormiston Pound – an improbable circle of mountains in this land of straight lines – before funnelling into Ormiston Gorge.
Here the cliffs seem higher, wider and brighter than almost anywhere else along the trail. Ghost gums stand like sentries along its rim, and waterholes dot the gorge floor. Briefly I’m forced to ford one pool, carrying my backpack above my head as water rises to my chest.
Past the pool, the trail climbs the gorge’s slopes, ascending to a lone ghost gum straddling a ridge. Here, a lookout platform peers through the gorge in one of central Australia’s classic scenes.
Dawn on Mt Sonder
The new day is still hours away, but already we’re walking, heading for the summit of Mt Sonder to watch the sun rise – a new day beginning just as our walk is ending.
We set out three hours before sunrise, moving slowly over the mountain, head torches lighting our way. Stars burn above and a fire, lit by an overnight lightning strike, burns in the valley below.
At six am we rise to the summit, just as the sky begins to blush with the first hint of dawn. Soon the sun is with us, flicking a switch of light across the mountain ranges that point back towards where we began.
There have been many highs on this momentous trail, but this dawn view is tough to beat.
The details: Trekking the Larapinta Trail
Getting there: Qantas operates daily direct flights to Alice Springs from Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, Darwin and Perth. Fares start from $179 per person.
Hiking there: If the whole trail sounds like too much, fret not – you don’t have to hike all 220km. World Expeditions operates a number of guided Larapinta walks, including a six-day trek from $2295 per person which includes trail highlights, accommodation in their semi-permanent camps and 4WD transport between walks. It’s their biggest-selling package in the world, so you know they’re onto something.
More info: Full trail details can be found at parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au