Larapinta Trail  2019


The Larapinta hiking trail runs west from Alice Springs (central Australia) to Mount Sonder. The trail is a scenic hike within the West Macdonnell Ranges National Park (now re-named Tjoritja). The walk is accessible from Namatjira Drive in twelve sections, with each section generally a hike of one or two days. The trail is popular with unassisted hikers and with guided groups. I joined a group organised by the company TrekLarapinta, in late July. I no longer have the capability to carry a heavy pack over substantial distances. 


Situated in Australia's arid interior, nights can be very cold and days hot. The trail is most comfortably (and safely) walked in winter. The low angle of the winter sun is also a help with photography. Most hikers walk from east to west: this puts the sun behind you (as well as the prevailing easterly wind) if you make an early start.



The yellow dots above signify landmarks, which sometimes mark trail section start/end points. The Larapinta Trail is marked in purple.




The main attractions of this area are the spectacular landscapes provided by the region's geology and geomorphology. While there are enormous flatish sandy basins in arid Australia (see the discussion below) the Larapinta area has been squeezed in a north-south direction (creating the ranges which make up the Macdonnells) and to a lesser extent in an east-west direction (folding the ranges themselves). An interesting feature visible in the satellite image above is the way the rivers, which flow roughly north to south, cut through the ranges. Apparently the ranges, in spite of their dramatic shapes, formed so slowly that the pre-existing rivers were able to cut through the rocks as they rose. One of these rivers, the Finke, is thought to retain much the same path it had hundreds of millions of years ago, making it possibly the oldest continuously-flowing river in the world. While the surface of the river, most of the time, is loose sand and rock, water flows slowly underneath the sandy surface. The fauna of such water flows, here and elsewhere around the world, is cryptic, ancient, little-studied, and vulnerable to human water extraction activities. In all probability, thousands of species have been wiped out by water extraction before even being described... mostly tiny crustaceans.



There's a circuit walk starting at the Ormiston Gorge carpark, which takes you up an easterly ridge, then down into a rugged bowl, and ultimately into Ormistong Gorge, entering from the north (upstream) end. This is an easy one-day walk through typically spectacular terrain. If you look closely at the above photo, you'll see that the base rocks (in shadow) are largely deep purple with an occasional sky-blue (all quartzite). 


On my last trip to the Macdonnells, Rosemary and I took a small inflatable boat up the super-cold Redbank Gorge, which is cut through amazing polished purple quartzite. After reaching the northern end of the gorge, we walked back over the top, carrying a python which we had found in the deep recesses of the gorge, looking cold and unhappy. That trip was 50 years ago. It had been a wet year (there were masses of small fish in Lake Eyre).  Right now (2019) the area has been in drought for three years. Good and bad years come and go. It was sad to see that most of the wildlife I remember from the last trip has gone. Even the small and annoying bush flies are massively reduced. At night only a tiny handful of moths turned up at our lights, when before there were heaps. Back then, torchlight at night would reveal the tiny bright eyes of many hunting spiders, where today there are almost none. I saw no scorpions, or grasshoppers... once common. No wonder most of the birds seem to have vanished as well. Thankfully we did see a whistling kite around the Finke River camp, and we heard a few other birds in sheltered gullies and valleys. I looked in vain for rock wallabies... although hopefully they are still there somewhere; they do tend to be rather cryptic. Snakes and lizards too have largely disappeared...




Hiking with the sort of support we had on this trip is easy: all our needs were catered for. There's no need to worry about heavy packs, preparing meals or where to sleep. It's luxurious, but expensive. For eight hikers there were two staff. Meals were prepared in the mess tent (above) located near the Finke River. To the left, just visible, is a solar water heater which provides hot 'bird baths' each day. The bucket toilet is out of sight behind the camera, as are eight tents (one for each guest, even though many guests come as couples). No waste is left on site at the end of the six-day trip.



The tents are scattered around the mess tent, so there's plenty of privacy. I slept outside under the stars for the first two nights, although it does get cold if there's a strong wind. The stars are clear and bright, thanks to the dry desert air - but of course this is also what makes the nights so cold.  There are no biting insects. Our swags were surprizingly warm.





Meals are eaten around a camp fire. Here the sun is setting, but it's already cold. Only three are still dressed in shorts: to the left is our New Zealand pig farmer (NZ farmers are a tough breed) and to the right are our two superheros, Sharna and Alina.  The average age of the hikers in our group was 61, which Sharna said was roughly typical for this walk. The gender mix on our trip was F:M 4:4 (typically 5:3) (Sharna Turner, Alina Rodrigues).



The same scene a half-hour later. The mess tent is to the left and the campfire to the right.  Notice the light on the moon; an amazing photo taken with an ordinary phone and no special attention. On this trip my phone consistently took better images than my expensive Canon camera.




Tightly folded rocks are everywhere. The geology is mainly sedimentary and metamorphic, with occasional igneous intrusions.  

Long ago, much of what is now the Australian continent was covered by a shallow inland sea.




Rivers flowing into the inland sea deposited sediments. Over a long period of time these sediments were compressed, with the deeper sediments forming metamorphic rocks, like the quartzite so common in the Macdonnells today.





Blue quartzite

Criss-cross weathering on limestone

Purple manganese staining




Fossil shallow-water ripples

Purple manganese staining





Another light on the view from our Finke River campsite.




On day two we walked west from Serpentine Gorge, reaching a high ridge. The track is easy walking along the ridge crest, with spectacular views into a deep and arid valley lying immediately north (on the right hand side).  We were told that these ridges are what remains from a chain of mountains which were once several kilometres high (like the Himalayas are today)! Clearly a huge amount of sediment and broken rock has been removed over millennia, presumably by enormous erosive forces which today seem unimaginable. The valley shown by this photo is 200-300 m deep.




We descended from the ridge, still tracking west. Our path took us beside the south face of the range we had climbed, which turned out to be covered with scrub. In fact this was the ONLY area we saw during our stay which carried a reasonable cover of vegetation. This was, I suppose, the result of the southerly aspect, combined with lucky protection from wildfire. Local soils and hydrology presumably also played a part. For the most part, topsoil seems absent from most of this dry country. Dominant scrub plants are mallee (Eucalyptus species with multiple stems growing from an underground lignotuber) and mulga (an Acacia).




On day three we explored the Ochre Pits, where indigenous people have collected ochre over thousands of years. These rocks are soft and powdery, so presumably sedimentary by nature. The 'quarry' seems naturally formed at the edge of a stream. The ochre was used for painting bodies (for ceremonial purposes) and special implements.



Landscape looking south, with sky-blue quartzite in the foreground. 




The sun sets over the Finke River. The larger trees are river red gums (Eucalyptus camaldulensis, found over much of Australia) or ghost gums (Corymbia aparrerinja, characteristic of 'dry' river beds in Australia's arid regions). The ghost gum, in particular, has beautiful white bark. The grass clumps are of the genus Spinifex, again characteristic of Australia's arid regions. Much of the vegetation of the open areas is fire-adapted.




On day four we started at Ormiston Gorge and headed west along the Larapinta Trail.




The hike took us to a rocky desert environment.  The technical definition and classification of deserts is a little complicated (see Wikipedia) but in simple terms deserts are very dry environments where precipitation is less than evapotranspiration.  There are however frozen deserts, where water is present but not available.







Fire is an unavoidable part of arid ecosystems. Wildfires, started apparently by lightening, have burnt large areas quite recently. The main stems here will not re-grow, but as you can see fresh growth is starting again at ground level.





As night comes to the desert, you feel the warmth of the land getting sucked up to outer space, which seems so close.... and so powerful...




On day five we got up early (way too early!). The general idea was to reach one of Mount Sonder's peaks BEFORE sunrise. What a crazy idea!  The peak we were aiming at is 650m above the level of our camp, so, given the standard adiabatic lapse rate, if we had the usual 1 degree celcius pre-dawn temperature at camp, we could expect a summit temperature of -5, plus a serious wind chill factor. However, as my brain wasn't functioning at that early hour of the morning I got into the Landcruiser along with everyone else. The proposed track follows the ridgeline which you can see stretching out on the left hand side of the mountain in the photo above.




As the sun rises, the mountain casts a shadow all the way to the horizon, and that's a long way.




Notice the sky-blue quartzite at the left of the photo above.


Mount Sonder, or Rwetyepme, is the fourth highest mountain in the Northern Territory, at 1380 m. Mount Zeil is the highest at 1531 m, lying 27 km to the west.



I think that's Mount Zeil, in the far distance. Exploring Mount Zeil would be a great temptation if you were to spend a long time here...



Looking towards the east (above) and the south (below).



The highlighted ridge in the middle ground is the ridge we walked. The round trip from the carpark is about 17km (the longest of our daily walks, most being between 8 and 14km).


On day six we started off at Ellery Creek (below).



Then we took a short circuit walk to the north side of Stanley Chasm (below).






Plants which were once widespread in past millennia still survive in sheltered places deep within the shade of the mountains. Ferns and mosses (above) and cypress, fig and cycads (below). Protection from fire is a crucial factor.






Above: Stanley Chasm from the north entrance. 

The short walk to Stanley Chasm completed my trip with TrekLarapinta. 


After returning to my accommodation in Alice Springs,  I visited the Botanic Gardens. 



At the Gardens there was an exhibition of works by a local water-colour artist, Barbara Stuart. 

Barbara is very talented. She has a great affinity with the land. I bought a print of one of her works. 

If you like her work:


The gardens are about 50 ha in size, and contain many arid country species.



Including Sturts' Desert Pea (above).


The gardens are dedicated to a remarkable woman: Olive Pink.



In my view Olive Pink deserves much more recognition than she now has. She was a truly inspirational character. 

She possessed a keen mind and a compassionate heart, two qualities which were notably lacking in many politicians, public servants, religious leaders and anthropologists of her day. Well before the time of Eddie Mabo and the land rights movement, she campaigned for the dedication of large reserves for indigenous peoples from which all white people would be excluded.


"... a place where they can call both their souls and their bodies their own...  So they will not be the play-things of Europeans - clergy and layity alike - with as aim their being 'labour fodder' which can be exploited. Let us help them to be developed 'black' men and women and proud of it. Not sham Europeans whose 'destiny', arranged by organised religion, anthropologists and government officials, is to be (immorally) 'absorbed' - giving them no cultural future of their own and no background as a race."




Photos are from my Samsung phone. None are retouched.