My amble through the world’s great mountain treks continues, and finally I come close to home. Cross the Great Dividing Range along Australia’s east coast and the continent flattens into a vast and empty plain. But it’s not universally flat. There are mountain ranges dispersed through the deserts, and few are more spectacular than the West MacDonnell Ranges. It took a long time before somebody realised the West Macs were almost custom designed for a multi-day hiking route, but eventually the Larapinta Trail was born. It was worth the wait.
4. Larapinta Trail (Australia)
No landscapes inspire me more than mountains and deserts. Combine the two, as the Larapinta Trail does, and it’s Christmas on legs.
Running the length of the West MacDonnelll Ranges from Alice Springs to the summit of Mt Sonder, the 223km Larapinta Trail has come to rival the Overland Track as Australia’s iconic bushwalk. Much of its charm and appeal comes in the fact that this section of the desert has been naturally tamed. The West Macs are sliced with gorges, splitting the mountains with deep and cool waterholes that are often a day’s walk apart. The shimmering oasis you think you see on the horizon often isn’t a mirage. It’s a place to set up camp.
I’ve walked the length of the Larapinta independently, and half of it again with a commercial operator. When I walked it independently I drove along the range the day before we set out, burying caches of food. The next morning a mate and I hired a bus out to Mt Sonder and for the next 16 days we walked back towards Alice.
The trail rolled on and off the ranges, sometimes winding along their foot, and other times creeping along axe-sharp tips of the ridge. No day was the same, no matter what our expectation might have been about desert monotony. What struck me most vividly – as it always does in the Australian outback – were the colours: the red mountains, the yellow spinifex, the white gleam of the ghost gums, the inevitably blue skies.
Desert environments never do things by halves, and even this tamed version had its extremes. The midwinter days cracked open at -6 degrees, yet 30 minutes later it would be 20 degrees. The sun would cook us on barren mountain tops through the afternoons, and then we’d plunge into icy, perpetually shaded waterholes in the evenings. Some nights we’d sleep out in the bare sand of a dry creek bed, waking to find dingo tracks around our heads. Another night we slept on the summit of a mountain, looking back at Mt Sonder, its presence still mocking us after more than a week of walking. By the time we reached Alice Springs I wanted nothing more than to turn around and walk back. The thought of a city was dulling.
* Commercial trips on the Larapinta are operated by World Expeditions, which this year opened two semi-permanent, eco-sensitive camps along the the trail. In May, I attended the launch of these camps. My article on the camps and the trail – Legacy in the Dust – can be found at this link.