World Expeditions' three-day experience means even the busiest amongst us can enjoy the Northern Territory's Larapinta Trail.
The Larapinta Trail is known to be a bit of a boot breaker: rocky underfoot and requiring a certain level of fitness.
The traditional six- or 14-day experiences are challenging, especially for someone like me with an inconsistent exercise regime, but a three-day sample of this outback oasis would be easily achievable. And this is exactly what World Expeditions offers: an experience aimed at full-time workers, mums of young kids (me) or people with not much annual leave up their sleeve.
At the time I booked the trip, my good friend Sarah was midway through chemotherapy and recovering from a double mastectomy – I threw it out to her that she should come too – a milestone to aim for on her road to recovery. She signed up on the spot.
Being English, Sarah had never been camping before… never slept in a tent, never carried a backpack, didn’t even know what a swag was. On arrival in Alice Springs, we dumped our bags and set about getting our bearings.
Day one was an early start with a 7.30am pick-up. Our guide Ashton would lead our group of eight, made up of four 50-something mates from Sydney on a boy's trip and a couple who’d done many walking holidays before.
Embarking on the Larapinta Trail
The start point for the trip is the Telegraph Station, and Ashton runs through the remarkable history of this place. It is hard to fathom the determination and the immense minds that conceived the idea to erect telegraph poles connecting Alice Springs to the rest of Australia. This place is also the location of the original Alice Springs. It looks like a dry riverbed but Ashton points out the depressions in the sand left by the kangaroos and dingoes, that access the water that is trapped by the underlying granite basin beneath the sand.
The walking is easy, the light is beautiful and as the ground glitters with the sunlight reflecting off the mica in the rocks we spot a couple of euros sunning themselves on top of a rocky outcrop.
Simpsons Gap is the first walk after a quick vehicle transfer and this is to be our first taste of what to expect for the rest of our walk. A shady tree-lined walk up a sandy riverbed becomes ‘the gap’; an aqua green pool between two rugged overhanging rock formations. It is well worth the short 20-minute return walk.
The next stop is Standley Chasm, where we break for lunch. It is named after Ida Standley, a teacher who taught indigenous children in the area. History is something that is relevant here and the stories are of tough times and real settlers. It’s Australian history, and both the European and indigenous stories are relevant and relatable.
After a feed we walk through a small gorge to the chasm, which is vegetated with native Cyprus pines. Impressive 200-year-old cycads also line the walk into the chasm. Against the dramatic rock formations these unusual plants add to the ancient feeling of the place. It is here that we are stunned by the colour of the rock; a luminous red glow creates a warm light even in the shade. At first it’s a click frenzy, but we eventually calm down and just stand quietly taking it all in.
We climb up to a lookout that’s the first real test of our fitness. It’s signposted ‘experienced walkers only’, but we all manage the ascent and are rewarded with an exhilarating view from the top.
Staying in (relative) comfort on the Larapinta Trail
The World Expedition camps are the right mix of camping and glamping. Long-drop dunnies ensure that the environmental impact of visitors is contained to the camp area; showers are executed by heating water in a donkey, pouring it into a bucket and hoisting it over your head for a luxurious two-minute bucket shower; and the central dining, kitchen and seating area is a comfortable raised platform. Dinner on night one is roast chicken cooked to perfection in the camp oven, and conversation and humour come easily.
We’ve been warned that day two is the ‘hard day’ that includes a big climb up to the ridgeline and along to Counts Point, followed by a steep descent down a rocky spur. The morning, however, is an easy start with a short stroll into Serpentine Gorge, a shady oasis with rock formations that show a slow but violent past.
We commence the climb to Counts Point and are advised to keep drinking plenty of water. Because the ground is uneven and rocky we all have to remind each other to stop and take a look behind us – it’s almost as if the huge expanse behind us sneaks up and surprises us every time we turn around.
Despite the rough ground I settle into a rhythm, carefully stepping from rock to rock. All of a sudden there are flowers everywhere. These unexpected little beacons of colour – blues, pinks and yellows – are all dainty like miniature versions of the ones you’d find in cottage gardens. They contrast strongly with the red rocks and look so delicate in their rough surroundings.
Count Point is our destination for lunch. There are a lot of largish and very busy ants wanting to share the spoils so we quickly eat and retreat, and find a sharp rock to sit on and contemplate the view. Out of the corner of my eye I spot a lizard, so I dribble a little water onto his rock and he laps it up with a rapid-fire tongue. Just as I wonder what he eats up here, an ant gets too close and is gone in a flash; that explains his fat little belly, his food source is plentiful!
The climb down the spur is by far the most challenging part of our walk. I use my poles for the descent and they are very reassuring on the slippery shale, and my tired, wobbly knees are grateful for the help. At the bottom we walk through a completely different scrub environment, and I’m reminded that in one day we have been in lush forest, grasslands, wildflowers and now fairly dense bush.
In the vehicle transfer back to camp that night, everyone is on a high, relieved to be sitting and looking forward to a nice, hot shower. The previous evening, Sarah and I regretted our decision to sleep in a tent, so tonight we drag our camp beds and swags out to sleep under the stars. We get a fit of the giggles and can’t stop; we’re on a high. It’s a high derived from physical tiredness, exhilaration and the excitement of doing things differently. The milky way is breathtaking – there is no moon, no clouds, no wind and we are miles from any interfering light source.
Saying goodbye to the Larapinta Trail
We’re woken early by a birdcall and there is a sense of purpose as we pack up camp. Our guide Ange tells us the plan for the day and we are all looking forward to a good walk. A vehicle transfer (something that is a part of the three-day experience) takes us to the Ochre Pits and after a short stroll we find ourselves in another riverbed. We learn a little about the significance of the ochre in indigenous ceremony and that there were extensive trading routes set up between tribes to trade this valuable commodity.
We are then transferred to Ormiston Pound and Gorge. As we set out we are delighted to see a pair of black-footed rock wallabies sunning themselves on the rocks below the path. We climb a rise that reveals itself to be the edge of the pound (an area enclosed by mountains). It reminds us of an African savannah, a vast plain with a river running through it, surrounded by escarpments.
It is a fabulous vantage point and we almost expect to see wildebeest grazing below. It is a brief stop but one that has given us a great perspective on where we are in the geography. We head down into the bowl and surprisingly quickly arrive at the river that seemed so far away just minutes ago.
Lunch is magic; we sit underneath a big red gum inhabited by flocks of budgerigars with bright green feathers. After eating it is on to the gorge with a promise of a compulsory wade and an optional extra swim when we reach the end.
The walk into Ormiston Gorge is breathtaking. Ghost gums have pushed their roots through the seemingly impenetrable rocks and stand proudly out of the cliffs, their snow-white trunks in vivid contrast to the red, red rocks. Once again we are all in a photographic frenzy.
Our final bit of excitement is the gorge crossing; we put our packs on our heads and start the wade. The water is icy and within two steps I can’t feel my legs. Once again we are laughing, gasping, jumping up and down, exhilarated and all bonded in the shared pain. Some of the guys want a bit more freezing fun so they go for a swim in a larger waterhole further up, while the rest of us do our final little climb up to a lookout. From here we can hear the hoots and splashes of the swimmers and see back up the gorge from where we walked in; it’s a nice time to reflect.
Soft city lives means that not all of us are ready to don a giant pack and take off unassisted on a big adventure – that takes planning, a lot of time, equipment and a level of courage and fitness that only comes with regular trips of this kind. The benefits of a guided walk – only having to carry a daypack, not having to set up a tent and having a loo – allows the best of both worlds. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the ‘soft’ version of the Larapinta Trail. It’s only three days but it’s a lifetime experience that’s worth every minute.