THE RIP­PLE EF­FECT

The Lara­p­inta Trail presents op­por­tu­ni­ties for re­flec­tion as well as good walk­ing, finds John Borth­wick

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

THE foot­print of King Nep­tune’s rip­plesole shoe grabs my at­ten­tion and makes an an­cient point. On top of a cen­tral Aus­tralian moun­tain range, I’m look­ing at a 350-mil­lion-year-old slab of rock that’s grooved in even, par­al­lel rows, much like the im­print a mytho­log­i­cally large rip­plesole shoe might make. The slab, 60cm by 30cm, so­lid­i­fied eons ago from sand rip­ples on a shore­line, sits atop the West MacDon­nell Ranges, 1000m above sea level. The ocean that once shaped it is 1300km away.

‘‘ It’s known as rip­ple-mark rock,’’ says Hamid, a ge­ol­o­gist with whom I’m trekking the Lara­p­inta Trail. We’re on day two of a three-day desert tramp through the West MacDon­nell Na­tional Park, about 100km west of Alice Springs. Hamid is an ex­cel­lent com­pan­ion be­cause what are to me just rocks and boul­ders are soon re­vealed by him as ex­otics such as quartzite, dior­ite and gran­ite. A colour con­sul­tant mightn’t be a bad com­pan­ion, ei­ther, since the land­scape has so many shades of ochre, salmon, red and um­ber that they defy nam­ing.

‘‘ Paprika rocks? Or, how about cream of cap­sicum soup cliffs?’’ pro­poses Jenny, a botanist and the younger of our two trekking guides. Her culi­nary sim­i­les are as good as any in try­ing to ap­prox­i­mate the tones of this stark, vast, stony, silent land­scape that, when seen from our high ridge, stretches from hori­zon to hori­zon be­neath a deep blue sky.

We walk on at an easy pace, keep­ing up the wa­ter in­take, head­ing west to­wards Counts Point ridge. Here, our lead guide Adrian calls a halt and we suck on or­anges while tak­ing in dis­tant Mt Son­der, a mauve mas­sif that re­sem­bles a re­clin­ing preg­nant wo­man. Adrian points out nearby Gosse Bluff, formed when a huge comet whacked into the Earth; it was the big­gest event here in the past 130 mil­lion years.

Spinifex, cy­cads, gib­bers, skinks, kites and cock­a­toos: th­ese and our foot­falls are the con­stants as we tra­verse the Lara­p­inta Trail. This chain of day walks along the ranges can be done in sin­gle sec­tions or linked as a chal­leng­ing 230km epic. Our ex­cur­sion is at the mod­er­ate end of the scale, but strid­ing past us is Thomas, a lanky young Ger­man who’s do­ing the full trek.

He tells us: ‘‘ I asked my­self, What should I do? Get a job or take a nice 14-day hike?’ Easy. I can al­ways work later.’’ He lopes off, the near­in­car­na­tion of that 1950s yo­delling min­strel, the Happy Wan­derer.

Our jour­ney, or­gan­ised by World Ex­pe­di­tions, con­sists of five walks, rang­ing from 4km to 16km. We camp in a mulga clear­ing near the ru­ins of Ser­pen­tine Chalet, a quixotic, late-’50s Anset­tPioneer tourist ven­ture. The chalet, not far from Ser­pen­tine Gorge, was once the mid­point on an all-day, bun-bust­ing ex­cur­sion from Alice to Or­mis­ton Gorge, as en­dured by vis­i­tors in old war-sur­plus Blitz wag­ons. Given its re­mote­ness on an un­sealed road, it’s not sur­pris­ing the chalet went broke within a decade.

All that re­mains is a con­crete slab, plus a white­fel­las’ mid­den of fi­bro and rusted drums, and the ghosts of tourists past. Th­ese days, on the sealed high­way, it takes lit­tle more than 90 min­utes to reach the once al­most chimeri­cal Or­mis­ton Gorge.

There are eight of us in the group, plus our two guides. Our jour­ney started with a two-hour ‘‘ shake-down’’ walk from Alice Springs to the Ge­off Moss Bridge on the bone-dry Charles River. Jenny tells me, Ge­off Moss was a min­is­ter for pub­lic works and, I think, the fa­ther of some rock gui­tarist, Ian Moss.’’ You know you’re get­ting re­ally old when twen­tysome­things don’t even know the name of the other (and pos­si­bly bet­ter) singer in Cold Chisel.

We pile into a Land Cruiser and head west to Stan­d­ley Chasm in the Chew­ings Range, still part of the West Macs. Next comes a 4km loop walk. We climb stair­cases of shat­tered basalt over­hung by sil­ver-trunked ghost gums be­fore be­gin­ning the re­turn down the nar­row, dry water­course of Stan­d­ley Chasm. This clam­ber­ing de­scent is fun for some of us and a chal­lenge for a cou­ple of acro­phobes. We have to wig­gle through a keyhole gap, inch down a notched log, then bum­slide over boul­ders worn smooth by count­less wet-sea­son cataracts. Reach­ing the nar­row cleft of the chasm, what we find flow­ing through it is not wa­ter but a coachload of vo­cal tourists.

We spend the night at our camp near Ser­pen­tine Chalet, sleep­ing in the open in can­vas swags. Tents are an op­tion, but no way will I miss the chance to snore at the dead cen­tre of the con­ti­nent be­neath a snow-dome of stars. Nev­er­the­less, I have to keep the swag flap pulled over my head, such is the flood­light in­ten­sity of the full moon above. The morn­ing is near freez­ing but, as they say, you wouldn’t be dead for quids.

Day two is the long one: sec­tion eight of the Lara­p­inta Trail, which is about 16km. The Parks and Wildlife Ser­vice NT has marked the track well and in­stalled wa­ter tanks at the trail­heads, but there’s no wa­ter up in the high desert hills. We’re each car­ry­ing three litres in our day­packs, just enough to make it through an in­creas­ingly hot day.

We hoof it across rocks so old they pre­date ver­te­brates on Earth, reach­ing the top of the high ridge that al­lows us a panorama of the Heav­it­ree and Chew­ings ranges as they run green, ochre and shadow-but­tressed to­wards in­fin­ity.

‘‘ Pull up a soft rock. Let’s have a break,’’ Adrian says. We marvel at a long val­ley that dips be­tween our ridge and the next one, a dra­matic rise topped by a conga line of camel humps and dragon spines. In­deed, the ridges and troughs, run­ning par­al­lel, re­sem­ble noth­ing so much as gi­ant swells on an in­land ocean. Per­haps that rip­ple tread wasn’t Nep­tune’s but the old huarache san­dal of Kahuna, god of the surf.

The earth’s pal­ette and pat­terns here are pure Fred Wil­liams or Al­bert Na­matjira. Not sur­pris­ing since, as we peer through binoc­u­lars, far to the north we can make out the roofs and so­lar pan­els of the place where the lat­ter once lived and painted, the Her­manns­burg Mis­sion, es­tab­lished by Lutheran priests in 1877.

The sky is a per­fect blue, but the de­scent, from the sum­mit’s breezes into in­tense heat, is ar­du­ous. We’re walk­ing in the val­ley of the shadow of ab­so­lutely noth­ing. The trail’s 1km marker posts seem to stretch ever farther apart. Then, fi­nally, near dusk we reach our camp. Rest and re­hy­dra­tion. A fine mulga wood fire. Salad and scrump­tious fish for din­ner.

Lara pinta , the Ar­rernte Abo­rig­i­nal term for cen­tral Aus­tralia’s Finke River, means brack­ish wa­ter. The name was ap­plied to this string of pop­u­lar walks, al­though the Lara­p­inta Trail is not a tra­di­tional Abo­rig­i­nal route.

In 2002, Parks and Wildlife linked, up­graded and sign­posted the 12 sec­tions of the trail. Be­tween April and Septem­ber each year, hun­dreds of hik­ers en­joy the var­i­ous treks with pro­fes­sional tour op­er­a­tors or as well-equipped and fit solo walk­ers, such as Thomas.

Af­ter a warmer night, we have cof­fee and crumpets for break­fast, then check out the nearby dam that fed Ser­pen­tine Chalet in its hey­day (if in­deed it had one). At the head of a rugged val­ley, we find cliffs that form a chasm through which wa­ter flows in the wet sea­son. In­con­gru­ously, right across the nar­row val­ley is a thick con­crete dam, about 12m wide by 3m high. Work­ers have laboured unimag­in­ably, lug­ging hun­dreds of tonnes of ce­ment and sand up the boul­der-clot­ted riverbed — no ve­hi­cle could pen­e­trate here even to­day — to mix and pour this mas­sive wall. The only hint of its heroic con­struc­tors is in­dented let­ter­ing on the dam face: ‘‘ R. Livio’’ and ‘‘ Tes­sarya’’.

We do two shorter treks on our last day, from Ser­pen­tine Chalet to Inarlunga Pass, then a loop stroll at Or­mis­ton Gorge. More sap­phire skies fram­ing ghost gums and the quartzite orange cliffs. More cross-coun­try, up-hill, down-dale strid­ing, but by now we are all much fit­ter and the walk­ing is eas­ier.

In am­bu­lans solvi­tur : ‘‘ In walk­ing it is solved.’’ Be­tween that ul­tra­vi­o­let sky and the spinifex earth with its Nep­tune-rip­pled rocks, the per­son you meet on the trail is mostly your­self. The rhythm of paces works a mes­meric spell. We drift into our thoughts, per­haps re­solv­ing some of the petty ques­tions of our dis­tant, daily lives.

The walk­ing day­dream ends spec­tac­u­larly when we round a bend at Inarlunga Pass and see the spec­trum of the fa­mous Ochre Pits. Ver­ti­cal stri­a­tions in sul­phur yel­low, chalk white, burned um­ber, deep orange and al­most mul­berry red are banded down the face of a 50m cliff. Abo­rig­i­nal traders dug th­ese colours, highly val­ued for cer­e­mo­nial dec­o­ra­tions, and ex­changed them along an­cient trade routes.

Our last trek, the Or­mis­ton Gorge loop, is equally spec­tac­u­lar, end­ing be­side a string of deep pools where wind­less wa­ters re­flect ev­ery de­tail of the bright ochre cliffs above. From a tiny ledge, a grey rock wal­laby ob­serves our ar­rival and de­par­ture back to our place, like its own, in the scheme of things.

Foot­note: One of our num­ber, Barry, a fit-asa-fid­dle trekker, legs it eas­ily through our 30km wilder­ness hike, only to come a crop­per over an Alice Springs gut­ter. He is last seen in a wheel­chair sport­ing a sprained an­kle and con­tem­plat­ing not Nep­tune or Kahuna but the gods of irony. John Borth­wick was a guest of World Ex­pe­di­tions.

Check­list

World Ex­pe­di­tions of­fers three, seven and 14-day treks along the Lara­p­inta Trail. From $895 to $2990 all-in­clu­sive from Alice Springs. Trips depart from April un­til Septem­ber. More: 1300 720 000; www.world­ex­pe­di­tions.com.

Sole mates: Trekkers pass through gorges and over mas­sifs mil­lions of years old

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