On the track of be­yond

Crea­ture com­forts along the Larapinta Trail

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - JOHN BORTH­WICK

The camp­fire flares like pri­mal tele­vi­sion, alive with flick­er­ing drag­ons and Rorschach dogs. I could watch it half the desert night but my trekking com­pan­ions are al­ready in their tents and we have an early start tomorrow. We’re overnight­ing at Camp Fear­less, a per­ma­nent site west of Alice Springs. Come morn­ing and the trill of butcher­birds and buk­buks, I poke my head out of the tent to see the West Mac­Don­nell Ranges awash with pas­tel light.

There’s time for a hot-wa­ter bucket shower, cof­fee and break­fast. Can­teens filled, we toss our bags in the back of our ve­hi­cle and head off. There are six of us, plus two guides, as we drive to the trail­head at Ser­pen­tine Gorge, slap on sun­block, shoul­der our day­packs and be­gin hoof­ing it uphill.

My walk­ing com­pan­ions in­clude a quar­tet of youth­ful mums from Perth who hike at an im­pres­sive clip. Pony­tails bob­bing, sneak­ers trip­ping, they lope ef­fort­lessly along, soon earn­ing the tag of the “Cottes­loe Bolters”. I don’t try to keep up — cam­era gear, pho­tog­ra­phy and all that be­ing ex­cel­lent ex­cuses.

We’re on a three-day sup­ported trek on the fa­bled Larapinta Trail, a hik­ing route that runs west of Alice Springs for 220km — that is, if you have the time and legs for the whole thing. Our short­ened itin­er­ary, the Larapinta Ex­pe­ri­ence in Com­fort, is less am­bi­tious (I call it Larapinta Lite) but still de­mand­ing, with plenty of burn­ing leg mus­cles, heav­ing lungs and un­spo­ken groans of “Are we at the top yet?” as we slog up a sun-blasted ridge of shat­tered quartz and spinifex.

“Pull up a soft rock. Let’s have a break,” says some­one. Our World Ex­pe­di­tions guides, Teegs, 28, and Chelsea, 31 — who seem to know ev­ery desert plant by name, and in Latin, too — whip out track snacks from their hefty back­packs. We re­hy­drate, not to men­tion re-oxy­genate.

The West Mac­Don­nell Ranges rise like a ground swell but the lo­cal West­ern Ar­rernte peo­ple have the per­fect totem for these an­cient ridges — Cater­pil­lar Dream­ing. The range, bunched and weather-rounded, stretches to the hori­zon, inch­ing im­per­cep­ti­bly on its way west. We’re in a na­tional park, tra­di­tional lands, where a chain of wa­ter holes — Simp­sons Gap, Stan­d­ley Chasm, Ellery Big Hole, Ser­pen­tine Gorge, Or­mis­ton Gorge and Glen He­len Gorge — are like oa­sis beads threaded along Na­matjira Drive west of Alice. With a four-wheel drive to de­liver us to the trail­head each day (and our gear to the next camp­site), there’s no ne­ces­sity to stick to the se­quence of the Larapinta’s 12 de­fined sec­tions. In­stead, each day our guides choose the best stretches ac­cord­ing to the weather con­di­tions and tem­per­a­ture.

Hav­ing done the Larapinta hike a decade ago, I’m tempted to imag­ine that lit­tle has changed since then in this 300 mil­lion-year-old land­scape. But a sober­ing line, a Pink Floyd lyric, comes to mind, putting things in per­spec­tive: “The sun is the same in a rel­a­tive way but you’re older. Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.” To­tally cheer­less but true enough, and we are cer­tainly shorter of breath as we hike 300m up to Counts Point out­look on Heav­it­ree Ridge.

Be­low us sev­eral long, straight val­leys run be­tween a trio of par­al­lel ridges — the Chew­ings, Heav­it­ree and Pa­coota ranges — all part of the “West Macs”. The dished val­leys look as if they might have been formed by the gods fling­ing me­te­ors like bowl­ing balls down the lands. Other than a whistling kite and our own our gasps of awe, the panorama, near and far, is silent.

Per­haps there’s some­thing in my me­teor fan­tasy. Chelsea points out nearby Gosse Bluff, formed when a huge comet whacked into the earth — the big­gest event here in the past 130 mil­lion years. We might be on a range in the mid­dle of the con­ti­nent but we are also stand­ing on an an­cient seabed, on rocks so old that they pre­date ver- tebrate crea­tures. Here, about 1000m above sea level and with the clos­est ocean 1300km dis­tant, I no­tice slabs of “rip­ple-mark” rocks on the ground. They were once sand on a pri­mor­dial shore where the rip­ple pat­terns be­came fixed in time, carved in stone, so to speak, for eter­nity. We’re stand­ing in it.

The warm, win­ter days of May through Septem­ber are per­fect for trekking (other months are far too hot), while the nights are clear and cold, with the Milky Way awash with stars above us. We trek se­lected sec­tions of the trail, cov­er­ing on av­er­age around 15 fairly rugged kilo­me­tres each day. At dusk we re­treat to one of the three bril­liant camp­sites that World Ex­pe­di­tions has es­tab­lished along the way; but make no mis­take, this is tramp­ing, not glamp­ing.

Our next one is Nick’s Camp, de­signed by, and named in hon­our of, the late ar­chi­tect Nick Mur­cutt. A huge can­vas awning that re­sem­bles an open-sided Be­douin tent, or per­haps a cir­cus big-top mar­quee, shel­ters a broad plat­form and the eat­ing-loung­ing-kitchen ar­eas. A log fire crack­les on the sands nearby. There’s a bath­room en­clo­sure with an in­ge­nious wood-fired stove to heat show­ers and, at a dis­tance, com­post­ing toi­lets. We have our choice of a dozen per­ma­nent tents, roomy struc­tures with high ceil­ings, floors, win­dows, so­lar lamps and two stretch­ers.

Counts Point look­out, Heav­it­ree Range, top; Camp Fear­less, above; Or­mis­ton Gorge, above right; spinifex pi­geon, right; rock wallabies at Simp­sons Gap, be­low

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