AN­CIENT STOMP­ING GROUND

The pam­pered hiker’s way to do the Lara­p­inta

Sunday Herald Sun - Escape - - DESTINATION NORTHERN TERRITORY - CE­LESTE MITCHELL

The plucky twang scales down, down, down the fa­mil­iar bass line. The rhyth­mic clash of the tam­bourine. Nancy Si­na­tra’s un­mis­take­able vo­cals. I’m awake be­fore the first note; eyes on the can­vas above my face.

A smile spreads over my face in im­me­di­ate recog­ni­tion. “You keep sayin’ you’ve got some­thing for me …” I throw back my swag cover, shimmy out of my sleep­ing bag co­coon.

“Some­thing you call love but con­fess …” I’m al­ready half dressed – ther­mals, fleece, tights and socks. On goes the jacket, beanie, wind­breaker pants. “You’ve been messin’ where you’re shouldn’t’ve been messin’ and now some­one else is get­ting all your best …” I shove feet into my hik­ing boots, hook and tighten my laces, and grab my gaiters. “These boots are made for walkin’ and that’s just what they’ll do; one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.”

Head torch on, back­pack on, walk­ing pole in my right hand, I un­zip my tent and saunter to the bus. “Are you ready, boots?” It’s 1.45am. This is the big one. The one we’ve been work­ing our way towards all week. It’s Sun­day morn­ing and we’re about to hike 8km to the 1380m sum­mit of Mount Son­der. The aim is to get there be­fore sun­rise.

I’m on the Lara­p­inta Trail, an un­du­lat­ing and slightly un­for­giv­ing 223km track through the rugged West MacDon­nell Ranges just out­side Alice Springs in Cen­tral Aus­tralia. But rather than hik­ing it end to end and sur­viv­ing on freeze-dried pack­ets of sus­te­nance, I’m do­ing the high­lights reel of five of the most spec­tac­u­lar sec­tions and glamp­ing in semiper­ma­nent camp­sites by night. It’s the pam­pered hiker’s pass­port to one of Aus­tralia’s most iconic trails.

It’s pop­u­lar not only be­cause of its beauty or the chal­lenge it of­fers; there’s some­thing in the air out here – the way the Milky Way looks as though it’s smeared just above your head at night; the way dwarf­ing gorges glow deep pur­ple and rus­set. Some­thing in the en­ergy, like you could stand on tippy toes and touch the eter­nal world.

Day by day, the set­ting flips be­tween dry, sandy creek beds – where we press our ears to river red gums to hear them “slurp­ing” at wa­ter buried be­low – spinifex-smoth­ered ridges with panoramic views, and gorges that cli­max in a crescendo of the Earth’s chro­matic crust. Un­der­foot, it’s boul­dered and jagged, flinty then peb­bly, and at times, an­kle-twist­ingly, frus­trat­ingly hard.

But my boots set­tle into a rhythm with this real-life Na­matjira paint­ing, in the ranges the Ar­rernte peo­ple be­lieve was formed by pro­ces­sion­ary cater­pil­lars. I gazed on them in won­der as my plane came in to land in Alice; dra­matic, wrig­gling masses ris­ing from the vast rusty out­back floor.

“I like to think of it as the spinal cord of Aus­tralia,” guide Rachel Duthie says as we marvel at the drama of the land­scape at Counts Point on day three. We’ve been walk­ing the ridge line of the Heav­it­ree Range for hours, swear­ing at stubbed toes and stop­ping for mo­ti­va­tional choco­late, but ef­fort evap­o­rates here. Deep val­leys plunge ei­ther side of me, and rain­bow lines of green, gold and rust rid­dle the masses of earth thrust up in a tec­tonic rage mil­lions of years ago. Sav­age shelves of shale jut out over the green-grey bushes be­low.

This used to be an in­land sea. It’s unimag­in­able, but there they are be­side my boots: rip­ples in flat tablets of rock, like the del­i­cate curves found in the ocean’s sandy floor.

As well as fol­low­ing the well­marked trail, some days we de­tour to visit sa­cred sites like the Ochre Pits – a nat­u­ral “su­per­mar­ket” wall of min­eral and colour-rich earth used for trade and cer­e­mony. While I try to iden­tify Blue mallees and Dead Fin­ish trees, there’s so much in the desert’s plant books we could never hope to learn in a few days. A visit from Ray­lene Brown, who runs a cafe and cater­ing busi­ness called Kungkas Can Cook in Alice Springs and works closely with the women who har­vest tra­di­tional bush foods, helps to so­lid­ify the depth of what the desert pro­vides.

“For In­dige­nous peo­ple these were re­ally im­por­tant foods,” she says as she ex­plains the nu­tri­tional ben­e­fits of bush toma­toes and coola­m­ons full of na­tive seeds. We dip strips of kan­ga­roo loin into her bush tomato chut­ney and gob­ble up wat­tle seed damper with quan­dong jam.

There’s a lot the bush can teach us about our­selves, too. When she’s not guid­ing on the Lara­p­inta, Rachel, 24, works in bush ad­ven­ture ther­apy in Tas­ma­nia, tak­ing teenagers out hik­ing, camp­ing, mak­ing damper and “hav­ing chats around the camp­fire”.

A Type 1 di­a­betic, when she was 18, Rachel de­cided she would ride around Aus­tralia, to her doc­tor’s hor­ror. She rode from Mel­bourne to Syd­ney, just to prove him wrong.

The camps we stay in along the way are an ad­ven­ture in bush ther­apy them­selves. The luxury kind.

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