ANCIENT STOMPING GROUND
The pampered hiker’s way to do the Larapinta
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.