Hiking the Larapinta Trail, a 230-kilometre track through the Tjoritja/West MacDonnell National Park, near Alice Springs (Mparntwe), is akin to walking through an Albert Namatjira painting. The gaudy colours are unique to central Australia yet immediately familiar, even if you’ve never been. Experiencing this extraordinary landscape in art is one thing, crunching through it in hiking boots is another, especially if you’re tackling it in winter.
During our five-day hike, covering highlights of the track, an icy wind was an almost constant companion. We’d been warned it would be cold at night – sometimes below freezing – but we had expected mild, 20-something days where we could cool off in waterholes and gorges after exertion. Our swimming costumes were at the bottom of our day packs, but that’s where they remained. The cold wind refused to abate and the daily highs barely nudged the low teens.
The days featured bluebird skies and the zero humidity contributed to an astonishing domed ceiling of stars at night, with more light than dark above us. But the day hikes required beanies, gloves and every layer we had packed. The warming effort of climbing a ridge was a singular joy but it was often tempered by blasting wind, particularly the day we climbed a section of Mount Sonder, or Rwetyepme, a place of spiritual significance to the Arrernte people. The mountain ridge, which is said to have the outline of a pregnant woman, is familiar as a purple-green backdrop in many Namatjira watercolours.
The national park is jointly managed by traditional owners and the Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory, as it shares boundaries with several Aboriginal land trusts. The Arrernte people here sometimes call themselves Tjoritja-rinya (meaning belonging to Tjoritja). Some traditions are able to be shared but some stories and practices are for men or women only.
National park planner Alan Ginns, who worked for the Northern Territory’s Conservation Commission in the 1980s and 1990s, conceived of the Larapinta Trail to link what used to be a collection of smaller parks. Since then it has spawned its own ecosystem of walkers and runners.
There are dozens of ways to tackle the Larapinta, from competitive trail-running events to fully supported hikes, and self-sufficient hikers can arrange food drops along the way as they carry all their equipment. The trail is divided into 12 sections, including natural water sources, or spots where it is trucked in, because the extremely dry climate means that even in the winter a day walk can require carrying up to four litres per person.
In short, the Larapinta can be as difficult as you choose to make it. It can be a gruelling test of stamina or a meditative stroll through some of the most stunning scenery Australia has to offer.
Ours was a fully supported, pack-free hike organised by Life’s An Adventure, which we discovered through a service called the Walk Travel Advisory. Our guides provided return transport from Alice Springs, as well as two nights’ camping at Ormiston Gorge, two nights at the Glen Helen homestead and all meals.
Our group of 14 ranged in age from a teen to three fit septuagenarians, with representatives from each decade in between. The guides provided options most days depending on fitness, stamina and preference for summitting a ridge or exploring a gorge.
Walking the Larapinta means crossing rocky desert ranges, mulga woodlands, saltbush shrublands, spinifex dunes and the aforementioned stunning prehistoric gorges. You walk dry riverbeds where the water flows several metres underground and sustains large gums. Wherever there’s water, you’ll find flocks of tiny zebra finches and plenty of green and yellow Australian ringneck parrots. You won’t see many native animals as they’re mostly nocturnal.
Prior to our walk we had a day in Alice Springs to check out the Olive Pink Botanic Garden and the Alice Springs Desert Park – the nocturnal exhibit is highly recommended to see the diversity of wildlife that makes a living in these unique environments. The park protects a significant number of threatened and near-threatened species. Once on the trail, your imagination can supply the brush-tailed bettongs, bilbies, ghost bats and thorny devils that scamper through the spinifex at night.
And this soft spinifex – a misnomer as it’s about as soft as a bouquet of needles – is a striking gunmetal purple-grey when it dies out naturally, turning the hills and ranges the familiar soft tones of Namatjira’s shadows. Alongside it, the bright green of the live spinifex makes an especially beautiful contrast with the red soils and sands underfoot. A mapping of flora in 2010 recorded some 700 species in 39 separate vegetation “communities”.
Throughout the mulga woodlands are stretches of burnt black branches from the 2019 fires, but regeneration is visible. In January of that year, a lightning strike in a dry storm started a large bushfire that burned for 17 days, affecting more than 660 square kilometres, or 20 per cent of the Tjoritja/West MacDonnell National Park. Media coverage of these fires was later overshadowed by the Black Summer disasters in New South Wales and Victoria.
Two seasons of above-average rainfall followed the fires, allowing some native plants and animals to recover. But the intensity and increased frequency of the burning – due to a combination of climate change and an introduced species, buffel grass – has seriously affected biodiversity.
The rapid changes caused by European interference, such as buffel grass, however damaging, remain just a speck in the broader time line of this landscape, which goes back hundreds of millions of years. These are some of the oldest mountains and rock formations in the world; the West MacDonnell ranges were once the height of the Himalayas, and the Finke River, called Larapinta by Indigenous Australians, is believed to be the world’s oldest river, somewhere upward of 300 million years.
The scope and scale of the geology of this part of Australia is difficult to wrap your head around. Our guides explained it by picking up sticks and drawing mud maps, with lines in the dirt representing geological millennia. They said the sediments that comprise what are now the mountain ranges are between 1400 and 2400 million years old, pre-dating vertebrates, which is why few fossils are found in the region.
When these ranges were first formed by folding – in a major geological event known as the Alice Springs Orogeny – they were about 4500 metres high, hence the Himalayan comparison. Erosion over millions of years has left them at just 400 to 500 metres high.
Some of this history is visible from a distance in the layers of rock turned sideways to expose hundreds of millions of years of sediment in the symmetrical, curved ridges of the ranges. Up close it can be seen in places such as the sacred ochre pits on the banks of a sandy creek near the remote gorge of the Inarlanga Pass.
This was where the trail took us on our fifth and final day, to gaze at the colourful bands of clay that make up the rock face. As tourists, we would not touch them – the Arrernte men have used these sedimentary striations for ceremonies, healing practices and art for thousands of years.
It was a fitting conclusion to a magnificent – if bracing – hike, illustrating the continued activity of the world’s oldest culture, among some of the most ancient known landforms on the planet.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 6, 2022 as "Stepping into the artwork".
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