230km of challenge And wonder
This was my 2021 solo journey across 230km in 12 days end to end on the sacred Larapinta Trail in the heart of Australia’s red centre. Magnificent in its wild, arid beauty and its unforgiving terrain. Exquisite in its ability to unfold a heart and help you look in all its corners that hold your courage, your love, your life.
I couldn’t travel overseas this year to walk a Camino, so I decided to walk the world famous, quintessentially Australian Larapinta Trail over 230km, cooking food and carrying a tent. This trail won me over before it began. The more I researched the more it crept into my heart. I also decided to go solo so I could have a rich interior experience. Almost like a walking Vipassana. I knew it would be a challenge. I knew it would be exciting and empowering.
I would pass over “Songlines” of the traditional owners and custodians of the land, the Arrernte people. I found this fascinating and it deepened my reverence for the steps I would be taking on Dreaming tracks that traced the journeys of ancestral spirits as they created land, animals and lore. A trail trek company assisted with 3 food drops and a lift out at the end. It took a second attempt to get there after a Covid lockdown. Day 1 I flew to eclectic Alice Springs where I stayed in a motel overnight and packed my food drop containers so they could be collected in the morning.
I walked out of the town at 5.30am in the dark covering 5km before I would enter the park. Disco music still thumped somewhere in the distance on this early Sunday morning. There was no turning back, I told myself as I adjusted my 13.5kg backpack. There is only one way and that’s through. The lights of a service station came into view. I bought my last cappuccino.
I set off from Simpsons Gap before sunrise after spending the night at the trailhead with a young Aussie couple who walked in the opposite direction and were about to finish. Little did I know how much climbing was ahead of me on this trail! I spent this day walking solo, gathering my confidence. I’d woken up with a headache which I suspected was fear driven. I slowly talked myself into feeling comfortable as I set a rhythmic pace. “I am here. I am here. And the Earth burst into song,” I cajoled.
I was supposed to stay at Jay Creek but arrived there early afternoon to witness a dingo step out from behind a bush and eyeball me at the trailhead. This fed my fear and I took off again determined to put some distance between me and it. I walked along a dry riverbed and past the sacred, exquisite Aboriginal Fish Hole where no camping was allowed, aiming for Miller’s flat where I would set up for the night. I ended up camping close to a small still waterhole where I could rinse a few clothes and have a bit of a splash to clean up before dinner and bed. I had inadvertently ended up walking about 28km.
This was a day of conquering my fears, getting used to my own company, talking and singing to myself. I may have passed only one or two hikers all going in the opposite direction. I was getting deeper into the trail and slowly surrendering to the utter stillness, living wild and immersing in the rugged beauty of the desert.
I am so small
This land so vast
Yet I am here
A bud in the desert
A twinkle in the Universe
Holding my existence up to the sky
I woke up again with a headache and now also feeling nauseous. Please enough! I so needed my strength. I knew my wobbly emotions were the cause. I was in the middle of nowhere with no mobile phone reception and I wasn’t seeing many hikers. I swung between feeling lonely and feeling exhilarated by my solo expedition. I knew I’d start to find my comfort amongst the exceptional vastness of this terrain that made me lose my breath if I thought too hard about it. Maybe that was exactly it, I was being asked to surrender to the wild present and let go of all the looking back and future pacing we commonly do as human beings. I would try to be here. “I am here. I am here….Ouch cried the stones.”
I was only 5km from Standley Chasm but it was slow going with steep ups and downs over rocky ground. Sometimes the terrain on the Larapinta is so taxing you can only cover 1km in one hour. This and the idea of falling keeps you very present!I arrived at Standley Chasm late morning where I knew there was a cafe and the famous cheese burgers I’d read about. I ordered one and a cappuccino and then stupidly realised I still felt nauseous so picked at the burger. I would dream of that half eaten burger in days to follow. I sat next to a long table of Aboriginal ladies and University students who were having a farewell lunch and exchanging gifts. It was very touching to watch. But I was disappointed that I still could not see any hikers. Then suddenly I noticed a man enter who looked like he’d been walking. I went over and before I could catch myself I felt a rush of emotion and promptly burst into tears. He kindly invited me to sit with him. I noticed his wedding band and told him I was missing my husband, I was feeling lonely and there were no hikers walking in my direction. He was going in the opposite direction and assured me he’d passed quite a few ahead. I was so grateful for that encounter with Simon (who happened to own the hiking store in Alice Springs) which allowed me to let go some desperate tears and go on bravely. I was undecided whether to camp at Standley and enjoy a shower and more food or keep going for a steep four-hour climb to Larapinta landmark, Brinkley Bluff (at almost 1200 metres) before sunset. From this high point I knew I could access a bar of Optus reception to make contact with home. I quickly accessed my first food drop supplies. My yearning led me on into the afternoon.
The beauty at Brinkley, bathed in a 5pm late afternoon sun, was other worldly. I happily chatted to some lovely young people up there, which soothed my need for connection. I spoke to my husband which filled me up more and relit the spark in me which had brought me here in the first place. I took in the long, heart-opening view of the Chewings Range in the West and the Heavitree Range in the distant South. I breathed deeply. I am here. How amazing. I prepared my dinner and watched the spectacle of the silky pink-blood orange sunset smear it’s art as it slipped away from the day. I then braced in my tent for a windy, icy cold night.
Because I see me
I hear me
All else flows in from here
All else is graceful extra.
I was the first one to descend Brinkley Bluff at the first sign of light. I felt amazing despite the freezing zero degree night, dressed in all my clothes, beanie, gloves and space blanket. My earplugs (a Camino essential) drowned out the moaning wind and flapping tent. Who would’ve thought the dawning day could be so yellow-mellow, still and enticing. By 9.30am I was at Section 4/5 Junction where a group of older ladies sipped their coffee and ate their breakfast. They hardly noticed me despite my cheery entrance. I filled my water and decided to keep going. I knew I was getting far ahead of my schedule but I trusted my intuition to do what felt right. Maybe my ego was trying to finish in minimal days. ((Yay me ) Maybe subconsciously I was trying to get to the end to get home. Or maybe I was still on the lookout for my tribe. The (gold standard) tribe of walking friends I found on my 2017 solo Camino Frances would be hard to match, I knew. No walk is the same. But I always keep room for the amazing. Your brain earmarks that thought or intention and that’s how you find it. In the meantime, what you’re experiencing illuminates who you are, your humanity and what you aspire to. Alone time away from all the automation, routine and noise is so rich in discovery.
This would be a tough day of walking. Spencer Gorge went on forever with lots of boulder hopping. I passed a man who had walked the entire Larapinta in one direction and now was doing it in reverse. He looked burnt and tired. I chatted eagerly to anyone passing my way.Then came the climb to Razorback Ridge to the crest of the Chewings Range. The wind blew wildly and the ledges were narrow in places. I descended along the rocky spine and down to Fringe Lilly Creek, a camp spot in a dry river bed where I made some lunch and met a Brisbane couple for the second time. I soon set off again aiming to sleep at Hugh Gorge Junction, which a young lady had convinced me I would love – camping on a dry river bed surrounded by an amphitheatre of tall red cliffs. It sounded exquisite, and it was. But when I got there it suddenly felt creepy and my instinct was to flee! This reaction was echoed the next day by another solo walker, a young mental health worker, who said she had the same creepy feeling there. Instead I walked an extra hour to Hugh Gorge Camp.
I had now walked two difficult sections in one day. At the trailhead I met a mother and daughter who barely looked up. For all I knew they were exhausted and maybe struggling and I wasn’t about to take it personally. But this day did make me vow to always acknowledge others with a few minutes of conversation. A useful note for my life book. That’s all it takes to warm a soul on the journey of life.
In the wrinkles of this ancient land
I touch downAnd float
Etching my arrival With each foot
And at home
With each step
Till we blend.
Her embrace widens
And suddenly I belong
On this day I would walk 29km to Ellery Creek North. While much of the Larapinta takes you along ridge tops and through gorges, this section carved through wide open spaces holding up an endless blue, blue sky. Here I moved between the dramatic setting of the Chewings Range on one side and the Heavitree Range on the other.
The Chewings Range quartzite is up to 1600 million years old. The younger Heavitree quartzite was deposited 900 million years ago. The ancient, infinite nature of my landscape and the Aboriginal history of immense spiritual reverence for this space, made my steps feel extra sacred. Moreover, this was a place of pilgrimage for the Aboriginal people. In a sense, I was them and they were me.
My chirpy friends here were Zebra Finches and green budgies that would take off dramatically in a flock, creating a snapping sound to reveal lime green undersides as they shot off on my approach.
I must now share my mystical sideshow, as this was my experience. Along my entire walk on several occasions, I would hear voices, laughter, music and the didgeridoo. Who knows how. Was I going mad in my solitude? Or was I in a quantum physics time warp or thin place. Had the divide between the temporal and the eternal become porous here or even collapsed? The concept of a “thin place” comes from Celtic spirituality and describes a place where one can experience the divine more readily than elsewhere.
Sometimes I felt my heart expand with intense connection, just like I did on my Caminos, and even the odd home walk when I’m out solo, awake and tuned to the bliss of my surroundings.
At last I arrived at Ellery Creek North and bathed in the icy, refreshing waters before setting up my tent on the soft sandy creek bed. The hikers were warm and welcoming. We exchanged stories. Someone charged my phone with their power bank. We watched a snake slither off from behind rocks. I stopped to wonder at the starry sky with widower, Simon (another one) from Alice Springs who was sending a message of love to his kids via satellite. I was home.
Day 6 on the Larapinta “Each songline explains the route followed by the creator-being during the course of the myth. The path of each creator-being is marked in sung lyrics. One navigates across the land by repeating the words of the song or re-enacting the story through dance, which in the course of telling the story also describe the location of various landmarks on the landscape (e.g. rock formations, watering holes, rivers, trees)..By singing a song cycle in the appropriate order, an explorer could navigate vast distances, often travelling through the deserts of Australia’s interior.”
The Basement Geographer
Dawn slowly lit the horizon and we all packed up our tents and left at different times in silence. Today I would walk 26km to Serpentine Chalet Dam, putting me way ahead of schedule. It felt so good to be in this strong rhythm. “Strong feet, light body, strong mind,” I would coach myself.
The first stop was Serpentine Gorge where my second food drop was to be collected and I would refill my water. I had a rockmelon waiting for me, nice and cool from the container, which I eagerly sliced up and shared with a Darwin couple.
Count’s Point was 7km away and another big climb. I would keep my options open about camping up on this high point or descending again to a trailhead at Serpentine Chalet Dam where there was the comfort of more water and being able to have a mini splash.
Count’s Point was stunning and I met some new hikers who were planning to sleep there and would become friends. I brewed some coffee and enjoyed a chat with a lady who lives just half an hour from my home and two men from Geelong – a winemaker and a doctor. I decided to descend and walk the extra 6.5km to the Serpentine trailhead. This was the beauty of travelling solo: I could blow with the wind and make last minute decisions just because I felt like it. I was the captain of my ship. Just my trusty backpack and I snailing our way through the red centre fantastic-a.
My last encounter for the day was with a lady walking in the opposite direction with a large backpack, dangling shoes and a Camino shell. I lit up. She had just woken from an afternoon snooze to avoid the heat and walk in the cooler late afternoon. The Camino had started her walking fixation and here she was now in the middle of nowhere. Here we both were in the middle of nowhere sharing a common delight that gave us fire in our bellies.
At Serpentine there were three lady friends set up, and I met up again with my Darwin friends. Two more from Ellery came stumbling in after sunset. It was comforting to know they were here, my fellow travellers in this infinitesimally small chink of a moment in time.
I went horribly wrong this morning. I wasted 45 minutes climbing up the Serpentine Chalet Dam gorge going in the wrong direction. This was not a good day to waste energy as I would be attempting two stages in one day with no water available over the next 29km. Blah! I descended, walked back into the Serpentine camp where the 3 ladies were still packing up and announced my faux pas. We laughed at my folly and I took off relieved to take the much gentler path that rounded the hill. Yay, I was on my way.
Soon I was at the Inarlanga Pass, an Arrente name for the Echidna. It is one of the easiest gaps through the Heavitree Range and a ceremonial place for the Aranda people. The sign reminded hikers of the sacred nature of this indigenous place and the need for maps and emergency communication.
I scrambled over boulders. My sunglasses fell to rocks below which meant I had to I unstrap my backpack to climb down and retrieve them. Slowly, careful.
At Waterfall Gorge (just a waterhole) I found friends Simon and Clancy relaxing and enjoying some food. People are always a welcome sight. I was not the only wild adventurer!
Next was a steep climb to Mount Giles Lookout. I had to stop and perch on rocks several times to catch my breath. The view was stunning. Oh Larapinta. So much stillness and crushing beauty. I could see all the landmarks I’d climbed and the 160km length of the West MacDonnell Ranges, plus highest peak, Mount Giles. Sigh.
This was also a possible sleep spot but I was keen to get to Ormiston Gorge and the safety of water.
I walked 4.5km to the base of the hill, marvelling at the ever stretching pathways, maintained for my delight by the Larapinta volunteers, Friends of the Larapinta.
Next was the 9km walk to Ormiston through rolling limestone hills. My feet ached. I had done seven big days now in a row. I thanked my feet for carrying me across this land every day, across the endless scatterings of hard stones. I’d tripped on them so many times and thankfully only fell over once, sprawling onto the red dust.
I felt so tired and sleepy now, it was time to coax and coach myself over the last few kilometres. Finally, I walked across the sandy bed of Ormiston Creek and onto a tar road! I first passed a public camp ground before finding the classic Larapinta trailhead where I would sleep. It was nearly 5pm and I passed the little food kiosk (which I would dash to the next day!). I felt quite shattered.
At the shelter I found Claire, who had enjoyed a rest day here and was preparing for her departure in the morning. She had taken a year off to hike! She shared her plans for her various adventures that would follow the Larapinta, virtually back-to-back. And – wait for it – it had all started years ago with the Camino Frances.
I celebrated my strong seven-day stint with my first shower at the public camp ground. I came out to a queue of ladies waiting outside in the warm dusk. I apologised for my never-ending indulgence under the hot water with a huge smile on my face. I felt beautiful.
Today would be a rest day! I was now far ahead of schedule and Ormiston Gorge was the perfect place to rest up. I could take stock of this grand walk and appreciate how far I’d come. At this campground was the delight of a small food kiosk and a cool waterhole to swim in. Bliss.
I waved goodbye to Claire in the morning. Clancy and Simon had rolled in after dark the night before, and the three of us were soon languishing in the sun outside the kiosk enjoying delicious toasted sandwiches and cappuccinos. We chatted euphorically and ordered more coffee because we could. Larapinta hikers, Tim and Anne, pulled up a chair and we all got to know each other.
Then Jackie from the Sunshine Coast, who I had met up high at Count’s Point, came walking in. Her and I soon strolled over to explore the gorge and I had a cool swim in the water.
Next came the guys I’d met up at Count’s, Ray and Jan, and the chats continued. We maximised the joy of the delicious food, putting in our last orders before the kitchen closed at 3.30pm.
The day ended perfectly with everyone setting off on the Ghost Gum walk to a high platform for sunset. We gazed across the little settlement below, letting it sink in where we were. The middle of nowhere, in an ancient, unspoilt cradle that now felt soft, warm and dramatic as the sun stretched out her departure in shades of orange.
Back at the campground we were situated near a tour company, which was cooking dinner under the stars for their safari-tented hikers amidst strings of fairy lights. Soon the excess delights of salmon, vegetables and Greek salad were brought over and offered to us. How amazing. But I’d already done my star gazing, brushed my teeth and zipped my tent.
My heart was full. I had so enjoyed the company of my fellow walkers and with phone reception, being able to speak to my family again. I’d called my parents too, to let them know I was perfectly safe. I thanked them for my life.
I’m the shiver in the morning breeze
I’m the snap under foot
On the snaking path
I’m the hot one
Heating and cooling
Taking and giving
In perfect exchange
Noticing that I am here
Today I would make a sneaky detour!
With time on my side, I decided to walk to Glen Helen Gorge about 4km off the main trail but still signposted. I booked a night in the lodge which had just reopened after a long closure due to Covid. How exciting it would be to sleep in a bed.
On my way there I passed the tour group at Hilltop Lookout, brewing up morning tea. Next was Finke River, or rather a dry river bed. When the water flows it carries a lot of dissolved minerals and not suitable for drinking. The Western Aranda people called it “Salty River”.
I walked the last kilometre to the lodge alongside the tar road. It was hot. Inside, I found Tim and Anne drinking coffee, waiting for a room. They had been undecided whether to make the detour and here they were. We discussed the funny, guilty feeling of sleeping in a bed. Ray put it all in perspective when he said: “There are no trophies for suffering.”
Seven of us would stay here and savour a two-course dinner and drinks against the majestic backdrop of rocks, flaming red in the ephemeral sunset. There would be no hint of “suffering” tonight.
My heart exhaled the diamonds that I lie under tonight
They wink and charm me till I blush with pleasure
At the connection we have
That we’ve kindled over these days
That we belong together
Right now amongst the infinity of everything
Tonight I would sleep up high on Hilltop Lookout under the stars. No tent separating me and everything. Others were doing it with ease. This was my chance to do it too, and I was determined. I pushed aside the thought of a snake slithering over me.
And so I left Glenn Helen with this nature-bound intention. Soon I had sneaked up on Jackie who came from Ormiston after her rest day. We chatted all the way to a waterhole where I met Roberta and Chris for the first time, who had come from Ormiston. We were all headed for Hilltop with lots of time to spare so we rested, ate lunch and swam before the climb.
Up at Hilltop, the afternoon was warm and dreamy. Mount Sonder beckoned, filling the skyline. From here we could contemplate the majesty of our final destination. Ray lent me his book of poetry to ponder. It was a fitting moment to get lost in “How To Wash A Heart”.
We watched the sun dip and Mount Sonder reflect burnt red. We lit our burners and cooked some of the last of our dehydrated dinners. We were a cosy group of wondering souls.
I prepared my bed for a night under the stars. Just incredible. I’d found a playlist of music on my phone and lay listening as I gazed full-hearted at the drama above me. This world. This life. That’s why I walked. To remember. I watched a satellite roam the sky and four shooting stars draw a quick, gasping line of silver. My heart exhaled diamonds. Every time I turned over I’d wake in disbelief at the sky, then curl up and under to brace against the cold night.
Day 11 and 12 – The Grand Finale!
We descended from Hilltop, greeting another flawless day and walked to Rocky Bar Gap for water. Budgies danced around and drank from the dripping tap. We walked the last 11km to Redbank Gorge being led by and closing in on our final destination, Mount Sonder. We cut a swathe over the red earth of mulga country and populations of familiar spinifex.
Simon, a former guide, had earlier pointed out the wild apple blossom and lemon-scented grass, so utterly fragrant. Who would have thought a desert had such offerings?
Most of us were being fetched the next morning by the same trekking company, after the grand summit of Mount Sonder at dawn. We contemplated the difficulty of the climb. This would be the longest climb on the trail to the trail’s highest point.
When Ray decided to spend the last night up high, and a lady came dashing past and then up too, I made a last minute decision to do the same. In the late afternoon I climbed 5km up the mountain and found a saddle to pitch my tent. I later discovered that sleeping on this sacred mountain/ veering off the path was not advised, but by then it was a fait accompli and I couldn’t reverse it.
I savoured my last night on this trail with another perfect sunset and starlit night. I was so grateful to be this close to the end of a magnificent solo adventure, with only a few kilometres left up to the summit.
The next morning I climbed in the dark and again found Jackie on the way. Our whole group met up to watch the sun colour our world and signal the ending. A tour group mingled in the cold dawn. I brewed my last coffee. I made it!
All that remained now was the jovial descent and a two-hour trip back to Alice Springs. We convinced the driver to stop in at Glen Helen so we could buy snacks and drinks. We met up that night at the Brewery for pizza and a well-earned celebration. A band of hardy hikers back in the land of comfort.
Back in Alice I went to visit the owner of the camping store, Simon, who had calmed my teary outburst at Standley Chasm. He was delighted that I’d made it through to the end and found some good company in others. Jackie and I met up for lunch and sashayed through the stunning Aboriginal art galleries.
I found myself staring with goosebumps down the road that I’d left on 13 days earlier in the dark, with my big backpack, a dream of adventure, a tinge of fear and a whole lot of chutzpah. I had come full circle.