Hiking the Larapinta Trail, Australia

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The Larapinta Trail is an amazing 223km hiking route in the West MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia, which took us 17 days to complete.

The trail takes hikers through remote areas without a soul around, and then emerges into tourist-filled gorges. I actually liked this combination!

Hikers can walk the trail in either direction,  so we opted to start from Redbank gorge (which is the official finish-point of the trail) and walk to Mparntwe (Alice Springs), therefore finishing in the city.

We hiked the Larapinta Trail in the first half of October 2017. It’s taken me a while to type my notes up!

This post is a day-by-day account of the walk, including the amount of water we carried (because I know that this was my main concern before I hiked) and the time it took us (without breaks). We pretty much followed the suggested itinerary and usually camped in the locations that the official trail notes suggested.

A follow-up post will cover the logistics – how we did the food-drops etc – as well as reflections of the trail, and tips for others.

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Hitchhiking on a boat, which is being towed by a car, to Redbank gorge: the start of the trail!

Day 1: Redbank gorge to Rwetypme (Mount Sonder), and back to Redbank gorge (section 12 of trail notes and map)
Duration: 5 hrs. Weather: 15°C. Water drank: 1 litre each

The day before starting the hike, we hitchhike to Redbank gorge and camp at the beautiful free official Larapinta Trail camping spot, complete with water tank and toilet.

We wake up to cold and dreary weather so take it easy, hoping that the weather will clear for our climb up Rwetypme (Mount Sonder). Rwetypme is pronounced roo-chip-ma. We leave camp at 10.30am and begin the hike up the mountain. The overcast weather makes the climb easy. Plains of brown stretch for miles below us.

Coming back down, the sky clears, the wind gets strong, and the sun shines on us. The once-brown scenery turns to bright green, and the mallee trees vibrantly come alive.

Arriving back at camp, we meet a woman called Lara. She’s walked about half of the trail. We meet another young woman who’s also walked the trail alone. It’s refreshing to meet women doing it alone, breaking society’s conditioning.

In the late afternoon we scramble over boulders into stunning Redbank gorge itself. The pool of water is excruciatingly cold and narrows into a stream between two deep red cliffs. Chris joins some tourists and swims, whilst I shiver just at the thought of it.

We’re woken through the night by people going to climb the mountain in time for sunrise. Crazy!

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Walking to the summit with plains of brown around

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Near the summit of Rwetypme

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As the sun comes out the colours come alive

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Redbank gorge in the late afternoon, so the sun is no longer warming up the gorge

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Redbank gorge

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A tiny Spencer’s burrowing frog

Day 2: Redbank gorge to Rocky Bar Gap (section 11 of trail notes and map)
Distance:  11.8km. Duration: 3.5hrs. Weather: 30°C. Water drank:  2 litres each.

We wake up to good weather but don’t leave camp til 9.30am, despite having read that we should leave early because of the sun. We’re walking the trail in the wrong season, so the days get really hot. What will the weather be like these next two weeks? Will we cope?

Today’s walk is easy, and we finish it at lunchtime. We could have pushed on but Rocky Bar Gap campsite is nice, with lots of birds flitting around, including grey headed honeyeaters and zebra finches.

We spend the afternoon relaxing and listening to music, but the incessant flies are really annoying.

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The walk to Rocky Bar Gap: a stroll if you’re fit

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Rocky Bar Gap campsite

Day 3: Rocky Bar Gap to Finke River (section 11 continued)
Distance: 14.2km. Duration: 4hrs. Weather: 30°C. Water drank: 2 litres each

Today is beautiful! Very exposed but at the same time there are more trees than I was expecting in this area. With the bright sunshine the colours are vibrant – bright green eucalyptus against red soil.

We climb up to the hilltop lookout, with great views. We come across a permanent waterhole at Davenport Creek with massive eucalyptus trees – an oasis in the desert. Chris has a swim. He loves water, no matter how cold!

Chris diverts off the trail, following the course of the dried up Finke river (which is called the Larapinta river in the local language), picking up our first food-drop from Glen Helen Lodge.

Finke river campsite is a few hundred metres from the river and has a shelter: great protection from the relentless sun, but which ruins the natural feel of the site.

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Ants: both our friends and nemeses on this trail…

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Water! A miracle!

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Larapinta (Finke) river

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Resting at camp after a long detour picking up the food from Glen Helen

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Photographing the toilet as the sun sets!

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Finke river camp site, complete with lots of info on the wall about the trail

Day 4: Finke river to Ormiston gorge (section 10 of trail notes and map)
Distance 9.1km. Duration: 2.5 hrs. Weather: 37°C in the afternoon. Water drank: 2 litres each

This is a really short section of the trail, with a beautiful hilltop lookout. We start at 9am and arrive at Ormiston gorge by midday, even with numerous breaks. Eucalyptus seem to thrive in the most harsh of environments here.

Ormiston gorge is the highlight of the trail so far! There’s lots of tourists and a cafe (you can easily drive to the gorge from the main road through the MacDonnell Ranges), but it’s easy to see why it’s so popular. Eucalyptus trees (ghost gums) grow out of the red cliff face.

The permanent waterhole has lots of people swimming, and there’s a layer of oil from suncream floating on the surface. There really should be a sign saying not to swim with suncream on. Despite this there are lots of fish and a persistent heron who spends the whole afternoon fishing.

We hear dingoes howling in the night – magical!

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Lizards, dragons and skinks are everywhere on the trail

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Beautiful Ormiston gorge

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Stunning

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Heron waits patiently the whole afternoon for her meal

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Picnic by the gorge

Day 5: Ormiston Gorge to Waterfall Gorge (section 9 of trail notes and map) Distance: 15.5km. Duration: 5.5hrs. Weather: 37°C. Water carried: 13 litres between us.

We are splitting section 9 into two days, and this is supposed to be the challenging half: the most difficult hiking yet. This is mostly because of the extra water we will be carrying. This day doesn’t end at a hut or a water tank, but a dried up gorge. So we are carrying water for two days.

Chris is feeling ill with a cold. We leave camp at 8am. It’s already boiling hot, and I’m moaning: stressed out that we can’t ever seem to manage leaving earlier.

The day involves a lot of climbing and descending, at times down difficult rock. The views of the mountains and ridges are amazing.

At about lunchtime I feel like I’m suffering from sunstroke. I don’t want to drink our precious water, but Chris urges me to, and I start to feel better. We take a number of long breaks under trees, which really help to combat those feelings of sunstroke.

Today has been a lot more tiring because of the extra water we are carrying, and I’m not convinced that breaking this section into two (as recommended in the trail notes)  is such as good idea. I have sweated more with the extra weight, and have probably lost much more water this way! In cooler weather we would be able to do the section in one day, without stopping at Waterfall Gorge.

Chris is quite ill when we finish this section.

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‘3G HERE’, the trail sign says, with an arrow pointing at Chris’s bum

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The trail gets more difficult

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Our camping spot

Day 6: Waterfall Gorge to Serpentine Chalet Dam (section 9 continued)
Distance: 13km. Duration: 4hrs. Weather: 31°C. Water carried: 2 litres each (left over from yesterday’s quota)

We wake up, cold, in the shaded valley. Chris is feeling better, and we manage to leave at 7.15am!

I really like today’s walk. We hike through a valley for most of the day with beautiful jagged mountains on both sides: it’s much easier than yesterday.

“SNAKE!” I yelp suddenly, as I leap over a small, camouflaged snake, curled up right in the middle of the trail. A few days later, a man who handles snakes for a living identifies the snake as a very poisonous desert death adder.

“I’ve travelled here to try and find this snake!” he tells us. “You were very lucky to see one. People walk in the Outback for years and never see one.”

The final part of the section takes us on a difficult scramble through the stunning Inarlanga Pass, with its cycad trees, whose ancestors formed the ancient Gondwana forests that once stood here. The Pass is an important ceremonial place and watering point for the Arrernte people.

We finish the section at midday and spend the afternoon around Serpentine Chalet Dam campsite. We are, of course, the only hikers here. We haven’t seen any other hikers since leaving Redbank gorge.

We look at the log book to see how many people have walked the trail over the winter. This is an approximate tally of the number of people who passed through this campsite:

June: 60
July: 160
Aug: 150
Sept: 49

We’re in October now, and we are the only hikers who have passed through so far this month.

There’s a thunderstorm in the night and I’m terrified that our tent is going to cave in!

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The sun rises in the valley

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Unlike most snakes, desert death adders are famous for not slithering away when humans approach.

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Cycad trees (that look like palms) in Inarlanga Pass

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Serpentine Chalet Dam campsite

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Serpentine Chalet Dam campsite

Day 7: Serpentine Chalet Dam to Serpentine Gorge (section 8 of trail notes and map)
Distance: 13km. Duration: 4.5hrs. Weather: 25°C. Water drank: 2 litres each.

The weather is overcast but the greens are vibrant as we walk through the low mountains. We climb up to Counts Point Junction and the wind hits us in gale-force gusts as we battle along the ridge to the amazing lookout at Counts Point.

Previous hikers have warned in log books about the cheeky crows at Counts Point who help themselves to your food. It’s far too windy for them to bother with us, though!

The winds remain strong as we hike along the ridge top for 3.5km. We climb down to Serpentine Gorge, with its permanent waterhole. The Arrernte people say that there’s a serpent in the water, and request tourists not to swim. The climb up to the lookout here is spectacular.

This has been a great section and the first section where we meet other hikers: one group walking for the weekend and one woman doing a day hike.

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Serpentine Gorge campsite

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Serpentine gorge

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Serpentine gorge, as seen from the lookout point

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Relaxing at the campsite

Day 8: Serpentine Gorge to Ellery Creek (section 7 of trail notes and map)
Distance: 13.1km. Duration: 4hrs. Weather: 36°C. Water drank: 2.5 litres each

We wake up to dark clouds, so don’t hurry out of camp. Imagine our surprise when the day turns scorching hot! We hike up and down numerous dramatic rocky outcrops, and the heat becomes a bit too much for me with all the small climbs.

We arrive at Ellery Creek, and to our next food drop, at 2pm. Ellery Creek is a beautiful, small red gorge with a permanent waterhole. After hiking in the wilderness for a few days, it’s a shock to see so many tourists in massive 4x4s, as well as locals from Alice Springs.

We cook dinner by the gorge, as striking rainbow bee-eaters dive for food and ringneck parrots sit in the trees.

Dingoes howl in the night again. It would be so special to actually see them.

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The day involves hiking up and down small rocky hills

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Basking in the sun

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I wonder if we’re the only hikers who are so addicted to chocolate that we take it on a hike when we know it’s going to be 35 degrees!

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Cars at Ellery Creek: a shock to us!

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Ellery Creek big hole

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Ringneck parrots are a regular feature of the Larapinta trail

Day 9: Ellery Creek: day off

We spend a whole day lounging at the waterhole. I go for a swim but the water is so cold that it’s physically painful for me. I watch as Chris and others swim like they’re in the Mediterranean.

Cockatoos fly overhead.

The ants have gone crazy today: wherever we sit, we disturb massive armies of ants, who come out of the ground in a panic.

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Can you spot the beautiful bee-eater in the gum tree?

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Day 10: Ellery Creek to Rocky Gully (section 6 of trail notes and map)
Distance: 15km. Duration: 4hrs. Weather: 29°C. Water drank: 2.5 litres each.

We leave camp at 7.30am to cloudy weather which lasts the whole day. Today’s route finally takes us from the Heavitree range – which we have been walking over since day one – through low, easy ground, to the Chewings range.

A beautiful dark brownish-green mulga snake lays across the trail, but slithers frightened into a bush when we approach. We camp at Rocky Gully: and as usual we’re the only people there.

I have caught Chris’s cold.

In the night a storm rips through the ridges, with terrifying lightning. The tent survives the night, but I don’t get a wink of sleep.

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Flies have been our constant companions on the trail. In their quest for moisture, they attempt to crawl into our eyes.

 

Day 11 – Rocky Gully to Hugh Gorge (section 6 continued)
Distance: 15km. Duration: 4.5hrs. Weather: 31°C. Water drank: 2.5 litres each.

It rains all morning so we leave the campsite at 11am!

We hike to Ghost Gum Flat, where there are gnarly corkwood trees standing next to a big ghost gum eucalyptus tree.

We hear rumbling coming towards us. Suddenly, wild horses appear. They stare at us for a moment and then turn and gallop off at high speed, terrified of us. Wise horses not to want to get captured by humans.

We arrive at camp at 5pm. After a striking sunset,  a massive storm rolls in. I’m scared of sitting on the metal platforms of the shelter – won’t the metal conduct the lightning? I’m taking no chances! So I force Chris to sit with me on the ground as we watch the insane lightning.

We don’t have a way of accessing the weather forecast…will there be more storms?

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Hugh gorge campsite

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The storm rolls in

Day 12: Hugh Gorge to Section 4/5 Junction (section 5 of trail notes and map)
Distance: 15km. Duration: 6hrs. Weather: 34°C. Water drank: 3 litres each.

According to the Larapinta trail notes, section 5 should officially be divided into two days. This is because although it’s only 15km, it’s quite a tough section. We want to try to complete the section in the one day rather than two.

We leave camp at 7am and hike straight into beautiful Hugh Gorge with its steep red cliffs. Eucalyptus trees have come down from the previous night’s storm, making going difficult. We boulder-hop and dodge pools of water.

We climb a saddle, then reach Fringe Lily Creek – which might have been our camping spot had we decided to split the section in two – in just two hours.

We climb steeply up Razorback Ridge, and the trail becomes difficult in places. Although it’s exposed the ridge is covered in trees,  including cycads!

We have lunch at Windy saddle then descend to Spencer gorge: the toughest part of the day, with tricky boulder-hopping and scrambling, difficult with a large rucksack on. Spencer gorge feels really alive with its abundance of green trees – cycads, tea trees, eucalpytus.

We arrive at camp at 3pm. What a great section!

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Hugh gorge

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Hugh gorge

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Climbing up to Razorback ridge

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It’s sunny up on the ridge

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Cycads on the ridge!

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Windy Saddle

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Spencer gorge: how do we get over these giant boulders?!

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Spencer gorge

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Section 4/5 Junction!

 

Day 13: Section 4/5 junction to Standley Chasm (section 4 of trail notes and map)
Distance: 18km. Duration: 6hrs. Weather: 34°C. Water drank: 3 litres each

Today is probably the most popular section of the Larapinta Trail, as it climbs Brinkley Bluff mountain. The trail notes advise us to split this section into two days, and we always planned to camp on the top of Brinkley. But after experiencing a few massive thunderstorms in the night, we decide against it. We complete the trail easily in one day, meaning that we have to carry less water.

We climb up a red rocky trail, and get to a point called Rocky Cleft. This steep gully on the mountain side is full of native pines and cycads and is the highlight of the Larapinta for me!

We then climb precariously – probably not good for people who don’t like steep drops – to Brinkley Bluff. This is the ultimate place on the Larapinta that all hikers talk about. There’s a large rock cairn with a comment book in it, and I sit for an hour and read some moving comments.

The sun blazes down, and we struggle along without shade. Finally, we descend into a  creekbed – hard going on the feet!

We arrive at Angkerie Atwatye (Standley Chasm), a women’s Dreaming sacred space, at 3pm, pick up our next box of food, and head straight to the cafe for a couple of hours. We camp on the lawn at the visitor centre for the night.

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Lush, green Rocky Cleft

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Today involves a lot of climbing!

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Reading the log book on Brinkley Bluff

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The way down

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See the trail on the far side

Day 14: Angkerie Atwatye (Standley Chasm) to Jay Creek (section 3 of trail notes and map)
Distance: 13.6km. Duration: 5 hrs. Weather: 32°C. Water drank: 3 litres each

We spend the morning exploring the chasm of Angkerie Atwatye, and finally get going on the trail at about midday.

The section begins with steep ups and downs on rocky steps, and we climb to great views of red mountains.

The trail branches into two routes, and we need to decide whether to take the high one or the low one. We choose the low one, and find ourselves boulder-hopping in creeks once again.  I’m getting tired of climbing over rocks in riverbeds… Still, the nature is beautiful with ancient Gondwana cycads, native pines and eucalyptus.

Large red ants climb all over Chris, biting him. The same thing happens to me half an hour later.

We come to Fish Hole, a beautiful permanent waterhole, sacred to Arrernte people, and continue on to Jay Creek camp by walking through sand along the creekbed for two kilometres.

The campsite’s water tank has frogs in, and mice munch on our food in the night. This is the only point on the trail where we decide to purify our water.

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A thrush joins us for breakfast at the chasm

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And so does a chicken!

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The chasm

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Climbing up from the chasm

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…and down through the creek

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Fish Hole sacred site

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Riverbed walking

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Hiking through sand

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Jay Creek campsite

Day 15: Jay Creek to Simpsons Gap (section 2 of trail notes and map)
Distance: 26.2km. Duration: 7.5 hrs. Weather: 32°C. Water drank: 4 litres each (filled up along the trail at Mulga Camp)

Today is definitely my least favourite section of the trail. We were thinking about splitting the day in two, as advised in the trail notes, but Mulga Camp is only 10km from the start and sits in a burnt forest: all around is black. Not the most attractive place to camp.

After hiking through burnt land, the second half of the section meanders pointlessly around the hills to get to Bond Gap and then Simpsons Gap. I’m frustrated by how much extra ground the trail seems to pointlessly cover.

Despite this, there are some highlights: Bond Gap – a small chasm with a permanent waterhole and no tourists (as it’s not accessible by car) – and beautiful Simpsons Gap with its jagged rocks.

We arrive at Simpsons Gap campsite just before dark, and hurry to the waterhole to check whether wallabies are around. We see wallabies play-fighting: a lovely end to a very mundane section.

Once more, we are the only people at the campsite. Last section tomorrow!

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Mulga Camp, obviously!

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Burnt terrain

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Bond Gap – beauty in an otherwise mundane section

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The trail winds pointlessly for hours before reaching Simpsons Gap

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Rugged red beauty of Simpsons Gap

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Simpsons Gap

Day 16: Simpsons Gap to Wallaby Gap (section 1 of trail notes and map)
Distance: 10.5km. Duration: 3 hrs. Weather: 33°C. Water drank: 2 litres each

I wake up with aching muscles. 26km was too great a distance to do yesterday.  This morning we leave the camp at a leisurely pace and sit at Simpsons Gap waterhole again. There’s a blissful ten minutes when there are no tourists.

In that tranquil quiet,  I look through the gorge to the other side of the water and see a dingo, staring at me. Finally! We’ve been waiting to see a dingo for the whole trail. She stands majestically for a minute or so before trotting off with a dingo friend.

Tourists arrive in cars and buses. Undeterred, rock wallabies, carefully camouflaged, sit on the red rocks above.

It’s our final section of the trail!! We cross foothills of gum trees and mulga and glimpse houses in the distance as we get closer to Mparntwe (Alice). Planes, taking off from the city’s airport, fill the sky.

We arrive at Wallaby Gap at 3pm, our last camping spot of the trail! Only 13.5km to go! Dingoes howl in the distance.

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Relaxing at Simpsons Gap

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fairy wren

Fairy wren

Day 17: Wallaby Gap to Mparntwe (Alice Springs) (section 1 continued)
Distance: 13.5km. Duration: 4.5 hours, Weather: 33°C. Water drank: 3 litres each

My body aches. It’s finally decided that it’s had enough! The hike starts with a climb up Euro Ridge, a mountain which in Arrernte culture is the ancestral Euro, a small kangaroo.

One of the most magical moments of the whole trail is seeing a kangaroo on the ridge. She stares at us before bouncing off down the mountain.

We wind up and down hills. More kangaroos stare over the boulders: amazing!

We feel sentimental as we reach the end of the trail at Telegraph Station at 2pm. What an amazing trail it’s been!

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Euro Ridge

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Near the end…

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The end!


A note for bird lovers:

In comparison to many other parts of Australia, I don’t think the Larapinta Trail is very special when it comes to seeing different birds. Most of the species I identified on the trail are listed here:

splendid & superb fairy wren, willie wagtail, ringneck parrot, spinfex pigeon, crested pigeon, rainbow bee eater,  dusky grass wren, hooded robin, grey fantail, grey butcherbird, little crow, zebra finch, red backed kingfisher, grey headed honeyeater.

3 thoughts on “Hiking the Larapinta Trail, Australia

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