From it’s starting point outside Alice Springs, the Larapinta Trail runs 223km west through the West MacDonnell Ranges to end at Mount Sonder, the Northern Territory’s fourth highest peak.
The trail was first opened in the mid 1990s and only completed to its full length in 2000. It is divided into 12 sections, with each taking 1 or 2 days to walk.
We did a 6 day walk traversing some of the best sections.
Day 1: Old Telegraph Station to Wallaby Gap
The trail begins near the original Alice Springs Telegraph Station, the first European settlement in Alice Springs, established in 1871 for the construction and operation of Australia’s Overland Telegraph Line. The OLT ran from Port Augusta on the South Australian coast through the centre of Australia to Darwin, where it linked to the undersea telegraph network of the British Empire. With a pole every 80 metres over its 3,200km length, it crossed some of the harshest terrain imaginable and was completed in just under 2 years, making it one of the great engineering feats of 1800s Australia. Before the OTL, communications to the United Kingdom took 3 to 4 months by boat. The telegraph reduced this to a mere 5 hours, a major step forward in connecting us to the rest of the world.
The Station is well preserved and is now a national park and museum.
The trail starts near here, initially following the wires of the old telegraph line, heading into the vastness of the ranges.
The trail soon peels away from the telegraph line and we walked across open country with witchetty bush and mulga scrub, passing some dry creek beds as well.
Shortly after, we had our first of many sightings of the various bird species which abound here, in this case, the rose-breasted cockatoo, aka the pink galah.
We started uphill and reached a vantage point from which we could see Alice Springs in the distance.
These feathery grasses called the Large Green Pussytail were everywhere.
After stopping for lunch we continued uphill to the top of Euro Ridge. Comprising large slabs of granite tilted at 45 degrees, it has an elevation of 790 metres. It’s named after the euro – the Australian marsupial that is, not the European currency unit. For non-Australian readers, the euro is a sub-species of kangaroo, generally shorter, stockier and with a flat ‘button nose’ more like a wombat than that of a kangaroo.
According to Dreamtime legend, this whole area was once flat. Two friends, a kangaroo named Urdlu and a euro named Mandya, argued over food. In the tussle, Mandya pulled Urdlu’s arms and legs, stretching them. At the same time, Urdlu pushed back against Mandya, whose fingers and legs became shorter. This is said to explain the differing body shapes of the two related species.
After the fight, the two went their seperate ways. Injured Mandya lay down and pulled a stone from his wounded hip. He blew on the stone and hills swept up from the plain. Urdlu saw the hills advancing toward him and pushed them back with his tail, creating the ridge. As it rose, Mandya looked on, turning into a spirit which can still be seen in the form of the ridge, hence it’s now Europeanised name, Euro Ridge.
Here’s the view looking along the ridge line to the highest point.
Across on the horizon, the gentler undulating hills are part of the Caterpillar Dreaming legend according to which the West MacDonnell Ranges were formed by the carcasses of giant caterpillars who died in a battle with their arch-enemies the green stink bugs. Gaps in the ranges are where the stink bugs bit the heads off the caterpillars.
From the top of the ridge we climbed back down and on to Wallaby Gap, with a sandy creek bed surrounded by red rock walls. It was greener than anything we’d seen all day but almost empty of standing water when we passed through.
And then to our camp for the night situated just off the trail on a private lease.
Day 2: Nick’s Camp – Simpson’s Gap – Standley Chasm
From the camp we crossed an alluvial flat to re-join the official trail.
On the way, we spotted some magnificent birds. With a wing span of 2.5 metres, the wedge-tailed eagle is Australia’s largest bird of prey and one of the world’s largest eagles.
At the other end of the scale were these tiny critters. Finches abound in the Northern Territory and this is one. We think it’s a zebra finch but stand to be corrected by any experts out there.
We headed back up onto another ridge.
Then circled around to approach Simpson’s Gap.
This is one of the most prominent gaps in the West MacDonnell Ranges. It has a permanent waterhole and is absolutely beautiful. It is an important site for the local Arrente people as the home of giant goanna ancestors, with several dreaming trails and stories intersecting here.
It’s also home to a group of shy black-footed rock wallabies who live in the boulders lining the gap.
And flocks of not-so-shy budgerigars.
From here we headed to Standley Chasm. Angkerie Atwater, “the Gap of Water”, is a sacred site to Arrente women situated on a private reserve owned and operated by a local indigenous land trust.
A 1.2km trail following a dry creek bed leads to a stunning gorge with 80 metre sheer quartzite walls.
And more of those cute little budgies.
Day 3: Serpentine Gorge to Charlie’s Camp
From camp we took a short minibus ride to re-join the main trail at the access point for Serpentine Gorge. A short 1.1km scramble skirting the creek bank leads to the edge of the gorge, and then a boulder climb leads to a birds eye view at the top.
Then on to a climb up another ridge and a 5km, extremely blustery walk along the top to Counts Point. The colours out here were amazing.
From Counts Point we enjoyed views to Mount Ziel, the Northern Territory’s highest mountain, and to Mount Sonder where the Larapinta Trail ends. It’s the bump on the horizon past the end of the valley, to the left of the clouds in the centre of the picture below.
It was a very, very hot, dry walk back down through rocky, mulga trees to the plain and then across open limestone country. The heat was relentless and we almost wished for the winds we’d grumbled about up on the ridge. In mid summer the temperatures can reach into the high 40s and in recent years at least 3 people have died from heat exhaustion on the trail. It’s an environment that demands respect. We were pretty pleased to eventually leave the official trail onto a private track to our next camp and a cooling beverage.
Day 4: Charlie’s Camp to Ochre Pits
From camp we walked back out to the official trail and headed for Inarlanga (Echidna) Pass. We saw some of the area’s iconic wildflowers including the Sturt’s Desert Rose – the floral emblem of the Northern Territory.
And the Berrigan or ‘Weeping Emu Bush’, traditionally used in an infusion for the treatment of colds and headaches and the leaves of which were smoked to create a sterile environment for newborns and women recovering after childbirth.
From the entrance to the pass it’s a rock scramble up.
As the pass narrows, the vegetation changes as well. There are stands of cycads, remnants from an ancient time when this land was much, much wetter.
What a stunning place.
Incongruously, continuing on eventually leads to an abandoned dam. In the 1950s, hopeful entrepreneurs established Serpentine Chalet near here as a tourist venture. It was never truly viable due to its remote location and lack of water, and was eventually abandoned. There is nothing left of the chalet except for a concrete pad, but here in the gorge is the remains of a dam built by the then operators in an ultimately futile attempt to secure a water supply.
Above the dam you can continue climbing to a second level, but then it narrows too much to continue.
Backtracking out of the pass, we then headed south west and the plain was carpeted in these beauties, another kind of pussytail called the Pink Mulla Mulla. We were told the name means ‘useless useless’, presumably implying the plant had no practical applications, but this seems difficult to believe as it was used by local people in traditional ceremonies and the soft branches were used to line wooden cradles used to carry infants.
We got our first close view of Mount Sonder, which we would be climbing tomorrow to watch dawn break. The profile is said to resemble a pregnant lady sleeping on her back, although there seems to be a strong suggestion this is a modern day European conception and not a traditional story.
We followed the trail along to one of the most famous sights in the Ranges, the Ochre Pits.
Some 700 million years ago, this area was under a shallow inland sea about the size of today’s Mediterranean. Layers of mud and sand up to 10km thick accumulated underwater in what is known as the Amadeus Basin and as the sea deepened, pressure compacted the layers into rock. Then, about 300 million years ago, the earth’s crust folded, forming the West MacDonnell ranges. The inland sea disappeared and the previously underwater horizontal layers of rock tilted and pushed upward into near-vertical layers of multi-coloured soft rock. The differing shades of white, yellow and red are the result of the differing amounts of iron oxide in the layers.
Ochre was highly prized by indigenous people throughout Australia and the men of the Western Arrente have mined it here at the pits for thousands of years. The ochre was used in everyday life as a component in medicines, mixed with animal fat to create a massage cream for aching muscles and as a coating on wooden hunting and domestic items as a protection against termites. It was also used for decoration and ceremonial purposes. Ochre was widely traded between indigenous groups throughout Australia and ochre from these pits has been found as far afield as northern South Australia.
The ochre pits are a bit like a series of cliffs running alongside a dry creek bed and it’s possible to walk the length of the pits and see where ochres have been hand-extracted over thousands of years. The pits are, of course, now protected and heavy fines apply to anyone caught taking a souvenir sample.
To round off the day, we headed to Glen Helen Gorge for a swim in the Finke River. There’s a resort near the gorge which has been closed since COVID struck, but there is an alternative route down a dry creek bed and through shoulder-high reeds to a spot where you can access the river. It may not look like much, but after the searing dry heat of the walk, it was incredibly refreshing.
And from there to our camp, practically in the shadow of Mount Sonder. An early night was in order in preparation for our 2am departure tomorrow to reach the summit before dawn.
Day 5: Ascent of Mt Sonder
No matter how hot the days, the nights are freezing out here. Who decided it was a great idea to get up at 2am and hike up a mountain for 2+ hours in the dark and cold facing a stiff breeze? Interesting how these things just evolve into something ‘everyone does’ and therefore FOMO drives you to do the same.
Was it worth it? Yes, it was. We reached the top well before dawn and sat with chattering teeth for an unnecessarily long time before… oh look, here comes the sun peeking over Mount Sounder’s second peak.
Gradually the whole sky turned blood red.
And once the sun was fully up, the 360 degree panoramic views were amazing.
By mid morning we headed down again for brunch and a nap. We spent the rest of the day lazing at the camp until it was cool enough in the late afternoon to head off for another swim at a different waterhole in the Finke River.
Day 6: Ormiston Pound to Ormiston Gorge
Mount Sonder marks the end of the Larapinta Trail, but next day we did a fantastic side walk through Ormiston Pound. It is often described as one of the best day walks in the West MacDonnell Ranges.
The 8.5km walk begins from an information board off the Ormiston Gorge Access Road. The trail heads gently up, circling toward the edge of the Pound.
So what is a pound? Essentially, it’s a huge basin of flat ground entirely surrounded by hills. True pounds are rare. Australia has only two, the other being Wilpena Pound in South Australia.
As we meandered toward the pound, there were more wildflowers. This is the beautiful Holly Grevillea.
And the curious Curry Wattle, a variety of acacia named because the leaves give off a distinct curry smell when crushed.
This is the Cattle Bush or Camel Bush.
And this stunner, some kind of Desert Pea.
We reached a vantage point with a view out over the Pound.
Then dropped down and walked across the centre to a creek on the far side of the pound which marked the beginning of the Ormiston Gorge.
There’s no specific trail from here but its easy to follow the creek. The gorge narrows and the red cliffs tower ever higher.
Unfortunately at the far end of the gorge there’s only one way out – across the chest-high creek. It was cold. Uggh.
But we were luckier than some. It hasn’t rained here for a while so the water level was low. Sometimes it requires a swim, no easy feat with a backpack. And then all that was left was a stroll up the path to a lookout at the top for a view down.
And then it was back on the bus for the drive back to Alice Springs. Adventure over.
We organised the trip through Australian Walking Holidays. The camp sites (all similar to the photo above) were comfortable and well equipped. Food was great and the walk itself is absolutely worthwhile. Highly recommend!