Last summer, in July, I walked the Larapinta Trail in central Australia. The trail runs 230 kilometers from the town of Alice Springs, west along the spine of the ancient West MacDonnell Ranges, to Mt. Sonder (at 1380 meters the fourth highest peak in the Northern Territory). Most people get an expensive shuttle out to Mt. Sonder and walk east back to town. I started in Alice, and I would highly recommend that direction—it’s much more dramatic to finish atop Mt. Sonder at sunrise, rather than in town. As for getting back to town, lots of people (at least in winter) drive out to the Sonder trailhead on a rough dirt road. We managed without too much trouble to hitch a ride out, first to Glen Echo, a nearby “resort” (store/restaurant/ campground), then back to Alice.
The trail is dotted with established campsites, most with water tanks, some with picnic tables, a couple even with gas grills (Australians are mad about grilling). The water tanks are necessary, as the only water along the trail is found in (some of) the widely spaced gaps. If you had to rely solely on such sources, your pack would be dang heavy with water; there are a couple stretches of thirty or forty kilometers without water. Obviously, then, the trail is somewhat “developed.” And a few of the camping sites—at the more dramatic and popular gaps--can be accessed via dirt roads. Water tanks at most sites, though, are filled periodically by trucks that come in on closed two-tracks (and occasionally they don’t come often enough—it’s possible though uncommon to find a tank empty).
Generally hikers organize food drops ahead of time (one reason many prefer to shuttle out to Mt. Sonder—they can do drops along the way). Three car accessible campsites have storage closets in rest room buildings, where food boxes can be left (you get a key in town at the Tourist visitor center).
The Larapinta is a popular trail with Australians, who account for nearly all of the trail’s users. Over the course of two weeks I met with an average of a half dozen other hikers each day. The region, though, offers many opportunities for side trips across country, especially in the western half of the trail (though again, water would be an issue).
July was of course mid-winter in Australia, so the days were short—sun up at seven, down by 5:00 or so. Nights were chilly, down to around 30 F at the coldest, 40F at the warmest. Daytime temps were mostly in the mid-sixties. In my two weeks it didn’t rain, but supposedly it could have. I brought only a pair of shorts, but often at night and in the mornings I put a pair of long underwear on underneath.
Much of the trail runs high along the open ridges, but it never goes too long without descending into gaps. It’s great to be up high, but some of my favorite stretches were in the canyons that cut across the range, deep and rugged and bouldery gorges, occupied by ancient cycads and big gum trees; in the evenings the wallabies might come out, dingo too, big hill kangaroos.
The fastest hikers I met had done the trail in ten days; the most leisurely were taking three weeks. The first half of my fourteen day walk we hiked almost all of the daylight hours, the second half we took a lot of short days, a couple times walking only six or seven miles. One stretch in the first half, from Mulga Camp to Standley Chasm was a rough and challenging 25 km that took us about nine hours to cover.
My favorite place to hike in the States is the Anza-Borrego in California, and so I couldn’t help but compare the West MacDonnell Ranges. While I loved the hike, the mountains and canyons and gaps, I don’t think it’s quite as dramatic or impressive as much of the U.S. southwest. The land is older, more worn down…. Not that it doesn’t have a charm of its own. And of course there’s the kangaroos: a highlight of the walk was seeing a pair, up on the slopes of Mt. Sonder, go bounding smoothly through the thick brush and rock. I’ve never seen anything move quite like that in North America.
If you’re interested in learning more about the trail, try the official website:
As for my walk, I kept a weblog—“In Deserts, Mostly”—of the two-month trip I took last summer, in the western U.S, and Australia. The walk is described in the entries for July 16th through July 31st. Here’s the url: http://indesertsmostly.blogspot.com/2008/07/last-day-in-alice.html src="/backpackinglight/user_uploads/1239834639_12041.jpg" alt="Hugh Gorge" width="550" height="413">