The Larapinta Trail (S4-1)

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Written by Lucie

Mark and Lucie went off to seek adventure and some winter sun in the deserts of Central Australia in July 2017. They attempted to do as much of the Larapinta Trail as possible, in a short amount of time off work.

Day one

Section 4 westbound – Standley Chasm to Brinkley Bluff, ~10.5km

We got dropped off at Standley Chasm, the trailhead of section four of the Larapinta Trail. Based on a recommendation, we set off westbound at about 12:45pm, aiming to camp at Brinkley Bluff. After a short walk on the road, the trail turned west and we walked along a creek bed. Note that in Central Australia all rivers and creeks are completely dry, dusty beds, often full of rocks to walk on, over or around. We wondered if we should be on either side of the river bed and if we might miss the start of the path up the hill but it was impossible to miss. Look out for the wild stegosauruses along the way – we didn’t see any, but we did see the warning sign.

We passed three hikers traveling eastbound and about 2km from the trailhead info sign the path started to climb. We quickly started to see the rocky faces on either side of the small valley. We stopped for lunch when we found a good comfy, shady spot with a view. Then, the climb continued in the hot, afternoon (winter!) sun.

The path came to a saddle at the head of the valley after a total of about 5km, and very short, pack-free walk took us to Bridle Path Lookout. About 0.5km further around at similar altitude is Reveal Saddle – a good place for entertaining photos. All the ridges in this area seem to connect at the same saddles.

Through the next saddle was an amazing view: a peak right up in front with steep rock fronts on all sides. The path started going downhill and then covered some undulating dusty, rocky surfaces. Lucie was playing for the downhill lovers and after trekking slowly uphill on the first section went scampering off ahead.

As we walked along the spur a cool double ridge range followed on our right-hand side. All around were dry plains spreading out, punctuated by small hills and ranges.

About 9km in we saw a flat patch of ground suitable for one, small tent and considered pitching. However, we decided to push on along the ridge to the Bluff proper. (There are zero suitable camping spots just on the trail so you need to make decisions about distance and time carefully!) At Brinkley Bluff was a Cairn, a couple of tents and amazing 360 degree views (no water!). After pitching our tent and watching a fantastic sunset we had dinner and bedded down, watching the stars, the Milky Way, satellite galaxies, and many meteorites and satellites as we drifted off to sleep. Despite the ground being hard and dry we slept well, forcing our eyes open when rolling over to take another look at the night sky and watch the stars gradually move. Particularly because the moon was bright and didn’t set until 11pm or so. It was phenomenal.

Credit to Kim Ewol and Brian Wolley for taking these amazing photos at Kings Creek Canyon a ‘short’ (in outback terms) distance away.

Day two

Section 4 and 3 eastbound – Brinkley Bluff to Tangentyere Junction, ~23km

We got up just in time to see the stars start to fade and watch the most amazing sunrise. Then we had breakfast, packed up the tent and started back towards Standley Chasm. It was easier and quicker going downhill and we skipped past two guided groups of day walkers to reach the Chasm at about 11:30am. This was welcome because we were pretty much out of water, given that there is no water anywhere on the trail – take 4 litres per person!

Both eastbound and westbound hikers need to pay for entry to Standley Chasm, even if they are just passing through to continue on the trail. It’s well worth taking the time to walk right to the end of path to see the Chasm. About halfway between the ticket booth and the end of the path is the turn off to Jay Creek. This was very hot and very steep – essentially a large, roughly cut flight of steps. Lots of steps. Having just filled up all of our water containers it was pretty tough going and we were very happy to reach the top, where we stopped under a tree for lunch. There were beautiful views down both sides – where we’d come from and where we were going next. It was only spoiled by a racist old man who said he’d ‘only climbed up to look at what the Aborigines don’t want us to see.’ =/

After lunch, we started down the other side of the hill we’d just climbed and then back up on the other side of a tiny valley, then back down the other side of the next hill to Angkale Junction. We passed a sign alerting day walkers from the Chasm to immediately turn around to avoid certain death and another sign that pointed 11km to Jay Creek. Easy! After walking about 1.5km we passed another sign that said 12km to Jay Creek… a few more confusing signs later we realised that the signs are definitely wrong, and possibly the trail has changed since the signs were put in place. We also passed some people later on who were hiking with the Larapinta Trail book by John Chapman and a pedometer. They confirmed that the signage was about 3km off for section 2 (they hadn’t done section 3 yet), so be prepared for extra kilometres!

A pretty little waterhole we passed on the trail.

The path to Jay Creek was quite challenging. There were lots of boulders to traverse, a fair amount of rock scrambling, including some decent sized drops, rocky gaps to navigate. Watch out for any small rock pools, the water is black and smelly. We walked many kilometres along dry river beds which also included lots of boulders and rocks. It got a bit annoying after a while, especially in the places where trees and shrubs were over growing the ‘path’ and where there were several possible stream beds to follow and zero signage to help you along. Once again, we started to wonder if we were going to miss a turn off by walking down the wrong stream bed but fortunately it was very easy to see where the path suddenly swung to the north.

Finally, we reached Millers Flat, which has camping spots for a few tents (no water) and the junction for the high and low routes. By now we were starting to get a bit tired and didn’t fancy our chances of reaching Jay Creek by nightfall if we took the high route so we had a little rest and then continued on our way. Thankfully we got a bit of dirt track instead of rocky creek bed for a while then climbed up a hill to a saddle with a view across the next bit of plain, surrounded by mountains.

A lovely view from the saddle.

We reached Tangentyere Junction, approximately 4.5km past Millers Flat, where the high and low routes meet up at about 5:20pm. It didn’t look like section 3 would be hard (or long) based on the maps and signs that were available, but it was actually pretty challenging terrain. Coupled with the extra distance from the morning and the very hot lunchtime climb we were tired by the time we reached the Junction. Although it is not technically a camp site, we decided to set up our tent on the one little bit of flat, dusty, rock-free ground. There aren’t suitable camp sites just on the side of the trail and because the next point on the map was Fish Hole where camping is not permitted at all, we decided to call it a day. Plus, camping with nobody else for miles around is a really nice feeling. Once again, we were treated to a fabulous sunset and an even more amazing night sky as we drifted off to sleep.

Day three

Section 3 and 2 eastbound –Tangentyere Junction to Simpsons Gap, ~31km

We woke up just before dawn and had breakfast to a gorgeous pink sunrise before breaking camp and hitting the trail towards Jay Creek, approximately 5km away. A short distance down the path we came to Fish Hole – a small water hole surrounded by coarse sand and steep rocks (not for swimming! This is an important waterhole that wildlife need in order to survive) – and then hiked along a wide, coarse sandy river bed, spotted with trees and rocks, and lots of cow (?) manure.

As the sand started to disappear we reached Jay Creek and stopped to refill water, use the toilet and have a snack. This is where we met the couple with the John Chapman book, who told us that Simpsons Gap was a few kilometres further than either the book or the signage at the camp promised.

Heading out into section 2.

We set off towards the next little camp site, which was about 10km away. The walking was fairly easy – dirt with a few rocks underfoot and a gentle uphill for most of the way. We knew that we were going to cover a big distance and so we played for team steam roller, cranking out a speed of approximately 5kmph. By the time we were drawing close to the camp it was getting very hot and a cool stream would have been amazing. The camp is a couple of hundred metres off of the main track and, alas, when we reached it we discovered (very unsurprisingly) that it was just a dusty patch of flatish ground, a toilet, a water tank and two picnic tables, feebly attempting to get some shade under a couple of sparse, dry trees. There was someone there just finishing a very early lunch, as we sat down, kicked off our boots and brought out our moderately early lunch.

After a short lunch break and another water refill we shouldered our packs again and started out towards Simpsons Gap, another 16km away. This section went through an area of burn and the beginnings of new growth and has views across the plains and wide (dry) river beds. There is acacia ‘forest’ and a good looking ridge to the north with a few ‘gaps’ including both Bond Gap and Spring Gap (water possible but not guaranteed, swimming is not allowed because water holes are so scarce it is vital that they are not contaminated or that animals are not scared away), which we passed.

An area of burn off.

We saw a large group packing up after having a snack in the shade at Bond Gap. For the next couple of kilometres we saw the group intermittently, depending on who was stopping for a brief break in the shade (it was very hot). We discovered that our blue triangle trail markers were joined by red triangles for a nature walk (on the same signs). Confusingly, the distance markers didn’t keep pace with each other and one blue kilometre was not always the same length as a red kilometre, even though there was only one path. About 7-8km from Simpsons Gap the trails split and the guided day walking group took the nature trail while we stayed on the Larapinta.

We found the last section to be quite tough. The terrain is easy but we were very hot and tired and although we could see Simpsons Gap, the path often turned away from our goal. Alas, we finally made it and kicked off the boots before setting up camp and dinner.

The sign at Simpsons Gap, directing our journey for tomorrow.

At the camp site we met the three hikers we passed at Standley Chasm, when we first set off heading west and they were travelling east. We also met an older man and we were very impressed with him for setting out to do the entire trail solo, even though, or perhaps especially because he was planning to take two days per section. Although this means he would have shorter days, he would be carrying more food and water*. We passed a few older people who were inspiring to us.

*There is drinking water (only for drinking – remember, water is scarce) at the section trailheads and at some of the halfway campsites, but not all. There are also lockers for food drops at the trailheads for sections 2, 3, 6, 9.

Day four

Section 1 eastbound – Simpsons Gap to the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, ~26km

Once again we broke camp as the sun was rising so that we could get an early start and cover a big distance before the sun started beating down too crazily. This morning, we did ~10.3km to Wallaby Gap, which started with an undulating climb to Hat Hill Saddle. There are two little side trips, the first is about a 500m return to Fairy Spring (which was bone dry) and the next was about 800m return to Scorpion Pool (also dry). Once at Wallaby Gap we had a snack and shade break and found two people in 4-wheel drive vehicles, checking on the water tanks and preparing for one of the pseudo-day walking guided groups.

No water at the pools!

From Wallaby Gap it is 13.5km to the Telegraph Station. We climbed up to Euro Ridge, which is the last section of high ground on the trail and drops dramatically to the plain on the southern side of the path. We could see another small range to the south with smoke coming over the hill and buzzards circling in the sky.

The Euro Ridge
The path along Euro Ridge.

The morning was cool with a nice breeze, which was a welcome change from the previous few days of heat. We found a small patch of dappled shade for our lunch spot, about 9km from the end. From there out the trail is uneventful, mostly flat and through grass or a few shrubs. We crossed over the railway line and shortly afterwards dropped down to a driver river bed to go underneath the highway.

The last 5km is a shared path with mountain bikes and the Telegraph Station short walking paths. We arrived at a tiny 5-person cemetery for the original Telegraph Station people and then finally arrived at the Station itself, very tired and upset that the toilets seemed so far away (and the signs for finding the toilets were confusing)!

We made it!

We treated ourselves to an ice cream while we contemplated an additional 4km into town. Then a nice lady spoke to us and offered us a lift in town in her motorhome. We were very happy to accept (although we ended up in a slightly awkward conversation due to our wildly different world and religious views and because the motorhome was quite loud and we struggled to hear what our hosts were saying). We were gluttonous and ordered a pizza, had a shower and put our feet up.

We survivedA lot of dust
A lot of dust, thanks to the ‘boot breaker’ (very rocky) trail.

Trip summary

  • Gorgeous views.
  • Very hot and dusty, with no respite. Start at dawn.
  • Carry LOTS of water. There is water (only for drinking) at the section trailheads and at some of the halfway campsites, but not all.
  • Don’t swim in or otherwise contaminant any water holes.
  • There are lockers for food drops at the trailheads for sections 2, 3, 6, 9.
  • It’s longer than you think.
  • Check out the stars.
  • Don’t forget some money for Standley Chasm.

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