Saturday 15 September 2012

The Larapinta Trail: Wrap-up, logistics, lessons-learnt etc.

Some notes, advice, and gear recommendations for the Larapinta Trail.  Unless you're planning on doing the walk you probably won't be interested.

Maps, Trail markers, Direction of Travel

The map package is excellent, really great maps, you don't need anything else.  We bought the guide book, but barely used it, and couldn't be bothered carrying it.  The descriptions in the maps are for East-to-West direction of travel, but I doubt we would have spent much time reading them even if we were going that way.  I think direction of travel is largely decided by how you are doing transport and food drops.  We figured it made sense to do the short drive into Alice at the end of the walk when all you want is beer and a pub meal, so we chose West-to-East.

I think that the best way to do the whole trail is probably in two trips. A couple of guys from Darwin we met were doing just this, with 10 years separating the two walks! By the end of 7 days we were starting to get a bit over red-rock gorges and rock hopping. I think doing it in two separate pieces would give you the maximum appreciation of the scenery. The downside is that while the trail is fairly accessible, getting to Alice Springs itself is pretty expensive. Ellery creek is the obvious mid-point to use to break up the trail. With limited time I think our itinerary was about the best you can do: day trip up sonder plus East from Ellery.

The trail is generally very well-marked with blue arrows and distance indicators that count down to the next section trailhead if you are going West-to-East.  The first kilometer in and out of campsites often seemed to be marked incorrectly (too long): I'd like to say we measured it with the GPS, but we didn't, so this may just be psychological.  There were a small number of times where we faced some indecision about where the trail went, usually in dry creek beds, but generally route-finding was easy.

Food Drops

We'd paid the $50 deposit at the Visitor's Centre in Alice for a storage locker key, but since our only food drop was at Standley we actually didn't need it, but we did need to get to the Standley Chasm kiosk where they were holding the box before they shut at 5pm.  There are rubbish bins there (and ice-cream and a shower!) so you can get rid of your rubbish.  I think it is probably the only campsite on the trail that has bins.

Alice Springs stuff

Lone Dingo is the only outdoors store in Alice Springs.  It is pretty decent, although a little on the expensive side as you would expect for a small town.

We stayed at the White Gum Motel, which was pretty good.  Big rooms, so plenty of room to spread out gear, and they have a laundry with a communal washing line.  It's a 10min walk into town, but not far from the best pub in Alice Spings, Monte's.  The Todd Tavern, and The Rock Bar are also pretty good for food and drinks.

Shoes and Gaiters

I did the trail in breathable, i.e. not the goretex waterproof kind, trail-runners (Salomon XT Wings 3), and I think they were a good choice.  You need a tough sole to  protect you from kilometres of impact on sharp rocks, and enough mesh to keep the dust out but still allow breathing.  As a last minute purchase I picked up a pair of Outdoor Research short gaiters, which were fantastic for keeping rocks, sticks and dust out of my socks and shoes.  They stuck to my shoe perfectly using the shoelace hooks and heel grippy rubber - no need for an instep cord, which is great.  We saw some people wearing full knee-length gaiters, but I don't think either the scrub or the snakes warranted them, the sections of the trail we walked can be done reasonably comfortably in shorts.


There was almost zero natural water on the trail, and what there was I wouldn't have been too keen to drink.  So you're entirely dependent on the ranger-supplied water tanks, which means you either camp near them or lug a lot of water around.  The water in the tanks was good quality and probably didn't need treating, but we did anyway as advised.  The Sea to summit pack tap is perfect for minimising visits to the water tank and lugging around large amounts of water for dry campsites.


We used Trek Larapinta for transfers to and from the trail and they were great, but fairly expensive (about $500 for our original plan of 2-person redbank dropoff, standley pickup, and 2 food drops).  I think you could easily hitchhike by approaching people in the carpark at Standley or Simpsons Gap to get back to Alice.  Getting a ride the other way out to Redbank might be tricky, and you'll probably need to hire a car and make a separate trip to do the food drops.

Another benefit of using a company is that they provide plastic (i.e. rodent-proof) boxes for food drops that they collect later, so you can leave rubbish in the food drop box.

Other companies we looked at were:
I was actually pretty impressed with Trek Larapinta.  Richard is a font of local knowledge and he had great contacts with the park rangers that got us detailed info about the bushfires.  Trek Larapinta were also doing a lot of volunteer maintenance on the trail and repairing damage from the fire, which is great to see.  If the other commercial operators don't put some time/money back into maintenance, national parks should start charging them a fee to run commercial tours on the trail to reduce the impact of groups on the trail.  If you want a wilderness adventure in Central Australia, I'd talk to Trek Larapinta, they were doing reconnaissance trips for off-track walks up Mt. Zeil and others.


Carrying a few $5 notes is a good idea for camping fees and ice-creams and coffee at Standley Chasm.
Some campgrounds within the West MacDonnell National Park attract camping fees: Ellery Creek Big Hole ($5.00 per person), Ormiston Gorge ($10.00 per person) and Redbank Gorge ($5.00 per person). It is a good idea to carry the correct amount of money as change is not available.


We had fairly warm nights so I got by with just a thermal top and a gortex shell for the wind, but if it was any colder I'd definitely be taking the down jacket.

The ground is rock-hard pretty much everywhere, so the orange plastic trowel we had was essentially useless for the campsites where there were no toilets.  There are plenty of rocks though - I'd avoid disturbing any off-track rock cairns near campsites :)  National Parks would do well to put in some more toilets.  Most of the campsites are already accessible by some sort of rough track, necessary to supply the water tanks, so it wouldn't be impractical.  If money is an issue, they should institute a permit system, we would have been happy to pay to walk.

Packing List

My packing list, minus food since we improvised meals in a shopping spree in Alice and I can't remember the details.  We spent about $350 on food and booze for two people for 10 days of camping.  That was fairly fancy food, we had smoked oysters more than once :) so you could do it cheaper.  Alice has a nice big Woolies and a Coles.

  • Sleeping bag & liner
  • ¾ Thermarest
  • Exped inflatable pillow
  • Camelbak 2L and 3L
  • 4L goon bag for extra water carrying
  • Small extra bag with spare town clothes, etc. (leave at the hotel)
  • Tent (2-man Salewa)
  • Orikaso bowl, spork, plastic knife
  • Pocket rocket gas stove (2 gas cylinders with an extra cylinder in each food drop)
  • Cook set
  • Brew mug
  • Sharp knife
  • Sea-to-summit wilderness soap
  • Plastic jar for vegemite/peanut butter
  • Zip lock bags for cereal (and a few spare)
  • Large dry bag to keep food together
  • Small dry bag to carry each day’s lunch
  • Quick-dry walking pants
  • Trail runners
  • Short gaiters
  • Camp slippers
  • Quick-dry shorts
  • Thermals (top and bottom)
  • 2 x Wicking T-shirts
  • 1 x long-sleeve wicking shirt for sun protection
  • Sun hat
  • Dust mask (bandanna)
  • Sunglasses
  • Walking socks (wear one, carry 2)
  • Warm beanie
  • Rain jacket (mostly for wind protection)
  • Towel (there’s a shower at Standley)
  • Fly net
  • Handkerchief
  • Plastic bags for dirty clothes
First Aid
  • Small insect repellent spray bottle (30% DEET)
  • Katadyn Micropur Forte water purification tabs
  • Toothbrush and paste
  • Baby wipes
  • Blister kit
  • Band-Aids
  • Gauze pad x 3
  • Tiny antiseptic powder
  • Lip gloss with sunscreen
  • Tweezers
  • Sting eze liquid
  • Self-adhesive bandage (ankle strapping, snakebite)
  • Adhesive tape (Elastoplast)
  • Antihistamines
  • Ibuprofen
  • Sunscreen
  • Anti-bacterial gel hand wash
  • Map package
  • Backpack, yellow plastic liner
  • Ultrasil day pack (for Mt. Sonder)
  • Compass
  • Head torch, spare batteries
  • A few metres of hootchie cord
  • Spare belt buckle
  • Orange plastic poo trowel
  • Toilet paper
  • Something to read
  • Emergency beacon (PLB)
  • Watch
  • Emergency whistle
  • Walking poles
  • Camera
  • Basic sewing kit (needle and thread)

Wednesday 12 September 2012

The Larapinta Trail: Ellery Creek to Simpsons Gap

After 22km on the Giles track, 15.8km up Mt. Sonder and a rest day in Alice to sort out our food, we were ready for 103km (64 miles) of the Larapinta Trail. Trek Larapinta picked us up bright and early and dropped us at Ellery Creek.

At Ellery we met 3 parties heading in the opposite direction, onto the previously closed, but now re-opened burnt bits of the trail. We heard later that some markers were burnt but most of it was OK.

Section 6: Ellery Creek to Rocky Gully (15.3km, 33°C max, 9°C min)

After some debate we decided to split section 6 (Ellery Creek to Hugh Gorge) into two.  Doing a 31.2 km leg on the first day in 33°C (91°F) heat was a recipe for injury, especially considering the two hardest trail sections would be next.  One group we met at Ellery Creek had done it in one day and it pretty much destroyed them.  So we split it in half, camping at Rocky Gully, which is also water-tank-enabled.

Wildflowers, Chewings Range in the distance

We briefly encountered the Heavitree Range, crossing it close to Ellery Creek, and then spent the day walking across the plain towards the Chewings Range.  This day was fairly uneventful until we crossed a dry creek bed and saw a dingo and a snake in a fight to the death.

The dingo was darting in and biting the 2m long snake, which was rearing up and trying to bite the dingo back.  I think the snake was probably just a python, but it was hard to tell since we were probably 30m away, and not particularly interested in getting closer since the dingo was flinging a fairly pissed off snake all over the place.

As we fumbled with our cameras to take photos the dingo saw us and ran off, and the snake slithered off into the bushes.  No photos :( I think the only way this could be more quintessentially Australian would be if there was a croc trying to eat the dingo, and Steve Irwin was wrestling the croc at the same time, which would be impressive on a number of levels.

The heat was pretty brutal.  When we got to rocky gully we collapsed in a tiny scrap of shade and lay on our sleeping mats until it was cool enough to move.

Section 6: Rocky Gully to Hugh Junction (19.4km, 24°C max, 5°C min)

The first part of this day was more of the same, and when we got to the Hugh Gorge campsite we were pretty disappointed.  It is 4WD accessible and had obviously seen a fair bit of use.  The lack of a toilet meant there were scraps of toilet paper visible around the site, as well as bits of rubbish.  After a short siesta we loaded up with a massive amount of water, probably carrying about 8L each since it was a long way to the next water drop, and struck out an extra 3km for Hugh Gorge Junction.

This was a great decision.  Despite being weighed down with a lot of water and clambering through fairly tough terrain in a creek bed, this was one of the most enjoyable sections of the walk.  I'd definitely recommend camping at Hugh Gorge Junction, it is an amazing place to watch a sunset and sunrise.  We dumped our packs and headed up the side trail to Hugh Gorge waterhole, which was also spectacular, and since we were in a record-breaking dry spell we could walk right up to the end of the gorge without getting our feet wet.

Approaching Hugh Gorge Junction

Hugh Gorge Waterhole

Best campsite we had: in an amazing natural amphitheatre at Hugh Gorge Junction

Hugh Gorge Junction cliffs at sunrise

In case you are wondering, all this red rock you are seeing is begging to be climbed.  It is beautifully solid metamorphic sandstone.  V and I were drooling over it the whole time.  Approach is a little tricky :)

Section 5: Hugh Gorge to Birthday Waterhole (12.5km, 23°C max, 2°C min)

After watching an amazing sunrise at Hugh Gorge Junction, and thankful for our 3km headstart and cooler conditions, we started on one of the toughest days on the trail.

Hugh Gorge Junction from Rocky Saddle
The climb up to Razorback Ridge is pretty intense, no screwing around with switchbacks, it's essentially straight up.  For a large part of the day you follow along a sharp ridgeline that is often narrow with steep drops on either side, and tough on the feet.

Slogging it up the very well-named Razorback ridge.

Looking towards Hugh Junction from the top of Razorback Ridge
The campsite at the section 4/5 junction is not really an option - hard ground, not much shade and no water. So we continued on to Birthday Waterhole, which was a death march through soft sand along a wide dry creek.  You could choose your evil: getting stabbed by spinifex, or hiking the beach.

The Larapinta 'Trail'
Section 4: Birthday Waterhole to Standley Chasm (17.7km, 25°C max, 5°C min)

It's Brinkley Bluff day.  The question is do you camp on top?  We decided we didn't a) want to carry two days worth of water up the massive climb and b) have a really long day the next day.  However, it would be a magic place to watch a sunset and sunrise.  We compromised by spending ages at the top enjoying the view and having an espresso :)

Climbing towards Brinkley Bluff, pretty much straight up again, no switchbacks

Looking East from Brinkley Bluff towards Standley Chasm
Looking West from Brinkley Bluff

Descent from Brinkley Bluff on super-sharp shale-like rocks
After a long descent along the ridgeline, lots of foot-destroying rock-hopping along dry creeks, and even a short stretch of bitumen, we eventually reached Standley Chasm.  It was a little surreal after being in the wilderness for days.  We picked up our food drop from the kiosk, we got there about 3pm so plenty of time to spare, and ate a couple of ice-creams while we watched busloads of tourists do the short walk up to the chasm.

Standley Chasm: civilisation
We didn't need to treat the drinking water, we camped on grass, and we even got to have a shower in what appeared to be the owner's guest room.  Luxury.  The downside is you have to listen to the generator running all night.  The next morning we snuck up to the chasm before it was open and had it completely to ourselves.  It's a pretty nice place when there are no people in it.

Standley Chasm

Standley Chasm

Section 3: Standley Chasm to Jay Creek (13.6km, 29°C max, 8°C min)

We grabbed a latte from the kiosk and started on the first part of the trail that climbs over and around the chasm.  If you are visiting Standley Chasm I'd recommend hiking up the Larapinta to the first lookout - the view is spectacular, one of the best on the trail, and it is probably only 20min from the chasm trail junction.

Standley Chasm from above

There are two trail markers in this picture.  You basically descend this 15m-ish dry waterfall by doing a short rockclimb with an overnight pack on.  This sort of tricky terrain was common in Section 3.

Fish Hole
This section was pretty tough.  There was a lot of rock-hopping down dry creek beds, rock climbing down dry waterfalls, a bit of scrub battling, and some slogging through dry sand.  We really came to hate rock-hopping; it was incredibly tough on the feet when you do it for kilometres at a time.  The final stretch up the dry creek from fish hole seemed to take forever, and the heat was brutal since we spent most of our time in valleys where there was no breeze.

Lightly salted
Super fancy shelter at Jay Creek, complete with gas stove, toilet and water tanks

Section 2: Jay Creek to Simpsons Gap (24.5km, 32°C max)

The final day.  An epic, boring slog along a flat plain to Simpsons Gap.  It was super-hot, there was hardly any shade, the flies were nasty, and we were very happy to be getting picked up rather than face a similar day walking into Telegraph Station.  I was amazed we didn't see a single snake on this leg, since we walked through heaps of grassland and dry creeks.

We called Richard from Trek Larapinta using the sat phone (no Optus reception) to see if he could pick us up early, and he was there in 15 minutes.  Outstanding.

Simpsons Gap
Fantastic walk.  I'll follow up with a final post about logistics, gear, lessons learnt etc.

Sunday 9 September 2012

The Larapinta Trail: Mt. Sonder (section 12) and Redbank Gorge

We camped overnight at Redbank Gorge, which BTW has very fancy gas BBQs at each site, to hike up Mt. Sonder as a day trip.

View Larger Map

 There was some fire damage visible around the campground, but the campground itself was OK.

Mt. Sonder actually has two peaks.  The trail goes to the western, and slightly lower summit, and was chosen because the approach is safer.  The Eastern summit is connected by an exposed ridge with sharp drops on either side, so there's no formed path to get there.

Eastern summit of Mt. Sonder from the Western summit
The trail is 15.8km return, and I think it took us about 2.5 hours to get up on a hot day with a few stops.  I took a short but fairly boring video so you can get an idea for what the trail is like if you are interested.

Looking over the Chewings Range, the rest of the Larapinta trail, and a lot of burnt bushland
Once we got down from Sonder we walked out to Redbank Gorge, which was really impressive, and one of the best sights on the whole trip.

Redbank Gorge - inviting on a hot day, but that water was ridiculously cold

Two wedge-tailed eagles flying away from their roadkill dinner on the road back to Alice

Saturday 8 September 2012

The Giles Track: Kathleen Springs to Watarrka (Kings Canyon)

We rented a Nissan X-trail in Alice, got a Mereenie Loop Rd permit from the visitors centre and drove out to Kings Canyon.

Along the way we saw Albert Namatjira's hometown of Hermannsburg, and a bunch of camels.  The road was pretty decent - lots of corrugations, but we could do 80 km/h or so fairly comfortably.

When we got to Kings Canyon resort, we were hoping to get a transfer out to Kathleen Springs for the 22km (13.6 mile) Giles track, as mentioned here, but were told at reception "we don't do that, we rent bikes though...?".  After some discussion, one of the staff very kindly offered to drive us out in her car, and we gave her a bottle of wine for her trouble.

Due to last minute planning and a constrained time schedule we didn't start walking until about 3:30pm and we had 14.4km to cover to the campsite at Reedy Creek, which meant we did the last few kilometres in the dark with headtorches.  The only water we saw on the trail was shortly after Kathleen Springs and it looked pretty manky, Reedy Creek was totally dry so we were glad we carried extra water.

Looking over Kathleen Springs
We passed an overhang about 30m off the trail: I said "I bet there's some Aboriginal art in there", and there was :)

Sunrise view from our campsite a few hundred metres on from Reedy Creek. 
Sunset looking over the escarpment, still a few km from Reedy Creek

Ran into this guy at night near Reedy Creek, when we were walking with headtorches

Beehive rocks approaching Kings Canyon

When we got to Kings Canyon we did the rim walk counter-clockwise, which I would recommend, since you don't have to go down and come up again.  It means you are going against the flow of tourists, but that's not a problem.  Look forward to lots of "goan the wrong way fellas?", "youse blokes are prepared", and "sleepan out tnight boys?" comments.

Kings Canyon
Since I was last here (20 years ago), they have built some stairs down to the bottom of the canyon, so you don't have to rock-hop through the house-sized boulders the full length of the canyon from the entrance.

Water at the head of Kings Canyon

Once we were finished with the rim walk we realised we were still 5.5 km from where we left our car at the resort reception.  Facing the prospect of a 5.5 km road bash, we decided to try and hitchhike.  We trolled the carpark and strongarmed some reluctant kiwis into giving us a lift back.

$2.26/L at Kings Canyon resort, that's $8.69/gallon for the Americans playing along.  Also, because Dad kept a diary from last time, in 1992 it was $0.91/L for diesel.
We then took the Meerenie Loop back to Redbank Gorge, for an assault on Mt. Sonder the next day.

Reduce speed to see Camel Toe
Dingo on the Meerenie Loop Road

Mt. Sonder from Tylers Pass
On the way we visited Tnorala (Gosse Bluff), site of an ancient (142.5 million years ago) comet impact by a comet estimated to be 600m wide.  The 5km diameter crater is a central uplift region of a much larger, but now eroded, 20km diameter crater.  It's an aboriginal sacred site, so you can't access most of it, and its hard to take a photo of, but I got a decent one of the crater rim from Tylers Pass.

Tnorala (Gosse Bluff) from Tylers Pass
Mt. Sonder at sunset as we approached Redbank Gorge