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.


Ben L said...

"It's a pretty nice place when there are no people in it" - indeed :-)

Rambling Man said...

Anyone got any tips on handling the heat radiating into your body while sleeping? Is an inflatable mattress better than a thermarest? We r traveling in winter

G said...

Hah, you should check out winter night-time temperatures. The average minimum is 4C in July:

You should be worried about your insulation from the ground because of cold though. Maybe that's what you meant? The Thermarest XTherm is a spectacular insulating mattress for it's weight and size.