The Larapinta Trail: Bootbreaker and Blistermaker

Published: May 25th 2014
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After the success of the Bay of Fires walk, I was keen for another walking holiday, and after a little bit of research elected the Larapinta Trail as my next challenge. Starting and finishing just out of Alice Springs, I was lured in with memories of beautiful landscapes that I hadn't properly explored in my previous visit, and promises that the Larapinta Trail is "one of Australia's most spectacular trekking and bushwalking experiences". I brushed over the part in the brochure that said "ideal for the more ambitious walker" and didn't properly appreciate what "walking the high ridgelines of the West MacDonnell Range" might really mean. I certainly have no memory of reading that "the Larapinta Trail will delight the wilderness lover and challenge the seasoned hiker". In fact when I think back to the booking, I realise now that I glossed over any reference to anything difficult at all. So the walk itself was a bit of a rude shock, although it was a fantastic challenge with wonderful rewards!

Day 1

I was up bright and early, very eager, if a little apprehensive, about the next few days. We were picked up around 7.30 and first up it was a short drive to see the original Alice Springs, which coincidentally is also near where the trail begins. It must've rained shortly before the first settlers turned up, as they thought that it was a permanent water hole, however a few months after they set up camp it had dried up, and who knew when they saw rain again there. I could see how they made the error, as it had recently been raining so we got to see Alice Springs with water too. In fact there'd been so much rain that the Todd River had flowed recently and apparently that only happens every 5-10 years. They say you're a true local when you see it flow three times.

But enough of the easy sight seeing, it was time for the walk to begin. And what a rude shock that was. It was hard! We headed to the top of Euro ridge. It was a steady slog getting up there, but pretty enjoyable walking along the ridge and enjoying the views from the top, spanning back to Alice. We then walked through to Wallaby Gap, all up about 14 kms. It was hot work, and I was tired. But I revived a little at the afternoon tea break and when our guides said that the next section of the walk, another 9km, was optional, I thought I could do it. As one of my fellow walkers said, "we're here to walk", so I kept walking. A couple of hours later I bitterly regretted my earlier optimism. I was really very tired, and the last half hour to our camp seemed to take forever. Worse, we had walked through a lot of buffel grass. Introduced to the area in the 1960s to stop soil erosion around Alice Springs airport it's now taken off and seems to be everywhere and it turns out I am very allergic to it. So when we turned up to camp my muscles were aching and every single part of me hurt; and if that weren't enough my legs were on fire from the grass. I was feeling very low and quite sorry for myself.

We were based at the semi-permanent Nick's Camp for the next two nights. We had our own tents, each with two stretcher beds, and a sleeping bag inside a swag. I was so exhausted I'm sure I could've slept anywhere, but the tents were really comfortable. I'm not sure I've ever been so happy to get to bed.

Day 2

I woke up to flaming legs, the allergy from yesterday's exposure to the buffel grass. Given I had already taken anti-histamine tablets I was at a loss what to do next. So reluctantly, given the heat, it was going to be long pants from here on in.

It was a much shorter day, we only walked about 15 kms and not nearly as hard as the day before. That said, there was also another ridge, but it didn't seem as hard as the previous day. Plus the views were really wonderful. The reward for the walk was reaching Simpson's Gap, one of the many very scenic gaps along the West MacDonnell ranges. Then we headed to Standley Chasm, which turned out to be my favourite spot. It was named after Ida Standley, a school teacher from Alice Springs, who used to bring her students up there frequently. In the 1950s when the railway workers were in town, she didn't think town was safe for the kids, so she would take them out of town to the Chasm for their lessons. I can understand why, it was very pretty, peaceful, and a cool respite from the heat.

Perhaps it was because I wasn't focused merely on putting one foot in front of the other and I could notice more of my surroundings, but I saw lots of spectacularly coloured birds, plus some rock wallabies, which are very small and surprisingly fast. Too fast for photos!

Day 3

When we started, the guides had warned us that the Larapinta Trail was rocky and hard. In fact one of our guides told us that he had worked the previous season with a brand new pair of heavy duty trekking boots, and by the end of the season they were done. The trail had broken them! They also warned us that the rocky path makes it easy to get blisters. After day 3, there was absolutely no doubt that the trail is a boot breaker and blister maker. We certainly got to know every corner of our boots!

First up we were off to Serpentine Gorge, a shady waterhole. If only every day started this idyllically. It was a lovely easy walk through the dappled trees, and we seemed to be surrounded by beautiful Australian birds: honey eaters, budgies, the spectacular ring-necked parrot and some galahs. Then we reached the stunning Serpentine Gorge, which without a breath of wind was beautifully mirrored in the waterhole.

It got much harder again after that, and it was another long day, about 18km, but I was feeling really good. The previous couple of days must've prepared me, as there was another high ridge to climb and a long walk along the crest of the ridge to reach Counts Point. We climbed up and enjoyed more beautiful views, including spying Mt Sonder for the first time. It looked a little daunting - we were climbing up to the summit in a couple of days. However for now I was feeling great, and was finally starting to enjoy the walk, getting used to the rockiness of the path, the heat and the climbs.

However to my disappointment, by late afternoon as we were heading into Charlie's Camp, our new home for the next few nights, the buffel grass allergy on my legs had flared up again. I was wearing long pants, however the heat and the hours walking meant that by the time I walked into camp my legs were on fire. Not only that, the allergy had spread further up my legs. I was at a loss what I could do, so iced them, put some aloe vera gel on, had another cold bucket shower, kept them elevated, and took more anti-histamine.

At our evening briefing about the next day's activities I listened and wondered what I should do. It was a relatively easy day's walk, but I wanted to save my legs so that I would be able to climb Mt Sonder, considered a highlight of the trip.

Day 4

I woke up and my legs were still very inflamed and angry-looking, so I decided to give them a rest and not walk for the day, which was disappointing. Later on, after talking to the guides we agreed that I should probably see a doctor. This turned out to be a really terrible idea, as I embarked on an adventure of a different sort altogether!

For some reason, the tour organisers were insistent that I see the doctors at the A&E at Alice Springs hospital. This meant a 2-hour wait, telling my story repeatedly to several different nurses then a student doctor, and then a brief consultation with a harried doctor who'd lost his voice and wasn't the slightest bit interested in hearing my opinion on the legs. Frustratingly after all of this he then recommended I head to the pharmacy and buy some over the counter medication. More irritatingly he recommended that I not walk, and avoid buffel grass. No kidding. Then, even more annoyingly, when I got to the pharmacy to buy the ointment he had recommended I discovered it was only available with a prescription. So rather dejected, I bought some QV lotion for excema and dermatitis and was back in the landcruiser for the 90 minute drive back to camp to meet up with the rest of our group and hear about their great day.

Day 5

I was walking again and trying to ignore my flaming legs. It was a very short walk though, only 8 kms, but really beautiful. The Ormiston Pound is not part of the trail proper, however an option side trip, and one of the prettiest walks of the trail. The scenery is really quite exceptional. The colours are stunning - purple rocks and orange cliffs. We also saw a dingo, luckily from afar, and then some spinifex pigeons. They are exceptionally friendly little birds and one accompanied us along the trail for a little while, hopping alongside us. They are really cute little birds with their spiky mohawk like feathers on their head. Due to the recent rains we were also lucky to see some lovely desert flora, like the desert rose.

Although the rains also meant that we had to do a river crossing near the end of the walk. I had been dreading this, I'm not a water baby at the best of times, and crossing a river so deep it came to just over my nose, with my pack above my head, certainly doesn't count as the best of times! Yet like most of these things, it wasn't nearly as bad as I had built it up to be, in fact, I thought it was very refreshing and invigorating.

Day 6

This was our final day, but also the big one, the climb to the summit of Mt Sonder. After a very early wake up call we were in the van and off to our start point. We were on the trail by 3.30 am. It was pitch black, so headlamps were essential, however it was also wonderfully cool, which made a welcome change after the heat of the previous few days. We were interrupted at one point by a huge furry millipede slowly meandering across the rock. It didn't slow us down too much however, and just before dawn at around 6.30 am we arrived at the summit to see the sun rise. The colours were breathtaking, and the long slog up the mountain was all worth while. It was also Anzac Day, so we had a brief service, then sat back with a cup of tea and a tim tam and watched the sun rise and the colours blossom. It was definitely the highlight of the trip for me.

From there it was downhill all the way! Then finally we had a brief side trip to yet another spectacular and scenic spot, this time Redbank Gorge. It was the perfect end to a great trip. I highly recommend the Larapinta Trail, full of beautiful scenery and magnificent vistas. Yet I confess, however much I might have enjoyed it, I think my next trip will be five star all the way!

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25th May 2014
The gorgeous Larapinta Trail

You never cease to amaze me Rachael...not aiming for casual strolls...only hard slogs will do. Your allergy to Buffel Grass inflaming your legs was clearly a downer...but you never aimed to make it a stroll in the park. Is that allergy familiar to the organizers or medicos?
25th May 2014
The gorgeous Larapinta Trail

Buffel grass
That might be the last hard slog for a while, I'm definitely up for a casual stroll now! No, nobody had seen anything quite like my legs before. The heat aggravated it, which really didn't help at all. It disappeared eventually, so not all bad I guess :)
25th May 2014

Challenges and rewards
Gosh darn it you've got to learn to read the brochure! Deciding to take an adventurous walk and ending up on one and saying oh shit are two different things. You crack me up. We admire your tenacity. I can't imagine how miserable you were with your allergy to the grass. How awful. You've seen some amazing country. I'm thinking your next trip should be a little cozy or maybe a nice relaxing beach with no exotic grasses. Your stamina is amazing. It does look beautiful.
26th May 2014

Challenges and rewards
The amazing views made up for an awful lot - it was really spectacular. I think I've learned my lesson now though ...... and let's say that any thoughts of climbing Mt Kilimanjaro have gone right out the window!
26th May 2014

What an interesting walk, sounded great except for your leg allergy. Perhaps the 5 star will really suit you better
26th May 2014

5 star
Yes, I think 5 star will suit me perfectly!
26th May 2014

Well done!
You are doing some amazing walks. The Larapinta Trail has been on my radar for a long time...the colours of that landscape are amazing!
26th May 2014

Larapinta trail
I hope I didn't put you off, it wasn't too hard - I think it was just I wasn't prepared mentally. I'm sure you'd love it, and the reward is in the scenery. It was stunning.
26th May 2014
Spectacular Serpentine Gorge

I love this! So arty :)
26th May 2014
Spectacular Serpentine Gorge

This was one of my favourite spots :)
27th May 2014

Looks gorgeous
Poor you! One nasty rash photo. But the walk and scenery look amazing. No mention of the group, hope they were good. L xx
27th May 2014

It was frustrating more than anything, but obviously came right. The group was great, we had lots of fun. You would have enjoyed it! We should look at a walk over here together, there's some good ones that I'm sure you would enjoy.

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