The Larapinta Trail is a 223 km bushwalking track in Northern Territory, Australia. I through-hiked the trail west to east from Jun. 11th to Jun. 20th in 2014.
Alice Springs is the third largest town in Northern Territory, and is the (only) jump-off town for the Larapinta Trail. It is located right at the center of Australia, with no other major towns close by. The most convenient way to get there is by flight. Qantas and Tiger Air offers scheduled service to Alice from Sydney, Melbourne and maybe a few other cities. From time to time there may be some discounted tickets, but overall the tickets aren’t cheap. I managed to get a reward ticket using my American Airlines points (AA and Qantas are both from Oneworld) from Launceston to Alice for only 10000 points. It was a great bargain, as the flight is almost 2000 miles. There’s also a passenger train service The Ghan between Adelaide and Darwin with a stop at Alice Springs. It takes 24 hours to get to Alice from Adelaide and the tickets are more expensive than airfares.
Majority of the amenities are located at the small town center near Todd Mall. Lone Dingo is the only outdoor gear shop in town. They actually have a decent stock (including dehydrated food and gas canisters), and the prices are reasonable (by Australian standard). There are also two large supermarkets, Coles and Woolworths, if you want to pick up some cheap food.
The two trailheads of Larapinta Trail are Alice Springs Telegraph Station (about 4km from town center) on the east and Redbank Gorge on the west.
First you need to decide the direction of your hike. As a solo hiker who doesn’t feel comfortable driving on the left side of the road, I found it easier to arrange transportation to start from Redbank Gorge and travel east. When I hike point to point, I usually start at the less accessible trailhead, so I don’t have to deal with the hassle to find transportation back at the end of the hike. At Larapinta Trail, it is much more flexible with your schedule if you hike west to east. There’s no cellphone signal at Redbank Gorge (and most places along the trail), so unless you carry a satellite phone, there’s no way to contact your pickup if you arrive early or late. Since most people will need at least one resupply, by going west to east, you can make your food drops on the way to Redbank Gorge. There are a few trailhead shuttle services for a reasonable price if your group has more than 2 people. Even if you are by yourself, it’s worth checking as there might be other groups leaving the same day. The other option is to take a West MacDonnell Range tour. A few companies are running this tour, and there should be at least one leaving Alice every two days. The tour stops at a Standley Chasm, Ellery Creek and Ormiston Gorge, so you can drop your resupply there. After lunch, the tour will turn around at Glen Helen Resort, which is only about 30km’s drive to Redbank Gorge. Many people travel west on the Larapinta Drive to King’s Canyon, and it’s fairly easy to hitchhike. It only took me five minutes to get a ride.
DO NOT DO THE HIKE IN SUMMER! Temperature can easily go over 40°C in summer. People have died in summer just doing dayhikes. Even if you are fit, I don’t think it’s worth taking the risk. There’s no pleasure walking in heat anyways. The best months are the winter months from May to September when daily high is about 25°C and low is about 5°C. Nights are a little chill, but a lightweight sleeping bag and a thin down jacket should be enough. Also, it rarely rains in Red Center, so no need to bring a rain coat.
It is possible to do the hike without resupply, but it would certainly be more enjoyable with at least one food drop. The most popular drop-off locations are Ormiston Gorge, Ellery Creek and Stanley Chasm. The first two are managed by the park authority while Stanley Chasm is private land owned by aboriginal people. I put my food, gas canister and beer (!) at Ellery Creek and Stanley Chasm. I would recommend to camp at those locations, not only because it makes sense weight wise, but also because of the amenities in those campsites. There are trash cans in Ormiston Gorge and Standley Chasm, and at Ellery Creek normally car campers will agree to take your garbage out. Also don’t miss a hot shower at Standley Chasm!
Water is scarce in this part of the country. Fortunately there are water tanks along all the 12 trailheads as well as a couple of interim locations on the trail. When I did the hike, most of the hikers (me included) drank the water directly and I didn’t hear any complaints about the water quality. But if you don’t want to take any chances, bring a filter.
There are few natural water resources other than the tanks and except for a handful of places the water looked quite nasty. Even with water filter I wouldn’t drink it. The longest section without water in between is section 9, from Ormiston Gorge to Serpentine Chalet, almost 29 km. Unless you want to do it in one day (it’s a long day but doable if you start from Ormiston Gorge in the morning), carry at least 4 liters of water. Waterfall Gorge, despite its name, was dry when I was there.
I encountered dingoes twice during my hike, once at Ellery Creek and once at Ormiston Gorge. Both times it was near a trailhead with quite some tourist traffic. Fortunately the dingoes weren’t aggressive and I didn’t see any wandering near my camp. So I don’t think it’s necessary to hang your food.
I was told that there were a few species of deadly snakes in Red Center. As a result, I was not comfortable walking through the bushes. This uneasiness got worse after I almost stepped on one near Waterfall Gorge in section 9. It was probably nonvenomous, and most snakes should be hibernating in winter, but still, watch your footing.
Flies were a nuisance during my 10-day hike. At anytime between 9am and 5:30pm, there were at least 20 of them hovering over me. They stimulate me to walk faster and longer hours. I would get up earlier and leave camp before the flies came out. Then I would walk till 5:30 pm non-stop except for a quick water refill at the tanks. I did carry a bug net, but never used it. It’s the buzzing that bothers me, and I don’t think a net is going to help much.
Obvious choices are the trailheads where there’s water. There are plenty of smaller campsites along the trail. If you are willing to carry a few more liters of water for a few hours, those campsites are actually very nice and offers more solicitude.
Camp fires are not allowed anywhere along the trail, so bring a stove.
In my opinion, the logistics part is more challenging than the hike itself. The whole trail is well marked. In fact it’s even better. There are signs for every kilometer of the trail. Navigation can’t be easier.
The trail is divided into 12 sections and there’s an official rating of difficulty for each of them. The ratings are fairly accurate, with one exception, section 5, in which the “very difficult” rating is an great understatement.
Section 5 starts from Hugh Gorge Camp and ends at Birthday Waterhole (assume traveling west to east). This 16km section has a little bit of everything, and is a highlight of the entire 233km trail. There’s a 6km walk from Hugh Gorge Camp through Pocket Valley to the Junction. From the Junction, it’s an optional 2km round trip to Hugh Gorge Waterhole. The waterhole is definitely worth exploring. It is a magnificent as Simpson Gap, but without tourists. If you decide to finish section in 2 days, the Junction is a great spot to camp. Water at Hugh Gorge Waterhole seem to be quite fresh (still filter it to be sure), and this is probably the only natural water source worth using on the trail. After the Junction, the trail turns west to Linear Valley and gradually climbs up to Rocky Saddle. This is the “easiest” part of the section until Fringe Lily Creek. If you are sick of walking on the rugged riverbed, you get what you wish for. Immediately after Fringe Lily Creek, it’s a climb of a hundred meters to Razorback Ridge. Razorback Ridge may not be not as well-known as Counts Point or Brinkley Bluff, but for me, it has the most dramatic view. I think it is possible to camp at the ridge. In fact there’s indeed a pad at the top, but it might be a bit windy. After Razorback Ridge, what waits you ahead is a descent of equally rugged Spencer Gorge. Take your time scrambling over some huge boulders. Another 4km’s walk, and you will be out of the gorge. Climbing over a “small” saddle, you will reach the Section 4/5 Junction. Birthday Waterhole is another “inviting” 1km walk from the junction, on sand.
I had no idea of how hard this section was when I started from Ghost Gum Flat (section 6) in the morning. Had I known this, I would have stopped at Fringe Lily Creek. I did reach Birthday Waterhole at 5:30 pm the same day, but was completed wasted. When I was struggling in the Pocket Valley, I still had this hope that “surely it can’t be any worse”. It could. It won’t get better. Every foot of this 16km section is hard. There’s no “trail” per se in the valleys. You walk on rocky riverbeds. My feet were in great agony at the end of the day. This was the only time when I wished that I had worn a pair of traditional hiking boots instead of trail runners.
At Spencer Gorge, I met a group of boy scouts. When I passed them, one of the boys shouted at me, “You did it. You are a beast!” I almost cried to that.
Overall the Larapinta Trail is not a technically difficult hike. This was my first unsupported long-distance hike and physically I didn’t have many problems. Mentally, however, I was down at the later part of the trail, especially after reaching Standley Chasm. I just lost interest in the hike and continued only because I could claim later that I had done the trail end to end. I was by myself most of the time, and after a week, I had sung all the songs I knew, and had replayed in my mind all the events of any significance in my 26 years of life. I missed all the amenities from modern society. I just wanted to lie on the bed, have a bottle of beer and watch a TV show, any show. Then I realized how hard it must be for Andrew Skurka or Heather “Anish” Anderson to walk thousands of miles by themselves. I simply don’t have a long distance hiker in me.
Nonetheless, Larapinta trail is an awesome hike, probably one of the best in the world. During my walk, I was constantly thinking about what I would say when I reached the telegraph station. It was goofy but I had nothing else to keep my mind busy. When I finally finished the last kilometer of the hike, there was just a simple sign pointing to the start point of the trail. I took some selfies with the sign and wrote my name and where I came from on the hikers’ log. And that was it. There was a nice restaurant right next to the trailhead. People in that restaurant were staring at me but I didn’t think I could afford to dine there even though I was thirsty and starving. So I moved on, continued to walk for about a hour and straight back to the hotel. I called my mom and told her I was out. We talked about how her work had been and how the weather had been in Shanghai, like I was only out on a short business trip. When I am sitting in my cozy apartment in Toronto and writing this half a year later I still chuckle, with tears in my eyes. I guess that’s why I hike.