Burning heart

The Macdonnell Ranges are a series of jagged peaks that cut through Australia's hostile Red Centre. Janet Street-Porter sets out to cross them on foot
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The Independent Travel

I had spent six nights in a tent, gradually establishing an evening routine as we walked along the Larapinta Trail, following the spine of the Macdonnell Ranges through the vast deserts of central Australia. We were camped in the bush outside Glen Helen, about 200 kilometres from the start of my journey, on the wide sandy banks of the Finke river. Earlier I'd slid out of my clothes, encrusted with the red dust of the mountains, to take a dip in a pool left from the last rains. A flock of startled cormorants flapped out of the bulrushes while the sun dropped lower and the flies gradually gave up buzzing. The water was surprisingly cold given that the daytime temperature had hovered around 30C - this was late September, the end of winter. In a month it would be too hot for walking.

I had spent six nights in a tent, gradually establishing an evening routine as we walked along the Larapinta Trail, following the spine of the Macdonnell Ranges through the vast deserts of central Australia. We were camped in the bush outside Glen Helen, about 200 kilometres from the start of my journey, on the wide sandy banks of the Finke river. Earlier I'd slid out of my clothes, encrusted with the red dust of the mountains, to take a dip in a pool left from the last rains. A flock of startled cormorants flapped out of the bulrushes while the sun dropped lower and the flies gradually gave up buzzing. The water was surprisingly cold given that the daytime temperature had hovered around 30C - this was late September, the end of winter. In a month it would be too hot for walking.

Fish occasionally popped up for air and large green and blue dragonflies circled overhead. You couldn't hear a car or a human and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. I wrapped myself in a bit of fabric and sat on a folding chair by the fire writing my diary and drinking a glass of white wine while my guide prepared supper. Suddenly I was aware of two animals moving about in the bushes 50 yards away - one was a dingo, orange-brown in colour. But next to it was an extraordinary creature, the same size and shape, but pure white. It was an albino dingo, an animal that seemed as magical as the landscape I'd been walking through. Before I could reach for the camera they disappeared, like a dream that had been interrupted.

The day before we'd been driving along a deserted road to a campsite when a large Goanna (monitor lizard) about 1.5m long had crossed the road in front of us like an imperious dragon. Now, as the sun dropped behind the red rock of Mount Sonder and the sky became a luminous pink, crows cackled quietly and cormorants squabbled by the river. I felt as if I had really arrived in one of the most extraordinary places on earth.

Flying south from Darwin to Alice Springs was the last stage of a long journey that took me to one of the emptiest places in the world. From London to Singapore I'd slept, enjoying the comfortable flat beds Marc Newson has come up with for Qantas's business class section. A couple of hours whizzed by happily as I bought skin cream at hugely discounted prices in transit, and then I dozed and read for the next leg to Darwin. The final hour-and-three-quarters over the red plains of the desert reinforced the sensation that I was going right to the geographical and spiritual centre of Australia. And as the plane started to descend I saw clearly the parallel ridges of the Macdonnell Ranges, which form a long red spine that stretches for 400km and runs through the area's only town, Alice Springs. The mountains are not very high (up to about 1,500m), but consist of a series of spectacular sheer cliffs and curvaceous slopes that are fractured from time to time by canyons formed by ancient rivers. Rising out of the desert floor, they seem like a long line of caterpillars following each other nose to tail.

The Larapinta Trail follows the ridges out of Alice Springs to the summit of Mount Sonder, about 200 kilometres to the west. It runs through a national park, and there are plenty of campsites, although no lodges until you reach Glen Helen near the end. I was walking eight scenic sections of the route with a guide and a 4x4 back-up vehicle that would transport our tents, food and equipment to the next campsite, thus removing the need to carry more than a day's water and lunch.

I was particularly interested in the area because of its profusion of plants and wildlife. Working in Australia in the 1980s presenting a daily television show for Channel Nine, I spent all my time in the east shuttling between Sydney, Melbourne and occasionally Brisbane. I had longed to visit the interior, but once my work permit expired I was booted out of the country.

The Macdonnell Ranges were formed 300 million years ago when a large basin covered with sediment 10km deep underwent a violent upheaval, forcing the underlying rock onto its side. Some layers of sediment eroded more than others, creating parallel lines of precipices and jagged ridges that run from west to east. These were bisected by rivers running from north to south, whose once-raging waters gouged out sheer-sided canyons. Now all that remains are narrow, sandy bottomed gulches with deep, cold waterholes whose contents filter through from underground pools and rocks. Originally the Macdonnell Ranges were as high as the Rockies, but even in their eroded state they are imperious, bleak and wild.

My route would take me along the top of the range. I'd lose count of the number of wild flowers I'd see, and the number of birds. I'd have to learn to cope with flies, dust and heat. I was ordered to carry at least two litres of water at the start of each day - and drink every 15 minutes. I had to watch out for snakes and wear strong, light boots. The heat that reflected up from the dry river beds and paths was soon unbearable. But, after only a day, I got used to it.

Shane, my guide, met me at the hotel at 8am on day one, and I loaded my bag into the 4x4 containing all our food, sleeping bags, tents and cooking equipment. It would be driven ahead of us each day to bush campsites, over tracks that ranged from bumpy to deeply rutted. We walked out of the front of the hotel to the dry sandy flats of the Todd river, following it to the oldest building in Alice, the Telegraph Station, where the official trail starts. I'd only been walking for about twenty minutes when I saw a rock wallaby, a cute little marsupial about a metre long with a baby in her pouch. At the Telegraph Station (the only way that Alice Springs could communicate with the outside world in the 1870s) we had tea and I looked at the maps of our route. Once this was the centre of the community, and a small graveyard nearby contains the tombstones of some hardy early settlers. In those days, the trip north to Darwin would have taken a week on horseback.

Our narrow path crossed the Stuart Highway and then the railway line to Darwin, now operating popular passenger trains twice a week. The low hills were dusty and covered in witchetty bushes (aborigines eat the grubs found in the roots), mulga scrub and flowers; billy buttons (daisies), bright pink mulla mullas, bush tomatoes and a pink weed called rosie dock. There were so many varieties yet Shane just reeled off their names.

We climbed to a ridge where the rock sloped at a precipitous 45 degrees. Stopping for lunch, the flies started to drive me nuts and I pulled a net over my broad-brimmed hat - I didn't care how mad I looked, I wasn't going to swallow more than three flies a day. We dropped down to Wallaby Gap and our campsite. As the sun fell the flies seemed to lose interest, and I walked up to look at the waterhole in the beautiful pink light of early evening. I was to find the waterholes quite the most serene places on this walk. A delicious supper of grilled tuna was eaten under a new moon, and I spent time stargazing before I turned in at 9.15.

Is the best part of a walk pulling on a clean pair of socks in the morning? I think so, especially when you're going to be caked in red dust after about ten minutes. I'd slept with the tent flaps open so I could enjoy the sunrise and bird activity, and felt rested and calm, even though I seemed to have tossed and turned a lot in the unfamiliar surroundings. We started walking at about 7.30; in the early morning light hundreds of budgerigars chattered as they flocked from tree to tree. At Scorpion Pool, red stone steps in the quartzite rock took us up through shady eucalyptus trees to Hat Hill Saddle, a high point with great views out over the flat land to the south. We dropped down to the valley floor and walked up the sandy river bed to Simpson's Gap, a most impressive gorge in the escarpment with limpid, dark pools full of green moss and red cliffs towering high above. Millions of years ago the river bed ran a whole kilometre higher through here. That evening we camped at a remote spot near Jay Creek facing, a dried-out river and a break in the mountains. The night was surprisingly cold, and I slept in my thermal undies.

The next day, Shane and I set out at 7am along the river bed, which was once used as an important link between the two nearest cattle stations to the north and south. In the cool shade of the canyon, pines and palms grew side by side. After a visit to a small pool, Fish Hole, we turned west through manuka trees and past large clumps of spiky blue-green spinifex grass. Their long stems moved in the breeze, giving the air a shimmering, hallucinogenic quality as we crossed an area known as Millers Flat. The flies didn't seem so bad today - I had developed a technique to get rid of them, swatting the air from time to time with a hanky - and I'd abandoned the head net that made me look like a mad extra from The African Queen. After a long climb to a pass through purple mint, guinea flowers, bush holly and wild parsnips, we made the exciting descent into Standley Chasm, sliding down tree trunks (a bit like a challenge in Jeux Sans Frontiers and not for the faint-hearted) and slithering over huge boulders. This narrow gorge was hundreds of metres high and only ten wide, and sadly polluted by a number of pot-bellied tourists toting video cameras. We quickly sped away in our 4x4 and turned west to Ellery Creek Big Hole. Here a tranquil pool cut right through a mountain, and I couldn't wait to get my bathers on and take a dip. The water was freezing, even by my plucky Brit standards, but I swam for twenty minutes, revelling in the combination of red cliffs, blue sky and dark water.

That night we camped in complete isolation in the bush near Serpentine Gorge, a peaceful spot on the sandy bank of a dried-out river. How did people ever survive in this landscape? Today it was as hot at 9am (30C) as it was an hour later the day before. If this is winter, goodness knows what summer must be like. I realised I hadn't seen a single cloud in the sky since I got off the plane.

The next morning we skirted through foothills covered in mulga (acacia) trees, and climbed the steps in the rock made by prisoners from the maximum-security facility in Alice Springs. It was extremely windy and eroded at the top, and the fine dust made me sneeze so much I had to put a wet hanky over my face. The contours of the valley to the north exactly mirrored that of the receding ocean waves millions of years ago, and I felt as if we were surfing along a giant wave as we battled against the wind. At Count's Point (about 1,200m up), we could see our goal, Mount Sonder to the west. Parallel rows of mountains rose up out of the desert floor as far as the eye could see.

As we trekked back down across fire-damaged hilltops, their bare rocks covered in flowers, it was 33C in the shade and my nose was driving me mad. I solved the problem by stuffing two wads of toilet paper up my nostrils - by now I had lost all sense of shame. Focusing on the flowers helped me keep my sanity during the two-hour shuffle down through the scree, but after a swim in the icy waters of Ellery Big Hole I regained my sense of humour. We walked on to the Ochre Pits, an extraordinary series of rainbow-coloured rocks whose swirls and stripes of yellow were created by water mixing with mineral deposits in the shale and silt. By now it was about 35C and my feet felt raw, so I was glad of a lift in the 4x4 to our campsite, down a sandy track north of Glen Helen by the Fink river. After lunch we parked near the lodge and walked to the waterhole. While Shane carried my rucksack and clambered through the gorge over rocks, I swam from one end of the pool to the other, my body gradually cooling down. At the far end I clambered out through the reeds, then trekked south along the river bed, encountering a series of shallow pools full of fish. Here the gorge had broadened out and the rocks formed a series of jagged shapes, fractured by violent eruptions millions of years ago. Lying in the shade of one particularly extravagant outcrop known as the Organ Pipes I daydreamed under a cloudless sky. As white herons soared overhead, I realised that it was still possible to hike down this gorge to towns hundreds of kilometres away, just as the early settlers would have driven their cattle in search of fresh pastures.

Later, I discovered a nest of baby rooks in the gum tree by my tent. They deposited their calling cards on my shirt, in my notebook, on my folding chair, and eventually woke me up at 6am with their persistent cackling. This was good, because the earlier I got up, the cooler the first couple of hours' walking were. We followed the river north, the silver trunks of the gum trees picking up the rising sun. We crossed the Davenport river, and through flats of red earth and mulberry trees I saw red-backed kingfishers sitting in branches as hawks soared overhead. We climbed up to Hilltop lookout for my final view of Mount Sonder, and it became apparent why the locals think it looks like a pregnant woman. A solitary walker sat gazing at the view - he was doing the trail in the opposite direction. He told me that when I reached the top of Mount Sonder, I'd notice a rock formation that looked exactly like a sausage roll.

As we dropped down to Rocky Bar Gap I wondered what drugs he'd taken. Who knows - next day I was up at 5.45am to put his theory to the test. Although the peak wasn't that high, it was going to be a challenge in this heat. Having ascended to a bare rocky ridge we slowly climbed along it, reaching the summit after three hours, crossing slabs of flat pink-rock pavement en route. The views were tremendous, the wind refreshing, and I ate three chocolates in celebration. But try as I might, I couldn't see a rock sausage roll anywhere. But I had seen something far more memorable on my walk - an albino dingo. And I had a witness.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Janet Street-Porter flew with Qantas (0845 7747 767; www.qantas.co.uk) from London Heathrow to Darwin, and then from Darwin on to Alice Springs on the same airline. The Dreamtime Plus offer starts from £866 and is valid for travel between 28 March-30 June 2005. Trailfinders (020-7938 3939) also offers the Dreamtime Plus from £773, if booked before 15 November.

TREKKING THERE

World Expeditions (020-8870 2600, www.worldexpeditions.co.uk) offers the Larapinta Trek from Alice Springs departing every Saturday between 16 April-8 October 2005. This eight-day trek costs £760, and includes guides, permits, transport, the hire of camping equipment and all meals. World Expeditions offers a 15-day "Larapinta End to End Trek" covering the full 220km of the trail which costs £1,370. While in Alice Springs, Janet stayed at the Alice Springs Resort, (00 61 88 951 4545; www.voyages.com.au) which has doubles from A$216 (£88).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Northern Territory Tourist Commission ( www.ntholidays.com); Australia Tourist Commission (09068 633235 (calls cost 60p per minute); www.visitaustralia.com)

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