In the Australian Outback: Dry land, red heat, on foot

It's thirsty work but someone's got to do it. And so far seven people, at least, have succeeded in crossing a desert by following the 140-mile trail through Australia's arid core

A flock of electric-green budgerigars suddenly dropped out of the tree, swooped across the waterhole, squawking noisily, and homed in on another tree just beyond our tent. A few minutes later, they repeated the performance, and went whizzing past quickly - like bright green bullets. Whoever got the idea of putting these classy little aerobatic artists into cages? We had a small fire burning and the water on the boil for coffee. Don was proving very good at brewing fresh-ground coffee over the campfire.

A flock of electric-green budgerigars suddenly dropped out of the tree, swooped across the waterhole, squawking noisily, and homed in on another tree just beyond our tent. A few minutes later, they repeated the performance, and went whizzing past quickly - like bright green bullets. Whoever got the idea of putting these classy little aerobatic artists into cages? We had a small fire burning and the water on the boil for coffee. Don was proving very good at brewing fresh-ground coffee over the campfire.

In another month or two, the waterhole would dry up, but right now, it was still clear and only slightly salty, the sandy riverbank was still warm, the sun was half an hour or so from setting.

"This spot is really paradise, isn't it?" I suggested lazily. Even the flies that can plague any Australian outback expedition seemed to be on vacation.

"What I can't get over," replied Don, "is how few people we've seen. It was three days back we last saw another walker."

"Forty miles ago," I mused, doing a quick mental calculation of how long it was since we'd seen the first, and last, walker on the trail. "And it was a woman and she was walking by herself."

Ten minutes later, as if to remind us that we were not the only walkers to discover the Larapinta Trail, and that women walking alone in the Australian outback are not that surprising a phenomenon, two more walkers, both of them women, appeared in the clearing. We offered them some of our coffee and, as if on cue, the first - and last - snake we were to see wriggled out of a bush at the water's edge.

"Well, Freud would have had something to say about that," I suggested, as the two women left to set up camp further along the gorge.

A few days earlier, towards the end of our first day on the trail, we'd been thirsty, very thirsty. Not quite to the sharing-the-urine-around stage, that terminal Australian thirst that Bill Bryson makes so much fun of in his book Down Under, but certainly thirsty enough.

Well, what do you expect when you set out to walk 140 miles west from Alice Springs in Australia's very dry centre? Of course you're going to feel thirsty. That small problem had for years deterred walkers from making long forays into the Red Centre.

Certainly, you could do day walks with a few water bottles in your day pack. Sure, you could plan walks from waterhole to waterhole, of which there are a surprising number along the MacDonnell Range, the spectacular desert mountain range that extends east and west from the Alice. But a long walk, something taking a week or more, simply wasn't possible. Not without a lot of planning and careful investigation, so that you didn't roll into camp only to discover that the waterhole dried up last week and it wouldn't be refilled until the rain fell again, perhaps in six months' time.

In the mid-Nineties, the Northern Territory's Parks & Wildlife Commission decided to solve that problem. They'd map out a 12-stage walking trail, starting at the old Telegraph Station just north of the town centre and right beside the springs that gave the town its name. Some of the stages would start and finish at the permanent waterholes, like the ones at Simpsons Gap, Standley Chasm or Ormiston Gorge, where ancient rivers have made dramatic cuts through the range. At others, they'd set up water tanks which would be regularly replenished. The end result would be a two-week walk through some of Australia's most magnificent desert scenery.

Desert is really the wrong word to apply to Australia's Red Centre. Oh, sure, there are spectacular sand dunes and it can certainly be dry, but anybody who thinks a desert is just sand and nothing else will find central Australia very un-desert-like. There's lots of vegetation, an artist's palette of wild flowers in the spring, amazing rocky outcrops, oasis-like waterholes and a twitcher's book-list of birdlife - like those noisy budgerigars that entertained us at our Jay Creek campsite. It's just that there aren't many people - in six days on the trail we met a grand total of five other walkers, apart from people close to the popular gorges.

Despite the isolation, the harshness of the environment and the lack of water, two factors make the Larapinta Trail a surprisingly safe walk - one is that it simply follows the east-west mountain chain, so getting seriously lost is more or less impossible. The other is that the road out to the west from Alice Springs also runs parallel to the walk and the mountains. If you need help or simply have had enough and want to quit, all you have to do is walk directly south, sometimes just a mile or two, at other points as much as five to 10 miles, but eventually you'll hit the road.

The trail is still a year or two away from completion. Marking the trail has been a time-consuming project, but the major holdup in opening the whole route, which was planned to be finished by the late 1990s, was that a couple of the sections crossed private grazing land. Recently the government purchased these final tracts which should speed the opening of the whole trail. When it is completed and becomes better known, it's going to become one of the world's great long-distance walks, offering a chance for keen, fit walkers to get to grips with unique terrain.

The first and last sections of the walk are spectacular.

We started from the end and walked back towards Alice Springs, commencing with the round trip ascent of Mt Sonder, at 4,526 feet the fourth-highest mountain in the Northern Territory. From the top of the peak there are striking views east and west along the mountain range. Far below to the south you can see the winding green trace which marks the dry course of one of central Australia's non-running rivers. Off to the east the Finke River cuts through a parallel mountain range at Glen Helen. If you like comfort when you're walking, you could plan to divert just a few miles off the trail to the Glen Helen Lodge and its rather classy restaurant.

Over 100 miles to the east, the last day of the walk starts at Simpsons Gap, a popular daytrip from Alice Springs to a typically dramatic gorge and waterhole through the range. If you look closely you'll see rock wallabies dotted amongst the rocky outcrops that tumble down into the gorge. From the gap the final 14 miles alternates between the foot of the range and walking along the ridgetop. A couple of smaller gaps and waterholes are passed along the way and on the last stretch along Euro Ridge, the town of Alice Springs comes into view to the south-east. (A euro is a particular type of large kangaroo as well as a European currency of declining value.) Finally the walk crosses beneath a high overpass carrying the modern Stuart Highway, which runs straight north to Darwin, follows a short stretch of an earlier low level road replaced in 1980, and crosses the old telegraph line. Some of the poles still stand, although the line, originally built in 1871, was abandoned in 1928.

Those starting and finishing stretches were fine, but the short nine-mile section between Standley Chasm and Jay Creek is one of the best. One route starts by winding through the narrow chasm with its sheer walls and requires some athletic rock scrambling. An alternative path climbs up to the west of the chasm, before dropping down to join the dry creek bed. If there have been recent rains - and in 2000 there had been a lot of rain - the creek bed may be dotted with a series of beautiful waterholes. Spinifex, that sadistically spiky but picturesque central Australian grass punctuates the hillsides, cyclad palms pop up all over the place and in spring the hillsides are carpeted with wildflowers. A couple of miles walk brings you to another trail junction, with a choice of low-level and high-level routes, before the trails join again for the final twisting cut through the range past Fish Hole to Jay Creek, an idyllic camp spot, where you may just believe you've discovered a little Eden in central Australia.

When to Walk: the trail is best walked in the cooler months from April to September. Summer in the centre can be incredibly hot and the waterholes are likely to have dried up, so just when you need water the most it may be unavailable. The winter months can be very pleasant with warm, but not too hot days, and clear skies, although the nights can be surprisingly cold. It's not unusual for night time temperatures to sink close to freezing.

How to Walk: it's best to walk the trail in sections, with resupply points along the way, rather than try to carry all the food necessary for covering the trail end to end. Since the majority of the overnight stops are accessible by road, it's easy to do the walk in stages. Many Alice Springs residents walk the Larapinta Trail as a series of day or weekend walks. Sections of the walk are very rocky, so it's wise to wear shoes with strong, sturdy soles. Bring good sun protection - a hat, long-sleeved shirt and high factor sunscreen - and plenty of water bottles. Organised walks along the Larapinta Trail are offered by, among others, World Expeditions (tel 020 8870 2600, fax 020 8870 2615, email enquiries@worldexpeditions.co.uk).

Getting to Alice: There are no direct flights from the UK to Alice Springs. The most direct route is on Qantas via Singapore to Darwin, with connections to Alice. In the April to June low season, this costs around £700 return through discount agents. It may be cheaper to fly to Darwin on Garuda via Bali or Royal Brunei via Bandar Seri Bagawan - expect fares of below £500 return to Darwin.

 

Tony Wheeler is founder of 'Lonely Planet' travel guides

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