The Larapinta Trail: a spotlight on ancient Australia

Image: Graham Michael Freeman
Image: Graham Michael Freeman

Celebrating 25 years guiding award-winning walks on Northern Territory's Larapinta Trail, one of the Great Walks of Australia and named in National Geographic’s 100 Hikes of a Lifetime.

Most people lucky enough to have walked all or part of the 223km Larapinta Trail in the West MacDonnell Ranges, near Alice Springs, would agree it’s the combination of stunning scenery and the rich Indigenous history which make the Larapinta one of the most popular multi-day walks in Australia today.

There's the physical beauty of the many waterholes and gorges. The spectacular mountain ranges that contrast so sharply with the endless flat nothingness that we traditionally associate with a desert landscape.

Then there's the palpable feeling of ancientness and the knowledge that you are walking in the footsteps of people belonging to one of the longest continuing cultures on the planet.

Home to the Arrernte (pronounced Ah-runda) people, whose ancestors have inhabited the region for around 40,000 years, the Larapinta is part of Tyurrentye (as the area is known to the Traditional Owners) and is a living landscape with deep spiritual significance to the 16 traditional estates that make up the area.

The whole area abounds with sacred sites, archaeological sites and many dreaming tracks (or 'songlines' as they are commonly known), such as the taye (moon man) dreaming that takes place between Mt Sonder and Glen Helen Gorge.

Guide explaining some of the history of the Larapinta Trail |  <i>Linda Murden</i> The breathtaking Glen Helen Gorge on the Larapinta Trail in Central Australia. |  <i>Ayla Rowe</i> The Ochre Pits are a special site where Aboriginal people quarried ochre for trade and traditional artist use |  <i>Graham Michael Freeman</i> Sunrise on Mt Sonder from Fearless's Camp |  <i>Rachel Imber</i> Ellery Creek swimmimg hole |  <i>Latonia Crockett</i>
 

Perhaps it’s the echo of those Dreamtime stories, told so often over thousands of years that have permeated the landscape, but there’s a palpable ancientness that many find quite moving. Many marine fossils found high on the West MacDonnell Ranges prove that an inland sea once covered Central Australia and provide geological evidence of this ancientness.

There’s no doubt that the connection with the land is a big part of what’s special about the Larapinta and leading tour operator, World Expeditions, is a strong supporter of collaborating with the local Indigenous community to help clients gain a deeper understanding of Aboriginal culture.

The Classic Larapinta Trek in Comfort, for example, allow trekkers to sample delicious locally grown food and learn about their traditional uses by local Indigenous chef, Rayleen Brown, from Kungkas Can Cook. There’s also a chance to hear Dreamtime stories told by a member of the local Indigenous community in a “Cultural Conversation Experience” on some departures.

But how did the Larapinta become one of the Great Walks of Australia and named in National Geographic’s 100 Hikes of a Lifetime when, less than 25 years ago, it was largely unknown to non-Indigenous people?

A walk to remember

The transition began with a visit from a humble Himalayan guide by the name of Charlie Holmes, who first visited the region during the early ’90s.  Charlie was mesmerized with the beauty of the Larapinta Trail and immediately recognized its commercial potential. His enthusiasm for the trail was infectious and, fortuitously, he was well respected by the adventure travel company, World Expeditions, for whom he’d guided in Nepal.

World Expeditions has a long-established history of pioneering new trips, introducing to the Australian market firsts such as cycling holidays in India (1977) and China (1978) and trekking trips in Mongolia (1980). It didn’t hesitate to support Charlie’s vision to begin operating guided trekking expeditions to the Larapinta in 1995.

While Charlie and World Expeditions nutted out logistics of operating those first treks in the remote desert environment, the Trail was still being developed by the forward-looking Parks and Wildlife Commission of the NT, initially to establish a long-distance trail along the spine of the elongated West MacDonnell National Park.

By the time the full length of the 223km trail was completed in 2002, many sections by low-security prisoners from the NT Correctional Services, the route had been adapted to take the modern route – and Charlie knew it well.

From day one, the Larapinta was popular amongst trekkers, with word of mouth recommendations driving growth. By 2005, the Larapinta Trail had become World Expeditions’ highest-selling itinerary worldwide, establishing a base in Alice Springs and employing a team of professional guides.

LARAPINTA TRAIL HIGHLIGHTS:
  •  Counts Point – a 5km ridgeline walk that offers extensive views of 100km in every direction
  •  The Ochre Pits – a traditional Aboriginal quarry for ceremonial Ochre, in a range of colours from white to yellow, orange and red.
  •  Serpentine Gorge – a stunning gorge cut in the red quartzite cliffs near Charlie’s Camp.
  •  Ormiston Gorge – widely considered the most spectacular in the West Macs. (The 10km Gorge walk is not officially part of the Larapinta Trail but is one of the best short walks in the NT)
  •  Mt Sonder – the summit of which is a wonderful place to witness the sunrise as the sun’s rays spread across the vast folds of the ranges.

 

Get comfy

The idea of establishing a network of semi-permanent, eco campsites to sustainably manage the increasing demand was first floated around this time but, with so many stakeholders involved, the idea remained on the back burner for several years, until the ownership of the West MacDonnell National Park was returned to the Aboriginal Traditional Owners in 2012.

With the Park being jointly managed by NT Parks and Wildlife Commission and the Traditional owners, negotiation of an exclusive sub-lease agreement progressed and the eco camps were completed in 2013, allowing World Expeditions’ Larapinta product to meet the criteria to become one of the founding seven “Great Walks of Australia”, supported by Tourism Australia and the state Tourism bodies.

Designed by the late Nick Murcutt of Neeson-Murcutt Architects, the eco campsites set a new international benchmark by providing superior standards of service and comfort for trekkers in outback regions, thereby opening the experience to greater numbers of people, who may not have been ready to take on a wilderness camping based trek.

The design incorporates sustainable technologies such as water-free composting toilets, solar lighting systems and a hybrid grey water disposal system designed for the arid environment.

The stars of the desert sky are a stunning backdrop to our unique Semi-Permanent Campsites |  <i>Graham Michael Freeman</i> Soak up the sounds of the desert around our campfire |  <i>Shaana McNaught</i> Trekkers relaxing on the porch of their campsites |  <i>Shaana McNaught</i>

The camps are semi-permanent and are dismantled in the off-season, to allow the land to recover, maintaining the idyllic natural setting of these wilderness sites.

The lounge is designed to keep occupants comfortable in a climate known for extremes, with a moveable stretch canopy providing a cool shady open-sided haven, while also offering a warm shelter during cool nights with the sides pulled down. Cafe style gas burners along with open fire provide heating at night and a commercial standard cooking area allows guides to prepare delicious meals. Hot showers give trekkers a welcome way to wash away the dust of a good days walk on the Larapinta Trail.

The next step

Today, the Larapinta campsites are operated by Australian Walking Holidays, the domestic brand of World Expeditions and, this year, the company celebrates 25 years on the Larapinta Trail. A testament to the quality of the guiding team and the experience itself, the Classic Larapinta Trek in Comfort remains the company’s top-selling trip.

According to Australian Walking Holidays’ General Manager, Michael Buggy, long-term partnerships remain at the heart of the Larapinta experience:

As well as the ongoing collaborations with the Arrernte people and with the Parks and Wildlife Commission of the NT that underpin the whole operation, there have been some very significant contributions from individuals along the way that helped shape the Larapinta experience that we are able to share with people today.

“The camps have been named Charlie’s Camp, Nick’s Camp and Fearless Camp as a tribute to some of these wonderful people who played a pivotal role in their inception,” says Michael.

“Fearless Camp, close to Mount Sonder, seemed a very apt commemoration of the late Sue Fear and her life as a mountaineer and guide, and the fourth and newest of the camps is Sonder Camp, named for its sweeping views of the mountain.”

The four eco-camps are positioned along the trail, as a kind of moving basecamp, which allows walkers to carry only a day pack, with luggage transported by 4WD vehicles between camps.

Last season, Australian Walking Holidays employed 23 guides on the Larapinta Trail – 12 women and 11 men, each of whom bring a love of the land and a warmth that empowers people who walk the trail with them.

“As a participant on the walk, you can expect to have the luxury of being fully present in a way that is not possible in our usual lives; to engage all your senses and be humbled by the beauty of your surrounds and the knowledge that people have preceded you on this walk for millennia,” Michael says.

In addition to being a three times recipient of the NT Tourism’s Brolga Award for best eco-tourism product, the Classic Larapinta Trek in Comfort is a 100% carbon offset trip, with emissions offset by Australian Walking Holidays, as part of our ongoing commitment to sustainable travel.

“We remain mindful that it’s thanks to the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the Central and Western Arrernte Country, that we have the opportunity to explore and enjoy this ancient landscape,” says Michael, “and we hope that the experience ultimately helps build understanding and respect for their place as Custodians of the land.”

This edited article was originally published in Great Walks Magazine, April-May 2020.

Australia, Great Walks, Larapinta, walking, hiking trails, Aboriginal culture, Aboriginal heritage, Northern Territory, Alice Springs, Outback, Eco camping

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