In September I travelled to Alice Springs to walk the Larapinta Trail, a hiking trail of about 223km across the West MacDonnell Ranges.
Unfortunately I arrived in Alice Springs at the beginning of a week-long heat wave, and after 4 days of hiking in 40ºC heat I had to abandon the walk due to physical exhaustion and problems with my hiking boots, which started to come undone on the hot and rocky track. I managed to walk 3 of the 12 trail sections and it was a great, but very challenging experience.
I definitely made a few mistakes in my preparation for the walk, but in the end the heat wave amplified it all. Every day I had to carry as much water as possible and usually left with 5l spread across different bottles and a water bladder. This significantly increased the weight of my backpack, which made me get tired quickly. The water also didn't provide much refreshment, because within a few hours it would get very warm.
Due to the heat and dehydration I also didn't feel like eating much during the day, and I found out the hard way how important it is to replenish spent energy through food on a trip like that.
Some positives from the trip that are worth mentioning:
- The official Larapinta Trail map pack is great and highly recommended. It can be bought from hiking shops in Alice Springs. Not really necessary to carry anything else, but I found the guide book by John Chapman useful for advice on shortening the suggested itinerary by a few days.
- For this trip I carried a Sawyer Mini water filter which works by squeezing water from a pouch through a small filter, and it's not only lightweight but it also worked great. Several times I had to filter water from stagnant water ponds and it not only tasted fresh but I experienced no issues from drinking it.
- Track markers have distance indicators every kilometre. Where the trail has been realigned recently or where it shares with other tracks, the indicators sometimes feel a bit confusing or unprecise though.
- On the few sections I walked, the trail was exceptionally well maintained and easy to follow.
- Very good and interesting camp shelters, and well maintained bush toilets. Some campsites had large and brand new shelters that allow sleeping without a tent, while still undercover. Several log book entries however pointed out that the storage lockers are not mouse or rat-proof.
- The large group of dingos (about 10, several young ones) I saw up close at Wallaby Gap campsite.
- The huge Wedge-tail eagle I surprised at Spring Gap waterhole.
- At every campsite, water tanks had plenty of water or were completely full.
- Standley Chasm restaurant was still open until 8pm when I got there (can't thank you enough guys), but I think from October on (during the hot season) it closes at 5pm.
- For those travelling to Alice Springs by car and looking for a secure place to park while on the trail, I can highly recommend the long term car park at the airport. It's a few kilometres outside town, very modern, mostly undercover, fenced in and locked at night. I then simply took a taxi to the Telegraph Station where the track begins. (This was a recommendation from the Larapinta Trail Facebook page – thanks!)
- On some exposed sections, I could hear the traffic from nearby Larapinta/Namatjira Drive, so it's not always totally remote – at least not on the first few days. No big deal though.
- The trail follows dry creek beds in some sections. Few things are more annoying (and slower) than walking in a dry creek bed with sand and large round pebbles.
- On the sections I walked there was a staggering amount of introduced wildlife. I came across at least a dozen wild cows; on the camel trail from Jay Creek camp to Fish Hole there were signs of camel activity everywhere, and according to a local at Standley Chasm there are even feral donkeys roaming the area. Bewildered I have asked why they are not removed from the park, and was told the locals who live in the area (Aboriginal owners of Standly Chasm) enjoy looking at the animals. There's also a large area that is not actually part of the West MacDonnell National Park.
I was forced to end my walk early at Standley Chasm and was fortunate to get a ride back to Alice Springs with one of the locals, who happened to be of Aboriginal descent and part of the group who own and maintain Standley Chasm. Our conversation during the drive to Alice Springs was one of the most insightful I can remember, where I could ask a lot of questions on Aboriginal art, and on the wildlife issue in the area.
The way I understood it, the locals don't want to remove the camels and cows because the way they look at things is that, now that the animals are here, they've got just as much right to be as any other living creature. It's an admirable world view, and pretty much the opposite of the common white philosophy that all introduced species need to be eradicated from national parks.
The question is, how long does it take until an introduced species becomes a native part of the environment?
If I had to do the walk again (not planning it at the moment, but never say never), here are some things I would do differently:
- Try to walk in late August or early September instead of mid-to-late September. It's hard to find the right time, and the weather will always be a gamble. In winter it will get dark very early and the nights are cold, so warmer equipment is needed. Closer to summer daylight is longer and lighter gear can be sufficient, but there can be extreme heat waves like on my trip.
- Buy new boots, or make absolutely sure my boots are in good shape. Mine looked to be in very good shape at the start, but the dry, hot and rocky trail was very taxing on my boots and the glue simply started to disintegrate in the heat. I would carry at least a small tube of superglue to be able to fix them if necessary.
- Carry more food, and take the time for proper lunch breaks and meals, especially on very hot days.
- Try not to carry any chocolate products, or at least nothing with nougat or caramel. On a hot day it will all melt, create a mess and may no longer be edible.
- Make sure that including all food and water my luggage weighs no more than 20kg (I found 20kg is my personal comfort limit, above 20kg my Aarn backpack becomes uncomfortable)
- Carry electrolyte or vitamin tablets that dissolve in water. Drinking plain water alone really doesn't help much with dehydration and exhaustion on a hot day, especially once the water becomes warm from the heat.
- Store as much stuff as possible at the food drop locations on the trail, to avoid having to carry it from the beginning: food, gas, spare batteries, clothes etc.
- Leave all my semi-professional camera gear at home and just carry a high-quality compact camera to save as much weight as possible. Travelling light is so important on this trip – get too exhausted on the first few days already and it becomes unfeasible to finish the trail.
More photos in the album Larapinta Trail (Section 1 to 3).