The Larapinta Trail

The Larapinta Trail – Love it or hate it, everyone is doing it!

By Jo Vartanian

5 years ago I hadn’t heard of the Larapinta Trail. 4 years ago I trekked it and now everyone is either doing it, has done it, or is thinking about it.

The total length of the Northern Territory, Larapinta Trail is 223km. It starts in the east at Alice Springs and heads west finishing at Mount Sonder. It follows the West MacDonnell Ranges, sometimes along the ridge line, other times on the plain below. This spectacular trek is becoming one of Australia’s most popular.

It takes approximately 16 days to do it end to end. This requires substantial planning, preparation, experience and a high level of fitness. However, there are many options for shorter Larapinta experiences, taking in the most spectacular of the 12 sections, like my 6-day trek in 2015.

So why has this outback trek got people swarming to give it a go and is it just hype?

Not everyone loves the Larapinta Trail experience and the travel brochures won’t talk about these.

It’s a trek with wild contrasts and discomforts that some aren’t prepared for or don’t want. Like the 2019 masses of flies that swarmed around fly nets while trying to eat lunch on the dusty trail. The burnt-out bush landscape from recent bushfires that destroyed much of the vegetation. Feet – it’s a hot and hard stony landscape where the soles of boots are often destroyed leaving trekkers taping up their boots. The overnight temperature on my trek reached minus 4 degrees and not everyone is prepared well to sleep soundly in a tent at these temperatures. And dust and dirt – it’s everywhere – in all parts of your body and waterholes for cleaning yourself are often dry or freezing cold. One guide told me a story of a female European trekker, fit and capable, who after 3 days refused to go on. Not because she couldn’t continue but because she couldn’t see the point. All she could see were ugly spiky bushes, rare wildlife sightings and kilometres of boring flat walking along hot rocky trails.

So why go?

I would go back in a heartbeat and here’s why. It’s different and unexpected and connects us to a land long forgotten by us city dwellers thinking we’re content with living comfortable mediocre lives. It feels in a strange way like returning home to a place that feels like I belong.  The moment I entered the landscape I understood it. It’s not a desolate place that chases you away, but a place that welcomes you to find its beauty and its history and encourages you to survive and thrive. The following words I wrote a few days after returning from my 2015 Larapinta Trek with a group of 11 women, many who had never been on a multi-day trek before.

“we slept 5 nights in a swag under a brilliant sea of stars facing overnight temperatures of minus 4 degrees, ate camel steak around a flickering warm fire sharing stories of our lives, walked a long narrow exposed ridgeline and stood in awe at the vastness of the land as far as we could see, finished a hot 20km day trekking in a dry sandy river bed when every part of us screamed to stop then plunged into an ice-cold dark green waterhole, managed on one bucket of water per day and woke at 2am to trek in the dark and driving winds to the summit of the sacred Mount Sonder for a spectacular sunrise. We shared our discomforts, injuries, pain, mental exhaustion and emotional vulnerability and like the women in my care I too asked myself, “why am I doing this?”…And the answer resounded loud and clear in the bodies and voices and in the faces of the women around me who had decided to do something they previously thought they could never or would ever do. In allowing themselves to risk failure they had discovered how incredibly adaptable, capable and strong they are and they had felt the true meaning of teamwork. Taking on something “outside their comfort zone” allowed tham to emerge triumphant, invigorated and with renewed self-belief.”

If it sometimes feels like the walls of your home or office or town or city are smothering you then go on this trek. There are no walls out here, and the sheer scale of this vast ancient land and the challenges that it brings will leave you soothed and changed for the better.

In the wise words of Pope Francis, “Let us not be satisfied with a mediocre life.”

Jo Vartanian