I woke up on day nine to some ice on my tent and decided I was not getting up yet. So I sat in my sleeping bag and cooked my breakfast from inside my tent. I saw the Trek Larapinta group walking through at 7.30am all rugged up and I waved to them from inside my -10deg sleeping bag, “See you guys later!” (the benefits of being your own guide). I didn’t set off until nearly 9am but over the easy terrain compared to what I’d come from I caught up to the group within an hour. “Champion! Let the champion through!”. Oh yes, my very own cheer squad, but please guys, don’t feed my ego.
I rolled into camp in just over 3.5 hours and thought, ‘it’s only 12.30pm again’! I contemplated moving on but thought my body could probably do with some easier days and camp sites were few and far between for the next two sections. A young couple walked in and the girl said, “Oh you’re the fast walking girl with the purple backpack.” Apparently.
I had noticed the day before that my left boot had a bit of a split in the toe as if a knife had cut it but really it would have been a razor sharp rock somewhere along the trail. It wasn’t too bad but to prevent it from getting worse I’d tried taping it over. The tape hadn’t lasted the day but I just hoped that if I kept doing it every morning it wouldn’t get any worse. The number one reason people don’t finish the trail is because of their boots falling a part and that was not going to me.
The next morning was a cool -6deg. That’s winter in the desert for you. I wasn’t cold for long though, because the trail almost immediately went upwards and switchbacked its way for a few kilometres to the top of a mountain. I dropped my pack and walked the extra 1.5km to Counts Point lookout, one of the best views on the whole trail. You can see far into the distance to Mt Sonder where I would eventually end up one of these days and the beautiful, parallel rock walls that look like they’re splitting the earth open.
I descended down the rocky slopes to the next camp site. I was first in again meaning I got to pick a good spot, which was lucky because by nightfall there were around 10 tents pitched, a bit busy for my liking. Everyone spends the afternoon debriefing from the day that’s been and then briefing each other for the next day to come; comparing notes, maps and guidebooks. It’s helpful to have people coming in from the other direction to ask questions like, ‘So how steep is tomorrow’s climb really?’ and ‘What are the campsites like up on Mt Giles lookout?’. It was certainly busy but not noisy, everyone was inside their tent, torches out by 6.30pm and it was like I was the only one there.
The next section was the most remote and longest without any guaranteed access to water so it requires carrying enough for almost 48 hours. The section is 30km long and almost everyone breaks it up and camps somewhere along the way. I had heard early on that Mt Giles lookout was highly underrated and definitely worth it. I wasn’t keen for a Brinkley Bluff repeat but after chatting to some other hikers who said there were plenty of spots further along the ridge that were quite sheltered, I thought I may as well give it a shot.
The day wasn’t too difficult, starting with another small gorge walk, some scrambling and undulating hills. The official map description had said, ‘some gentle strolling’, which we’d all had a bit of a giggle at because this is the Larapinta, mate, there’s no such thing as ‘gentle strolling’. Still, it was easier than other parts.
After 13km of walking and getting into the early afternoon sun the trail wound up to the top of Mt Giles Lookout. According to the guidebook it was a 330m ascent, nothing compared to Brinkley Bluff but for some reason it felt much harder. They’d recently cut switchbacks into the hillside making it easier on the legs but it also meant that it lengthened the trail by a kilometre and the climb felt never-ending. It didn’t help when one guy coming down said to me, “Oh you’re almost there.” What a liar he was.
I got to the lookout but following the recommendations by others I continued along the ridgeline for another 1.5km where there were some really nice tent pads on a flat plateau that had plenty of trees and a high rock edge to protect you from the wind. The hill climb had been a bit of a killer and as soon as I put my tent up I found myself crawling inside and just lying down for an hour.
I inspected my left boot again, it wasn’t that much worse but I could see that the rocks were starting to chew away at other parts around the edges. There was no avoiding the rocks so I kept hoping the tape would hold it together even if I had to keep replacing it a few times a day. It was a waiting game for dinner and I stared at my watch until it clicked over to 6pm when I boiled some water and then sat on the rocks to watch the sunset. At 11pm I woke up and could hear the roar of the wind up the side of the mountain and I thought, ‘Oh no, not again,’ but miracles do happen and the wind never hit my tent so I could sleep most of the night.
Between the sunset that night and the sunrise the next day, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. The colours in the sky were so surreal, pinks, blues and oranges. As the sun rose in the morning it lit up Mt Sonder like it was telling you this is where you have to go and that’s exactly where I was heading.
I knew it was only 13km to Ormiston Gorge, my last food drop, a kiosk and a hot shower. I started walking at 8am (the earliest so far!) and I literally skidded down the slopes, over all the rocks and almost broke into a jog a couple of times as I got closer. Ormiston. It promised so much.
Day 12: sunrise over Mt Sonder
I arrived just after 11am and I saw Zak from LTTS again. I think he was a little surprised to see me there so early. I said, ‘Mate, I practically ran here!’. I wasn’t sure what was priority, a shower or a nice meal. I chose the food. I sat outside to eat for the sake of all the nice clean tourists inside. I was sure people could smell me from metres away; I never knew a human could smell as bad as I did. I found other Larapinta hikers I’d come to know well and I sat with them because we all smelt as bad as each other.
I watched the hot water wash away all the dirt and sweat from my body and then I washed that one t-shirt I’d worn since Alice, not that I think it did much for the smell. It was getting dark and I realised I hadn’t seen the famous Ormiston Gorge yet. I asked another hiker, ‘How far is it? Because if it’s longer than half a kilometre it can get stuffed.’ Turns out it was only 200m from the carpark, I could manage that.
Refreshed and pumped to get closer to Redbank Gorge I decided to combine two days into one and push through nearly 25km to get myself to Rocky Bar Gap. I’d promised my body no more 20+km days but I was feeling good. In fact, my body was feeling really good; it amazes me how quickly the human body can adapt when it needs to. Plus, I figured then I could relax because I’d be so close to finished.
Other hikers thought I was crazy but I knew I could do it. I also knew I would be cursing myself by the end of the day and I was right. The first half of the day was probably the easiest of the whole trail with just undulating, and dare I even say it, flat terrain.
Of course, that didn’t last long and I knew I had a long hill climb to the top of Hilltop Lookout with a 380m ascent. It was almost as tough as the Mt Giles Lookout climb but I knew it was the last hill before I climbed Mt Sonder at the end so once I was at the top it was easy all the way to Redbank.
I met two guys camping at the top and they were surprised that I was going to keep going down to Rocky Bar Gap but I pushed on knowing that then I would be only two days away from finishing.
Coming towards Rocky Bar Gap I clicked over the 20km mark and I was tired. Just like on day three, my brain was just thinking, ‘where is this bloody campsite?’, ‘where is this f**king campsite?’. My feet were sore and I’d had enough. I was starting to crack.
I could see people coming towards me and I thought, ‘They look clean!’ and I’m sure they thought, ‘This girl is filthy!’. They were all just starting out and were on day two heading up to the Hilltop for the night. Of course, I gave some of my now expert advice on where to camp and what days were tough. It felt good because it meant I was nearly done.
I had the campsite at Rocky Bar Gap almost to myself except for one solo female hiker who was just starting out as well. She was carrying 25kg (!!!) and I gave her some advice on what to leave behind. I’m not sure if she took it on board but I’m sure she would have soon been throwing things off the side of Hilltop Lookout the next day as she was going up if she didn’t!
The next day I had an easy 12km to Redbank Gorge and I walked even quicker than I had on the way to Ormiston and I arrived at the campsite at 11am. Considering I was a day early it would mean that I would camp there for two nights, so I picked a nice spot under a tree and set myself up.
The next day was my final day on the trail. A couple of guys had left at 4am to be up Mt Sonder for sunrise but I decided considering I had the whole day I may as well do it during daylight. I left at 8am and headed out with just a little daypack on with some water and snacks. It felt really weird and I practically floated all the way to the top of Mt Sonder without my pack weighing me down. It was 8km to the top and it only took me just over two hours along the rocky path. The rocks. Always the rocks. I was getting pretty over the uneven ground.
As I was coming up towards the final 100m a wave of emotions hit me. I was officially finishing this epic adventure. I had endured all the challenges that it could throw at me and I came out stronger than I probably had ever been. I had pushed through a shitty first day, I had battled gale force winds on Brinkley Bluff, I’d had an aching right foot since day six, my spare water bladder had burst on day five meaning I had been down 2L of water capacity and my left boot sole had started falling apart since day eight. Yet, there was never a doubt in my mind that I would stand on the top of Mt Sonder at the end. It was an enormous sense of achievement.
I was relieved. I had finished walking. I could go back to Alice, have a proper shower and put some clean clothes on and eat a proper meal. But at the same time I knew that waking up the next day would be weird because I didn’t have to walk anywhere, I didn’t have to look at maps and see how many kilometres I was going to do.
Doing any long distance walk is a weird existence, particularly if you have no phone reception like the Larapinta. It’s an existence where your entire life is simplified. You only have three things you have to do in a day; eat, sleep and walk. There’s nothing else to think about. Even decisions are simple. There’s only one trail, you have limited food and you live by the sun’s hours. The hardest and almost only decision you have to make is where to camp.
Despite being so disconnected from the outside world, it made me feel so much more reconnected with the present and with myself. I had a lot of time to spend in my own head, day after day. I met the most friendly and genuine fellow hikers of a night at the camps and everyone connected because there was no phone reception and we were all doing the same thing with the same end goal. In fact, the people I met along the way were a major part of why I had had such an incredible experience.
But I had normal life to get back to and I wasn’t sure I was ready for that yet. Still, it was over and possibly beating Kilimanjaro as the best thing I’ve done (so far).
Now how the hell am I going to top it?!