The Larapinta Trail is considered one of Australia’s most spectacular and challenging multiday treks. It traverses the West MacDonnell Ranges for 223km running west of Alice Springs, the main hub of Central Australia.
It’s a physically and mentally demanding trek through unrelenting, rocky terrain. The views, though. The views are incredibly worth every bit of blood, sweat and tears. I had never seen the colours and textures of the outback in such an intimate way before. And it certainly gave me a greater appreciation of my own country.
I undertook the Larapinta Trail independently, as a solo female hiker in winter of 2018. It was my first fully independent and self-catered multiday trek and it was one to remember. It took me 15 days to complete the 223km trek and I went in the traditional direction, starting in Alice Springs and heading west from there, finishing at Mt Sonder.
The only support I used was the services of Larapinta Trail Trek Support, who delivered my three food resupply boxes during the 15 days and picked me up at Mt Sonder to drive me back to Alice Springs at the end. I also hired a PLB from them to carry with me.
This is a detailed look at my day to day experience on the trail and is partly a diary-style post. I hope it gives you a good idea of what to expect on the trail, both the highs and the lows.
Day one: Telegraph Station to Wallaby Gap
I left Telegraph Station at 9am on July 4th 2018 and a few kilometres later I was thinking, ‘bloody hell this pack weighs a bit’, followed by, ‘it’s pretty bloody hot’, and then, ‘shit, I think I’ve gone off the trail’. Then, I kicked a rock, tripped and fell and blood was dripping down my right knee. What the hell am I doing out here?
So my first day on the Larapinta Trail wasn’t necessarily a great start. The 13.5 km of section one took me 5 hours. At one point, I lost the trail for a 100m and at another, I did trip and graze my knee. It was 28 degrees and I was sipping on hydralite as I was trudging up Euro Ridge, the highest point of the section. By the time, I saw the shelter at Wallaby Gap I was pretty glad that day one was over.
Still, the views along Euro Ridge were incredibly beautiful and I think an underrated part of the trail. It was a weird feeling to see Alice Springs fading off into the distance pretty quickly.
Distance: 13.5km | Time: 5 hours
Day two: Wallaby Gap to Simpsons Gap
I approached day two as a new day though and I smashed the 10.8km in 2.5 hours. It was a relatively easy section and I made it to Simpsons Gap by lunch. I sat in the shelter for nearly three hours chatting with thru-hikers doing the trail in the opposite direction. The Larapinta Trail is certainly one of highs and lows.
I understood why people tend to join the first and second day together into one, but I was glad to be easing myself into it and I appreciated the extra time to relax.
Distance: 10.8km | Time: 2.5 hours
Day three: Simpsons Gap to Jay Creek
The third day was the longest of the trek and let me tell you, it felt like the longest of my life, 27 kms in 7 hours and 40 mins. It wasn’t necessarily hard but the entire last 5km my brain was repeating to itself, ‘where is the campsite?’, ‘where is this bloody campsite?’, ‘where the f**k is this f**king campsite?’. You get the picture. Frustration had taken over.
It had been a long day. The views were probably the least impressive of any of the sections with a mostly undulating trail through scrubland. By the time I’d hit the 20km mark, I had hit a wall.
My feet were screaming at me to stop and I almost limped into camp just because I was so tired. Under the shelter, a few heads looked up and said, “You made good time!”. It definitely didn’t feel like it. I ripped my boots off and thongs on and sat on the platform and thought, ‘I’m not moving’ and I literally didn’t. I slept right there on the platform under the shelter with no energy to put my tent up.
I lay there listening to the others who had come through from the other way talking about how hard my next day was going to be. Lots of rocks, hill climbs and oh, a 5-metre rock wall that you have to somehow get over. An older guy turned to me and said, “You realise you have to pull yourself up over rocks, right?”. Yes, and your point?
“Well, I’m just sayin’ that’s probably going to be pretty hard for you”. Luckily I don’t doubt myself even when other people do.
Distance: 27km | Time: 7 hours 40 minutes
Day four: Jay creek to Standley Chasm
The next day, day four, was probably one of the most memorable of the trek. The scenery was spectacular and the rock scrambling was actually fun. There was quite a bit of scrambling through a river bed and then eventually, as I got closer to Standley Chasm, there was a lot of boulders and climbing to be done. It was tough but I enjoyed the challenge. I only had to take my pack off once to push it up over the 5-metre vertical rock wall that everyone had been talking about and before I climbed up after it.
The trail climbed up the chasm walls steeply and then over the top. It was pretty skinny in sections and I was finally getting used to finding my balance with my pack on. A tourist from the caravan park at Standley Chasm was climbing up for a view and I think he got a bit of a shock when he looked up to see this girl climbing down with a heavy pack. He was so amazed that I was doing the whole Larapinta Trail alone that he walked with me back down to the caravan park asking me all sorts of questions.
I happened to see Zak from the Larapinta Trail Trek Support who was dropping off food boxes and he came over to see how I was going. “Well, you’re still smiling so that’s a good thing. If you have just done that section then it’s not going to get much harder than that and once you hit Hugh Gorge you’ll be cruisin’ through after that.” It doesn’t sound like much but those words hung around in my head in the hope that he was right and he was. But Hugh Gorge was still a couple of days away at this point so I wasn’t going to be cruisin’ for a while.
The Standley Chasm kiosk was a nice treat and I had a much needed freshly cooked meal for $20. There was also a shower but with no soap or shampoo, it was just a rinse under hot water but better than nothing.
Distance: 14.7km | Time: 5 hours 40 minutes
Day five: Standley Chasm to Brinkley Bluff
Day five was always going to be a killer, with an ascent of 560m and an average pace time of 2km per hour, the climb up to Brinkley Bluff was no joke. Then add in a pack full of food after my first food drop at Standley Chasm and extra water as I was planning on dry camping at the top of the Bluff and you have one hell of a hike. After nearly 4 hours of stunning scenery, strong winds, rough, rocky ground and some hairy sections where I had to use my hands as well as my feet, I made it up to the top of Brinkley Bluff with 360 degree views of the landscape around me.
A Trek Larapinta guided end-to-end walk had left Alice Springs the same day that I had and I got to know the group of eight hikers and their two guides pretty well. They had left early that morning and were sitting up there having lunch in the perfect tent site. Brinkley Bluff is a popular place for camping for independent hikers, even for just overnight hikers, and getting a good spot sheltered from the wind was the priority. There was no one up there (yet) and so as soon as the group moved on to hike down the other side to their private site, I jumped right in and grabbed the spot.
I spent the afternoon reading and walking around the Bluff to take in the views. The ridge was very exposed which also meant I was able to charge my phone off my small solar panel. There was also a spot where I could get one bar of phone signal and I was able to send a message home, which was nice.
Distance: 10km | Time: 4 hours
It may have been one of the most protected spots on the Bluff but that wasn’t going to matter anyway. At around 11.30pm I woke up to gale force winds battling against my little tent. The roar of the wind as it came up the side of the mountain was so loud and I just had to brace myself as it came over the top and straight into my tent.
I had been semi-prepared and pegged my tent down well and even put rocks on top of the pegs but I was convinced my tent was going to be ripped out of the ground with me inside. Low and behold after getting next to no sleep, I crawled out of my tent in the blistering cold at 6.30am to watch the sunrise and my tent and all the pegs were still in place. What a miracle.
The sunrise from Brinkley Bluff was certainly one of the most spectacular things I’d ever seen. It was worth spending the night up there just to see the colours bounce across the barren landscape as the night turned to day.
Day six: Brinkley Bluff to Fringe Lily Creek
After the sunrise, I set off down the other side of the Bluff and the guidebook said ‘this section is perhaps the hardest of the entire trail…’. Oh good, just what I needed. However, the Larapinta Trail had seen some improvements over the last couple of years particularly on some of the steep sections. They had quite skilfully switchbacked the trail all the way down from the Bluff, which made it longer but much easier on your legs.
I arrived down at the trailhead campsite for section 4/5 early but my day was only half done. I refilled my water bladder and extra containers for a second night at a dry camp and continued on. I had to get through Spencer Gorge and Razorback Ridge.
Spencer Gorge definitely sounded nicer than Razorback Ridge, but it wasn’t. I met a father and son coming through the other way and the father stopped and said, shaking his head, “That section was the hardest we’ve done so far on the whole trail. Good luck”.
The trail followed a riverbed for a while until the sandy pebbles turned into larger stones that turned into bigger rocks until I was basically climbing over large boulders up through a gorge. It was tough and tiring. I literally stopped and sat on top of one rock to gobble down some more food and electrolytes to keep me going. There was no actual trail and basically it was up to me to pick my way through and over the rocks as best as I could, which meant it wasn’t only physically challenging but mentally tiring too.
I could see a little opening ahead and thought, ‘Light at the end of the tunnel’, but really it was only getting started. I came out at the top of Spencer Gorge and looked back down triumphantly until I turned to look up ahead at the trail winding up another mountain and then down Razorback Ridge.
Razorback Ridge is aptly named. It was literally a skinny ridgeline made out of razor-sharp rocks. So, of course, the trail climbed it’s way up to the top and then made you clamber down along the ridgeline over rocks that were literally starting to chew away at my boots.
The scenery may have been incredible, but by the time I was walking down from the ridge and towards the unofficial campsite at Fringe Lily Creek, I was wrecked. There was already a couple of people who had taken the only flattened spot so I continued another hundred metres looking to find somewhere. Over seven hours after leaving Brinkley Bluff, I just picked a spot off the edge of the trail, pitched my tent, threw my bag inside, crawled in after it and slept solidly for 11 hours. I’m not even joking.
Distance: 18km | Time: 7 hours 15 minutes
Day seven: Fringe Lily Creek to Rocky Gully
After my tough day and 11-hour sleep, I had to do it all again. The next day was another 20+ km day, but according to my itinerary, it would be my last day over 20km so I just needed to get it done. Not only that, but I would also pass through Hugh Gorge which was where Zak from LTTS had said I’d be cruisin’ through from thereafter. Thank God he was right, because I mentally depended on his words to get me there.
The morning started off with a hill climb to Rocky Saddle and then down into Hugh Gorge. The morning sun was only just beginning to hit the rock walls and it lit up a brilliant orange colour. There was more sandy and stoney riverbed walking for kilometres all the way through the Gorge. I came out to the trailhead campsite to fill my water and then pushed on to the campsite at Rocky Gully.
I lay in my tent that night and my eyes were feeling heavy by 7.30pm. My right foot had been aching now for two days and it throbbed but I went to sleep knowing that I would be halfway through the Larapinta Trail tomorrow!
Distance: 23.4km | Time: 7 hours
Day eight: Rocky Gully to Ellery Creek
Day eight was an easier 15km to Ellery Creek, my next food drop location. I walked into the car park at 12.30pm and had the rest of the day to relax. I even did a little bit of washing after wearing the same t-shirt since Alice Springs. It was in desperate need of a clean. I also inspected some of my gear. It seemed as though my boots were getting eaten by the rocky trail, but I just had to hope that they would hold up.
The swimming hole at Ellery Creek was ice cold so I just dipped my feet in it. Still, some crazy tourists were game enough to jump in. It was relatively busy and families were having BBQs and caravans were parked up along the road. It was odd to be back in a sort-of civilisation.
In the afternoon, an outback tour guide came over to the Larapinta Trail camp ground and said, “My tour is finishing up today and I’ve got a heap of food left, would you guys want any of it?”.
Like ravenous dogs, the few of us independent hikers all lept up and ran over and then casually said, “Sure, we could probably take it off your hands”. He had three loaves of bread, hamburgers, salad, three packets of salami, a block of cheese, milk and roast beef. It was like Christmas.
Distance: 14.7km | Time: 3 hours 45 minutes
To be continued…
You might also be interested in reading:
If you’re thinking about doing the Larapinta, read up on my Larapinta Preparation.
Check out my video from the Larapinta trail here.
If you’ve never done an overnight hike before, then read my 10 tips for your first overnight hike.