Larapinta walk, West MacDonnell National Park: The Northern Territory's secret mountains

Waking up at 2am to climb a mountain by torchlight is not something you expect to be doing in the dusty, red-earthed middle of Australia. Yet here I am, with 12 others and our guides, walking in silent single file in the dark to reach Mount Sonder​'s 1350-metre summit by sunrise. 

It's not the only mountain-moment on this six-day Larapinta trek. All week as we walk west from Alice Springs through West MacDonnell National Park, we travel not across this semi-arid landscape, but up and down it. 

It starts on day one when we amble up the back of an escarpment and suddenly find ourselves on Euro Ridge, facing a precipitous drop and forever views – of neighbouring ranges running roughly east-west, all part of the West MacDonnell Ranges. 

Who knew Central Australia – beyond the monoliths of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, 400 kilometres to the southwest – could be so mountainous? It all started 300 million years ago when great forces at the edges of the continent travelled inland, crumpling the landscape into peaks as high as the Himalayas, which have since eroded into the mild-mannered mountains we see today, though the highest, Mount Zeil, is still an impressive 1531 metres. 

Not that the walking is difficult. In fact, the Larapinta must be the most accessible multi-day walk in Australia. It might take two weeks to walk it end to end, a distance of 223 kilometres, but because the trail runs parallel to a sealed main road you can day-walk the best bits, carrying only a daypack and using a support vehicle to drop you off and pick you up each day.

"It's a highlights reel of the Larapinta," says Ryan, one of our guides, about this six-day version of the trek.

It also helps that I'm walking with World Expeditions, which pioneered commercial trekking on the Larapinta in 1995 and has three semi-permanent eco-camps along it (the third one was added last year), which are another highlight of the walk. 

That first afternoon we descend into a broad valley between the Chewings and the Heavitree ranges, and walk into Nick's Camp, named after Sydney architect Nick Murcutt​ who designed the camps in consultation with the Arrernte​ traditional owners and NT Parks and Wildlife Service, who jointly manage the land. 

Don't be fooled by the "architect-designed" part. This is environmentally sensitive bush camping, not glamping. Along with eco-features such as waterless composting toilets and solar lighting, the entire camp – from its orange-canopied communal living-dining area and bush-green amenities tents to the 12 two-person tents – is "packed down" at the end of each walking season, leaving almost no trace.

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Not that there aren't a few comforts: hot bucket showers, campfires (using sustainably sourced wood) and gas heaters for cold outback nights, biodegradable Dindi Naturals soaps and shampoo, not to mention gourmet meals created by our guides (alcohol isn't provided, but guests can BYO whatever they'd like to drink). I love the outdoor hand-washing station with mirrors we share with magpie larks preening themselves. 

All the camps have new tents this year too, khaki canvas cubes that are roomier than the original dome tents and high enough to stand up in; they also have timber decks out the front now and little wooden tags, each bearing the name of an iconic Australian walk such as Jatbula​, Overland or Heysen, a nice touch and handy when you're trying to remember which tent is yours in the dark. 

We sleep in swags on comfortable stretcher beds, the definition of outback luxury. Some nights we drag them outside to sleep under the stars (and the torch-bright full moon on my trip). One night we hear the howls of distant dingoes. Then there's the "rooster" that seems to follow us from camp to camp: Nom, another guide, doing her 6am cock-a-doodle wake-up call.

That's how day two starts and by 7.30am we're walking out of camp, then up a hill, over a saddle and into Simpson's Gap. "Do you know how to listen to the trees drinking?" asks Nom, dreadlocks bursting from a hole in her felt hat, as we walk along the sandy riverbed to the Gap's permanent waterhole, where we see a couple of black-footed rock wallabies. Put one ear to the smooth, white trunk of a river red gum, she says. Ignoring suspicions that it's a "dropbear" story, a few of us try it and are surprised to hear a soft, intermittent whooshing.

Even if it's not true, there's water everywhere in this semi-arid country, past and present. Green-ness from recent rains, gaps and gorges carved by water over millions of years, wildflowers with names as bold as their colours: showy indigos, hairy darling peas, large green pussytails. We walk on slabs of rippled rock, remnants of a time when this part of Australia lay under an inland sea. 

Even the trail itself is named after a river, the Finke, called "Lhere pirnte" in Western Arrernte. We get to swim in it one afternoon, in Glen Helen Gorge, flanked by high red quartzite walls. It's too cold to stay in long, but it feels like an honour to make contact with a river said to be the oldest in the world, having followed the same course for 300 million years.

There's no swimming in the pool at Serpentine Gorge, however, which we walk into on day three. No rock wallabies either, just a fierce water serpent whom the Arrernte used to placate by singing songs. Signs ask us not to even touch the water and to be still and quiet to avoid disturbing the serpent. It makes for a peaceful experience, each of us finding a place to sit or stand to take in the birdcalls, the soft breeze rippling the surface of the pool, the morning light bleeding down the red walls. 

That's another way this walk goes up and down: ridges then gorges, peaks then peace, social times and solo ones.

I'm a chronic dawdler on trips like this, too curious to walk fast, but the guides let us each travel at our own pace. On day four, after a rest stop, they even send us off at five-minute intervals to give us half an hour of walking-alone time. It's like being recalibrated, a chance to lift the human-centric veil and glimpse what's underneath, between the big sky overhead and the tiniest flakes of mica sparkling in the sun at our feet.

That afternoon, we meet the vehicle again at the Ochre Pits, a sacred canyon of colours still used by the Arrernte people, before driving to our last camp and the newest, Camp Fearless. Named after mountaineer and World Expeditions guide Sue Fear, nicknamed "Fearless", who fell to her death in the Himalayas in 2006, it's a base camp of sorts, with a cracker of a view. One of the best features of the new tents is that you can unzip the entire back wall; at Camp Fearless that means you can lie on your bunk looking straight up at the bumpy outline of Mount Sonder. "It's great because you can look up to where you're going tomorrow," Ryan says, "and when you get back you can see where you've been and think, Yeah!"

After an early dinner, we're all in bed by 7.30pm (which makes me feel like an eight-year-old on a school camp), in preparation for that 2am human-rooster wake-up call.

The next morning we're on the track by 3am and on top of Sonder three hours later (or almost, the true summit, 750 metres higher, is closed for safety reasons), waiting for sunrise. As the guides pass around Tim Tams and cups of tea, and we put on more clothes (though it's a relatively warm 13 degrees), a red-gold stripe spreads along the eastern horizon and lights up a few landmarks: Counts Point (where we'd first seen Sonder from afar, framed by ghost gums like an Albert Namatjira​ painting), Gosse Bluff (formed when a comet crashed to earth 142 million years ago) and Mt Zeil (27 kilometres away). 

By late morning we're back at Camp Fearless tucking into scrambled eggs and bacon cooked on the campfire. Our other reward for walking for six hours before brunch is an afternoon at the "beach": a sandy bend in the Finke River where we relax, swim and bird-watch. 

Just when we think the trip's high points are behind us, metaphorically as well as geographically, the guides pull an ace out of their sleeves on the last day: Ormiston Pound. 

"This is my favourite day of the week," says Ryan, and we soon see why. An easy seven-kilometre loop trail takes us over the rim of this square "crater" (created not by a comet but when two mountain ranges collided) and across its middle, where cattle grazed until the 1950s. It's a riot of wildflowers until we enter Ormiston Gorge, where we rock-hop between towering walls that get higher and closer the further we go. Then, just before the end of the track, an obstacle: a waist-deep pool we have to cross by wading through gigglingly cold water, carrying our packs on our heads. 

It's a fitting end to a walk that has immersed us in this rugged, ancient landscape in more ways than one. Then it's a two-hour drive back to Alice Springs. How can that be? After a week of rocky trails and red dust, swags and campfires, seeing few other walkers and not keeping up with the news, how can the Northern Territory's third largest city be only 135 kilometres away? It's one of the paradoxes of the Larapinta and the beauty of travelling in this part of Australia: real remoteness is closer than you think.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

 travelnt.com

GETTING THERE

Qantas flies direct to Alice Springs from Sydney, Melbourne and other capital cities. See qantas.com

WALKING THERE

World Expeditions offers three- to 14-day guided and self-guided walks on the Larapinta Trail between April and September. Its three eco-camps are used on the  three-day Larapinta Experience in Comfort ($1395 a person) and this six-day Classic Larapinta Trek in Comfort ($2295). See larapintatrailwalk.com.au or worldexpeditions.com or call 1300 720 000.

STAYING THERE

You'll need to stay a night in Alice Springs either side of your trek. Chifley Alice Springs Resort, right in town, has rooms from $129 a night; see silverneedlehotels.com/chifley/alice-springs. The more deluxe Lasseters Hotel has rooms from $135 a night, see lasseters.com.au

Louise Southerden was a guest of World Expeditions and Tourism NT. 

FIVE MORE OUTBACK WALKS 

1. Arkaba Walk, SA: A four-day gourmet guided trek through a private wildlife conservancy in the Flinders Ranges, with accommodation in deluxe swags. See arkabawalk.com 

2. Jatbula Trail, NT: Six days with a full pack, following the Arnhem Land escarpment from Nitmiluk​ (Katherine Gorge) to Leliyn​ (Edith Falls), camping each night beside croc-free swimming holes. See worldexpeditions.com

3. Lurujarri Dreaming Trail, WA: A nine-day trek following a songline through saltwater country north of Broome, which started in 1987 as a way to keep culture alive. See goolarabooloo.org.au

4. Carnarvon Gorge, Qld: Eight days, starting three hours from Brisbane and taking in the pine-forested Bunya Mountains and Cania Gorge, with cabin-style lodgings. See auswalk.com.au 

5. Mutawintji National Park, NSW: Three solid day-walks in this semi-arid national park near Broken Hill, including the Bynguano Range track that includes Aboriginal rock art. See nationalparks.nsw.gov.au

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