Larapinta Trail: Fees to be introduced as popularity of remote Aussie hike surges

My hamstrings are burning, my breath ragged, my heart pounding high and hard. At 10.30am, with the temperature nudging 30, that first saddle is still an endless series of switchbacks away.

Not even an hour into my "epic grade" Larapinta trek, my internal monologue kicks in: "Maybe I can't do this. This is harder than I thought. Do I need to do this?" My pre-walk training regime – lose 10 kilos, do a daily Yoga with Adriene session and a stroll around Sydney's Iron Cove (on the flat) once a week – might not be enough. What good was my bushwalker's "just plod on, you'll get there" mantra if muscle memory didn't kick in.

When I signed up I was looking for a "Turning 60" challenge. The average age of hikers on Trek Larapinta's Super6 walk is 45 to 50, it's 107 kilometres of hard, technical, albeit guided, walking. They say upfront it is "not for the faint-hearted", even the track signs warn "experienced walkers only".

Declan Hunn, our 29-year-old guide, says being aware of your own abilities and understanding how hard the trail can be before you set out is important. Asked to evaluate my unorthodox preparation, he tactfully replied: "It is always an honourable intention" to try to lose weight.

It's been almost 30 years since I did the Cradle Mountain Overland Track and fell in love with bushwalking. Somewhere along the way I transitioned from a fearless, independent bushwalker to a Bay of Fires glamper, complete with end-of-day foot spas and artfully-designed breakfasts of bacon, burrata and asparagus spears. It was time to put the grit back into bushwalking. Red grit.

The Larapinta Trail, completed in 2002, winds 223 kilometres across the Yeperenye (caterpillar) Dreaming country of the Western Arrernte people, tracking the spine of the Chewings and Heavitree ranges through the Tjoritja/Western MacDonnell Ranges National Park.

Since it opened, the trail has morphed from a favourite local walk to a world-renowned trek with up to 5000 walkers each year. In response to its surging popularity, the Northern Territory Government will introduce a multi-day walking fee permit system from October to manage the number of walkers and establish a revenue stream to fund track maintenance.

"People want to walk Larapinta for the sense of isolation, and we can run the risk of losing that if we don't manage the trail numbers," says Phil Cowan, district manager for Central Australian Parks. As yet it is not expected, he says, that there will be a need to dramatically reduce the number of walkers who can access the trail.

Each day on my trek was rated hard or very hard. Day 1 was a 14 kilometre "hard" walk from Jay Creek to Standley Chasm, under a fierce sun. Initially confronting, the stress eased with the reveal from the first saddle of the run of ridgelines we would be traversing in coming days.

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I have always associated guided walks with glamping, and I assumed, with a price tag of $2895, that while we'd walk hard during the day, we'd land softly come nightfall. In camp that night, dinner was a hearty serve-yourself vegetarian lasagne, eaten under the watchful eye of the "Emu in the Sky", stretched across the Milky Way. Landing softly was a tent you pitched yourself or a swag rolled out on the rocky ground. When I finally embrace the swag, it offered a perfect window on the glittering canopy of the night sky.

On Day 2, (17 kilometres, very hard), we set off at 7am to beat the sun, arriving at the high point of Brinkley Bluff before midday. I am doing much better, the light breezes on the ridgelines providing relief from the 30-degree heat. I start to believe my legs will be able to carry me through. My trusty hiking boots aren't faring as well unfortunately, and the soles are starting to lift. (By Day 3, they are strapped with sports tape, and on Day 4, I'm in runners).

That evening brings us to the shaded beauty of Birthday Waterhole, often a muddy puddle but thanks to heavy rains in early 2021, a 50-metre stretch of deep, chilled billabong. The rain also ignites the wildflowers – pink mulla mulla, bright red holly grevillea, green pussytail and yellow cassia – a welcoming break from the splinter-inducing spinifex.

Day 3, (13 kilometres, very hard) starts at Hugh Gorge and includes a treacherous traverse along Razorback Ridge, with shifting rubble of shattered quartzite underfoot. We are back at Birthday Waterhole in time for another dip, Dencorub and a good stretch before sundown. Two very hard days in the bag. For the first time, I thought, "I've got this".

The payback for doing the "very hard" sections of the Larapinta is how few other walkers you pass. So, Day 4, (13.4 kilometres, hard), from Serpentine Gorge to Serpentine Chalet Dam via Count's Point, is a shock. Most tour groups include the climb, which offers jaw-dropping views to Mount Sonder, on their itinerary. As we approached Count's Point, the ant line of walkers up the final ascent is reminiscent of the 2019 traffic jam on Everest.

In an effort to escape the large party on the descent, I break my walking rhythm, double timing in the hot afternoon sun, and arrive in camp dehydrated and nauseous with mild sunstroke.

As a result, I miss Day 5, (29 kilometres, hard), a 12-hour slog from Serpentine Chalet Dam to Ormiston Dam. Instead, I spent the day resting in my swag under a mighty river gum by what is thought to be the world's oldest riverbed, the Finke (called Larapinta in Arrernte) River. Overhead are a pair of Major Mitchell cockatoos and the constant brrr of budgerigar wings, creating an unscripted moment of Larapinta magic.

On our final day, we choose not to summit Mount Sonder, calculating that up to 80 other walkers would be making the pre-dawn climb. Instead, we see the sun rise across Ormiston Pound (10 kilometres, easy) before wading back down the gorge, at one point chest deep with packs above our heads, to finish the trek.

My boots are shredded but I make it, more or less intact. As Declan Hunn says, there is a balance between fitness and experience, a value in knowing you have "the mental fortitude to make it through whatever challenges the trail throws at you, compared to just being fit and relying on that fitness to get you through."

Muscle memory is a fine thing. Already I'm looking ahead to taking on the 16-day End-to-End Larapinta trek, perhaps as a "Turning 65" challenge. After all, I know I can do the hardest parts.

The writer travelled at her own expense.

THE DETAILS

FLY

Qantas flies direct to Alice Springs from Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. See Qantas.com

TREK

Guided treks (three to 16 days) and trek support services for independent walkers available from Alice Springs-based operators.

SEE

The Araluen Art Centre's "Lineage and Legacy" exhibition (until September 12, 2021) featuring work from the Hermannsburg School, the Hermannsburg Potters and the Western Desert art movement.

Join the Journey The Dreaming Aboriginal cultural tour before you start your trek. Bookings through the Alice Springs Visitor Information Centre.

EAT AND DRINK

The Page 27 Cafe does a great breakfast, try The Bean Tree Café at the Olive Pink Botanic Garden for lunch and in the evening, if you have transport, search out the quirky Alice Vietnamese Restaurant near the airport. For a drink, head to Monte's Lounge.

STAY

The DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel ($225 per night) is a 25-minute walk from the town centre. For a more modestly priced, centrally located option, try the Aurora Hotel ($130 per night)

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