Geological studies have determined that the MacDonnell Ranges, in central Australia, once soared as high as the Himalayas. Given their shrunken status these days, it's a claim that's difficult to grasp. But as I trudge towards the summit of Mt Sonder one bright, sunny morning, all I can do is praise the Lord for the erosive effects of wind and water over millions of years.
At 1380 metres, Mt Sonder marks the highest point on the 223-kilometre Larapinta Trail. For many, the pre-dawn hike to the top is the culmination of two weeks walking through the West MacDonnell Ranges. For my seven-strong group, including guides Tom and Moira, it's the penultimate day of a five-day itinerary that cherry-picks sections of the trail and sprinkles them with scenic side routes.
The hike to the summit makes a fitting end for those who set off from the Telegraph Station on the western fringes of Alice Springs. It affords views north-west to Mt Zeil, at 1531 metres the highest mountain west of the Great Dividing Range. In the opposite direction, a sharp cleft in a caterpillar-like ridge line indicates Glen Helen Gorge. Snaking towards it is the Finke River, which ends its journey 600 kilometres away in the sands of the Simpson Desert, while the distinctive outline of Gosse Bluff, a crater left by a meteorite strike 150 million years ago, rises from the plains in the distance.
Directly east of us, shadowed by Mt Giles, is Ormiston Pound, where we'd hiked across a depression ringed by jagged peaks the previous afternoon. After pausing to rest beside a waterhole that wouldn't have looked out of place if it had been populated by hippos and crocodiles, we removed our shoes to cross Ormiston Creek, inside a gorge where ochre-coloured walls rose 300 metres, reflecting the fiery afternoon sun. Our trail then climbed to a lookout point marked by a solitary ghost gum, high above the creek, before descending to our camp, where we spent our first night under canvas.
Our original schedule had us staying at Glen Helen Lodge on our first two nights, but a change of ownership meant we returned to Alice Springs each of those evenings. For the third and fourth nights we stayed at the Ormiston camp ground in safari-style tents and enjoyed hors d'oeuvres and three-course meals beneath brilliantly starlit skies – way more atmospheric than staying in a city hotel.
On our first night in camp, we'd feasted on emu sausages and grilled barramundi, accompanied by beers and wines. On our second, it was chicken tarragon and salmon before tracing the Dark Emu constellation inside a clearly defined Milky Way.
We had set off on the first day from Wallaby Gap bound for Simpsons Gap, following the first of 12 designated sections of the Larapinta Trail. Along the way, we learnt how the Arrernte people harvest food and medicine, and stopped beside waterholes where hundreds of noisy budgerigars and zebra finches kept us company.
That afternoon, we retraced our route via a scenic helicopter flight. All around us were landmarks named by early explorers, who came here looking for an inland sea. "They arrived 450 million years late," Moira dryly observed.
But there are numerous permanent waterholes, some of which we swam in. And evidence of the region once being buried beneath seawater remains embedded in the rocks. Slabs of Heavitree quartzite still bear the scars of rippling seas, and fossilised seashells can be picked out high in the walls of Standley Chasm.
After descending Counts Point on day two, Tom had stopped beside the trail to rest a foot on a boulder that, on closer inspection, wasn't a rock at all. "It's a stromatolite," he told us. "Scientists believe it may have arrived in an icy meteorite billions of years ago." The scientists even think it may have given birth to life on Earth, he added.
Like Mt Sonder, the views over parallel lines of ridges from Counts Point had been worth the arduous hike there. One couple we met coming in the other direction had just camped the night on top, away from the designated camp sites, which are usually located at the foot of the ranges.
Whenever we came across other hikers we always stopped for a chat; a hike through here is more than just placing one foot in front of the other. For some, it's about trying to understand the Arrernte culture. For others, it is an opportunity to reflect on their lives and perhaps embark on a new chapter. Or it might just be a way to reconnect with friends or meet new ones.
For all of us, though, it's a world away from everyday life and at the moment an experience to be cherished.
MarkDaffey was a guest of Life's An Adventure; lifesanadventure.com.au.