“What have I gotten myself into?” and “5 more nights of
this?!” were my first thoughts as I woke, shivering, from my fitful sleep. I was curled in a fetal position trying to
retain what little heat I could in my swag.
A swag is camping bed of sorts.
Unroll, unzip, insert sleeping bag and you have an instant bed. It’s standard issue when in the Aussie
We’d just completed day 1 on the Larapinta Trail*. The temperature was dropping as we rolled
into our campsite but I decided to sleep under the stars in the swag. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Especially after the “Good on ya!” I got from Emily, our ‘Aussie-girl-next-door’-type
guide. Also, my camping skills are crap
and I didn’t want to face the prospect of erecting my own tent at dusk whilst
no doubt being revealed to be the sorry sooky city slicker that I am.
The Larapinta Trail follows the West MacDonnell mountain
range from the town of Alice Springs to Mount Sonder,
some 225 km away, and is based on paths and ‘song lines’ of the Aboriginal
people that have lived here for thousands of years. This is the desert heart of Australia, the
“Red Centre” as they call it for that is the predominant color of the
landscape. The trail takes about 14 days
end-to-end, but I’d chosen the 7-day
‘highlights’ version offered by World Expeditions. Opened in 2002 and getting more popular by
the year, we still only saw a handful of others on the trail on any given day,
despite it being high season to boot.
Back to day 1: I’d forgotten how cold it gets in the desert,
that there can often be a morning frost that would make me and my swag damp and
cold. But the stars, the stars! Frigid desert nights tend to mean clear
skies. And so it was that night: The Southern
Cross, bright, shining Venus, satellites racing across the sky, the milk of the
Milky Way, and the clearest, biggest full moon I’ve ever seen, all making for a
visual feast. I was able to snap a
picture of the moon rising above the lavender sky before ‘rugging up’ – Aussie
for ‘bundling up’. There I was, going
for broke, layering clothes on like there was no tomorrow. And still I was cold. Meanwhile Emily and the other guides went
about cooking up a curry dinner in their shorts. Unlike them, I told myself, I have tropical
blood in me.
Ours was a group of 8 (3 others joined us for the first 3
days) mostly from Australia
with a couple of (giggling) German girls and myself. The guides were Aussies from Emily, the
chipper new recruit, to Tim, a veteran of a guide at the age of 25, to the
grizzled Simon, who guides when he’s not on mining sites helping with
operations. It was a ‘supported’ trip,
meaning one of the guides would drive a trailer with provisions and camping
equipment, so that we only had to carry a day-pack while walking. The other two guides would accompany us on
the trail but carry a massive pack with lunch, extra water and a bevy of other
provisions. And still we struggled to
keep up with Em, the leader of the pack.
The rest of the trip was, at once, timeless and a blur. We covered about 100 km in the 7 days with a
typical day involving a 7 am wake-up call for brekkie, hitting the trail
between 8-8:30, stopping for lunch between 12 – 1, getting into camp around 4
with dinner served from 6:30ish and lights typically out well before 10.
This land is
ancient beyond imagination. Millions
upon millions of years ago, the center of Australia used to be a sea – we
spotted many ‘ripple’ rocks fossilized with the motion of the ancient
waters. There were also mountains here
to rival the still-young Himalayas. These mountains have been on the wane and the
ranges, according to the Aboriginals, resemble caterpillars making their way
across the desert. They’re right.
The hills are striated with the different layers of rock
built up over the eons, compressed by such great force from the earth’s
movements that they are at near-right-angles to their horizontal starting
point. The Larapinta trail encompasses
the hills and ridges that make up the range, but also dips into the desert
floor, and traverses numerous gaps, gorges, chasms and creeks. One highlight was swimming in the icy
waterhole Ellery Creek after a hot day on the trail.
My favorite part of the trek was also the most
personal. After climbing onto a sacred
ridge known as ‘Eagle landing’ to the Aboriginals, we were given some time to
be by ourselves. I meandered. I meditated.
I got the iPod out to provide a soundtrack. I wasn’t sure about introducing music but was
moved to tears listening to Mozart’s Serenade in B Flat while taking it all in
- the caterpillar ridges on either side, the desert floor below, Mt Sonder in
It all brought home how insignificant we really are. On the timescales of these rocks, mankind is
a mere blip, a rounding error. All my
pressing life questions – ‘who am I?’, ‘what am I doing here?’ ‘should I or
shouldn’t I…?’, ‘will Cesc head to Barcelona?’
‘dare I do one more day in these boxers ?’ – seemed laughably trivial. How very liberating to realize we are all
I was surprised at the varied terrain and flora we
saw, from red desert to scrub brush to eucalypt and ghost gum trees along the
There were plenty of fauna as well. We spotted dingo paw prints and spoor but the
dingo was proving to be elusive. I tried
to console myself with the wildlife we’d already seen: wild kangaroos and
wallabies, lizards and a dragon. And all
manner of beautiful birds –sennifex pigeons doing their little dance, kites and
eagles gliding on thermals, zebra finches and flocks of green parrots buzzing
about, a lone heron wading in the creek.
But I ached to see a dingo…
At any rate, my body got used to the rhythm of the trail and
the rigors of camp life. I learned how
to pitch a tent. Sort of. I still flailed and needed help from
sympathetic campers. But I was definitely
getting less crap at it. The part I most
looked forward to was the campfire.
There’s something about gathering ‘round a fire that must be hard-wired
into us humans from time immemorial.
Also, it’s fricking cold at night and fires are warm. The dinners helped too and I had a hard time
picking a fave: roo & chicken bbq skewers vs Dutch-oven lamb roast but the
osso buco gets the nod; all washed down with a cheeky glass of red courtesy of
three very wise fellow campers. Who knew the Larapinta Trail was BYO?! They obviously did.
Day 6 was fast approaching.
Time to climb Mt.
Sonder. This meant a 3 am wake-up call so that we
could walk the 8 km up in time for sunrise.
Having climbed Mt.
Kilimanjaro and Toubkal,
I was confident and, it must be said, a bit cocky. Sonder promptly put me in my place ten
minutes into the walk when, as we were crossing a creek, I lost my footing and
plonked my foot into the water. A wet
left foot was sufficient warning and the rest of the climb thankfully went
without incident. We were rewarded with
beautiful panoramic views of the area with the sun streaming through the
clouds. It sprinkled a little on the
descent and, as we drove away, a rainbow appeared.
Having done Mt Sonder on day 6, day 7 was somewhat of a
victory lap with one last walk to take in a beautiful valley. We came upon a creek and I was sunning myself
by a rock when I heard a commotion with the German girls frantically waving and
calling me over. “Rags, there’s a
dingo!” Sure enough, there she was. A beaut at that. Last walk of the last day, the elusive dingo
appears. I thanked the wildlife gods.
The wildlife luck continued on the drive back to Alice Springs when we passed a herd of wild horses grazing
on the plain.
Thanks to the World Expeditions guides for their fearless
leadership and culinary skills; and to my fellow campers for their company and
tolerating my crap camping skills. It
was a trip I’ll always remember: tiring yet invigorating, a reminder of Mother nature’s
might and beauty and of one’s own insignificance in comparison, and yet
life-affirming because of it.
*More pix can be found here.