Tjoritja, also known as the West MacDonnell Ranges dominates the red centre of Australia. It stretches east of me from my vantage point. They fold, they snake, and they divide into several long creases away into the hazy dusty distance. There are layers of different coloured rock exposed like the ribs of a large mythical beast. This is the spine of a living desert.
I felt satisfied. Stretched out before me, towards Alice Springs were the 230km of trail I’d just completed. I was tired – I’d hiked almost 270kms and climbed over 8000m, the equivalent height of Annapurna (10th highest peak on earth), and I was relieved (I’d actually made it). But mostly I was just satisfied. Like a painter admiring a completed painting, where every step taken in my leather boots were like a brush strokes on a giant canvas.
Atop Mt Sonder at 1380m, the final climb, above Red Bank Gorge, the most westerly point of the trail, I looked back at two weeks of hiking. I’d climbed steep ridges, battled fierce winds, fought blisters that almost crippled me from the start. There was also the week before hand, planning each of the 14 stages, organising kit and food drop logistics. I had to double check the kit, the meals, the maps and my emergency beacon. I had made mistakes (result = blisters), could have taken a few more snacks, but mostly the walk was simply beautiful, memorable and trouble free.
I was asked several times what the highlight of my 5-months travel through northern and southern Australia was. I had to consider the many items on my bucket list that I’d ticked off. Finally seeing Uluru, dressed in the rusty hues of sunrise and sunset, and running a lap of the rock; Kakadu with its wetlands, amazing rock art and exciting croc encounters; cage diving with great white sharks in South Australia, especially a magnificent, composed, 4m female called Sophie; time spent with an old friend exploring her back yard, one of vineyards, bluffs and beaches, and the magical sand dunes of the Coorong where Australia’s longest river the Murray meets the Southern Ocean.
They were all wonderful. But the one that left the greatest impact on me, was a walk. Stepping into and through an ancient landscape, where the rocks and waterholes whisper a welcome despite a fierce winter sun. This is not a forgiving region, it’s dry and dusty with rare but devastating fires and the occasional flood – welcome to Australia.
But looking back, back over the previous two weeks, I could easily pick out the distinct ranges I’d hiked along, the gorges I’d taken refuge in, and the three summits where I pitched my tent for priceless views at sundown. Brinkley Bluff, Mt Giles Lookout, and the creatively named Hilltop Lookout.
The West MacDonald ranges surprised me. It didn’t have peaks that pierced the sky, or glaciers that hung like white curtains several miles high, or lush green alpine meadows. It was dry, bloody hot and any green on the landscape was a drab olive, thin and sharp – designed to resist an unrelenting sun. But it was still beautiful. And I hadn’t been just a spectator, I’d immersed myself into its landscape, breathed its subtle desert scents that teased on desert breezes. I listened to a myriad of birds sing a welcome every daybreak, the howling passing dingos at night. I hadn’t been just a spectator, I was in the arena. I washed and swam wherever I could in the chilly waters of the gorges hidden in gaps between the mountains. I left skin behind on sharp rocks, gallons of sweat amongst the dusty scrub, and a few footprints that hid bandaged blisters on both feet. Those first few days most definitely should have been shorter. And, I became reacquainted with the heavens, Mars passing close to Earth and bright like a star, the Southern Cross showing me south, and the soft cloudy glow of the Milky Way.
I felt like I’d earned this view. This view back along 14 days, of solitude and trail buddies, aches and pains, and moments of bliss, sweat and swims, the worries at the start, the certainty at the end. I’m grateful to the friends who walked this trail ahead of me and recommended it. The Larapinta Trail was an unexpected delight. The only expectation I did have was that it would be a challenge, and it was. But looking back over the last 6 months, it was definitely THE highlight of my trip.