Strolling the songlines

Australia's epic Larapinta Trail delves into the Outback to discover unique wildlife, suprisingly diverse landscapes and an insight into Aboriginal Dreamtime stories. William Gray steps out

6 mins

It was almost as if the galahs had been planning to give us a big send-off. A fanfare of parrots, they streamed from ghost gums like pink ticker tape as we set foot on the Larapinta Trail. A euro wallaroo (halfway in size between a wallaby and a kangaroo) squatted on a boulder and watched us pass while crested pigeons flitted between tufts of spinifex grass and, high overhead, a wedge-tailed eagle pirouetted in a cerulean sky.

In the time it had taken us to walk from the outskirts of Alice Springs to the town’s historic Telegraph Station on the banks of the dry Todd River, any preconceptions we might have had that this was going to be a ‘barren desert hike’ had evaporated as quickly as the dawn mist. Ahead lay seven days of some of the world’s best bushwalking. Stretching 223km between Alice Springs and Mt Sonder, the Larapinta Trail would take us into the heart of the West MacDonnell Ranges, hiking through a part of the Outback renowned for its rich wildlife and Aboriginal culture.

Caterpillar Dreaming was just one of the spiritual tracks or ‘Songlines’ that we touched upon during our first day’s walk. The Dreamtime paths of the Arrernte Aboriginal people, who have inhabited the MacDonnell Ranges for some 20,000 years, are wrapped in cultural complexity. By contrast, our route would be clearly waymarked. We’d pick and mix from the 12 sections of the Larapinta Trail and, although experienced walkers can trek independently, our guided hike had the advantage of 4WD support.

At Wallaby Gap, a wilderness campsite 17km from Alice Springs, we were met by Steve in his Land Cruiser. Steve would transport all food and camping equipment to each of our overnight stops, allowing our group of eight the freedom of walking with daypacks. Toni, our other guide, would lead each day’s trek.

 “These are your swags,” she explained, kicking several bulky canvas rolls off the roof of the Land Cruiser. “It’s how we do things out here – no big drama!”

Each swag consisted of a zip-up bivouac housing a foam mattress and a pillow. They saved the hassle of erecting tents and, as we discovered later that night, had the added bonus of affording unsurpassed stargazing – the moon a mesmerising cat’s eye as it traversed the Milky Way.

Venus was still a vivid pinprick in the east when I heard our camp stir to life the following morning. By the time the rising sun had set aglow the feathery leaves of the mulga trees
and witchetty shrubs, we were back on the trail, continuing west to Simpsons Gap. Although technically a desert, with unpredictable and sparse rainfall, the MacDonnell, Ranges support over 250 species of plants. We walked slowly in a kind of botanising amble, pausing often to identify acacias, rock fuchsias, indigo shrubs, bush tomato and desert rose.

Many of the plants are deeply rooted in Aboriginal bushlore. Bark from the gnarled old corkwoods, for example, could be burnt and ground to produce a soothing powder for sores; sap from the sticky hopbush was effective against toothache, while leaves from red river gums could be used to treat fevers and aching joints. This ‘pickyour- own pharmacy’ was part of a much bigger bush-superstore that offered juicy witchetty grubs and thirst-quenching nectar, as well as poisons and spear shafts. All that was missing were the Arrernte people themselves. Their hunter-gatherer lifestyles faded soon after the arrival of European settlers.

The cats brought by the colonists also helped to wipe out a third of the region’s native mammal species. As we walked through an otherwise pristine wilderness, I felt a pang of regret that I was too late to glimpse the intriguingly named rusty numbat.

Of course, there were plenty of other animals about. Zebra finches chattered in twitchy flocks as they raided the scrub for seed, while pairs of ringneck parrots flashed emerald and blue through the skeletal branches of gum trees. We heard the cry of peregrine falcons echoing between the cliffs of Simpsons Gap and watched a 100-strong flock of redtailed black cockatoos descend on the gorge’s dry riverbed.

Some time before sunrise the following day, dingoes passed through our camp at Jay Creek. We followed their tracks, boulder-hopping along an arid creek bed to Fish Hole, a sacred Aboriginal waterhole nestled in the clutch of a narrow canyon. Permanent water is a rarity in the MacDonnell Ranges. Flash floods have left a legacy of gorges, but even the most determined torrents are eventually quenched by the Simpson Desert to the south-east.This is a place, wrote Banjo Patterson – of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ fame – ‘where the creeks run dry or ten feet high, and t’s either drought or plenty’.

The landscape on that day’s hike seemed equally extreme. From wading through hillsides of spinifex grass, we would later find ourselves striding along a knife-edge ridge with spectacular panoramic views across the rust-coloured ranges. We delved into the ‘lost world’ of a ravine choked with rare cycad palms – relics from wetter prehistoric times – and clambered among the flood-torn limbs of trees lodged between the red cliffs of Standley Chasm.

Bypassing a couple of sections by vehicle, we picked up the trail again at Ellery Creek Big Hole, the starting point for a challenging hike along quartzite ridges to Haasts Bluff and Mt Zeil – at 1,531m, the highest point in the Northern Territory. Some say the West Macs were the Himalaya of their time, soaring to over 10,000m in height; 300 million years of erosion have taken their toll, reducing the peaks to veterans of the Outback.

I felt slightly ancient myself as we approached Ormiston Gorge, near the western end of the Larapinta Trail. “It would be good if we didn’t speak for a minute or two,” said Toni as we walked into the wide mouth of the gorge. Crumbling, yet brutally rugged, Ormiston’s ancient cliffs reared around us. Toni was right: the place commanded a cathedral hush. Even the black-footed rock wallabies that watched us from their ledges seemed to move with exaggerated reverence.

Myths of the Dreamtime flow strongly through the contorted strata of Ormiston Gorge, but there is something equally fanciful about the geological evidence surrounding their creation. On a slab of sandstone sheared from the cliff, Toni pointed out the unmistakable pattern of ripple marks – the subtle fossilised impressions of a vanished sea in which the raw ingredients of the MacDonnell Ranges were deposited over 400 million years ago.

Deeper into the gorge, we waded across a small waterhole that seemed to be re-enacting the final moments of the shrinking prehistoric sea. Dead fish were floating everywhere – a natural, annual occurrence resulting from the stress of colder water during winter. Enough fish would survive to repeat the cycle, explained Toni; they would endure the extraordinary temperaments of the Outback – just as the original Arrernte people had long ago learned to mould their lives to its natural rhythms.

As we reached the 1,380m summit of Mt Sonder on the final day of our trek, the rest of the West MacDonnells lay crumpled below us, like vertebrae halfconsumed by the desert. For all its ruggedness, the Larapinta Trail had taken us on a privileged journey through a complex and delicate environment – a part of the Outback I had never dreamed existed.

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