Stage 1 - Alice Springs to Standley Chasm

Day 1 - Alice Springs Telegraph Station to Wallaby Gap (14 km - 440m ascent - 370m descent)

After an early morning drive from Glen Helen, we dropped off the rental car and caught s local taxi to the old Alice Spring Telegraph Station - we were ready to go. The official start of the Larapinta Trail is 400m to the west on the side of the road. The old telegraph station seemed to us a more symbolic place from which to head off - so here we were, sipping a last brewed coffee while looking across at the almost century-old buildings, representative of what will soon be considered a brief period in communications history when wires ruled the day - a technological marvel even 60 years ago, but so passé now.

The Old Telegraph Station at Alice Springs

Time for one last brewed coffee .....

.... and then off on the trail

Then it was off on this clear desert winter's day, not a cloud in the sky and temperatures in the high-teens - ideal walking weather. We headed out quickly across the flat valley of the Todd River to reach an old isolated cemetery - lonely graves evoke a feeling of sadness, though I'm not sure why - it was a perfectly peaceful spot to spend eternity.

Crossing the Finke River flats

A lonely outback cemetery

The red granite-lined track

We were now gradually climbing across low rolling hills, rusted red granite boulders, scrubby shrubland and an understorey largely composed of buffel grass, an evil weed that has invaded the West MacDonnells. Occasional scatterings of white granite chips gave away the true colour of the rock. For a while we followed the single strand of the old telegraph line, then left it again to undulate and meander our way across the scrubby low hills and valleys, as the track picked its way westwards.

Low hills and witchetty bush scrub

Dropping down into the sandy bed of the Charles River, we had a brief rest in the shade of a big river gum before heading on. Climbing out of the river bed, we followed the dirt and crumbling asphalt of the old Alice-Darwin Highway, before crossing beneath the imposing concrete pillars of a bridge supporting the new highway (progress, always progress).

Remnant of the old Adelaide-Darwin telegraph line

Sandy bed of the Charles River

The new highway bridge over the Charles River

Now heading away from the roads, we began to climb the stony ridge on the southern side of the river. A short while later, we reached a high point with views back over the distant buildings of Alice Springs. This must have been the only reason the track had climbed this ridge, for it quickly descended to cross the Ghan Railway - two parallel lines of steel curving their way through a cutting in the red rock.

Looking out across the railway

A last view across the grasslands towards Alice Springs

The Ghan railway line

At last, civilisation was at our backs and we pushed on, climbing and descending over low dry hills covered with scattered mulga and thick buffel grass. Where patches of wildflowers pervaded, butterflies were out and flitting in the warm midday sun. A bite of lunch under a shady mulga was our only stop as we wended our way westwards.

View over the rolling hills west of Alice Springs

Heading east-west is not the preferred direction of most Larapinta walkers, so we had been expecting to cross paths with oncoming trekkers. Today there was only one - a Finnish girl who we met at the base of the climb to Euro Ridge and who was on the last day of a solo end-to-end hike. Well done Tuija!

The track now wound its way steadily up the northern flank of Euro Ridge - the slabs of granite tilting 45° upwards to form this long and at times razor-sharp ridge. As we reached the top, we could look behind at the steeply tilting buffel-covered red rock and ahead to the black-shadowed void where the southern edge of Euro plunged sheerly to the plain below. It was impressive. This was the euro of the aboriginal dreamtime, who dug the waterhole near Alice Springs. We had climbed his head and would now follow his spine.

Approaching Euro Ridge

View back east from Euro Ridge

The route along Euro Ridge

Westward view along Euro Ridge

Following the ridgeline, occasionally airily next to the void, a series of panoramic views unveiled of long westward-aligned ridges, with even more dramatic mountains arising in the distance out of the flat plain. It whet our appetites for the rest of the walk.

Spot the fair Nello climbing to the high point

Finally, the track descended steeply down the rubbly northern slope to reach the camp at Wallaby Gap - shelter, water, toilet in a pleasant setting just below the entry to a small gorge. As a bonus, we were the only people there. We set up camp and, as the sun settled behind the ridge to the west, wandered up to the entry of Wallaby Gap with the hope of seeing some of the rock-wallabies from which it derives its name. They were far too discrete.

Late evening stroll up Wallaby Gap

The stars emerged one by one to light up the sky (particularly nice as the moon had not yet risen) and we spent our time trying to name the constellations (revision definitely needed). The enormous dark shape of the emu, however, was clearly visible, marching slowly across the southern skies as it has done since the dreamtime. By 8pm the desert sky was sucking the heat from the earth and the temperatures were already down to single digits. It was time to head for the tent and reflect on a first day well passed on the Larapinta Trail.

Day 2 - Wallaby Gap to Simpsons Gap (12km - 260m ascent - 290m descent)

We had overcompensated for the expected cold of the desert. It turned out to be quite a mild night as a band of cloud rolled in to hide the stars and keep the remaining heat in the soil. Thermals and beanies were quickly discarded to avoid dying of heat stress and the night passed comfortably. The next morning we were up and off beneath a dapple-clouded sky just as the sun rose above the heights of Euro Ridge, heading westwards across slope and flat.

Cloud dappled sky at Wallaby Gap

Buffel grass infestation at Bloodwood Flats

Mulga woodlands

The pool at Scorpion Springs

The walking was quick and easy on a smooth path, red and dusty with the prints of many walkers and the odd dingo. The extent of the buffel grass problem was also becoming apparent - Bloodwood Flats were a sea of purple seedheads beneath a scattered woodland. Every now and then patches of smaller, more delicate native grasses remained, but it seemed inevitable that they would soon be smothered.

We needed something to cheer us up and that came in the form of Scorpion Springs. We dropped our packs at the intersection and wandered several hundred metres up the side path to this small waterhole, backed by low red rocks and still pleasantly shaded. Just as there had not been any wallabies at Wallaby Gap, we saw no water scorpions at Scorpion Springs. However, as we sat there, a flock of diamond firetails dropped in for a drink, while flycatchers chattered away at a passing falcon. A shrike-thrush piped its clear sweet notes in the distance and the importance of these waterholes to the fauna of the MacDonnells became obvious.

Looking downstream from Scorpion Springs

The falcon and the moon

The sun slowly reached into our little nook and it was time to head on. Picking up our packs, we continued our meander across the buffel-infested landscape (and I do mean meander, as at one stage we were heading back east). Eventually the track brought us out on to the southern flank of the Rungutjurba Ridge, where we crossed paths with Linda, our second solo end-to-end walker.

Hat Hill and the lower slopes of Rungutjurba

Looking out over the shadowy plains

It was time for the climb of the day, directly up the southern flank of the ridge to reach a long traverse through the mulga woodlands that fringed the slopes below the tall red cliffs of the ridge. Huge slabs of granite, scattered amongst the trees, testified to the dynamic nature of the cliff-face.

Fallen boulder on the side of Rungutjurba Ridge

View west from Hat Hill Saddle

The path around Hat Hill

Slowly we descended to reach Hat Hill Saddle, separating the massif of the ridge from the small conical red rock of Hat Hill. Here for the first time we came across spinifex, the sharp-needled grass of the outback and here we stopped for lunch to take in the glorious views and cooling breeze. Back east lay Alice Springs and the Heavitree Range, while ahead we could see Simpsons Gap and the ranges beyond.

The Heavitree Range - from Hat Hill

A well-formed track now led us around the southern flank of Hat Hill and down through the scrub to reach the dry sandy bed of Roes Creek with its tall river gums. A short while later we arrived at the brand new Simpsons Gap campsite, with its large steel-framed shelter and sleeping pads for a dozen. Tonight we would not be alone as two groups (3 and 4 people) were already there. I wandered back down the track to retrieve our rock-covered food cache that we had hidden three days earlier.

We set up our tent on the sandy pad, brewed a coffee or two and then wandered down to Simpsons Gap for a spot of early evening rock-wallaby watching. At first nothing seemed to move, but then our eyes became more accustomed to picking up the slight movements on the rock jumble across the creek bed. Distant but definite, we had at last seen a rock wallaby (or five, in fact).

Rungutjurba Ridge and Hat Hill

Rock wallabies at Simpsons Gap

Sandy bed of Roes Creek

The brand new shelter at Simpsons Gap campsite

And so another day had passed on the track - time to head back to the campsite for a nosh-up of rehydrated spag bol and then to bed to the sounds of a chorus of nocturnal insects.



Three different aspects of Simpsons Gap
(taken on the our food-drop day
when the light was better)

Day 3 - Simpsons Gap to Mulga Camp (16km - 270m ascent - 210m descent)

It was a peaceful night with only the distant howl of a dingo to disturb our slumber. It was quite a bit colder, however, and by 4am my beanie had migrated to my head for warmth. Our sleeping bags kept the rest of us toasty warm. By morning the remnant clouds had gone and we were greeted with the classic blue sky desert day. The temperature quickly rose and by the time we set we were down from down jackets and beanies to shirts and shorts.

Leaving behind the dark cleft of Simpsons Gap, the track headed its errant way westward from the campsite, crossing a scrubby rise to head off across the buffel grass flats. We were sharing a track with the Woodlands Trail and I began to wonder whether it would be better named The Buffel Grass Trail.

A last glimpse back to Simpsons Gap

Former grazing lands west of Simpsons Gap

View across the ghost gums to Arenge Bluff

Crossing creeks and wending our way around the rocky knolls on the southern flank of the Rungutjurba Ridge, we parted company with the Buffel Grass Trail to cross one more rocky knob, this time covered in spinifex. I wondered if this was the frontier of the noxious weed, but on the far side it was back - the hill was just a spinifex version of Masada.

Ahead lay the long southern face of Arenge Bluff, with a dark shadow at its eastern end indicating the entry to Bond Gap. We descended quickly to the sandy creek bed in front of the gap and dropped our packs in the shade of a mulga. Firetail finches chirped away at a nearby waterhole between cream sand and red rock as we headed up into the gap itself.

Heading towards the cleft of Bond Gap

Lush woodland at the entry to Bond Gap

It was a wonderful spot, large river red gums and a long reed-fringed pool, wedged between narrow rock walls that glowed orange in the midday sun. On returning to our packs, we took off our boots and soaked our feet in the chill water of the creek, home to nibbling tadpoles and assorted aquatic insects. The shade of the sandy creek bed was a great place to linger for an extended lunch break, as the day was heating up and my shirt was already salt-encrusted from perspiration.

Bond Gap in red and green

Nello soaks her feet near Bond Gap

Still, this was not our destination, so we reluctantly put packs back on, climbed out of the river and worked our way across the wooded southern flank of Arenge Bluff beneath the shade of desert pine and mulga. Reaching the bed of Rocky Creek at the western end of the bluff, we began to see why Arenge is such a prominent feature - its western ramparts, gleaming red in the afternoon sun rose sheerly out of the dull olive hills below.

Low hills south of the ridge

View back to the western Rungutjurba Ridge

Looking across the mulga to the west face of Arenge Bluff

Arenge Bluff

Despite the sign ... the water was OK

The track now headed north through dense buffel grass and somewhat desolate burnt mulga woodland. It wound its way around the upper catchment of the Rocky Creek system, before heading west again to reach Mulga Camp .... or at least the very recently defunct Mulga Camp.

It looked a pleasant enough spot, flat sandy campsites and tall shady mulgas, but apparently yesterday it was dismantled apart from a sign telling us that the new Mulga Camp awaited us a kilometre further on. That kilometre, which climbed over a woodland ridge, seemed one of the longest that we had walked, but eventually we reached the new site.

Upper catchment of Rocky Creek

The brand new Mulga Camp

The deserted site of Old Mulga Camp (dismantled yesterday)

Spreading out at Mulga Camp

It was neither flat nor sandy, but had a couple of tables and benches that we really appreciated. Tent sites were hard to find and a group of three students had beaten us to the prime spot. We settled for a dusty hollow, moving stones and old cow pats to create a place to pitch the tent. We wondered why the site was shifted and not just upgraded, other than a shorter distance to cart tank water. Still, ours was not to wonder why and we settled in as another cold, crystal-clear desert night descended.

Day 4 - Mulga Camp to Jay Creek (10km - 180m ascent - 120m descent)

I write this sitting in the shade of a river red gum on the sandy bed of Jay Creek. The afternoon sun is shining warmly, the birds are singing and a deliciously cool breeze is blowing as I look out past our tent and over the sand to the red rock flanks of the Chewings Range - bliss. The day had quickly warmed after another cold night and, by 9am this morning, we had headed off from Mulga Camp in shirts and shorts.

We and the students had been the first people to sleep at new Mulga Camp, though I suspect that I would have preferred the honour of being the last to sleep at old Mulga Camp. Still, it now was a kilometre less to Jay Creek, making for a very short day's walk. We headed quickly through the mulga woodland that filled the Rocky Creek catchment, crossing its stony bed several times between Half Gap and Spring Gap.

The precarious habitat of a rock fig

Southern approach to Spring Gap

Spring Gap n the morning shade

A tranquil pool at Spring Gap

The sun had by now risen high enough to reach the floor of Spring Gap, making it a great place to rest, surrounded by river red gums and the twitterings of local birds. Spring Gap was our gateway to the northern side of the MacDonnell Ranges and we followed a series of waterholes through its red rock walls, before beginning a steady climb onto a long shrub-covered rocky ridge.

As we climbed views began to emerge over Mt Lloyd and the northern flank of the Chewings Range, red-faced and barren-sloped. It was a pleasant stroll along this ridge, as it picked up the cool wafts of air. The day was already hot again and we appreciated that.

Crossing the low rocky ridges

The northern entry to Spring Gap

Track across the northern scrublands

At the far end of the ridge, we could look back to the cleft of Spring Gap from whence we came and forward to the the less obvious opening of Fishing Hole Gap, to where we were headed. The track wound its way down and across the headwaters of Jay Creek - a bit of flat walking, followed by a few low rises.

View west towards the Chewings Range

North of the MacDonnells - heading towards Fishing Gap

A clump of creamy native wildflowers

Crossing the native grassland flats

Arriving at Jay Creek campsite

Finally, we could see the new steel-framed shelter of Jay Creek campsite across the wide sandy bed of the creek itself. It was an excellent place to stay and its setting, at the mouth of the gap - broad-tree lined creekbed framed by red rock walls - was superb.

The hills around Jay Creek



The red rock walls of the gap

This had been the shortest leg of our trek so far and we arrived in time for lunch, with a whole afternoon to while away after setting up camp. We probably needed the rest, as the caretaker of Hamilton Downs Station, just to the north, was at the campsite when we arrived and told us that tomorrow would be even hotter (and tomorrow was going to be our hardest day so far). We pitched our tent in the soft sand of the creek bed and proceeded to check out who our neighbours might be. I like sand because you can see who else had been passing by - here there be other trekkers for sure, but also the prints of dingo, feral cat, goannas and smaller reptiles and a variety of birds.

How to spend an afternoon

Sunlit rockface - Jay Creek

The geometry of a modern track shelter

Waterhole and creek bed at Jay Creek

As the sun settled lower into the sky, we took a late afternoon stroll towards the Fishing Hole, following a string of small waterholes in the creek bed. In taking to the creek bed, we followed the path of the aboriginal people who have lived in this area for millennia - a path created by the dreamtime creatures to give access across the range. Consequently, it is still sacred to the aboriginal people. It was beautiful in the quiet shade of the creek bed, the eastern rock walls now glowing red in the late afternoon sun - a place to just sit and enjoy the beauty and solitude of the MacDonnells.

Late afternoon light in the Jay Creek Gap

Meanwhile back at camp, a group of nine Trek Larapinta walkers passed by heading towards their luxury camp with cook waiting. Another two walkers had joined us and the students, making a cozy crowd of seven. We were quietly pleased that we had pitched our tent a little way away in the sandy creek bed, where the lamb stir fry was soon rehydrated and cooking away on our little gas burner. As we sat beneath the starry sky, we complimented ourselves on our tasty creation.

Then it was once again time to hit the sack - tomorrow would be a long walking day and an early rise was in order.

Day 5 - Jay Creek to Standley Chasm (14.5km - 540m ascent - 530m descent)

The rise was somewhat earlier than we had anticipated .... an hour before sunrise a torch flashed on our tent, waking us. The father-son walkers belonged to that subset who like to be on the track before the sun comes up (we don't). The father had come to wake his son, but found the wrong tent in the creek bed. There seemed no point trying to get more sleep - today was the hardest day of our first section and an early start was always in order.

We broke camp and ate our breakfast in the hand-chilling pre-dawn cold. The Trek Larapinta walkers were also up early and filed past us on their way, so we still ended up being the last to leave. However, the sun was now up and beginning to provide a bit of warmth.

The gates of Fishing Hole

Early morning light in the Chewings Range

Leaving Jay Creek, we followed our path of yesterday down the sandy/stony creekbed. What a different ambience it had in the sombre morning shade - we were glad that we had taken the time to explore it in the brilliant luminance of the late afternoon sun.

Fishing Hole from the south

The creek led us to Fishing Hole, a dark pool wedged between two rock walls and impassable to all except the spangled grunters and rainbow fish who lived in it. It was especially impassable to camels, which is why the old-timers constructed a path up the rocky gully to the west and over the top of the cliff. This was the by-pass for the camel trains that transported goods between Hamilton Downs Station and Hermannsburg Mission in days gone by. We followed the camels and descended to the southern side of Fishing Hole, briefly dropping our packs to have a closer look at the very cold waterhole.

View south from the top of the Fishing Hole camel track

Mixed forest on the climb to Tangantyere

Then began a long and gradual climb with a pleasantly cool wind at our backs, up through the mulga and witchetty bush scrublands to Tangentyere Junction. Spinifex was also starting to kick in here (or should I say scratch in) - it was good to see more of it and less of the accursed buffel grass.

Looking towards the "Low Route" through the Chewings Range

View back to the east from Tangantyere Junction

At Tangentyere the walker faces a choice - the high route, along the spine of the red rock range 300m above us, or the low route, which was an hour quicker to walk. We had always planned the low route as we needed to be at Standley Chasm by 4.30pm (tomorrow was our rest day and our transport back to Alice Springs would be arriving then). That said, it would be wrong to assume that "low" equated with "easy" or that there would be no climbing.

Climbing the saddle on the "Low" route

From the junction, we followed the low road down into the upper valley of a tributary of Jay Creek, where the stony creekbed itself became the route. Under the shade of the tall creekside shrubs, we picked our way up to the base of a steep saddle, where a short, sharp climb saw us at the crest looking into an immense bowl of grey-green shrubland surrounded by the rich red stony slopes of ridge and spur - an impressive view.

Panorama of the catchment of Cycad Creek

The bowl was the upper catchment of a creek that drained southwards through a single narrow gap in the rocks. We quickly descended the west side of the pass, even more steep than the climb, and followed the creek system down to pass through this narrow notch. It was the beginning of a rock-scrambling passage down a lovely cycad and desert pine lined micro-gorge to reach the valley of Cycad Creek.

Descending the notch in the rock

The stone creekbed made a good track

Red walls surrounding the valley of Cycad Creek

From here we crossed a flattish area of mulga woodland before once again meeting up with Cycad Creek. The stony bed of the creek then became our pathway up to Millers Flat - it was good ankle-strengthening exercise. When we arrived at the flat, the Trek Larapinta walkers were already enjoying their lunch - it seemed a good idea, so we called a break in the shade of the taller trees that grew here. It gave us time to recuperate a bit, as the day had been getting hotter and there had been precious little air movement in the valley. It also gave us a chance to make a quick pack-free detour into Mesic Valley, a moister and lushly vegetated micro-habitat.

Cycads and desert oaks

Mesic Valley shade

Lunch over, we continued our push up, or next to, the bed of Cycad Creek to the tiny waterhole of Fig Spring, looking decidedly undrinkable. From here the creek passed through a series of narrow mini-gorges and wider valleys, and we slowly picked our way or scrambled upwards along its course, past large boulders, dry pools and dry waterfalls, with the occasional stretch of faster walking next to the creek in the valleys.

.... and a very narrow cleft

The route up the gorge of Cycad Creek

A wider opening in the Cycad Creek valley ......

A tricky passage up a dry waterfall

You could imagine the ferocity of water cascading down these narrow rocky chutes after a thunderstorm, as the creek wound its way around before confronting us with a seemingly impassable 5m high dry waterfall. The signage here was good though, directing us up the available foot-holds and ledges to the notch of the falls.

Looking up to Gastrolobium Saddle

View back towards Cycad Creek from Gastrolobium Saddle

Ahead, the landscape opened out into a wide and sparsely-vegetated bowl, at the top of which lay Gastrolobium Saddle. It was a slow, steady and sweaty trudge up to the 950m high point of the day's walk, but the views of the ranges from it were spectacular. Down below we could see the northern opening of Standley Chasm and began a long and steep, but deeply shaded, descent to reach it. At Angkale Junction where two valleys meet before merging into the upper chasm, we took a long break.

Descent to Angkale Junction from Gastrolobium Saddle

Angkale Junction

It is apparently too dangerous to descend the upper chasm, so the Larapinta Trail passes over the western rim. Unfortunately, the geology of the area means that you have to climb and descend two steep spurs in the process - a sting to the end of the day. The reward though was the breathtaking views into the upper gorge, now glowing orange in the light of the afternoon sun.

Climbing the western rim of Standley Chasm

Afternoon sun lighting up the walls of Standley Chasm

The route was helped a lot by the hundreds of natural stone steps, each flat slab of rock positioned carefully on the steep slope - we thanked the track workers who did this as, without, them, it would have been a much more difficult passage.

The rugged red beauty of Standley Chasm

View south to the Heavitree Range

Descending the stone steps to the chasm floor

The last descent brought us into the valley on the south side of the chasm and a quick stroll out beneath the shade of the tall gums that grew there. We were on the same path that we had used six days earlier when doing our food drop run out to Glen Helen and I remembered that the Standley Chasm kiosk made excellent iced coffees. It was great to finally sit down and enjoy one on the deck of the kiosk - a clink of glasses to acknowledge the completion of the first 60 km of the Larapinta Trail.

In the lower part of Standley Chasm

Time for a drink at the kiosk

Below and right are a couple of photos of Standley Chasm in the noon-day sun
- a time when the walls literally glow (taken on our food-drop run a few days earlier)

At 4.40pm on the dot, our transport arrived and we headed off to Alice Springs for our first rest day - hot showers, soft bed, cold beer, big roast dinner all-you-can-eat buffet at the Todd Tavern, and a chance to get out of our salt-encrusted walking clothes. Sometimes the luxuries of life are simple things.