Stage 2 - Standley Chasm to Serpentine Gorge

Day 6 - Standley Chasm to Birthday Waterhole (17km - 660m ascent - 740m descent))

After our day off in Alice Springs we were both feeling recuperated, which was just as well as we were about to start what is arguably the hardest section of the Larapinta Trail. Our transport arrived at 7am and by 7.45am we were at the unfortunately still locked gate to Standley Chasm. After a little extra walking down the road to the trail head, we headed off on the start of our second stage, along the trace of an old bridal path.

The day was very different to our first very warm five days on the trail, as it was still 10°C with a cold wind blowing when we headed up the tree-lined stony creek bed, beneath a grey veil of cloud. In fact, the God of walkers seemed to be smiling on us, for this cooler weather had arrived on the day of our biggest climb. With the wind at our backs and an expected maximum of 16°C for our ascent of Brinkley Bluff, we could not complain.

Heading up the rocky gully from Standley Chasm

We moved quickly up the creek bed, brushing past flowering wattles, grevilleas and cassias, as the valley walls gradually closed in on us. It was time to take to the northern slopes of this deep valley, crossing a series of spurs and creeks as we climbed ever higher in this landscape of broken red rock, spinifex and low flowering shrubs. Despite the cold, I could still feel the dampness of perspiration. The wind however kept us close to chilled - aaah, the discomfort of a cold sweat.

Part of the old bridle path

Spinifex on the upper slopes of the gully

Eventually, after a steady trudge, we climbed over the last rise to reach a saddle, where we could drop our packs in the lee of the wind, put our fleeces back on and head out to the Bridle Path Lookout. Here we were greeted with spectacular views of vertical cliff faces and deep arid valley below. We really felt part of the mountains here and it was only going to get better.

Looking back east from Reveal Saddle

The view from Bridle Path Lookout

Edging around Reveal Saddle

Returning to pick up our packs, we edged around a corner to sidle along a steep flank of the range to Reveal Saddle (named because for the first time the distant dome of Brinkley Bluff is revealed). The views were magnificent in all directions - steep, red-ribbed slopes and narrow razor-back ridges, all made of fractured slabs of quartzite tilted at impossible angles.

Heading west from Reveal Saddle

To the north and south the desert plains receded in the distance. The sun had even broken through to shine a watery light on the scene before disappearing once again behind the cloudy veil.

The rugged beauty of the range west of Reveal Saddle

A final glance back to the east

From Reveal Saddle we briefly descended a loose shaly track to begin the final climb up the flank of the long ridge leading to Brinkley Bluff. The wind was so icy that it stopped words forming in my mouth, so it was good to keep moving steadily upwards. In fact, for the first time we seemed to be ahead of the guide map's suggested walking times.

A steep north-facing gully

The incredible tilting of the Chewings Range

View south through a gap east of Mt Conway

Looking down into a parallel valley on the north side of the range

The climb up to the ridge and the long walk along its fractured and boulder-strewn spine were less difficult than we had anticipated and, consequently, we had more time and energy to soak up the everchanging panorama from this balcony of the MacDonnell Ranges. It was a superb passage.

The magnificence of the MacDonnells - view from the ridge back to Mt Conway

Atop the narrow ridge

View back along the track ridge

Even the couple of false crests before we finally reached the rounded dome of Brinkley Bluff did not phase us. Along the way, we had passed our three uni students on their return from spending the night on the bluff, a family of four and a large group of students and teachers - this part of the trail was getting busy. At the top we found a spot in the lee of the wind, looking far out to the plains and ranges in the west and shared a pleasant lunch break with a couple from Brisbane. They too were planning to overnight on the bluff.

The final approach to Brinkley Bluff .....

.... and at last on the top

Start of the 500m descent from the bluff

The western face of Brinkley Bluff


Our destination, however, was Birthday Waterhole, several hours walking from here and several hundred metres below. Thus we began the extremely steep and rocky descent of the southern flank of the bluff, reaching Rocky Cleft, halfway down, with knees jellied.

After a short climb, to change the pace, the descent continued down into the valley of Stuarts Pass, still very steep if not as extreme as the higher section. Behind us, the immense pyramidal and sheer-walled western face of Brinkley Bluff hovered above. reminding us what an impressive feature it was.

Looking down into Stuarts Pass

Nearing the bottom of the descent from Brinkley Bluff

Nearing Rocky Cleft

Reaching the sandy bed of Stuarts Creek, we stopped for a rest to be amused by a small flock of budgerigars. The creek corridor was full of bird life as we followed its northern bank along at a steady pace. It was good to be walking on the flat again.

Waterhole in Stuarts Pass

The valley of the Stuarts Creek beneath the Chewings Range

After a short stop to check out the tiny but lushly green-fringed Mintbush Springs, we pushed on across the mulga woodland to reach the trail junction - after eight hours of walking we had almost reached our campsite at Birthday Waterhole. Unfortunately the site lay 600m to the south down the broad soft-sanded creekbed (it seemed someone had a perverse sense of humour to make us trudge through soft sand after the long climb and descent of Brinkley Bluff).

Grassy track alongside Stuarts Creek

A touch of bright green at Mintbush Springs

However, on reaching the campsite, we realised that it had been worth the extra effort. We pitched our tent on a lovely sand bed next to a long dark pool of water, framed by low red rock walls and surrounded by graceful river gums. it was a pleasant end of day, sipping hot soup at the water's edge as we watched the local ducks dabbling in the shallows. Even better, we had all this to ourselves.

Tranquil Birthday Waterhole

Evening falls on our sandy campsite

By now the sun had won the day and the cloud band was clearing to the east. The wind had also dropped and we enjoyed a bit of late afternoon warmth. Once again we would find ourselves beneath a canopy of crystal-clear stars, as the cold of the desert night settled in inexorably about us. It was time to crawl into our sleeping bags.

Day 7 - Birthday Waterhole to Hugh Gorge Junction (12.5km - 610m ascent - 510m descent))

We awoke to our first frost - a thin film of ice crystals on the tent fly. It had been a three-dog night and, from the paw prints around our campsite, we very nearly had that - dingos at least. Despite the cold start, the air began to warm as soon as the sun's rays broke through above the hills to the north-east. We packed up and retraced our steps up the creekbed to the trail junction. Then we turned west.

Morning reflections on Birthday Waterhole

The sun rises at Birthday Waterhole

On golden pond

The Larapinta Trail headed up a long valley, following the creekbed at times or crossing mulga woodland, before climbing up to a spinifex-covered saddle. From the top, we could look down at the beginning of Spencer Gorge, our pathway onwards.

Heading up the sandy bed of Stuarts Creek

Traversing the valley slope on the way to Spener Gorge

Descending quickly through the spinifex, tussock clumps backlit by the early morning sun, we reached the entrance to the gorge, filled with large river gums and coldly silent in the dark shade of the rock walls.

View west from the saddle

Spinifex-covered slopes

Entry to Spencer Gorge in the morning shade

A few of the big boulders on the floor of the gorge

Rocky Talus

After a break and nibble, to raise our sugar levels, we began the difficult ascent of the gorge - not difficult because of height or gradient, but because of the continuous boulder-hopping and rock-scrambling needed to traverse a floor shaped by the flow of eons of flash-floods.

We made good progress, alternating from deep shade to bright sunlight as the gorge twisted and turned, and were surprised to arrive at Rocky Talus much earlier than expected. This huge slab of rock, cleaved from the gorge wall, has a large ghost gum growing out of its side - a unique track marker.

Cycads and river gums in Spencer Gorge

Looking up to Paisley Bluff

A couple of hundred metres later, we exited Spencer Gorge stage left to head up a narrow rocky gully that flowed down from Windy Gap. More boulder-hopping and rock-scrambling, steeply this time, saw us slowly work our way up to the saddle itself.

A tricky passage in Spencer Gorge

The exit gully from Spencer Gorge

The bouldery floor of the exit gully

The route up to Windy Saddle

Emerging at Windy Saddle

The saddle lived up to its name, as a cold wind funnelled through the pass. Looking behind the orange massif of Mt Paisley stood out above the v-notch of the gully, while ahead was the long jagged length of Razorback Ridge. This was our route onwards and a a steep, zig-zagging shaly track brought us to the top, crossing paths with two big groups of walkers heading east on the way. We were quietly (and a little selfishly) grateful that they had not shared Birthday Waterhole with us last night.

View from Windy Saddle

On top of the Chewings Range again

Despite the icy wind, Razorback Ridge was simply spectacular, not so much for the views of distant valleys and plains but for the geology of the ridge itself - a narrow saw-toothed line of fractured red quartzite, tilted almost vertically. The track picked its way along the shards and blocks of rock, occasionally so narrow that it was not possible to walk on the spine of the ridge.

The formidable length of Razorback Ridge

Looking across the northern flank of Razorback Ridge

A detour around the sharpest crest

On the tilted strata of The Razorback

Easterly view back along The Razorback

The ridge gradually headed downwards, crossing broader knobs and knife-edged ribs. Near the western end we passed through a grove of sweetly scented wattles in bloom. Then it was down, very steeply down a dusty red track of loose rock scree - a treacherous knee-grinding descent, but one rewarded with views up the length of Linear Valley and directly down to Fringe Lily Creek and its campsite.

View of Linear Valley from The Razorback

Rock ribs near Fringe Lily Creek

Looking down onto Fringe Lily Creek

We were not staying there - time only for a short rest in the shade before pushing on and up Linear Valley - at times along the stony creek bed, at times along the spinifex-covered banks. It was a long slog in the warm mid-afternoon sun, but a bit of freshness came in the form of the wind as we finally crested Rocky Saddle to see our destination for the first time. At the far end of another long valley (curiously also named Linear Valley) lay Hugh Gorge Junction, backed by high red rock walls.

The route up Linear Valley

Sunlight on the spinifex near Rocky Saddle

The descent was quick, traversing higher spinifex-dotted slopes before dropping into the creek system at the valley floor. We followed its grassy bed to the junction.

Arriving at Hugh Gorge Junction

The sun lights up the pink and white
seed heads of native grasses

The setting was magnificent, with the sheer red cliffs of the walls of Hugh Gorge towering above the sandy campsite that we found. This was not an official campsite, so no tank - hence I had to make a water run up into the Upper Gorge to collect our water (UV-treated) from one of the pools in the boulder-strewn bed of the creek.

Waterhole in Upper Hugh Gorge

Late afternoon shadow on the grassy flats at Hugh Gorge Junction

The red walls of Upper Hugh Gorge

Finally, we had a little time left before dark to relax and enjoy the cathedral-like setting and the changing colour of the rock walls as the light faded. Even after the sun had set, they remained an almost lurid red.

It had been another hard day - one where effort was not measured in distance walked or heights climbed, but by the difficulty of the terrain. We were looking forward to the walk down the Hugh Gorge tomorrow, but equally to the flatter terrain that lies beyond.

Evening falls on our campsite surrounded by the rich red cliffs of Hugh Gorge Junction

Day 8 - Hugh Gorge Junction to Rocky Gully (19km - 310m ascent - 320m descent)

There was no frost this morning, despite another crystal-clear star-filled night. However, we soon realised that the enormous red-tinted cliffs that so beguiled us at sunset would now be blocking the morning sun. We would be well gone before the sun reached our campsite - which is perhaps why we broke camp in the quickest time yet to start our exploration of Hugh Gorge itself.

The sun was illuminating the heights of the western ramparts and, as we left, the pack of dingos that had checked our campsite out during the night serenaded us from the heights of a side gully. The rising and falling cadence of the primal call of the dingo reverberated from the walls of the gorge as we began picking our way down the creek bed - money cannot buy some experiences.

Early morning shadow and reflections in the waterholes of Hugh Gorge

We worked our way past several waterholes, orange gorge walls reflected in their still waters. At the largest pool, there is an option to do a deep wade or to scramble around the rocks on the western side. Our hands were still morning-chill numb and the water was icy - we scrambled.

Sunlight in the gorge

The last waterhole

Such was the tempo of our descent of Hugh Gorge - following the stony creek bed, hopping large boulders, wending down narrow shaded chasms and taking in the glorious spectacle as the gorge widened to reveal its enormous sunlit orange ramparts.

The walls of Pocket Valley

By the time that we reached Pocket Valley, a widening in the gorge, the sun was higher and warming us up - it was time to remove our fleeces and wander on through a section of rocks and large water-polished boulders. The gorge was silent apart from the clinking of titanium-tipped walking poles on smooth rock.

Crossing Hugh Creek

Red cliffs and bright green reeds

This was a place that revived the lost "tracker" genes we all have - a stone flattened into the sand here, a half-boot print there, a bit of sand left on a boulder, crushed grass or flattened leaves, a broken branch, all showed the "path" down the gorge (though when you are surrounded by two long rock walls, you can't go too wrong).

And we didn't, passing one last lovely reed-fringed waterhole to reach a jumble of boulders, fallen trees and flood debris that testified to the ferocity of the flash floods that can thunder down the gorge. We emerged from these to the Hugh Gorge campsite and were immediately grateful that we had camped higher up - chalk and cheese.

From this campsite, the Larapinta Trail follows a transition route across the low hills and plains that separate the Chewings Range, from whence we had just emerged, and the Heavitree Range, to where we were headed. It promised to be long and tedious, as we set out across the low mulga scrublands - though there were plenty of wildflowers and native grasses to keep up interest. Sadly though, there were also patches of buffel grass and I feared for the future of the habitat.

Landscape near Hugh Gorge campsite

Leaving the ranges

Woodlands of the flat country

After two days of sharp-edged ridge rocks and uneven creek stones, our ankles certainly appreciated the relative flatness of the track. It took us up to Hugh View, a rocky outcrop which offered views back along the Chewings Range and the flat open country to the south. As we meandered along the line of low hills, we reached another unnamed knoll with even better views - we named it "Better Hugh View". A little later we climbed "Best Hugh View", before dropping down to the plain below and arriving at Ghost Gum Flat, site of the famous 3-burled ghost gum. The two old hakeas nearby provided lovely shade for lunch, as the day was warming and the air becoming still.

Panorama of the flat lands from "Best Hugh View"

Ghost Gum Flat

After lunch we still had over 8 km to go, climbing more red-rocked hills and wandering along their ridges, as tan-coloured grasshoppers skipped across the tan-coloured dust of the track. A recent bushfire had obliterated the shrub layer, removing any shade in the hot sun, but it had brought a flourish to the groundcover, where the pinks, whites and yellows of wildflowers spattered across the landscape.

Shady rest stop at Ghost Gum Flat

The long track and hot sun had sent us into automaton mode, trudging steadily on and barely noticing the long flattened escarpment of the Heavitree Range to the south, or the shadow-defined rugged profile of the Chewings Range to the north.

Crossing between the ranges

The Chewings Range and Paisley Bluff

Gap in the Heavitree Range

View back to the Chewings Range and Hugh Gorge

Eventually, as the shadows lengthened across the track, we started to descend - it seemed a very long final kilometre, but that was tiredness talking. Finally, a last dip brought us to Rocky Gully, where a few hundred metres down-gully we found our campsite and gratefully dropped our packs. Again we were the only ones there and soon had the hot soup bubbling away. Of all things, a cup of hot soup at the end of a long day's walk perks me up. My body was starting to feel normal again.

In the low hill country

Approaching Rocky Gully

Rocky Gully in the evening shadows

It was also good to find a campsite with a long-drop toilet again, after two nights in orange-spade country - we who are not so young appreciate certain comforts. Thus ended the third consecutive long day, and we had completed one of the feature sections of the Larapinta Trail with its magnificent ridge and gorge walking. However, as we retired to our tent beneath the dark starry sky, we were both glad to know that tomorrow would be an easier, shorter section.

Day 9 - Rocky Gully to Ellery Creek Big Hole (14.5km - 220m ascent - 310m descent)

The string of cloudless days continued and the low hills around our campsite did not keep the sun away too long this morning - it was good to sit and eat our morning porridge and dried fruit with its rays warming our backs. Then it was back on the track - quickly up to the junction and a ten minute climb up and out of the western side of the gully.

Climbing out of Rocky Gully

We were still in transition and still crossing the rolling rocky hills of this inter-range region. However, we were fresh and could admire the views from the ridge tops, appreciate the difference between the long, slightly undulating escarpment of the approaching Heavitree Range, punctuated occasionally by saddles and gaps, and the more complex peaks and knobs of the now-distant Chewings Range, streaked by morning shadows.

Morning shadows on the Chewings Range

View across the Alice Valley to the mountains beyond

As we ambled along from ridge to ridge (the Larapinta Trail clearly seeks out ridges) we passed through unburned scrub filled with the zeets of zebra finches, the chirrups of budgerigars and the whistles and twitters of other unidentified birds. Along the track, yellow billy-buttons and the white and purple fluffy heads of Ptilotus added colour to the dull green of grass and mulga. A cool north-easterly wind kept conditions cool - it was ideal walking.

Open mulga woodlands and native grasses

The only downside was the burrs - for the past two days they have been dropping into my boots to spur me on as I brushed by the bindi-bushes. After a while I gave up trying to remove them and walked on like an Opus Dei initiate with a burr cilice in his boots, grimacing that little delight of pain with each step and imagining my sins being purged away (still next stage I'll bring my $3 Bunnings mini-gaiters).

The Matterhorn of the MacDonnells

Looking down on the creek bed

View across the woodland to The Heavitree Saddle

A lone ghost gum

The track eventually led us down into the Alice Valley, through mulga woodland and to a sandy creek bed. We were now in the Ellery Creek catchment and it was a good place to relax in the shade of an old gum before pushing on. We followed the low ridge to the north of the creek, before finally crossing it and heading south.

Our destination was the high slot in the Heavitree Range known only as The Saddle (why not something original like Rocky Saddle, perhaps). It was the one steep climb of the day, providing a broad panorama back over the relative flatness of our morning's path.

Sandy creek bed in the Alice Valley

Climbing the Heavitree Range

We had now reached the Heavitree Range and not many minutes later we were on the other side, eating our lunch in the shade of a red mallee and admiring the views over the rolling spinifex-dotted hills to the purple red line of the Pacoota Range, even further south.

View north from The Saddle over the Alice Valley

View south from The Saddle

With only a few kilometres left to Ellery Creek, we pushed on quickly, descending from the pass via a long spinifex-covered spur. Turning west again, we crossed the low hills and creeks, with their outcrops of dolomite, to reach our last climb of the day. The short sharp climb up a hill where dolomite and quartzite seemed jumbled together, led us to a view over Ellery Creek Big Hole and the gap that held this large waterhole.

Looking back at The Saddle in the Heavitree Range

Track across the spinifex covered hills

Directly below us lay the campground, one shared with car campers - we hurried down and headed to the food locker - our supplies were there. Then we wandered back to the nearby sandy creek bed and set up our tent, away from the caravans and camper trailers in the main campground.

Ellery Creek Gap

Relaxing at our campsite in the bed of Ellery Creek

It was great to get in early for a change, to have time to relax with a coffee in a shady spot of the sandy creek bed, or sit and watch the evening light settle over the still waters of Ellery Creek Big Hole. Best of all, it was great to sit and soak our feet in its chilly water. The wind had turned north-westerly and warmer and we ate our dinner up at the camp shelter with the luxury of a table and seats.

Ellery Creek Big Hole (taken a few days earlier while doing the food-drop)

Evening reflections on the Big Hole

It was nice to have a day where the cold didn't hurry us to bed - instead we wandered back down to the waterhole to watch the stars reflected in its surface in the darkness of a moonless night. Somewhere today we passed the halfway mark of the trail - now that would have been worth celebrating had I realised it.

Day 10 - Ellery Creek Big Hole to Serpentine Gorge (14.5 km - 410m ascent - 340m descent)

For the first time in several days we woke to a dry tent - the slight wind had kept the condensation from settling on the fly. However, as before the price for a lovely campsite beneath a large rock bluff was deep shade in the morning. We packed up quickly and were away by the time most of the car campers had begun to stir. Today, our walk would take us into a different landscape, the dolomite hills that abut the southern side of the Heavitree Range.

A smaller waterhole in Ellery Creek

Spinifex meets woodland

We crossed the stony bed of Ellery Creek, passing a second smaller waterhole and then climbed up to walk along the flank of the richly vegetated valley between quartzite range and dolomite hill. The climbs and descents continued as we crossed the rounded hills spotted with the bright green of spinifex to reach The Stile. This wooden bench helped us over the fence separating National Park from Aboriginal Lands.

Dolomite rock formations west of Ellery Creek

Nello crosses The Stile

View south to the Pacoota Range

In the foothills of the Heavitree Range

Eventually the track climbed steeply up to a point where we had to pick our way carefully along an east-west ridge of exposed grey-brown dolomite - a dramatic narrow band of rock etched into jagged and sharp-edged forms. It was no place to trip. More creeks and more long ridges of dolomite, grey-brown layers interspersed with orange red bands and swirls of white intrusions - very different to the rich reds of the quartzite.

Brown slabs of dolomite

Dolomite Ridges of the Bitter Springs Formation

The final ridge led us up to The Trig, where a metal can on a pole marked the high point of the days walk and provided panoramic views out over the "flats" to the Pacoota Range.

The Trig on its jagged rock ridge

View of the Pacoota Range from The Trig

From the trig, the landscape changed yet again - the Larapinta Trail had decided to no longer climb the ridges, but to skirt them - a red stony track traversing the spinifex covered slopes above lushly vegetated creek valleys. For the first time clumps of the big blue bull spinifex began to appear.

Track through the green spinifex

Following the ridges and creeks south of the Heavitree Range

The grey-blue colour of bull spinifex

Rusted dolomite outcrop

To our right, a gap in the range began to appear, where an unnamed creek flowed through. We followed it for a while then found a shady spot in its bed for lunch, leaving one last push over a series of low hills to reach Serpentine Gorge. One of the brand new steel-framed shelters had been built here as well and it was a good spot to take a break before making a small detour up to inspect the waterhole at entry of Serpentine Gorge.

Looking back to Gap Creek

Red outcrop of quartzite

The sheer red rock walls on either side guarded against any entry into the gorge, so we made the short but steep climb up to the top of the eastern cliffs to take in the grand view, both up the gorge and out over the plain to the south.

The sheer red walls and icy waterhole guarding Serpentine Gorge

A narrow gap in the Heavitree Range


Green spinifex on an outcropping of laterite

Looking into the gorge from Serpentine Lookout

Southern panorama over the plain from Serpentine Lookout

All that was left now was to wander back down the main track to the trail head and carpark. We had reached the end of our second section and the reward of a day of rest at Glen Helen Station awaited. I had organised a pick-up from there at 4.30pm, so we sat down in the shelter and waited .... and waited ... and waited.

Eventually we realised no-one was coming. The only thing to do was to put on our backpacks one more time and walk the extra 1.5 kilometres down the dirt road to the main road from Alice Springs to Glen Helen. It was interesting to get a hitchhikers perspective, as we sat by the side of this isolated road waiting for the occasional vehicle - some clearly full, others with people averting our gaze as they sped by. Eventually one kind soul stopped and, although full, took a message through to Glen Helen that we were there waiting by the roadside .... under a by now slowly setting sun.

The sun was just about to dip below the horizon, when our transport and rather sheepish driver arrived - they had forgotten to check the booking sheet. Still, all was well and half an hour later, we were at Glen Helen, ready for a shower and the complimentary glasses of Guinness and white wine that we accepted as an apology.

It was good to be clean, well-fed (Glen Helen has a very good restaurant), warm (it also has a big open fire-place) and entertained (a local singer was present in the lounge). The track seemed far away, but as soon as I hit the soft mattress of the bed, my dreams returned to it. The Larapinta Trail was becoming addictive.