Stage 3 - Serpentine Gorge to Glen Helen

Day 11 - Serpentine Gorge to Serpentine Chalet Dam (14.5km - 450m ascent - 370m descent)

Our rest day at Glen Helen was over and we were driven back to Serpentine Gorge by our host at the homestead to continue our westward hike on the Larapinta Trail. The rest day had been a bit mixed - we now had clean clothes and fresh supplies which was good, but something had bitten my elbow causing it to swell up like a red rubber ball (and an itchy one at that). Painful - I anticipated a lot of right-handed pole work today.

As we were preparing to leave, a couple of rangers arrived and stopped for a chat - they were out patrolling the track and interviewing hikers. The ranger here seem very proud of the Larapinta Trail, and rightly so. The chilly southeasterly air stream was back and our fleeces stayed on as we headed across the spinifex and shrub-covered hills to the base of our first (and only) big climb of the day - up to the top of the Heavitree Range.

Open country west of Serpentine Gorge

View from the climb up the Heavitree Range

Even with the icy wind, the steep climb, zig-zagging its way directly up the flank of the range had us quickly sweating - it was time to remove our fleeces and find that steady climbing rhythm of breath and movement that can get you to the top with minimal exertion. We climbed the flank to reach the spine of the ridge, continuing along it and still climbing slowly. From our high vantage, we could look across to the arid scalloped profile of the Pacoota Range and the plains beyond, and down on to a bright patch of orange in the scrub - the ochre pits used by the aboriginals in days gone by to get their coloured clays.

Finally on top of the Heavitree Range

View across to the Pacoota Range

The wind was icy at our backs, but the sun cooked us if we put our fleeces back on. it was that uncomfortable combination of temperature extremes. Still, the views from this high ridge, southward way beyond the MacDonnell Ranges as far as Tnorala, the eroded remnants of a massive meteorite impact crater, as well as ahead and behind along the sheer north face of this ridge were inspiring.

North face of the ridge-line

The route ahead

Parallel ridges of the Heavitree Range

In the distance lies the 5km wide meteorite impact crater of Tnorala

Reaching a track junction, we dropped our packs in the shade of some desert pines and headed out (almost floating without the weight of the packs) to climb the rocky path, lined with the lilac flowers of native fuchsias, to Counts Point. This detour is recommended because it boasts the best view on the Larapinta Trail - and it is probably right.

Looking back along the Heavitree Ridge

Rippled rocks - once was a sea-bed

Heading out to Counts Point

Two parallel jagged ranges pointed westward towards the blue-shaded outline of Mt Sonder, the paler blue of Mt Edwards and Mt Zeil even further away, while Mt Giles stood proudly alone to the north-west - all four of the highest peaks in the Northern Territory in one field of view. Even on the way back, the views back along the way we had come were superb.

The famous vista from Counts Point

Our plan had been to have lunch beneath the shade of the desert pines, but we were forced to sit in the lee of the icy wind looking out to the north over the deep valley and parallel ridge-line - also impressive and grand of scale.

Termite mounds on the range

Zooming in on Mt Sonder

Returning from Counts Point

Descent into Lomandra Creek

After lunch, the long descent of the Heavitree Range began, as we stepped our way slowly down the broad spinifex slope, with its scattering of wattles and fuchsias to reach the quiet mulga-filled valley of Lomandra Creek. Climbing out of the creek, a low cliff face forced us back eastward for several hundred metres, before we finally got around it and resumed our westward ramble.

Dense woodlands near Lomandra Creek

It was good to be down in the lowland mulga, where the icy wind couldn't penetrate and the sun seemed warm again. The Larapinta Trail then followed a series of low rises and hollows, before crossing one last hill and winding its way through dense and lush vegetation to reach our campsite near Serpentine Chalet Dam (built in the 1960s to serve a now-failed tourist venture).

Crossing the spinifex woodlands

A spinifex circle

River gums in Serpentine Creek

There was already a large group installed near the water tank, so we crossed the creek to join Holly and Paul, the two rangers we had met at the beginning of the day, on the sandy and quieter western bank. It was a lovely sheltered setting, surrounded by trees and tall shrubs - not a sense of aridity at all.

Holly giving the joey his bottle

Shady campsite at Serpentine Chalet Dam

The orphan joey

The evening passed pleasantly chatting to the rangers over hot soup. Holly surprised us when, out of the bag she had been carrying, hopped a red kangaroo joey - an orphan that she was raising until it became independent. You really never know who you might meet on the Larapinta Trail.

Day 12 - Serpentine Chalet Dam to Waterfall Gorge (13km - 350m ascent - 290m descent)

The dawn chorus of birds was particularly exuberant this morning in our sheltered camp beneath the trees. The sun, however, took a while to find its way to our tent, but while waiting for it we chatted away with the rangers over breakfast about hiking and travel in different parts of the world. Then they left for another day's work and we left for another day's walk. Happy are those for whom the two coincide.

The Larapinta Trail led us westward once again as it meandered its way across slope and creek, around hill and hollow. The interzonal area where dolomite meets quartzite is richly vegetated - we moved in and out of the sparse spinifex / mallee communities and the dense mulga woodland several times as we wound our way across to Inarlanga Pass - an old aboriginal crossing point of the Heavitree Range.

Open country west of Serpentine Chalet Dam

River gums in Inarlanga Creek

After a brief break for a snack to boost our energy levels, we followed their ancient footsteps into the mouth of the pass, lined by tall red rock cliffs. For the next half-kilometre we picked our way carefully across the large water-smooth boulders and rocks that formed the floor of the pass, passing clusters of cycads and large river gums, and edging our way around dry waterfalls to finally emerge into a more open grassy valley.

Entering Inarlanga Pass ....

... to climb its boulder-strewn bed ....

.... and traverse a few tricky faces ....

... before leaving its red rock walls

We followed the creek gradually upwards to reach a saddle separating it from the Pioneer Creek catchment. We were now in an interior valley system within the Heavitree Range. Here we could look ahead to see up the long valley that we were about to traverse, the range to the south lit up by the sun and that to the north brooding in shadow.

Creek valley north of Inarlanga

View west down the Pioneer Valley

The landscape in this valley seemed far more arid, with very few shrubs or trees, but the scattered yellow of prostrate wattles and the pink of low pea-flowers added a touch of colour. Slabs of broken schist and gneiss glistened in the sun, their shards breaking almost vertically from the earth to point red fingers to the sky - a curious landscape.

Track through the rock-strewn grasslands of Pioneer Valley

A grove of bloodwoods at Pioneer Creek

View east back down Pioneer Valley

A dash of colour in the washed-out landscape

Our path led slowly and steadily up the northern slope of the Pioneer Valley, a cold wind at our backs, to finally crest the saddle that we had been looking at all morning. Ahead lay another flattened arid valley, which seemed to drain away to the north through a hidden gorge.

The arid valley leading to Waterfall Gully

An unnamed bluff in the Heavitree Range

We crossed this on a high traverse, reaching its end to look down on the cleft leading to Waterfall Gorge. In the distance, a hazy blue Mt Sonder was framed by the valley walls - closer, ever closer.

Our next job was to find a campsite and water - Waterfall Gorge is one place where water is not reliable, though hikers that we had passed assured us that there was water in a pool at its base. Thus we turned our noses up at the tent sites above the dry falls and briefly climbed a rocky slope to skirt them, descending to the mid-tier of the falls - more tent sites, still no water.

The valley narrows to frame Mt Sonder

Idyllic campsite in Waterfall Gorge

Looking down onto the gap of the dry waterfall

Another climb and descent brought us to the bottom of the falls, where the eagle-eyed Nello spotted a lovely single tent site below in the gully and I spotted the brimming plunge pool at the bottom tier of the falls. They were only 50m apart - perfect.

Relaxation time at the plunge pool

Late afternoon sun in the gorge

The tent site was in a superb spot, adjacent to a tilted wall of water-polished rock, glowing red in the sun, protected from the wind and the afternoon sun shining in until just before it set.

After setting up camp, we wandered back to the pool to collect and purify our water, lazily soaking up the sun on the dark rock that rimmed it. thus we whiled away the rest of the afternoon in this delightful spot. As I write up, the fair Nello has been watching the sun set at the end of the gorge, serenaded by a solitary songbird. But now she is back and it is time for a steaming bowl of mushroom risotto, eaten beneath the faint light of a thin crescent moon as it slowly descends through the leafy silhouette of the canopy above - magical.

Day 13 - Waterfall Gorge to Ormiston Gorge (15.5km - 360m ascent - 530m descent)

The gentle breeze that had sprung up after sunset continued all night, keeping away any condensation. Waking up to a dry tent fly is one of the simple pleasures of a camper. As expected though, we were in deep shade in the gorge, so we hurried through breakfast, packed up and set off.

The big climb of the day was soon upon us. After picking our way down the stony creek bed for a few hundred metres, the track marker directed us north and upwards. Quickly settling in to a slow and rhythmic pace, we followed the stony track steeply up the flank of the Heavitree Range - zig-zagging at times, more direct at others. It took half the climb to escape the shadows and emerge into sunshine.

Climbing the Heavitree Range in morning shade

Early morning shade in Waterfall Gorge

View back down the shaded slope to Waterfall Creek

Shadows define the gap of Waterfall Gorge

Brinkley Bluff - far in the east

View across the coloured ridges to Tnorala

Looking over the valley to Mt Giles

As we got higher, the gentle breeze became a cold wind, but one that was friend not foe on this steep slope. One long zig west followed by one long zag east and we reached the ridge at its high point - Giles Lookout.

A bite to eat on top of the range

View eastwards from Giles Lookout

From here, we could look across the plain below to the brooding shadowed massif of Mt Giles to the north. But that was not all .... this lookout had a 360° panorama, and back to the east we could see as far as Brinkley Bluff, a hazy blue shape on the distant horizon. Were we really there just a week ago?

The impressive dark massif of Mt Giles to the north

To the south, the long sunlit ridge that we had crossed via the Inarlanga Pass yesterday continued barrenly westward. Beyond it we could see out over the Pacoota Range to the plains of the southern desert. Westward lay the huge openness of Ormiston Pound, walled in by dark rock walls, and ahead was the shadow-nuanced face of Mt Sonder, the end of the trail and our beacon. From now on it would dominate most of our views, ever encouraging us to the end. This viewpoint was my favourite of the trip.

Heading west above the wide expanse of Ormiston Pound

View west from Giles Lookout - to Mt Sonder and Mt Zeil

After a long break to take all of this in, we pushed on along the ridge, knobbly with round-cut grey boulders and silver-tipped by the low grey shrubbery. It was a moving diorama as we walked along the ridge-top.

The red rock walls of Glen Helen Gorge

Zooming in on Mt Sonder

Termite castles on the ridge

The ridge gradually descended and, at one stage, the track dropped down on to the southern flank, focussing our attention on the scalloped Pacoota Range and the distant low walls of Tnorala, an ancient meteorite impact crater (5 km across).

On top of the Heavitree Range

View across the grassy ridge to Mt Sonder

Panorama over the valleys and plains south of the Heavitree Range

At one point, the broad ridge narrowed, squeezing us back to the spine for a last look at brooding Mt Giles and the broad expanse of Ormiston Pound. Then it was goodbye to the Heavitree Range and a long zig-zagging descent of a broad spur to a saddle called Base of Hill - more views of Mt Sonder and of the scallop-patterned slopes of the Pound walls.

Mt Sonder and the scalloped walls of Ormiston Pound

Descent to Base of Hill

From here the route followed once again the ecotonic landscape along the southern edge of the range. At first the path picked a contour around hill and hollow covered in spinifex - its silvery seedheads a contrast to the bright green canopies of scattered bloodwoods. The path changed from the white of dolomite to the black of laterite and the red of quartzite, crossing wooded creeks, stands of red mallee and groves of shady mulga. There was no wind in these protected hollows and the temperature seemed several degrees higher - a good sweat was working up as we wandered steadily on, past the small gorges and rock ribs of the pound walls.

Red track across the spinifex

A section of mulga woodland

At one point a new track alignment kept us on a high contour instead of dipping into and out of a valley (thanks rangers). It is curious how a kilometre walked seems longer after lunch than before - such was the case as we headed along one last ridge line before descending to the broad sandy bed of Ormiston Creek.

Hill country near Ormiston

Rock ribs near Ormiston Creek

From here, we followed the edge of the creek into Ormiston Gorge tourist area and, more specifically, to the kiosk there. A while back, I had promised the fair Nello a peppermint magnum when we arrived and the thought of it had pre-occupied me for the last few kilometres. The ice-cream was a delicious extravagance. It was interesting to watch the day-visitors reaction to a pair of wild and whiskery (at least in my case) trekkers, just in from several days on the track - we felt a little conspicuous.

Wild budgerigar

Approaching Ormiston Gorge

A resident dingo

We collected our little food drop from the locker room and wandered up to the walkers' campsite (separated from that of the car campers - are we that smelly?). After a pleasant relax and dinner, we wandered back down to listen to a ranger talk at the camp amphitheatre. It was given by Holly, whom we had met back at Serpentine - an interesting exposé on the tracks and scats of the local wildlife (did you know that a dingo prefers to poo on the sharp spines of a spinifex clump - I thought not. Well, now you do). Thanks Holly.

It was good to have an activity like that to keep us out of bed for a bit longer - 11 hours each night on a thermarest in the confines of our 2-man tent was beginning to take its toll. Still, tomorrow we would be walking to Glen Helen Homestead and two nights sleeping on a soft mattress. It is surprising what simple things to look forward to can keep one motivated.

Bonus - A short walk in Ormiston Gorge

The Larapinta Track does not pass through Ormiston Gorge, which is one of the more picturesques parts of the MacDonnell Ranges. During our rest day at Glen Helen, we took advantage of the fact that our car was there and drove back to Ormiston Gorge for a short explore of gorge itself. The visitor can do a longer walk around part of the enormous Ormiston Pound and back through the gorge, but we had done that 20 years ago and, after all, this was a rest day. The following photos will show why we at least had to return to the gorge.

Ormiston Waterhole at the entry to the gorge

Reflections in the heart of Ormiston Gorge

Waterhole and Ghost Gum Lookout

View of the gorge from Ghost Gum Lookout

Like the sinking of the Titanic, the rock strata tilt down into the creek bed

Day 14 - Ormiston Gorge to Glen Helen (13.5km - 180m ascent - 220m descent)

Our bones were beginning to complain about another night in a tent, so it was good to wake up and know that today we were headed on to Glen Helen Station and two nights sleeping on a real mattress. Heading off from the campsite, we found ourselves walking quickly along a well-formed track that led us back into the low hills abutting the Heavitree Range. The air was still and the morning sun warm, but the shady sections of track still had a chilly crispness about them.

The undulating landscape west of Ormiston

View back towards Ormiston Gorge

At first the track picked its way around the spinifex-covered hills, avoiding any serious climbing or descending. something seemed odd and we realised that the path here was dusty grey or white, not the red that we had become so familiar with. Crossing a sandy creekbed, we began to traverse a wide barren plain that had recently been burnt out - it was the longest section of "flat" walking we had done on the trail to date.

Mistletoe on the bloodwoods

Once again - Mt Sonder

One thing that can be said about the Larapinta Trail is that it does seek out diversity and, after leading us from the plain through a curving valley, it took to the heights again. We were in for a spell of ridge walking, with wide views back towards Ormiston Gorge and south towards the red rocks of Chalet Ridge. The track meandered along the ridges before leading us up to the originally-named Hilltop Lookout, where we crossed paths with a pair of west-east hikers and had a pleasant chat and break while admiring the rolling landscape about us.

Looking over the low hills east of the Finke River

View west over the Finke River flats

View south from Hilltop Lookout towards the scalloped flanks of the Pacoota Range

A short steep descent brought us back into the valley system and, after a succession of rises and dips, we reached the sandy bed of Ormiston Creek. Crossing to the southern bank, we followed the creek around to its junction with the Finke River and the new Finke Campsite. Here we declared an early lunchbreak - in fact we had so much time up our sleeves we decided to boil the billy as well.

Crossing the wide sandy bed of Ormiston Creek

Lush reed-beds in the Finke

Nello crosses the Finke River

On leaving the campsite, we crossed the wide sandy bed of the Finke, where five stepping stones were all that was needed to cross the shallow swampy stream of the river. The Finke normally exists as a series of waterholes, but its western edge was a lush green mat of grasses and reeds, showing that water was still present in the sandy bed.

Country west of the Finke River

Soon after leaving the river bed, we reached the junction for Glen Helen Station, where the fair Nello had the inspired idea to do a water drop. By secreting two of our water bottles near the junction, we would cut our backpack load by 2kg for the 7km walk into Glen Helen and back in two days time when we resumed the track. Over the past 14 days, if we had learnt anything, it was that every little bit of weight saved was important for tired bodies.

The reed-covered riverine habitat

Then we turned away from the Larapinta Trail and headed south towards Glen Helen. This could have either been considered as a frustrating but necessary 3.5 km detour or as a fascinating promenade alongside the Finke River, past curious geological features and long and deep reed-fringed waterholes, home to cormorants, herons and swamphens. We chose the latter - this "detour" was a highlight of the day's walk.

Rock rib runnng down towards the Finke River

A long waterhole on the Finke River

At places, long and curiously shaped red rock ribs cut across our path - a bit like misplaced Inca walls. The first we edged around next to the waterhole, the second we passed through at a point where it was no more than a metre wide - beneath one of three arches eroded in the rock.

The "Inca Wall" - a narrow band of quartzite

Passing beneath the arch

Waterhole backed by Ormiston Peak

A tranquil stretch of the Finke

Eventually though, the track, lined in parts with the fluffy pink heads of Ptilotus, spilled us out onto Namatjira Way, the long strip of asphalt road running west from Alice Springs. However, we only had to walk along its verge for a few hundred metres, back across the Finke River ford, before turning into the short tarred road to Glen Helen Station.

Approaching Glen Helen Gorge


Where Namatjira Drive = Larapinta Trail

Approaching Glen Helen and the cliffs of Chalet Ridge

We were "home" again - hot shower, cold beer on the edge of the Finke beneath the sheer orange walls of the Chalet Ridge and, best of all, a thick soft mattress to sleep on. You could walk the Larapinta straight through, but taking the odd rest day certainly makes it more enjoyable.

Glen Helen - one of the world's best spots for watching the sun set