Stage 4 - Glen Helen to Mt Sonder

Day 15 - Glen Helen to Rocky Bar Gap (18km - 460m ascent - 440m descent)

We had passed a very pleasant rest day at Glen Helen. Sitting on the banks of the Finke River as the sunset lights up the red walls of Chalet Ridge must be one of the best beer o'clock places in the world. The only downside was that the mysterious swelling on my elbow was still giving me grief. As the fair Nello always reminds me, a rest day is meant to be for resting. However, we couldn't resist going back to Ormiston Gorge for a bit of a pack-free leg-stretcher to the waterhole and gorge. They are certainly worth a visit.

Once again on the Finke River flats

The next day dawned as had almost every other one since we set out - crispy cold and clear blue sky. We were both geed up as we set out on the first day of the last stage of our Larapinta Trek - the thought of finishing was starting to take hold.

Mt Sonder from Glen Helen - the end is in sight

Back through the arch

Crossing the low shrubs of the Mereenie Valley

Retracing our path back along the banks of the Finke River and through the natural rock arch, we were soon at the junction of the main trail. We stopped briefly to pick up our water stash and headed off into uncharted territory.

A dusty grey track led us across the bare dolomitic plain of the Mereenie Valley, before turning north to traverse a series of low rises, covered in spinifex with a low shrub cover of flowering wattles and patches of desert roses. The occasional elegant white trunks of the scattering of ghost gums completed the scene.

All the while, we could see the blue silhouette of Mt Sonder on the horizon, beckoning us - like moths to a flame we were homing in on our target.

A lonely ghost gum

Looking over the plain of Davenport Creek to Mt Sonder

From the hills, we descended gently into the broad plain of Davenport Creek, eventually crossing its sandy bed. Here, for the first time, we got our feet wet, as the long waterhole had filled to a level that now blocked the track. It was only for a few metres and only knee deep, but very refreshing. It was a good excuse to stop for a break on the far side as they dried.

Our one wet crossing

The waterhole at Davenport Creek

Pushing on again, we now found ourselves in shrubland and then increasingly dense woodland, as we approached the flank of a small range and our one big climb for the day. The track up was well-conceived, following contours where possible with only occasional sections of direct zig-zagging ascent.

On the Davenport plain

View back across the mulga woodlands

On the climb up to Hilltop

We quickly found our pace and headed steadily upwards. On reaching the edge of a small ravine, we were obliged to change to a lower gear as the gradient steepened, taking us over a small knob. After a brief section of downhill, the track resumed its gradual ascent, past yellow-flowering wattles, red grevilleas and blue fuchsias.

A deep gully in the Heavitree Range

We reached the top of the long spur we had climbed, where a short period of flat walking prepared us for the final steep pinch up to the spine of the range. We then followed the spine over one hump to finally reach the high point, known as Hilltop Lookout. The climb had certainly been easier than previous ones, but it did take an hour of serious effort - "Hilltop Lookout" seemed a particularly bland and inappropriate name. We renamed the point "Hard Yakka Hill".

View down the track and over the plain

Zooming in on Glen Helen and the Finke River

The ranges partially hiding towards Mt Sonder

Hard Yakka Hill was a great place for lunch - we could look back to the east to the walls of Ormiston Pound and Mt Giles and out to the south over the plains to the scalloped flanks of the Pacoota Range. Best of all, though, was the view ahead - the full eastern face of Mt Sonder, now taking up much of the western horizon. We were closing in on the end.

Finally Mt Sonder - full frontal from Hilltop Lookout

The descent was long and winding, but not too steep, and led us out onto the northern side of the range into a large basin at the foot of Mt Sonder. It was barren at first, with the occasional ghost gum, but changing to a dense mulga woodland as we neared the creek, where the silvery shimmer of native grasses dominated the ground cover.

Descending from Hilltop to the northern valley

Native grasslands below Mt Sonder

A trio of hillside ghost gums

We were now beneath Mt Sonder, and its imposing silhouette seemed almost too much - it was time to take a break from the pull of the mountain. Ahead lay the shadowed cleft of Rocky Bar Gap leading to the south. We crossed the sand bed of Rocky Bar Creek to pass through an area of burnt woodland - their stark black skeletons standing out from the lush regenerating groundcover, highlighted by the fragile blue stars of Wallenbergias.

The sandy bed of Rocky Bar Creek

Burnt shrubs near the entrance to Rocky Bar

The western flank of Rocky Bar

Most of the gaps we have passed through have had rocky boulder-strewn floors - not so Rocky Gap. Despite its name, the sandy creek bed lined with tall river gums passed smoothly between the red rock walls - as did we. It was a pleasant stroll in the shade of the rockface.

A shady passage through Rocky Bar

Our sojourn on the northern side had been brief, as we emerged from the gap to the sight of the watertank of Rocky Bar campsite, set amongst a grove of weeping ironbarks. It was a very sheltered spot with the afternoon sunlight filtering through and, yet again, we were alone.

Campsite beneath a weeping ironbark

A ghost gum in the late afternoon light

We pitched our tent, brewed a coffee and enjoyed the quiet ambience of this place. However, the sun seemed to set quickly and afternoon warmth was replaced by evening cold. The sliver of moon that we had watched just a few days earlier had morphed into a bright half-circle, casting shadows on the ground and washing away the clarity of the stars. It was a different night time ambience to the great outback of Australia.

Day 16 - Rocky Bar Gap to Redbank Creek (11km - 120m ascent - 90m descent)

So, here I sit, barefoot in the sandy bed of Redbank Creek, beneath the shade of a gnarled old river red gum. It is a delightful spot to spend a lazy afternoon with a gentle breeze wafting by, butterflies flitting across the creek bed, wrens and honeyeaters twittering in the tree tops, and the occasional mournful call of a raven. In fact, now that I am watching, the raven has come to check out the empty tents and backpacks further up the creek.

There are tents scattered up and down the creekbed, for this is effectively a trailhead of the Larapinta Trail and the place where most walkers begin. Tomorrow it will be the place where we finish our epic walk, but that is another story.

Tents in the sandy bed of Redbank Creek

Today's story began back at Rocky Bar Gap in the cold of another clear sky desert morning. We were up bright and early and keen to head on, as this was also a key day for us - the last day that we would have to carry a full load on our backs. After 210 km of carrying 16-20 kg over rocky ranges and through deep gorges, this was it and it was a relatively short, flat walk to boot.

Heading west from Rocky Bar campsite

The red-capped hill

Scrubby country south of Mt Sonder

Today was a transition day - not a lot of new landscapes to be seen, but more a repositioning for the final climb of Mt Sonder and the end of the walk. When we left the campsite, we spent the first twenty minutes in the chilly shade of a ridge extending westward from Rocky Bar. It was good to finally feel the warm rays on our backs when we emerged into the sunlight to follow this open landscape westward, across an area of past bushfires where the red mallee were re-shooting from basal lignotubers, past a curious conical hill wearing a red rock hat, across stony creeks and beneath the dappled shade of mulga / witchetty woodland.

Resting in a shady creek bed

Track through the mulga / witchetty bush woodland

Red mallees in front of the Mt Sonder spur


For the first part, Mt Sonder remained hidden behind the foothills. Then it appeared as the hills faded away, its shape transformed by the long east-west spur of the ascent route. We were now walking beneath its southern flank in a pleasant woodland landscape.

Ahead we could see the sandy bed of Redbank Creek and the track turned to follow it along, finally crossing it to reach our campsite, where I now sit. We arrived in time for lunch and a siesta - it was that kind of place.

Redbank, however, is more famous for its incredibly narrow gorge than it is for its somniferous creekbed, so as the afternoon wore on and the number of day-trippers passing by from the car-park above began to diminish, we got ourselves up and wandered down to check out the scenery of the gorge. After a short walk down the creek and across the smooth creek boulders, we found ourselves in a sandy bedded red-walled amphitheatre. At its end the rock wall was split by a jagged cleft, only a few metres wide, and protected by an icy cold waterhole.

Track alongside Redbank Creek

The elegance of the river gums

Heading up a sandy section of the gorge

A rocky section of the creek

Evening reflections

Reflections of Redbank Gorge

Peering into the cleft of Redbank Gorge

Redbank waterhole and the entry to the gorge

Twenty years ago we visited here and crossed the waterhole to explore deeper into this narrow chasm with its series of pools and narrow chambers - today we were content to sit at the entry and contemplate the grandeur and silence of this temple to the colour red. Then it was back to our campsite to cook up our last evening meal - a zingy chilli con carne - and crawl into our sleeping bags for one last time beneath the moon shadows of the MacDonnell Ranges.

The sun sets on a very atypical Mt Sonder and its western spur

Day 17 - Redbank Creek to Mt Sonder (14.5km - 740m ascent - 740m descent)

The last day had arrived - less than 8 km from our campsite in Redbank Creek to the top of Mt Sonder and the end of the Larapinta Trail. What a mixture of feelings we had as we ate our breakfast on the sandy creekbed - the last day of any long trek is always bitter-sweet. We stowed our big packs in the tent and set off. One of the sweet moments was the knowledge that we didn't have to lug all of our gear up the mountain -just lunch and water, as we would return to Redbank Creek after finishing the trail.

Recrossing the creek, we quickly found the junction to Mt Sonder and followed the track up through the witchetty bush scrub to the flank of the long west-east spur that would lead us to its top. In the case of most mountains the track gets steeper as you approach the summit. Not so Mt Sonder, for the steepest bit comes first, directly up the flank of the spur. We had left early and the sun was still low behind the spur - it was good to climb in the chill of the morning shade. The sunlit rocks on the far side of the creek glowed red in the morning sun.

Looking back to the bare red hills behind Redbank Creek

On the climb up to the saddle of Sonder Spur

We reached the saddle marking the spine of the spur and the sunlight at the same time. There was not much time to warm up though, as the breeze that picked up overnight was now an icy northerly wind, blowing directly across our path - bracing. The track headed eastward along the spur. Most guidebooks give the impression that this is a long continuous climb - it isn't. The spur consists of a series of humps, that gradually lead upwards with changes of gradient and even a few flat bits and descents as it leads inevitably upwards towards the mountain.

The first big hump is a lookout point and we could see the peak ahead, the pointy end of an otherwise rounded dome. Onward we pushed, passing low scrubby mallees and wattles, the latter fringed with golden fingers of blossom. The cold wind blew in our left ears and waved the silvery stems of spinifex seedheads, as we strode steadily up the path of red dust and clinking pink-tan rock slabs.

Pink slab rocks on the edge of the spur

View of the track ahead along Mt Sonder spur and the distant summit

We crossed paths with a group of walkers who had made a 4 am start to catch the sunrise from the top - they assured that the wind was even icier and stronger on top .... hmmmm, should I have brought my beanie?

Track up one of the humps on the spur

The final approach to the summit

Views from the ridge out to the north

Crossing a shrubby knoll

A red rocky knob marked the end of the spur and the start of the mountain. A short sharp descent and the gradient increased as we started the final part of the climb. It was about this time that we noticed a slight increase in warmth - the wind was beginning to drop and the sun was doing its job. By the time we reached the narrow band of jagged rock that led to the tops, it had weakened to a pleasant breeze. The God of walkers was again smiling on us.

The red rocky knob - end of the spur and start of the mountain

The wattles and mallee of the ridgeline

Leaving the rock rib, we had but to cross the rounded dome, covered in rich green fire-regenerated shrubs and the earthen turrets of termites, to reach the cairn the marked the lookout on Mt Sonder and the end of Larapinta Trail. We touched it symbolically and our trek of 17-days was over, as simply as that.

The summit of Mt Sonder (1380m) appears

The end of the Larapinta Trail (17 days and 223km)

View east from whence we came

Now it was time to take in the magnificent views in every direction that the summit had to offer - the mountains from whence we came to the east, the rugged true summit of Mt Sonder, rising sharply across a treacherous ravine, Mt Zeil, the highest mountain in Australia west of the divide, silhouetted to the north-west, and a series of mountain tops fading into the blue of the western horizon. The scale of landscape was simply enormous.

Northern panorama from Mt Sonder Lookout

Panorama from Sonder Lookout towards the inaccessible summit and the land beyond

Mt Edwards (1423m) on the western horizon

Close-up of Mt Zeil (1531m) - highest peak in
the Northern Territory

View from the ridge towards Mt Zeil

It was superb and we stayed for some time, as more and more trekkers arrived at the summit. Some were just beginning the Larapinta Trail and this was their first day - fresh of face and keen of spirit. For we who had just finished, with the weariness of 17 days of walking in our bones and track-weathered appearances, it was a different emotion. With a quiet sense of achievement, a respect for the severity of these ancient landscapes and a huge appreciation of their rugged beauty, we wished them well and turned to walk back down to Redbank Creek.