Northern Territory: Lost in the Larapinta

Following the Great Walk through the central Northern Territory, Thomas Bywater finds a steady rhythm along Australia’s songlines.

Day one: Dreamtime

Telegraph Station to Wallaby Gap, into Nick’s Camp; 22km

Within the first hour I’d seen a dingo, two kangaroos and two-dozen galahs. If this were a safari, I’d be happy to get back on the bus and head home.

However, wildlife watching was only part of the reason I was heading west out of Alice Springs, into Australia’s McDonnell Ranges. The dependable clicking of poles and chatter of 11 fellow hikers and three guides was a constant reminder that we were here to walk the Larapinta Trail.

The Larapinta is one of Australia’s 10 great walks. However, setting out from the most central point of the country’s landmass in a desert of Martian red, it was apparent this hike was unlike any other.

Leaving the old telegraph station in Alice, we passed the tombstones of the frontiersmen who built the town. The situation would have been ominous, were I not taking part in a World Expeditions guided trek called ‘Larapinta in Comfort’.

Instead of a shallow, dusty grave, at the end of the day’s hike waited a state-of the art eco-camp — or so the guides assured me.

Bookending the caravan of ramblers, our guides were invaluable from the start. Brett, Anita and Ried made light work of the 100km trail — topping the team up with regular water breaks, chocolate rations and snackable bits of bushlore.

The first lesson in bush survival concerned the old telegraph cable. Bushmen lost in the desert would cut the cables and wait for a repair party to set out down the line to search for the break — a trick that doubtless saved countless lives, and cost countless cricket scores. However, since the last overland message was transmitted about 55 years ago, hikers have begun carrying satellite phones. Today, it’s far safer and more sociable to stick with the guides.

The further along the trail we ventured, the clearer my picture of the desert became.

It was no longer an unknowable, red dustbowl. Even the short way we had come from Alice was full of lines, tracks and trails. Beyond the telegraph cables paths criss-crossed, picked up then took off; the tracks of the Ghan railway dissected the desert and disappeared over the horizon towards Darwin; then there were the ridges of the MacDonnell Ranges.

Songlines are an important part of the indigenous culture of central Australia. Sometimes called “dreaming tracks”, they are real paths through the landscape in which folk stories are embedded.

It is a way of memorising routes and information about the landscape, filling them with character. The Caterpillar Dreaming, for example, describes how the mountain ranges were formed by an army of retreating insects, defeated in battle.

It might be less accepted than the scientific tale of seismic folds and ridges — but it holds far more descriptive detail in terms of the landscape and important wildlife observations.
They are also aids for memory: drop a giant anthropomorphic caterpillar into your story, hey presto! It makes for a far more memorable tale.

Day 2: Detour through Arrernte land
Nick’s Camp to Simpsons Gap, plus Standley Chasm and Lookout Walk; 9km

Our journey into the Outback was split between work days and lighter rest days.




flies from Auckland to Alice Springs, via East Coast cities, with Economy Class return fares starting from $1053.

World Expeditions‘ Classic Larapinta Trail in Comfort is a six-day, guided hike, with prices starting from $2850pp.


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