Getting to Know Australia on the Larapinta Trail

Outdoor enthusiasts sometimes turn their backs on organized, outfitted tours.

ROAD N✍TES
Editor’s Note: Outdoor enthusiasts sometimes turn their backs on organized, outfitted tours. But as a first-time visitor to Australia, GP contributor Will McGough was glad to hike the Larapinta Trail with a handful of locals.

When I reached the top of Counts Point, a lookout that hovers over the rim of Serpentine Gorge, I was absolutely soaked in sweat. The September sun baked the dry desert terrain of Central Australia, a land where the rivers flow once, maybe twice a year, when it rains hard enough. I removed my hat and cleared the sweat from my sunglasses for a better look at the canyon, which looks like a never-ending half pipe. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why they named it Serpentine Gorge.

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I was somewhere between miles 87 and 96 on Section 8 of the Larapinta Trail, which runs 139 miles through the Northern Territory of Australia. Broken down into 12 sections, it starts in Alice Springs, runs east to west, and is meant to take the average hiker 10 to 14 days to complete. It has earned a reputation as one of the country’s top treks, and I was impressed by the sheer variety within the desert terrain. Along the way I saw water-filled gulches, rolling hills of acacia-family trees, broken rocks that you’d mistake for split wood, and sprawling fields of Spinifex that look like clusters of green urchins in a sea of red sand. But the real treat was the company: about a dozen Australians ranging in age from 18 to 60.

As an experienced adventurer, I tend to turn my back on organized, outfitted tours. Why “cheat” when I can conquer the outdoors on my own merits? Yet when it came to the Larapinta Trail, I needed a guide for the purposes of navigation and local knowledge, and to forego lugging my gear halfway around the world. Still, I wasn’t thrilled. In fact, I spent a lot of time trying to avoid that I was on an organized tour, carrying a heavier pack than I had to and pounding ahead of the group at my own pace for long stretches of the trail.

There’s something to be said for tackling terrain on your own time, and speed is one thing you definitely sacrifice when you join a large group. However, it only took a few hours for me to realize what I had previously overlooked: the fact that, on an organized long trek — that is, a hike that takes multiple days and requires significant time off the grid — the other participants are a great resource.

IF YOU GO

Australian Walking Holidays offers 3-, 6-, and 14-day treks on the Larapinta Trail that depart from Alice Springs. Transportation, tents, swag, park fees, three meals daily and snacks are all provided. Nights are spent at semi-permanent camps with bucket showers. Learn More

My partners came from all parts of the country, from all age groups, backgrounds, and lifestyles. Several from Sydney. Many from Melbourne. One transplant from Hong Kong. A few with kids. Some in school. A couple with nearly matching hats. And the best thing was that they had to hang out with me for the next week. What more could a first-time visitor to a country ask for than a collection of its citizens delivered to his doorstep?

A long trek has a way of uniting people, mostly because the participants typically have a gear to grind, a reason for escaping their realities. And even if they don’t start out with a problem to solve, all that exercise, scenery and time inside their own head typically results in some sort of realization, from the simple (“I need to make more time in my life for the outdoors”) to the complex (“I want a new career path”). As we walked together, we changed together and we learned from each other as we sat around the fire at night.

Hiking is indeed therapeutic and thus personally reflective, but the vibe didn’t always have to be serious. In fact, some of the most delightful insights came from simple observations throughout the course of the week. I had a front row seat to see that all Australians, regardless of whether they’re 16 or 60, are united by a charmingly childish lingo. It’s hard to take yourself too seriously when you’re having a bickie for brekkie to fill up your tummy.

It’s funny, too, that my most significant concern, pace, ended up being turned upside down as well by one of the other trekkers. As I stood at the top of Count’s Point and waited for 45 minutes, I was slightly annoyed by the delay. But when the rest of the group began to appear, I looked them over and felt bad for my impatience: I saw that most of them had worked just has hard as I had. But only when I saw the man carrying the flowers did I realize the full extent of my foolishness.

Long treks are an adventure most people go their entire lives without experiencing.

He was the oldest man on the trip, an experienced trekker in his early 50s who had conquered trails all over the world. In his hand as he approached the summit was a collection of wildflowers he had picked on his way up, and there in front of me he laid them on the ground, spreading them out and showing them to the rest of the group. Once everyone had a look, he gathered them up again and put them in the side of his partner’s pack. I remember seeing the colors as she walked away — blue and purple, white and yellow — and thinking that maybe I could learn a thing or two from this man, that maybe there was enough time in the coming days to try out all different types of approaches. Later, a few miles down the trail, I caught up to him. And I spent a few miles after that with one of the younger girls. After that, the middle-aged woman, and then, once we were at camp, the guy who was about my age.

Long treks are an adventure most people go their entire lives without experiencing. What makes them so avoidable is what also makes them special: you really have to plan and go out of your way to make them happen, clearing schedules and accepting them as the only purpose of your life throughout their duration. You can learn an awful lot about yourself as the days go by, as the sounds of the rocks under your feet massage the thoughts that swirl in your head, and being on an organized tour where everything is provided makes it easy to focus on them, rather than on survival.

But, thankfully before it was too late, I began to see that this trail, one in a foreign country, was where I should get out of my own head and into those of others. There were plenty of hikes back home where I could sort out my shit. For all I had held against organized tours in the past, the benefits hit me square in the face on the Larapinta Trail. Indeed, it served me Australia on a silver platter, in the form of nine or ten of its finest walks of life.

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