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Central Australia’s Larapinta Trail – Is this Australia’s best hiking trail?

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Fiona Harper 17 January 2017

The Larapinta Trail is rated by hikers as one of Australia’s best, thanks to well-planned trails through the dramatic landscape of Australia’s Red Centre.

Softly spoken Arrernte woman Deanella Mack is on a mission to share her country as she bridges the gap between 'blackfella' and 'whitefella' cultures. Inviting us into an open-sided sitting area in the shadow of Simpsons Gap, Dea is eager to talk about the traditional ways of the Arrernte people. She’s equally keen for our group to ask her questions about Indigenous customs and culture, the sort we’re usually afraid to ask through fear of offence or ignorance.

"There’s nothing you can’t ask me," she says, her eyes crinkling into a smile before launching into an explanation of the connection between her physical, human and spiritual worlds. She hands around a diagram which demonstrates how land and country forms an integral link through songlines that underline tribal customs.

"Songlines are stories told through song, dance and painting and provide a passport for different tribes to pass through others’ tribal country," Dea says to explain how 390 Northern Territory tribes who speak 250 languages are able to roam unimpeded. "Songs are our library, they’re how we learn about country. Songlines are our passport to other lands."

Dea’s cultural conversations and heartfelt welcome to country provides a relaxed introduction to the heart and soul of central Australia before we set out on the Larapinta Trail. A 223km trail that snakes its way through the West MacDonnell ranges west of Alice Springs, the Larapinta Trail is one of Australia’s most popular hikes. Across a dizzying mishmash of rocky peaks, down vertical-sided chasms or over plains ablaze with blooming wildflowers, the trail covers country formed millions of years ago when the area was an inland sea. Divided into 12 sections, each section can be walked as day hikes or by combining them across the entire trail into a multi-day adventure for hardy hikers.

Stunning native flowers clamour for attention along the trails ©Fiona Harper

We’re taking the more leisurely option, carrying daypacks, with gourmet meals, drinks and other logistics taken care of. Led by guides Joel and Danny from Life’s an Adventure, our hike starts on the circular trail through Ormiston Gorge. This section culminate in an ascent to an escarpment overlooking Ormiston Pound ringed by mountains dominated by Mt Giles. The landscape looks like it’s straight from the brush of an Albert Namatjira painting. Which is no surprise given that the famed Western Arrernte artist honed his craft just beyond the mountain range.

As a young boy at nearby Hermannsburg mission school, Namatjira sketched ‘scenes and incidents around him… the cattle yard, stockmen with their horses and hunters after game.’ Later motivated by his deep attachment to country, Namatjira’s paintings depicting the MacDonnell Ranges launched him onto the world stage where he was lauded for his watercolour landscapes. Walking the same country he captured so beautifully, the soul of this landscape seems to dance upon the heat-shimmered horizon.

A cooling wade ©Fiona Harper

We cross the Finke River for the first time on our way through Ormiston Gorge, stopping for lunch beneath a majestic river gum. One of Central Australia’s largest rivers, the Finke begins its life in the MacDonnell Ranges and we encounter this essential life-giver many times over the next five days.

Our first night finds us camped beneath an endless sky devoid of light pollution as the Milky Way casts a star-spangled glow over our campsite. Chatter around the campfire reveals we share a common interest in enjoying our surroundings at walking pace. There’s no rush. We have plenty of time to admire the wildflowers, to learn about the flora and fauna from our guides and to marvel at the striking colours of the land. It’s a real privilege to immerse ourselves in the landscape, to feel that connection to country that Dea mentioned earlier. We savour dinner and a glass of Tasmanian Pinot Noir around the campfire before slipping into contented slumber in our safari tents.

We sleep soundly after each day's hiking ©Fiona Harper

The following days follow much the same pattern. We hike, drink tea, hike, eat and hike some more, with each day’s landscape clamouring to outdo the previous day. Hiking to Mt Sonder, the highest peak at 1379m offering the most challenging section of the trail, we’re rewarded with 360 degree views from the summit. A helicopter taking tourists on scenic flights from Glen Helen Homestead circles at eye level as we enjoy sandwiches on top of the world looking down upon the former seabed far below.

 On top of the world at the summit_Fiona Harper.

Clambering over rocks that are awash when it rains, the 300 million year old burnt scarlet quartzite walls of Inarlanga Pass rise sharply skywards. Their rich ochre colours provide a startling backdrop to smoking green fronds of ancient cycads the size of small trees. Overhead a ridiculously blue sky remains cloudless as shards of bright sunshine pierce the chasm. The gorge has been a ceremonial meeting place and water catchment for the Western Arrente people for thousands of years. Resting against rocks warmed by the sun, I’m reminded of Dea’s advice to tread lightly, to connect with this country that holds such spiritual importance.