Things learnt on the Larapinta Trail

Despite doing a lot of online research before walking the Larapinta Trail there is no substitute for the real experience. Here are my learnings and thoughts to share with anyone thinking of walking this incredible track, covering…

  • How hard is the Larapinta Trail?
  • When is the best time to walk the Larapinta Trail?
  • How to look after yourself on the trail
  • What to pack and what to leave behind
  • Whether to walk the Larapinta east (Alice Springs) to west (Mt Sonder) or west to east? Short answer definitely Alice Springs to Mt Somer
  • An itinerary for walking west (Mt Sonder) to east (Alice Springs)

How hard is the Larapinta?

It is a challenging track, due to it’s length, the heat, many uneven surfaces, and some reasonable ascents and descents. It’s difficulty for you will depend on your fitness and experience. As a comparator I found the suggested track timings similar to those provided by DOC for tracks in NZ. Although the terrain and conditions are very different, if you’ve walked in NZ this should give you a rough idea of timings, though note that the Larapinta is tougher than any of the Great Walks.

It’s length is a particular challenge, minor pack niggles over a 2-3 day hike can become painful pack sore over a dozen days or more. I found everyday on the Larapinta hard, both physically with few flat sections, but increasingly due to pack sores on my hips and shoulders, and a few blisters.

For much of the year average daytime temperatures are more than 30C (and more like 45C in summer), creating a serious risk of dehydration. A visitor doing a day walk up Mt Sonder in January this year got lost and died within a few hours from the heat. When I started the track in mid June the first four days were unseasonally hot, around 30C, before dropping to much more manageable temperatures around 20C. At 30C, with little or no shade on the track, walking is hard work, best done in the morning and late afternoon.

It’s difficultly will also depend on how many days you to take complete it. I allowed 13 days, with a buffer of an extra couple if I needed, but ended up finishing it mid morning on day 12. Basically I walked a section a day, but this did mean very long days for sections 6 and 9 (both about 30km). The majority walk the track in 14-16 days which requires a bit more food, but allows for shorter or rest days.

When is the best time to walk the Larapinta?

Depends on your tolerance for the heat / cold and other people. July is the most popular month as it’s the coolest during the days, but will be freezing at night, and you’ll be sharing the track with ~300 other people. I did it in the middle of June when after an unseasonally hot start it cooler down to high teens during the day, good walking temperatures, but was literally freezing overnight. There were ~60 independent and ~80 guided people on the track at this time.

Those who know the trail well recommend the best times as late May / early June, and late July, to balance the weather and number of people around, plus longer hours of daylight then. In mid June the sun appeared at 7am and went by 6pm, which made some of the longer days (sections 6 and 9) very tight to complete during daylight hours.

Also be aware that the Finke Desert Race takes places in early June and all accommodation in Alice Springs will be booked up so plan ahead.

How to look after yourself on the trail

  • Drink plenty of water, if hot 6-8 litres of water a day. I’d drink 1.5 litre in the morning before leaving camp, and 2–3 litres between water tanks. To cover the two sections (5 and 9) without water you should carry at least 6 litres
  • Take electrolytes before going to bed so you don’t sweat them out, particularly important the first few days on the trail as you acclimatise
  • Look after your feet, take boots and socks off when possible to dry them in the sunshine . If you’re not used to the heat you will likely get blisters as your feet swell. I’ve never had them in New Zealand but they started appearing by the end of day one on the Larapinta

What to pack and what to leave behind

This isn’t a comprehensive list (there’s a good one of those on the Larapinta Trail website) but reflects my experience of what I’m glad I brought, and wish I hadn’t.

Do bring

  • Fold up mat such as a Thermarest Z-Seat. Best bit of blog advice I got before walking the track. They weigh nothing, and provide something comfortable to sit on rocks, shelters or the ground, protecting from both the surface and the cold / heat
  • Head fly net. Again they weigh nothing and cost little, but when the flies are particularly active at dawn, dusk and when you’re having your lunch, it’ll stop you going mad
  • Toilet paper, but one or two rolls are probably fine (depending on where you’re camping) as almost every toilet on the track has paper
  • Hand sanitiser is important given the general shortage of water and amount of dirt you’ll accumulate on your hands
  • Warm clothing for the nights. Deserts can be very cold places once the sun has gone done, it frequently dropped below freezing at night
  • Cash in exact change for the campsites, $5 and $10 notes for Ellery Creek and Orimiston Gorge respectively to put in envelopes to pay
  • Travel towel for showers at Ormiston Gorge and Standley Chasm, and waterholes like Ellery Creek and Birthday Waterhole
  • Solar charger for camera / phone, as the only places with power sockets to charge devices are Ormiston Gorge and Standley Chasm. Also batteries lose power quickly in cold conditions, my phone dropped 20% overnight, can pay to put your devices inside your sleeping bag

Don’t bring

  • Gaiters. If you’re walking through spinifex you know you’re off the track. Gaiters just add weight and heat for little benefit. I ended up carrying mine the whole way. My original logic was in case of snakes but particularly during the cooler times of the year you’ll be very lucky to see any
  • Water filters, as all tank water comes from Alice Springs, supplemented with rainwater. I drank direct from the tanks (as did most people I saw on the trail) without any issues

Debatable

  • Umbrella. Probably more useful in the hotter months to provide shade but particularly with poles and heavy pack they’re not very comfortable to hold. I used one on Mt Sonder when I had a day pack and it was 30C but otherwise carried it the whole way
  • Hiking poles. I used my the whole way and found them useful but I’m used to walking with them. If you’re not they’re not essential for the Larapinta, there are generally steps for steep sections, and the track though rocky isn’t as challenging as navigating tree rocks or shale

Whether to walk the Larapinta east (Alice Springs) to west (Mt Sonder) or west to east?

Short answer is definitely Alice Springs to Mt Sonder, the opposite to the way I did it. Experienced locals were unequivocal that this was the more enjoyable way of doing it, and I would agree for a number of reasons.

  • At least 90% of the good views are toward the east. Which meant I spent a lot of time looking over my shoulder wishing I was walking the other way. The Larapinta Trail, despite its length, is the most unidirectional track I’ve ever walked in terms of views. In particular the four days of views of Mt Sonder as you approach it from the east far outweigh the one day of views of Alice Springs as you approach from the west
  • It’s the same price in either direction, at least with Larapinta Trail Trek Support, by far the most popular support company for transport and food drops. During the popular months they’re out at Redbank Gorge almost every day dropping off or picking up, so if your timings change they’ll likely be there at 11am the day you want to be picked up
  • You finish with climbing the summit of Mt Sonder (popularly done for sunrise, requiring a 3am start, and rationale for the usual 11am pick up), which would be more satisfying than walking along mountain bike tracks to a sign a few hundred metres from the Alice Springs Telegraph Station
  • It’s easier in a number of ways. You’ll start with a couple of relatively (it’s all relative, they’re still tough) sections to get warmed up and acclimatise rather than going straight up Mt Sonder and to Hilltop Lookout on your first days. Not all but many of the sections have steeper ascents and gentler descents walking east to west, easier on the knees. The hardest section is 9, for it’s length, terrain and lack of water. If doing it east to west you’ll have a lighter pack as will be replenishing supplies at Ormiston, rather than walking with a full pack
  • The signage is general excellent throughout the track (though the river beds can be lacking) but it is slightly more obvious walking east to west
  • All the guidance assumes walking east to west, making the useful maps and guides far easier to use rather than trying to backward engineer (as I had to do below with the itinerary)

The reasons usually given for walking west (Mt Sonder) to east (Alice Springs) are…

  • It’s cheaper. See above, not true unless you go with other transport providers who are there less often
  • You’ll have the afternoon sun on your back, which sounds good but you really want to do most of your walking in the mornings when it is cooler. Walking east to west you’ll see the sunset ahead of you, and have better light for most of your photos
  • It’s less popular, which appeared to be marginally true when I did it, but still plenty of people were walking it west to east as I did. Given that there are usually less than a few hundred people at max on a track over 200km long avoiding people is not hard to do in either direction. True the guide tours all walk east to walk (for good reason) but they have their own campsite areas away from those for independent walkers so aren’t an issue

West (Mt Sonder) to east (Alice Springs) itinerary

Not that I’d recommend it but if you are going to walk the Larapinta in this direction I’ve done the tedious reversal of the trip itinerary and included accommodation (A) with facilities below. Note that the official timings are based on east to west walking so where there are hills the timings will vary. I walked the trail in twelve days, staying at the places below marked with an asterisk.

Section 12 – Redbank Gorge to Mt Sonder return, 6 hrs 15.8km, moderate-difficult
– Redbank Gorge Carpark to Saddle 1.0 hr 2.3km
– Saddle to Mount Sonder 2.5 hrs 5.6km
– Mount Sonder to Redbank Gorge Carpark 2.5 hrs 7.9km
– Redbank Gorge return 40 mins
*A – Redbank Gorge – water, toilet, $5 in public campground, free by creek and water tank, 150m to toilet, SIDE TRIP to pool at mouth of gorge

Section 11 – Redbank Gorge to Finke River 9.5 hrs 26km, moderate-difficult
– Redbank Gorge Carpark to Rocky Bar Gap 4.0 hrs 11.8km
A – Rocky Bar Gap – water, toilet
– Rocky Bar Gap to Hilltop Lookout 2.0 hrs 4.7km
A – Hilltop Lookout – NO WATER, NO TOILET, amazing views
– Hilltop Lookout to Glen Helen Junction 3.0 hrs 8.7km
– Glen Helen Junction to Finke River Trailhead 0.5 hr 0.8km
*A – Finke River – water, toilet, shelter

Section 10 – Finke River to Ormiston Gorge, 4 hrs 9.1km, moderate
– Finke River Trailhead to Hilltop Lookout 2.0 hrs 4.1km
– Hilltop Lookout to Ormiston Gorge 2.0 hrs 5.0km
*A – Ormiston Gorge – water, toilet, FOOD PICKUP, SHOWERS, $10 correct cash, SIDE TRIP around Ormiston Pound, 7km 3-4 hours

Section 9 – Ormiston Gorge to Serpentine Chalet Dam, 12 hrs 28.6km, difficult, NO WATER
– Ormiston Gorge to Base of Hill 3.0 hrs 8.6km
– Base of Hill to Lookout 2.5 hrs 5.1km
– Lookout to Waterfall Gorge 1.0 hr 1.6km
A – Waterfall Gorge – NO WATER, NO TOILET, better camping at lookout
– Waterfall Gorge to Inarlanga Pass 4.5 hrs 11.0km
– Inarlanga Pass to Serpentine Chalet Dam 1.0 hr 2.3km
*A – Serpentine Chalet Dam – water, toilet, shelter, SIDE TRIP to dam 150m

Section 8 – Serpentine Chalet Dam to Serpentine Gorge, 5.5 hrs 13.4km, moderate to difficult
– Serpentine Chalet Dam to Counts Point Junction 2.5 hrs 6.5km
A – Counts Point – NO WATER, NO TOILET, amazing views
– Counts Point Junction to Serpentine Gorge 3.0 hrs 6.9km
*A – Serpentine Gorge – water, toilet, shelter, SIDE TRIP Serpentine Gorge Lookout Walk 15 mins

Section 7 – Serpentine Gorge to Ellery Creek, 5.5 hrs 13.8km, moderate to difficult
– Serpentine Gorge Carpark to Creek 1.5 hrs 4.2km
– Creek to Trig Point 1.0 hr 3.2km
– Trig Point to Stile 2.0 hrs 4.4km
– Stile to Ellery Creek 1.0 hr 2.0km
*A – Ellery Creek – water, toilet, FOOD PICKUP, $5 correct cash, SIDE TRIP Dolomite Walk 3km

Section 6 – Ellery Creek to Hugh Gorge, 11 hrs 31.2km, moderate to difficult
– Ellery Creek to Saddle 1.5 hrs 3.9km
– Saddle to Rocky Gully 4.0 hrs 11.4km
A – Rocky Gully – water, toilet
– Rocky Gully to Ghost Gum Flat 3.0 hrs 8.7km
– Ghost Gum Flat to Hugh View 1.0 hr 3.2km
– Hugh View to Hugh Gorge 1.5 hrs 4.0km
*A – Hugh Gorge – water, toilet, shelter

Section 5 – Hugh Gorge to Section 4/5 Junction, 10 hrs 15.2km, difficult, NO WATER
– Hugh Gorge Camp to Pocket Valley 1.5 hrs 2.2km
– Pocket Valley to Hugh Gorge Junction 1.0 hr 1.3km
A – Hugh Gorge Junction – NO WATER, NO TOILET, SIDE TRIP Hugh Gorge Waterhole
– Hugh Gorge Junction to Rocky Saddle 1.0 hr 1.6km
– Rocky Saddle to Fringe Lily Creek 1.0 hr 2.2km
A – Fringe Lily Creek – NO WATER, NO TOILET
– Fringe Lily Creek to Razorback Ridge 1.0 hr 1.8km
– Razorback Ridge to Windy Saddle 1.0 hr 1.7km
– Windy Saddle to Rocky Talus 1.0 hr 0.6km
– Rocky Talus to Spencer Gorge 1.5 hrs 1.7km
– Spencer Gorge to Section 4/5 Junction 1.0 hr 2.1km
*A – Section 4/5 Junction – water, toilet, SIDE TRIP TO Birthday Waterhole 1.8km

Section 4 – Section 4/5 Junction to Standley Chasm, 8.5 hrs 16.7km, difficult
– Section 4/5 Junction to Mintbush Spring 0.5 hr 1.2km
– Mintbush Spring to Stuart’s Pass 1.0 hr 2.5km
A – Stuart’s Pass – NO WATER, NO TOILET
– Stuart’s Pass to Brinkley Bluff 2.0 hrs 3.0km
A – Brinkley Bluff Summit – NO WATER, NO TOILET, great views
– Brinkley Bluff to Reveal Saddle 2.5 hrs 4.0km
– Reveal Saddle to Bridle Path Lookout 0.5 hr 1.2km
– Bridle Path Lookout to Standley Chasm 2.0 hrs 4.8km
*A – Standley Chasm – water, toilets, FOOD PICKUP, SHOWERS, $18.50 cash or card, SIDE TRIP Standley Chasm Walk

Section 3 – Standley Chasm to Jay Creek, 5.5 hrs 13.6km, moderate to difficult
– Standley Chasm to Angkale Junction 1.0 hr 1.5km
– Angkale Junction to Millers Flat 1.5 hrs 3.4km
– Millers Flat to Tangentyere Junction 1.5 hrs 4.0km
– (Alternative high route to Tangentyere Junction) (2.5 hrs) (4.5km)
A – Millers Flat – NO WATER, NO TOILET
– Tangentyere Junction to Fish Hole 1.0 hr 3.5km
– Fish Hole to Jay Creek 0.5 hr 1.2km
A – Jay Creek – water, toilets, shelter

Section 2 – Jay Creek to Simpsons Gap, 8 hrs 25.1km, moderate to difficult
– Jay Creek to Spring Gap 2.5 hrs 7.3km
– Spring Gap to Mulga Camp 1.0 hr 3.5km
*A – Mulga Camp – water, toilets
– Mulga Camp to Bond Gap 2.0 hrs 5.7km
– Bond Gap to Simpsons Gap 2.5 hrs 8.6km
A – Simpsons Gap – water, toilets, shelter, SIDE TRIPS Cassia Hill Walk 1.5km and Woodland Walk 17km return

Section 1 – Simpsons Gap to Alice Springs Telegraph Station, 9 hrs 23.8km, moderate to difficult
– Simpsons Gap to Hat Hill Saddle 1.0 hr 2.1km
– Hat Hill Saddle to Scorpion Pool 1.5 hrs 3.9km
– Scorpion Pool to Wallaby Gap 1.5 hrs 4.3km
*A – Wallaby Gap – water, toilets
– Wallaby Gap to Euro Ridge 1.0 hr 1.5km
– Euro Ridge to Geoff Moss Bridge 2.5 hrs 7.1km
– Geoff Moss Bridge to Alice Springs Telegraph Station 1.5 hrs 4.9km, SIDE TRIP Trig Hill Loop Walk

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