Sunday, August 17, 2014

Last Days On The Larapinta Track: Sections Six Through One

After walking the last six sections of the Larapinta Track (sections 12 through 7) as day walks, we decided to walk the first six sections (sections 1 through 6) as a "through" walk. You could (and the tour companies do) walk the whole walk as day walks but, sections one through six involve longer car shuttles and more 4WD tracks, all things we detest. So, we packed for six nights on the track, put a food drop in at Standley Chasm on the way out to Ellery Creek Big Hole and began the walk one cool morning.

There is water and camping about every 15 km along sections one through six, a distance that is a little too short for a full days walk, while 30 km seems a little too long for a single days walk; a conundrum frequently encountered on long distance Australian tracks. There are campsites in between the recommended camps, but many of these are waterless and we had already decided that carrying 6 or 7 litres of water about was not on our agenda. Some mid-point campsites have water but, as these are officially "semi-permanent" you never really know if you will find water there, unless, you meet some helpful walkers coming in the other direction. Sometimes, even helpful walkers don't know as the water may be a distance off the main track and not immediately obvious. 

 Looking west along the Heavitree Range to Mount Sonder

Section Six: Ellery Creek Big Hole to Hugh Gorge

In any case, our first day was only about 15 km to Rocky Gully campsite where there is a toilet and water tank, but sadly no camp furniture. We had all day to walk 15 km so strolled idly along enjoying the views. Section six is one of the easier sections of the walk with no real elevation gain or loss. A few kilometres east of Ellery Creek Big Hole, the track climbs 100 metres or so to a saddle on the Heavitree Range before descending out into the Alice Valley. This is the first time on the track that we would walk on the north side of the Heavitree Range. There is a gorgeous view from the saddle north to the Chewings Range, across the Alice Valley with the dry creekbed of Ellery Creek winding through. Once down the north side of the Heavitree Range, the track follows the dry and sandy creekbed of Ellery Creek, pleasantly lined with big eucalpyts for a couple of kilometres, before the creek turns north, the track continues east and reaches Rocky Gully. The campsite here is a fairly standard Larapinta track one, nothing special, but not bad either. 

Nights are cool out in the West MacDonnell Range and, as we had another easy day planned, we waited until the sun hit the tent to get up - the only morning we would do so. The track ambles northeast across the Alice Valley to Ghost Gum Flat where there is a dry campsite and, inexplicably, a large wooden bench/table. Two young women, who had come into Rocky Gully camp the afternoon before but had subsequently moved on to camp at Ghost Gum Flat had left their illegal campfire burning and two other hikers, heading west, had spent an hour burying the smouldering remains and clearing up the subsequent eyesore. An Australian Hobby (a raptor) was nesting in one of the big Ghost Gums by the campsite. We chatted with the two "clean-up" hikers and they advised us to camp at Hugh Gorge Junction if we had the energy/time to continue upstream from Hugh Gorge campsite as not only is water available, but the upper camp is near to a side trip up Hugh Gorge which they highly recommended. 

This all sounded like a sensible plan so I began to walk faster instead of strolling along at my "amble" pace. We reached Hugh Gorge campsite at around 1.00 pm. There is no toilet or camp furniture, just a water tank and Larapinta track sign. There are actually some nice campsites up the creek a bit, but, Hugh Gorge Junction is a better camp.

 Doug at Ellery Saddle looking north to the Chewings Range

Section Five: Hugh Gorge to Birthday Waterhole

The track runs north up Hugh Gorge to Hugh Gorge Junction which is a large area of sandy dry river bed at the bottom (west end) of the narrow Linear Valley. Our new hiking friends had cautioned us to allow 2.5 hours to walk the 3 km or so up the gorge to camp as the walking was reportedly tough, but we walked up in about half that time. Most of the way, there was a not too bad foot bed beaten in but in other sections one must cross from one side of the wide river bed to the other or scramble on water-worn rocks around water-holes. Deep green cycads and red river gums grow in the gorge bottom.

There are many large campsites at Hugh Gorge junction where we caught up with the illegal fire-lighters who had scattered their gear across a large area. A small milky waterhole provided drinking water (boil or treat first). We put our tent up, had some afternoon tea and wandered the half hour up to Hugh Gorge. The further up the gorge you go, the closer together the red rock walls become and, in the late afternoon, they emitted an eerie red glow. About half a kilometre from camp a permanent waterhole of icy water lies between steep red rock walls. The great thing about swimming in such cold water is, no matter how cold a wind is blowing when you get out, you actually feel warm. 

Next morning, with the valley still in deep shade we walked east up a good track in Linear Valley to Rocky Saddle where a cold wind whistled over. Below and to the east, we could see Fringe Lilly Creek cutting a two kilometre gorge south through the Chewings Range. There is another campsite at Fringe Lilly Creek near short red rock walls, and, apparently, if you walk south a good waterhole, deep enough for a dip and offering plenty of drinking water. At Fringe Lilly Creek the track climbs on a well built track up the western end of Razorback Ridge and follows the ridge east to drop down a short distance to Windy Saddle, where it was, indeed windy. There are wonderful views on the track as you walk along Razorback Ridge and this is one of the more scenic parts of the whole walk. 

From Windy Saddle, a rocky descent down a narrow dry stream bed leads to Spencer Gorge where we had some lunch and caught up with the young female fire-lighters. It is almost two kilometres south through Spencer Gorge which descends more steeply than most gorges at first but soon flattens out and, as you walk south through the gorge, the track gets better and better. At the south end of Spencer Gorge, a short climb up a narrow draw on the north side of Paisley Bluff is followed by a longer descent down the east side to a dry sandy creekbed. There are two "pinches" on the map as you follow this drainage south, the second pinch houses Birthday Waterhole, a large pool of weedy water under a short rock bluff. The water was much warmer for swimming than up in Hugh Gorge and, despite the lack of furniture or toilet, this is a really nice campsite. The ranger was there filling up the water tank as well as two other hikers heading west and the infamous fire-lighters. 

A refreshing dip at Hugh Gorge

Section Four: Birthday Waterhole to Standley Chasm

We left camp early the next day with long shadows still cast by the rising sun to walk one of the most spectacular sections of the walk. An easy hours walk contouring below Paisley Bluff and its outliers brought us to broad Stuarts Pass, a gap in the range where the dry sandy river runs through. There is another campsite here and a puddle of water, which, apparently walkers were drinking, but, in this instance, it was literally a puddle. From Stuarts Pass the track climbs steadily up a dark valley to a small saddle south of Brinkley Bluff and then descends to cross the head of a narrow creek that falls over cliffs at Rocky Cleft. Another climb, this time up the steeper south side of Brinkley Bluff and you reach the highest point on the track, apart from Mount Sonder. Brinkley Bluff commands tremendous views in all directions and we sat by the huge cairn enjoying the scenery for a while. There are many campsites up here, dry obviously, and it is a popular place to camp for a night. 

The track east along the ridge top is stony but spectacular and this was one of my favourite walk sections. Ahead is the complex knot of ridges above Standley Chasm where the Chewings Range fans out in all directions. After a gradual descent down the ridge, a short climb leads to a small pass, and traversing a steep side hill, the track reaches Reveal Saddle with a view out to the south. Before the real descent down to Standley Chasm there is a short side trip out to Bridle Path Lookout where you can see a different perspective on Brinkley Bluff. The descent to Standley Chasm is wearying on tired feet as the track starts out on the north side of the creek, running in and out of small gullies before dropping down into the stony creek bed for the final few kilometres. If you have your wits about you, you can climb out of the creek to the north about a kilometre from where the track/creek bed meets the access road to Standley Chasm and follow the "loop walk" up a short hillside and then down to come out at the back of the Kiosk at Standley Chasm. This is shorter, more scenic, and avoids some tedious walking on river stones and tarmac at the end of the day. 

Camping at Standley Chasm is on a small piece of green grass, pleasant but narrow, and there are hot showers (if you heat the water in a wood fired boiler) or cold (if you can't be bothered like me), and you can get good gluten stuffed meals at the Kiosk. We were greeted by the other walkers as some kind of hiking heroes for having walked the 18 km from Birthday Waterhole by 2.00 pm but, truthfully, the walking was generally pretty easy and it is so scenic that the time passes quickly. We had a food drop at Standley Chasm - I had put in a fruit yoghurt, but Doug had put in about 7,000 calories worth of food which he proceeded to eat his way steadily through. 

 Doug hero posing on Brinkley Bluff

Section Three: Standley Chasm to Jay Creek

For some reason, this section broke us. We had been walking the Larapinta for many days by now and had no muscle fatigue or any other symptoms but on this day my feet got painfully sore and I developed three blisters in really weird places. I think it was the cumulative effect of walking on stony, rocky ground with nearly worn out approach shoes. 

Before leaving, we detoured up Standley Chasm, a narrow defile of red rock, before climbing on a well built trail up to a saddle overlooking the narrow twisting course of the upper reaches of Standley Chasm. A short downhill leads to Angkale Junction where a side valley runs west, and then another climb leads up to Gastrolobium Saddle. The track ahead is clearly visible winding down the narrow valley heading northeast. It is stony walking in and out of a creekbed down to Millers Flat (dry campsite), followed by more scrambling, rock hopping and stony river bed down narrow Cycad Creek. The track then turns north and climbs up another stony creek bed before heading east and over a 900 metre saddle and down (more stony ground) to Tangentyere Junction. 

There is another two or three kilometres of fast walking on a blessedly smooth track until you reach a big waterhole at Fish Hole. The waterhole blocks access to the north side of the Chewings Range so the track climbs up cliffs on the west before descending again on the east. Around about here I realised my feet were sore and beginning to blister. I tried taping them up, but it didn't really work. On the north side of Fish Hole, a slow trudge in deep river sand leads to a new shelter, toilet, and campsite at Jay Creek. 

 Fish Hole near Jay Creek

Section Two: Jay Creek to Simpsons Gap

We had a very brief stop at Jay Creek as we had another 10 or 11 km to go to our planned camp at Mulga camp. Luckily the walking was easy as my feet were very sore. We wandered east in a broad valley on the north side of Mount Lloyd before turning south through short Spring Gap where there is another waterhole shaded by big eucalypts. A bit more walking east and we reached Mulga Camp, relocated apparently and in a less appealing location than previously, but there are two picnic benches, a water tank and a toilet and we were glad to stop for the night. It was a cold night and we were in the tent early. 

The next morning, we walked 14 or 15 km before lunch into Simpsons Gap. Along the way we passed Bond Gap, permanent waterhole, red rock cliffs, and Arenge Bluff. Our feet were so sore by now that we did not detour up to Simpsons Gap from the track, one look at the hard blacktop we would have to walk deterred me (we'll go back later), but continued on another 10 or 11 km to Wallaby Gap to camp. 

 Spring Gap

Section One: Simpsons Gap to Alice Springs Telegraph Station

Wallaby Gap lies just below (south) of Euro Ridge. A short walk up a mixed sandy and gravel track, or a short hobble leads to a sedge lined waterhole where we managed to splash around in shallow pools having a bit of a wash. There is furniture, a toilet and water tank at Wallaby Gap and we shared the camp with one other hiker. 

The last climb of the walk was up Euro Ridge from which we could see Alice Springs and Heavitree Gap looking very close. The track meanders along Euro Ridge and I enjoyed the final ridge views of the walk, before descending off the north side and continuing east to cross the railway track and under the Stuart Highway at Charles River. The final four kilometres I had walked before through the Telegraph Station and I hobbled along, the anti-inflammatory I took that morning long since worn off. 

At the Telegraph Station we sat on a bench in the sun and had lunch before walking the final four kilometres into town. Doug and I both felt like old steam engines that needed some time to get up to speed. When we had to wait for traffic lights in Alice Springs to cross the road, we started slowly again, stuttered a bit, and finally built back up to speed. A surly young man served us at the rental car place (we rented a car to go pick up our car and caravan from Ellery Creek Big Hole) - I believe he was surly before I even took my shoes off - but we managed to escape without multiple extra charges. Driving west to retrieve our vehicle it was a little hard to believe we had just walked over 200 kilometres and completed a track that we had first thought of walking over two years previously. 

Doug on Euro Ridge

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