Friday, August 15, 2014

Reflections On The Larapinta Track

"Australian features for 40 please Alex." "It's 223 km long, runs west to east from Redbank Gorge to the old telegraph station near Alice Springs, and is purpose built for hikers." Boing. "Alex, What is the Larapinta Track?" 

Yep, we've finally finished it, almost two years after arriving in Australia, the Larapinta Track, which I first thought of doing a year before we even contemplated moving back to Australia is done. We finished in 13 days, a schedule that would be hard yakker for a through walker, but, as we walked Sections 12 through 7 as day hikes, was not too bad at all. If you are adverse to carrying an overnight pack - who isn't - you could actually walk the entire track as separate day trips, but, you would need a four wheel drive vehicle, a much better tolerance than I have for driving out and back to the various section trail-heads, and you'd have a couple of longer (30 km) days. Or, you could cough up $4,500 and pay Trek Larapinta to cater your "supported" day walk of the track and all the logistics would be managed for you, lunch included! What a "steal of a deal" as the used car salesmen say. 

 The final kilometre

Now it is all over, I am sitting here resting my weary feet and thinking "what absolute pearls of wisdom can I cast before you swine?" (with apologies to my, no doubt, avid blog readers). First off, I guess you have to decide if you want to walk the entire track in one go, referred to by hip Larapinta walkers as a "through walk" or break the journey up. After our last seven days on the track, walking from Ellery Creek Big Hole to the old Telegraph Station near Alice Springs, I think that through walkers would do well to plan relatively short days and not try to pound out too many 25 to 30 km long days. Walking through, you could do the track in as little as 12 or 13 days, or as many as 17 or 18 days (more if you plan rest days). The shorter time would be quite a grind, as day after day you have to make a certain distance on a fairly consistently stony track. The longer time eats up more of the office workers precious holiday time but allows a more reasonable pace with the option of doing some of the many side trips possible along the way. It would be a shame to come all the way to Alice Springs (I'm assuming most walkers don't live nearby, an assumption borne out by my casual track survey of other walkers) and not have time to visit some of the side attractions, such as The Pound walk from Ormiston Gorge.

You can put food caches in along the track before you start (Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge, and Standley Chasm are the most popular), and these would allow walkers with unlimited time the opportunity to have a rest day (or two) along the walk, while stuffing themselves with all sorts of goodies that are too heavy to carry. An extra days food cached, for example, at Ormiston Gorge, would allow a leisurely day hike around the 8 km Pound Loop. Eight kilometres with a day pack feels pretty soft after 25 km with an overnight pack. Really smart walkers would even remember to throw a towel, some soap, shampoo and a change of socks into the food cache as there are showers at Ormiston Gorge and Standley Chasm. We were not really smart walkers and had to scrounge an old bar of soap at Standley Chasm and drip dry from a cold shower.

In hindsight, I am pretty happy with our decision to walk the track half as day walks and half as a through walk. There is something pleasant about camping out each night and waking each day simply to walk along a meandering track. Similarly, it's nice to walk some sections with a light day pack and have plenty of time to take in nearby sights and attractions without having to rush. We had two longer day walks of roughly 30 km, but, with a day pack these were really no problem. Conversely, at the end of our "through" section, we had two 25 km days which were hard on weary feet.

Next decision is whether to go east or west. I met one walker at Ormiston Gorge who banged on about what a big difference it made to walk east to west due to the steep uphills and downhills, but, the truth is (at least as far as I saw it), any perceived difference washes out at the end. Some sections were a bit steeper to descend when walking west, but, some were a bit steeper to descend when walking east. These aren't dipslope mountains such as seen in the Rocky Mountains of Canada where one side is gentle and one steep. Additionally, the steepness of the track varies on each track section so deciding which way to walk may need to be made based on other factors.

Such as walking into the prevailing wind or into the sun. On our last through section we walked west to east simply because we had been camped at Ellery Creek Big Hole before starting and were planning to rent a car in Alice Springs to retrieve our car and caravan from Ellery Creek Big Hole at the end of the walk. This meant that every morning we walked straight into the blinding sun as it rose in the east. The track was actually quite hard to see at times as the sun caught us straight in the eyes. I don't think you would have the same problem with the setting sun if you were walking east to west as most hikers seem to get to camp well before the sun is low in the sky. Walking east also meant we walked into the prevailing wind every day and, some days the wind was quite strong.

There are a multitude of other decisions to be made, most of which are easily dealt with by experienced walkers, but, the Larapinta Track, like all well known tracks does seem to attract a fair quantity of inexperienced folk. Many seem to underestimate the cool weather that can be encountered, and, yes, it does even rain. We saw a couple of young women who had come with a mesh tent and left the fly behind, and they were cold most, if not all the time. I love camping with just our mesh inner tent when it's hot, but, on cold desert nights when the wind blows steadily, a fly really boosts the warmth of a tent.

We found gaitors unnecessary as the track is pretty clear of scratchy spinifex, but some days were cool enough that we walked all day in long pants. It is a rare Australian track where you don't need gaitors or long pants to protect your legs from scrub itch, scrub typhus, and a general thrashing from the scratchy, prickly and pervasive vegetation. This is one of those rare tracks, and, on warm days it's nice to be able to walk in shorts.

Footwear on the track seemed to range from light trail hikers to heavier boots. I don't actually think heavy hiking boots are necessary but many walkers are attached to them and the supposed "ankle support" they provide - who really has genetically weak ankles? Both Doug and I wore approach shoes, however, mine were nearly eight years old and fairly worn through on the soles. Consequently, after about four days of walking I had very sore feet and even resorted to some Vitamin N (Naproxen) to lessen the pain of the final days walk into Alice Springs. Trail runners would be, in my opinion, inadequate, as the soles on trail runners are so thin you can feel every rock you step on, and, on the Larapinta Track you step on a lot of rocks. Approach shoes, preferably not nearly worn through, are probably the best option.

I think I may be in the running for the first non-trekking pole assisted hike of the Larapinta Track as every section we walked we encountered the clack, clack, clack of trekking poles hitting the ground. I'm not sure if the current trend to excessive use of trekking poles is another consequence of the boomer generation, but, those infernal sticks are very common. We even found one along the track which we picked up and carried with us should either of us be rendered incapacitated. I guess if you need trekking poles to walk the track better to have them than not, but, trekking poles, at least on well-formed tracks such as this one, seem a bit like using the Smith Machine at the gym instead of squatting with an Olympic bar. Trekking poles are a crutch that reduce your proprioceptive ability and allow you to get away without properly engaging your stabiliser muscles. Better to get strong first, then walk the track without the poles, but most folks probably prefer slouching along with poles. In many respects poles certainly make the walking easier.

Dingoes are particularly common at camps with permanent water such as Fringe Lilly, Jay Creek, and Birthday Waterhole. There are signs all over the place warning walkers about dingoes, but, we did not see anyone taking any precautions with their food other than stashing it in their tent, and, dingoes, as the warning signs say, will chew through a tent. We took a bit of 2 mm climbing cord and hung our food in a tree each night following standard Canadian bear precautions. Hanging food in trees in Australia, where there are ample big eucalypts with strong horizontal branches is infinitely easier than trying to get your food hung in a tiny hemlock or spruce in the sub-alpine wilderness of BC, so you may as well do the same. One walker we met had a hole chewed through her brand new imported tent by a dingo which ran off with some of her food, and other hikers had dingoes dragging their cooking gear off at night.

The track is overflowing with guided walkers with either of the two big outfits here - Trek Larapinta or World Expeditions. Both seem to do some kind of supported walk of the Larapinta where the clients carry only day packs and walk each section after being dropped off at the start and picked up at the end. A guide or two accompanies the group. These folks are all having a great time, there are big smiles on faces, but they don't move too fast and you may have to politely ask them to let you by if they are walking the same way you happen to be. No matter how many folks are in the group, how light their packs, or how fresh they are, they will never, ever, step aside to let a through hiker pass if you are heading in the opposite direction. Just get used to standing aside and smiling as 8, 10 or even 16 freshly coiffed folks with trekking poles clacking on the ground trundle past you. Guided day hikers are easily recognisable by their freshly pressed clothing and perfumed scent. Through walkers by comparison are scruffy, smelly and dishevelled.

I was amused to meet one of the guides from World Expeditions at Standley Chasm where he sat on a picnic bench sunning himself. He had the whole "guide" persona going, from the pointed goattee (barely there due to his youthful age) to the plaited string around the ankle. It reminded me that some things never change, as, back in the long gone days of my youth, one of my sea kayaking friends was a guide for World Expeditions and looked almost the same, from the three day stubble to the hippy bracelet about the ankle. Back in those days, I wore my hair in about a hundred different plaits with coloured beads on the end and look nothing like the old grey haired lady I have become. I wondered if my old friend, like myself, had turned into a regular looking grey haired, slightly saggy, 50 something. This naive innocent thought that paddling around Australia solo in a sea kayak would be no "big deal" as, when you get tired, "you just land on a beach and camp." If ever I actually meet Jason Beachcroft, Stuart Trueman, or Paul Caffyn, I'll have to pass that along.

Most of the people we met on the track were, in their own words, "taking their time." This seemed to involve walking very short distances each day (sometimes as little as 7 or 8 km, a big day probably around 15 km), and carrying massive amounts of water because they were walking such short distances. It is actually quite easy to walk the track carrying only the water you need for the day and camping at sites with water. There is a camp with water at least every 15 km along the track, and, even at a relatively slow average pace of 2 km/hour, you can get from one camp to the next in 7 hours at most. There is a trade-off, which many people don't seem to recognise involved in "taking your time." You are on the track for longer, which requires more food, possibly even carrying water to camp, which means your pack is heavier, which means you walk slower and are more tired, which means you take longer on the track, which means you need more food, possibly even water, ad nauseum. At some point, "taking your time" is a losing proposition.

We met lots of nice folks on the track, but probably less than most as we seemed to be forever catching up with and passing people walking the same way as us. The track does seem to attract lots of inexperienced - as in this is their first long walk ever - hikers, so you do see some strange things and, at the end of it all, you'll be like us and wondering what happened to certain individuals or groups along the track who stood out in some way.

We met one delightful little Asian chap who had a foam toilet seat attached to the back of his pack. Doug only noticed this strange encumbrance when asked "Excuse me sir, do I still have my socks?" Apparently, strung across the toilet seat was a length of clothesline, two clothes pegs, and two scrupulously clean socks. This friendly fellow was only a day or two out of Alice Springs and yet to experience the true rigours of the track. We found his bum pad a kilometre or so further along and added it to our packs.

Coming down the last valley into Standley Chasm we met two women, whose third partner was an hour or more ahead. Judging by their current pace, we estimated they had about seven hours left until they reached camp, and it is absolutely dark in the NT at 7.00 pm. When Doug mentioned, politely intimating that they might want to hurry along, that their friend was a long way ahead, they giggled and asked "but was she happy?" Talking to some other walkers later, we learnt that this group of three women had staggered into camp in the dark the night before. More experienced walkers warned them of the long day they had ahead - they were still in camp at nearly 11 am the next day - the threesome was, apparently, very affronted and said "we are very experienced." I always think that the people who feel the need to tell you they are "very experienced" are clearly not. It is the same as the tourist who asks you "is it worth it?" when faced with a 400 metre stroll from the car park. If you have to ask, the answer for you, is a resounding "NO."

Overall, the track is well defined and well marked, but those two things don't mean it is an easy walk in the park. This is rocky country and it is a rocky, stony, rough track for the most part. Some sections have a clear dirt foot bed and you can stride along, but those are relatively brief. For the most part, you'll be walking the whole distance on rocks, rocks, more rocks. Some are loose under foot, some sharp, some smoothly worn by water and slippery, but, in the end, they are all rocks. Much of the walk is along scenic ridge-tops and the walking up high is beautiful and wildly scenic, but, with a few brief exceptions the ridge tops provide rough, rocky and slow walking. Other sections involve walking up or down creek beds on slippery river rocks, or even short scrambly bits up and down narrow canyons. Generally, there will be a bit of a foot bed pounded in, but, truthfully, as you walk down the final narrow creek bed on rough, rocky, slippery, stony ground at the end of the day, you might be wishing for a bit better track. The last two sections as you approach Alice Springs from the west, are much easier walking than the remaining ten sections, and this may affect your decision to walk east or west.

Most days the track climbs and descends a few times, usually only 300 metres or so at a time, but, one day does involve a longer climb, perhaps 500 or 600 metres up to Brinkley Bluff. If you've just hopped off the air plane from Canada, this elevation gain will seem like a warm-up, but, many walkers did find these climbs tough. Truthfully, I thought the climbs and descents were much easier than walking through trackless river beds on stony ground, but, I've bashed up and down so many Canadian peaks that my head is somewhat addled.

Well, there you have it. Three thousand words on the Larapinta Track, 2,997 of them probably of no use whatsoever. I have, however, filled another blog post and passed the day with my swollen feet elevated and blisters draining. Bon voyage and enjoy the journey.

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