The Larapinta Trail
Words: Emma MacIntosh
Images: Emma MacIntosh
How do I write about a feeling that was so intense and invigorating no words can accurately describe the euphoria? How can I encapsulate the pure elation of a moment that rooted itself deep into my bones and soul? I’m not sure I have the vocabulary to express what this adventure and this trail means to me, let alone to others; but I will try.
The Serbs have a word that helps describe it: Merak – a feeling of bliss and the sense of oneness with the universe that comes from the simplest of pleasures. That five letter word is better at summarising my inner feelings than I am. To me, the simplest of pleasures means sitting under a big starry sky with just my own thoughts. It’s even better after a long, arduous walk to get there. With a dirt layer covering my pores and sweat-crusted eyebrows, it’s the whisper of silence that makes me feel most at one with myself, with my dreams and with my future.
Everyone has that place. A place where you feel so completely at peace within yourself and the moment. A feeling you want to bottle up and keep with you forever. My place is the Larapinta Trail. It’s the jagged red rocks, the endless blue skies, the feeling of triumph and despair as you place one tired foot in front of the other. Again, and again. When you want to scream so loud from agony, but only the hawks hear before it drowns out over the rocky ridgelines. You are here, alone, and that is your happy place.
The Larapinta Trail is located west of Alice Springs in the Tjoritja/West MacDonnell Ranges. Enthusiastic hikers flock to the 230km long trail from May to September to test their limits on true Australian Outback terrain. With 3 designated drop box stations, and only snippets of phone service if you balance on a ridgeline, it is a remote and tough, but rewarding hike. You’ll remember the way you feel long after the pain in your feet has left.
I fell in love with the West Macs as a 14 year old on a family holiday. The slow life and warm wind seeped into my bones and rooted itself as a place I will always return to. Since then, I have participated in Rapid Ascent’s ‘Run Larapinta’ Stage Race twice. This event covers 136km of the trail over 4 days. During that first year, it took me all of 3km to know I wanted to complete it end-to-end one day. I knew it was a big feat, and not a task to take lightly.
With the announcement of border restrictions between South Australia and Northern Territory due to lift early August, I wondered if this was my time to attempt the trail. I was well aware my training had been fairly relaxed for the last few months. I wasn’t anywhere near conditioned enough to undertake such a distance, but I was willing to try. As Robert G. Ingersoll once said, “Hope is the only bee that makes honey without flowers.” I will take my 7 weeks prep time and make the most of the situation.
I was going to attempt Larapinta in 4 days. Hindsight is a great thing. 6 days seems far more doable, and yet, both ideas seem absolutely absurd, but I wanted to attempt something epic. I was confident in my knowledge of the sections and the terrain. Confident in my gear and eager for some solitude, and yet, as the start neared, I felt uneasy about the time frame I had set myself. Having never attempted something of this calibre, I was unsure how many calories I would need, what pace I would be going, and how much the high temperatures might affect me after coming out of winter. I was starting to get jealous of the 12-14 day hikers. I let myself process these thoughts, acknowledge them and then put them aside to focus on the task at hand.
I never made it the 230km. I didn’t make it through 4 days, either. My first day on the trail started at 5am. With my torch light guiding the way, I spent 7km climbing to watch the sun rise from Mount Sonder at 1,380m elevation. I walked 13.5 hours and covered 53km this day. I cursed the rocks, and I cursed myself for going the wrong way. I hugged the water tanks and swore at the sun; but mostly I was in awe at the land I was walking on. I stopped a lot to appreciate where I was and what I was doing. Through the fly net of my bivy bag that night, I could see the Milky Way. I still can’t explain why that choked me up. It was in that moment I let go of all expectations of personal progress on the trail. This is what I came for and nothing else mattered except this exact moment.
I had good intentions of an early start, but I was leisurely in packing my gear and starting the day. Despite the strenuous hike the day before, my legs felt somewhat springy and I was excited for more. One thing was painfully obvious, and that was my total calorie intake. I was consuming far more than I anticipated, and was concerned about my stores for the day. I chose to eat dry food in order to save the weight on carrying a gas cooker. I’d placed one in my next resupply box as a treat, but I had to get there first. I finished the first day ravenous and ate through a lot of my food, even though I knew I needed it. This was a problem I couldn’t fix.
I covered 36km in 9 hours. It was long and laborious. The heat seared down and I felt boxed in with not a wisp of wind throughout the day. The ground was covered with sharp rocks and spinifex bushes as I was cocooned in a valley of rising red rock on either side. Despite the aching feet and subtle fatigue, it really was magical. My pack got lighter as my food supply dwindled, and it became excruciatingly clear I wouldn’t make it through the day. My pace was fading and I was still 26km from my next resupply box with a handful of jelly beans to get me through. It was 4pm and I was exhausted. Here, I made the tough but inevitable decision to leave the trail. It was the last safe option to extract myself, knowing I was an hour away from the highway. It wasn’t a hard decision, but it was a disappointing one.
Looking back now, I realise I wanted the best of both worlds for this experience. I wanted to soak it all in, take my time and fully absorb all emotions on the trail. I wanted to slowly eat my food and share some kilometres with other hikers. I wanted to sit on the ridgelines, eyes closed, with the hot wind kissing my skin and the buzz of quiet in my ears. I wanted to traverse the terrain quickly and efficiently. Breeze up the ascents and set up camp before sundown with lots of distance behind me. These wishes can’t work in conjunction, it’s either one or the other.
Failure doesn’t exist when you embrace all experiences. I’m a firm believer of that. I would rather have a red hot crack and fall short than never try. There’s only one way to learn, and that’s to do. I spent many hours researching the trail, calculating distances, logging a 10km weight vest around the hills, trying different food combos and asking questions. Uncertainty excites me, and that’s why I’m enticed by these remote challenges. Maybe I can, maybe I can’t, but I don’t know until I try. I like to live my life a certain way, and there’s a word in Hindi that summarises it perfectly. Jijivisha – “The intense desire to live and continue living to the fullest, in the highest sense of being.”
I acknowledge Arrernte as Traditional Owners and Custodians of Tjoritja, and respect Elders past and present. Akangkeme – be happy, be pleased.