Hiking Australia's Outback Appalachian Trail
Australia's Northern Territory is an adventure traveler’s paradise. Not only does it have some of the most spectacular landscapes on the entire continent, it also has a number of very diverse and unique ecosystems to explore as well. For instance, Kakadu National Park offers visitors an intriguing mix of stunning scenery and ancient culture, while the Mary River puts them in close contact with all kinds of wildlife including both freshwater and saltwater crocodiles. Of course, the NT is also home to Uluru—aka Ayers Rock—which just might be the most iconic destination in the entire country. But for the truly adventurous there is the Larapinta Trail—a 223-kilometer (139-mile), 12-stage hiking route that stretches through the West MacDonnell Mountain Range, taking trekkers into some of the roughest, yet utterly breathtaking, backcountry they will ever see.
Located in Australia's "Red Center," access to the Larapinta Trail is gained via Alice Springs, a small city that serves as the gateway to the Outback in the Northern Territory. Although the region has been home to the Arrernte tribe of Aboriginals for centuries, Alice Springs grew to prominence in the 1870's when it became an important repeater station for the Overland Telegraph Line, which eventually connected Adelaide to Darwin and then out to the rest of the world. Over time, the city became an important way post for those traveling through the wide-open expanse that is the Australian interior and today it is an excellent base of operations for those exploring the southern region of the Northern Territory.
Fitting with the history of Alice, the trailhead for the first section of the Larapinta Trail is actually located at the old telegraph station, and it isn't long until the trappings of the city are left behind and the true wilderness starts to set in.
The Larapinta wanders through some wild and remote places over the course of its run and the challenge of the walk should not be underestimated. The path climbs up and down some steep grading and although the distances of each leg may not seem all that great, the reality of the actual hike is much different. The trail is rocky and uneven, which can slow even the best hikers down to a crawl at times, but it is also very well marked.
It will take most people roughly two weeks to walk from the start at Alice Springs to the official end of the Larapinta on the summit of Mt. Sonder, a 1,380-meter (4,528 foot) mountain that caps off the trek. Along the way they'll pass through a number of memorable canyons and gorges, along high ridges and across wide open expanses. Some of the highlights include the famous Simpson Gap, Standley Chasm and Serpentine Gorge. Each of those locations happens to be an access point between two segments of the trail, but perhaps more importantly, they are each scenic locations that highlight just how amazingly beautiful the Larapinta truly is.
On my recent visit to the Northern Territory I didn't have enough time to hike the entire length of the Larapinta but was instead given an abbreviated introduction to what it has to offer. What I saw was enough to convince me that this is one of the premiere long distance hiking routes in the world both in terms of natural beauty and challenge. I hiked a section called the Ormiston Pound but also visited the Simpson Gap, Standley Chasm and other outstanding points along the route. I even visited the Finke River, which is widely regarded as the oldest river in the world. It was fun to take a dip in that waterway, but the temperature of the water didn't encourage me to stay in too long.
Hiking the Larapinta isn't just about walking through spectacular scenery, although it is some of the best you'll ever see. The trail is lined with beautiful wild flowers and a variety of other trees and plants that only enhance its character. Sharp eyed hikers will also have the opportunity to spot rock wallabies keeping watch amongst the high cliffs, as well as dozens of unique species of birds. One of the highlights of my visit was spotting a white dingo while sitting on a ridge watching the sun come up.
Like most long distance trekking routes, the Larapinta can be walked end-to-end or in segments depending on how much time you have available. It can also be hiked independently or you can hire a guide in Alice Springs to help lead you through the route. If you choose to make the trek independently, you'll have to deal with the logistics of getting resupplied while out on the route, although the local guide services can assist with that, as well as transfers to and from the trail too. Although the trail is still relatively unknown and hasn't been in operation for all that long, there is already a nice infrastructure in place to help backpackers gain access to the Larapinta and enjoy it to its fullest. Since traffic on the route remains relatively light, permits aren't currently required, which is a bit surprising considering the remote nature of the hike. Log books at each end of the 12 sections help to ensure the safety of those out on the trail.
While I was in Alice Springs I worked with the fine folks from Trek Larapinta to get my brief taste of what the trail has to offer and I'd recommend them to anyone thinking of making the trek themselves. You'll have a hard time finding anyone who knows the trail better than this team. They are available to assist independent hikers and those who want a fully guided trip too. I spent a night in one of their camps–even sleeping out under the stars–and was impressed with their dedication to preserving the environment and interacting with it in a natural way. Eco-tourism that puts the emphasis on the "eco" is something that I always appreciate and the Trek Larapinta camps are comfortable, full featured and yet still dedicated to leaving zero impact on the natural setting.
If your idea of a great vacation is a long hike on beautiful trail, then you'll want to add the Larapinta to your bucket list. It is an unbelievable walk that will stay with you for a lifetime. It also has the added benefit of being in Australia, which is one of the most enjoyable places I've ever had the pleasure of traveling. The people there are friendly and accommodating and the infrastructure for travelers is top-notch. Aussie hospitality is legendary and you'll have an opportunity to discover that first hand while still experiencing the Outback in its purest, wildest form. What more could you ask for?