Walking through Australia’s pure desert heart

With 223km of mountain trails, dusty tracks and narrow canyons, the Larapinta Trail offers deep desert absorption on one of Australia’s best long-distance walks.

Think of Australia’s Red Centre and you may picture emblematic attractions such as the soaring ochre monolith of Uluru (Ayers Rock) or the mysterious wind-blown valleys of The Olgas, all surrounded by shimmering heat and inhospitable desert parchedness. But unknown to many, the area also serves as a backdrop for one of the most impressive long-distance walks in Australia.

With 223km of mountain trails, dusty desert tracks and narrow canyons, the Larapinta Trail offers travellers the chance to experience Australia’s pure desert heart in all its enormity. Out here, the peace is complete, the sky is endless and the varied landscapes throw in new challenges each day. You can stand on a ridge and gaze over an endless landscape where nothing is manmade.

Traversing this desert territory is both a physical and mental challenge of endurance and isolation; most days you may not see another soul. But if you do, there is plenty of vastness to accommodate all.

Desert marvels
The Larapinta can be walked end to end – a serious 18- to 20-day odyssey ― or it can be tackled in parts via any of the 12 distinct sections that are connected by Namatjira Drive, a paved road that runs parallel to the MacDonnell Ranges for the length of the route. Road access also means that you can organise food drops to trailhead storage rooms supplied by trail management.

Starting at the Old Signal Station on the edge of Alice Springs, a central town in Australia’s Northern Territory, the Larapinta leads right into the magnificently crumpled West MacDonnell Ranges. Trail signs and distance markers begin here and run the whole length of the route, most of which is encompassed within the West MacDonnell National Park.

The first day of the trail crosses the wide open desert panoramas of Euro Ridge, advancing to the breathtaking, unpeopled expanse seen from Brinkley Bluff on day four or five. From Mount Sonder at the trail’s eastern end, you can look back over much of the route – or gaze further on into the inconceivable hugeness of Australia’s centre.

In addition to traversing mountaintops and valleys, hikers will need to tackle gorges and chasms, sculpted by aeons of water and wind. At Hugh Gorge, walkers may need to take off their boots and cross through water, while incredible Standley Chasm has towering rock walls that blaze a fiery vermillion when lit by the midday sun.

As the Larapinta Trail winds its way through the MacDonnell Ranges, it traverses the traditional territories of the Arrente and Luritja tribes. To learn about the land and its people, walkers can embark on a journey guided by its indigenous inhabitants.

One of the trail’s highlights is camping out in the velvet dark of the desert night under an astounding display of stars. From sandy riverbed campsites you can watch flocks of colourful parrots as the sun goes down, and the night becomes even more eerie when dingoes fill the darkness with their howls.

Where you make camp each night depends mostly on the availability of water. During winter, you may come across enough water in the day to camp wild at night. Otherwise – unless natural sources are brimming – you will need to replenish at campsite tanks set along the trail.

Australia’s desert centre is a place of extremes. The antipodean winter (May to August) is the best time to tackle the trail, since daytime temperatures stay around a comfortable 20C (though a water bottle can freeze inside your tent at night). During the blazing summer, walking is not recommended. The heat can climb to 45C and heat stroke and dehydration are real risks.

The Larapinta Trail is for experienced walkers who are familiar with the physical and mental challenge of walking all day, in deep isolation and camping in the frigid desert night. Make sure you have well worn boots, a tried-and-tested backpack, a sturdy tent, a warm sleeping bag, a reliable cooking stove (no fires are allowed on the trail), and an emergency communication device like a satellite phone or a personal locator beacon.

If organising a Larapinta odyssey seems too daunting, the trail can be experienced with knowledgeable walking guides who take care of navigation, food, transfers, planning and logistics. All you have to do is walk ― and carry your pack. Several outdoor outfitters, such as Trek Larapinta, offer guided trips for parts or the whole length of the trail.

If you prefer not to abandon hot showers, arrange your trip with World Expeditions. This will give you access to permanent campsites and solar-heated water, and you will only need to carry a daypack while vehicles whisk your gear to each night’s campsite.