For years now, I have dreamed of completing the Larapinta Trail in the Outback of Northern Territory in Australia. So when our good friend Jane invited us to join her on a 6 day trail running adventure on Larapinta, we jumped at the chance!
The trip was scheduled to take place in September 2018, so that meant I had 11 months to prepare for my first ever multi-day running adventure. If you look online and in most books about the Larapinta Trail it will tell you the ‘end-to-end’ distance is 226km, however the distance we ended up running was quite a lot more. It would take some improved fitness and strength work to prevent any injury troubles. I felt nervous, excited and scared all at once.
As time went on and training continued, I got stronger and I felt more comfortable with the distances and terrain we would encounter on the trip. However, just 2 weeks before our departure I was forced into an early taper due to laryngitis and a chest infection. I took 2 courses of antibiotics and rested as much as possible, because there was no way I was going to let illness stop me.
The night before our flight to Alice Springs we spent in a mad panic trying to pack our bags with only the essential items needed for the trip. We had picked up our allocated travel bags a few weeks beforehand, and Jane told us we were not allowed to bring more than what we could fit into the bag. At the time this had made me nervous as my sleeping mat and sleeping bag were going to take up a lot of space, and my nerves had not been wrong. But the reason we had to pack light was because our support vehicle did not have a lot of space to store extra baggage. We got there in the end and looking back, I know there are a few more things I could have taken out of my bag.
On Thursday 20 September we met up with most of the ‘Pinters 2018’ runners at the Qantas Lounge in Sydney Airport, and flew to Alice Springs with an arrival time of 12.20pm.
As we walked off the plane and across the tarmac I noticed the one and only Robert De Castella (Deeks) had also been on our plane, flying with a few of the Indigenous Marathon Project Runners. We were all totally star struck but none of us had the courage to go up and ask for a photo/autograph, most likely as he had his phone stuck to his ear the whole time while we were waiting for our bags.
Tony our bus driver met us at the baggage claim area, and we jumped on the bus headed towards Redbank Gorge. It would take a few hours to drive to the starting point, and we made one stop on the way to drop off a few bags at the Resort we would be staying in after the trip. Tony was a great tour guide, he told me a lot about the Alice Springs area and how he had moved to the area with his wife when she got a nursing job many years ago. When he wasn’t our bus driver, he worked as a taxi cab in the town part time and was semi-retired.
When we got to Redbank Camping Area we met our wonderful crew, Janet and Gary. They arrived a few hours before us and had already set up camp for our first night on the trail. We immediately liked Janet and Gary for their great sense of humour, and over the next few days grew to love them for their unwavering care and support for us all out on the trail.
Our team grabbed their bags and we each setup our tents for the night, then met back at the main tent ready for our run (hike) up to Mt Sonder. The trail to Mt Sonder and back is approximately 15.8km with an elevation gain of 603m, so it wasn’t going to be too tough. We were all a bundle of excitement and nerves, some of us had not seen each other for a while and some of us had just met. We crossed the riverbed which had no water in it (and looked like it hadn’t had water in it for a very long time, years!) and I pretended to swim while lying on the sand and doing my best freestyle swimming impersonation. We chatted and hiked, complaining a little about the grey skies blocking our view of the landscape. We started up the final steep ascent but we didn’t end up getting to the top because we were running out of light, and had to turn back early because some people did not have their head torches.
When we got back into camp our delicious creamy pasta dinner was waiting for us and we all scoffed it down with a few beers, then headed to bed for an early night. Some of the runners had organised to get up super early for the first day, but Roger and I decided to have a bit of a sleep in (if possible) and get up and leave whenever our bodies were ready. This was a ‘holiday’ after all and we had both been recovering from illness, so we wanted to start the trip feeling well rested.
Day 1 – Redbank Gorge to Ormiston Gorge
Running Time: 6 hrs 25mins (Moving: 5hrs 56mins)
We woke to rumblings of runners having breakfast and gearing up for the trail. The grey clouds still covered the sky for as far as I could see, and the air felt quite cool on my skin. Getting ready took us longer than everyone else as we hadn’t prepared our packs the nights before, so we waved them off and told them we would catch-up. Eventually we got our shit together and left the campsite, thanking Janet and Gary for the superb breakfast.
We hiked roughly 2km from the campground to Redbank Gorge Trailhead and followed the signs directing us to Ormiston Gorge. Today’s plan was to run 36km and even though the clouds threatened rain all day, it never amounted to more than a sprinkle. I did have my rainproof jacket on and off several times through the day, but we ran so much that I was able to keep warm and the jacket never stayed on for long.
When we were about 10km from our destination we ran into the rest of our group who had stopped to have morning tea. We all ran into the Gorge together and eventually found our campsite, the area had been fully booked so there were lots of people (mostly RVs and 4WDs) and we had a toilet block (no showers) which was nicer than heading into the bush at night.
After a short pit stop and changing into some warm clothes, we all headed down to the Gorge as it was just a short walk. It was a very pretty place, and Sarah and I decided to dip in our legs to help them recover from the first day.
We chatted over dinner about what was planned for the next day, and we realised that last time they had done this trip it was over 7 days (not 6 days like we were planning) and I got confused about where we were camping etc. Gary and Jane seemed to be all over it though, so I didn’t worry too much as I knew we were in capable hands.
Day 2 – Ormiston Gorge to Serpentine Chalet Dam
Running Time: 8hrs 44mins (Moving Time: 7hrs 52mins)
We set our alarm and got up super early however the main group left even earlier, and they didn’t wait for us. We left before sunrise and chose to add the Pound walk circuit, a side trip that added about 8km of beautiful trails. We were rewarded with a breath-taking sunrise, and we giggled like school kids as we skipped along the trail taking in the mountains and brown plains surrounding us.
We got back to Ormiston Gorge, used the toilet facilities and then headed along the trail towards Serpentine Chalet Dam. Today’s plan had us running 31km, on top of the 8km we had already just run. The start of the trail followed along beside an old creek bed, which had clearly been dry for many years. Eventually the trail snaked along and into the bush, everything looked dry and I felt like I was breathing in a lot of dust. We crossed many creek beds, all of them dry, and I was very happy to see blue skies and sunshine.
When we arrived at the last trailhead for the day, Adam was there to greet us and walk with us to the campground. He made a joke that we were doing 60km tomorrow and I laughed it off, they would never spring that on us. We walked and talked some more and eventually got to the campsite where it was just our crew. Nice and peaceful. We took off our packs and sat down for some cold drinks and heard about everyone’s experiences for the day.
Jane also informed us that tomorrow we would need to run 60km. Ummmm, what?! Someone had got their calculations wrong and that meant we had to make up a day. Shit. Apparently, the plan was for our support crew to meet us at the halfway point the next day so we could fill up on food and water before continuing on for the rest of the trail. My heart sank. I wanted to cry. I was so tired, I had to fight back tears or I’d look like a wimp. I quietly spoke to Roger saying that I didn’t think it was a good idea. I had not trained for this and wasn’t sure if it would trigger issues with my foot and/or knee doing this kind of distance in one day, on top of everything else.
The crew tried to reassure me that if I could not make the whole distance I could pull out at halfway, however I would never forgive myself for missing a section of the trail. It would mean that everything I had run so far would be wasted, as I would want to come back and start again, doing the whole trail end to end like we originally planned. Otherwise it would not count. I told myself and the crew I’d sleep on it and decide in the morning, but before my head hit the pillow that night, I’d already decided to give to 60km a crack.
Day 3 – Serpentine Chalet Dam to Hugh Gorge
Running Time: 13hrs 9mins (Moving Time: 11hrs 51mins)
We got up super early and left before the sunrise, Sarah had decided to run with us today and we welcomed her company. She was planning on running to the halfway point and knew we would be taking it easy, and we loved having her along for the ride.
Our head torches lit up the trail for the first hour or so, and we were treated to some beautiful sunrise views from Counts Point, the highest point on the course that morning. The colour in the sky changed every minute and we soaked up the views feeling lucky to be alive.
The next section involved a lot of rock climbing, scrambling and we saw quite a few lizards just before we got to Ellery Creek. It had some really steep, rocky sections and the going was a little tough, I was glad to be wearing my bicycle gloves.
We met up with Janet & Garry at Ellery creek and refuelled our packs. We chugged down some Coke and food, and after a short trip to the creek (and the bathrooms) we were on our way again. Sarah had decided to stop at Ellery Creek, so we said our goodbyes and Roger and I headed for Hugh Gorge.
Our trail headed up over a saddle into a large expanse of nothingness, a very flat area with nothing to see for miles and miles. It looked dry, prickly and as if the trail was going to chew me up and spit me back out. We followed the trail signs and went past Rocky Gully, we also stopped at a campground to fill up on water as the sun had been scorching us all day, it must have been at least 35 degrees with no shade on the trail.
I took a total of 3 photos on this section, a sign that I did not enjoy myself. I hit my lowest point of the whole trip and to be honest, I battled tears the whole day. I felt like a total wimp. Everything hurt, and I wanted to quit so many times, but there was literally no way out of here. A huge basin of nothingness, it kept challenging me and grinding me in its teeth. Roger was so good to me, he put up with me whingeing and moaning all day and kept me moving when I wanted to stop. We put on some tunes to keep ourselves entertained and it helped to lift my mood. When we got nearer to the end I started using the km markers to count down and keep me busy. It did not work, and I kept forgetting which number we went past last, so I annoyed Roger a thousand times by asking him “What marker did we just pass?”. There were so many rocks and more rocks, and bloody rocks. The surface we ran on for most of the afternoon was rocks, very hard on the feet unlike soft trails. It hurt.
After what felt like an eternity of rocks, and some badly numbered markers we eventually arrived at Hugh Gorge and were greeted with some lovely rock drawings from our crew (too rude to show here!). The sun was just setting behind the mountains and I said, “Thank fuck we made it” (sorry Mum). I was exhausted and amazed to have made it in one piece. I felt like I had been a big sook for most of the day, but I had made it and technically I had run my first ‘ultra’ since injury (18+ months). We celebrated with some beers and scoffed down our dinner while chatting about how everyone’s day had gone. It had been the hottest yet and we were all exhausted, so we all headed off to bed early that night.
Day 4 – Hugh Gorge to Standley Chasm
Running Time: 10hrs 24mins (Moving Time: 8hrs 18mins)
I slept very well the night before, probably due to exhaustion. I woke like most day, to noises of runners getting ready for their day on the trails. We had not set an alarm as we decided to sleep till our bodies were ready to get up, after all it would only be 35km today (ha, ha). Slowly we got moving and prepared our packs, had breakfast and said farewell to Janet & Garry.
Today we followed many old river beds and creeks, winding round and round, over more rocks and more rocks. We saw cows on the trail and they ran away, they seemed to be quite scared by our presence. Other than birds and a lizard, these were the first animals we had seen out here in the wild. Where were all the kangaroos and koalas? It was probably due to the lack of water out here, it would be very hard to survive. We followed a wide creek for a few kilometres and it was scattered with hundreds of cows’ dung, clearly, they had found food and water in this area, the place was littered, and it stunk!!
We climbed up to Rocky Saddle and eventually hit Razorback Ridge where the views were stunning. There was a tent setup on the top of the Ridge, but we couldn’t spot any hikers. We stopped and had some lunch and a pit stop and kept moving on our way. It was a gorgeous day to be up here taking in the view.
At Spencer Gorge we bumped into Sarah and Sarah-Jane who were resting in the shelter. Sarah-Jane was not feeling well and had decided to stop and rest, Sarah had stayed with her as she didn’t really want her to be alone. The rest of their crew had gone ahead to keep moving, and they were going to contact Janet & Garry who would come and pick them up from a nearby road. We had some snacks with them and welcomed the shade as it was another very hot day.
Soon we were on our way again and headed for Brinkley Bluff, another of the high points along the course and the views did not disappoint. Then we hit Reveal Saddle which also had some great views, and eventually we climbed back down and ran into Standley Chasm.
The crew cheered us into the campsite and there was even a hot shower, we were very excited as we had not showered in 4 days! Unfortunately, we had missed the shop opening times, but Garry surprised us with some ice creams after dinner and we were all super stoked. Small pleasures, big smiles.
Day 5 – Standley Chasm to Simpsons Gap
Running Time: 10hrs 28mins (Moving Time: 8hrs 40mins)
I had very broken sleep at Standley Chasm, so I woke up feeling very tired. A dog had barked on and off throughout the night and because there were other campers it was not as quiet as it had been most nights.
Roger and I were slow to get ready (as usual) and we walked out towards the trail while chomping on banana bread, which had become my favourite snack each morning. Our first stop was about 400m along the trail at the actual ‘Standley Chasm’ as it had been too dark when we arrived the night before. We took some photos and then a few of the others turned up and we took some silly photos with them too.
As we waved goodbye to the crew that were taking a rest day, we started up some stairs along the trail towards Simpsons Gap, we had a few climbs this morning and it was going to be another tough day. As we walked through the Chasm it was amazing to see how they trees seemed to be growing out of the rocks, I don’t know how they survived up here. Somehow, we managed to take a wrong turn but thankfully we realised before we had gone too far and soon we were back on the right track. A large sign was across the trail warning us that the next section was not for ‘Casual Walkers’ and that there was now only 60km till Alice Springs.
It was a very steep climb out of the chasm and there were lots of birds chirping as we got higher and higher. Then the trail became very, very, very, very slow moving as we had to climb and clamber over rocks of all different sizes. Some of the rocks we had to climb over were bigger than my 4WD car. I imagined that the area we were climbing through would have had waterfalls and rapids running down through them years and years ago, but they had obviously dried up many hundreds of years ago. It seemed the climbing would never stop, and it meant zero running.
Jane had told us about a low route option she would be taking, the high route was the same distance, but it had a lot more elevation and my guidebook said it would take an hour longer. Roger and I decided we wanted to take the risk of the high route and experience the views, and we were not disappointed. The trail was not as scary as we had been made to believe, much to my relief, and we ended up having a morning tea break here to take in the serenity.
We kept hiking/running along the trail and I took another wrong turn. It was a good thing we had the maps in our watches, as we used them so many times to make sure we were on the right trail.
Eventually we got to Simpsons Gap and Garry was waiting for us, he had been a little worried because we had taken a bit longer than he expected. I thought we had made it in pretty good time, but we had been slowed a lot by doing the high section. He gave us icy cold soft drinks that were heaven, and then drove us back to Alice Springs where we were all camping at a busy caravan park before our last day on the trail.
When we got to the caravan park it felt strange to be amongst so many people and so much noise, I missed the peacefulness of the campsites we had experienced each night beforehand. Our whole crew celebrated how far we had all come and planned the car pool for the next morning to get back onto the trail.
Day 6 – Simpsons Gap to Telegraph Station
Running Time: 4hrs 38mins (Moving Time: 4hrs 21mins)
Roger and I were very organised for our last morning on the trail. We had prepared our packs the night before and basically just had to eat, get a lift, then run the 25km to the finish. As we waited for Garry to come back and pick us up we fed some local birds that had gathered to eat our scraps, it was a great experience.
Today we got to run with Sarah again and we sang lots as we trotted along the trails on our last day. I felt sad to be finishing, but happy to have made it so far. It was a strange feeling that made me think about planning more trips like this one, something I would have to look into when I got home. We ran quite a lot of the trail today, over a long ridge, under the main road, over the train tracks. Like my feelings the night before I was finding it strange to be back around cars and civilisation, like I was craving to be back in the middle of nowhere.
We caught up to the rest of our crew near the old cemetery and walked together to the end of the trail. We finally saw some kangaroos on the last kilometre of the trail and we were all so happy when we reached the Telegraph Station. We had done it.
I was extremely happy to have run every single, goddamned day, and that I had not given up on myself even when I had been thrown many obstacles. I had many ups and downs, some physical and some mental, but my body had stayed strong. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have run this trail and the amazing support that we had from Garry & Janet, we could not have done this without them. Many thanks to Jane for organising such a memorable run, and to Roger for putting up with me every, single, day – he has a heart of gold.
It was a wonderful trip with mates that I will never forget. I know it will definitely not be my last….
For those of you interested in what we took/packed for the week here’s my packing list.
- Sleeping Bag
- Sleeping Mat
- Blow up Pillow
- Ugg Boots
- Trail Shoes x 2
- Head torches x 2 (+ chargers/batteries)
- Puffy Jacket
- Space Blanket
- Toiletries/Wet Wipes
- Thermal Top
- Thermal Pants
- Buffs x 4
- Gloves – Woolen & Trail
- Microfibre Towel (compact)
- Socks x 4
- Running Shirts x 3
- Running shorts x 2
- Running skirt x 3
- Sports Bras x 3
- Undies x 6
- Waterproof Jacket
- Long sleeve top
- Fleece jumper
- Track pants
- Hydration Backpack
- Soft Flasks x 2
- Hiking Poles
- Gurney Goo (for blisters)