Sunday, August 31, 2014

Walks of Watarrka National Park

Watarrka National Park is on the circuit travelled by people wandering about the Red Centre. South of Alice Springs, north of Uluru and west of the Stuart Highway. It's a bit of a detour off the Stuart Highway if you are heading south, but, if you're on the Stuart Highway around these parts, you are probably as close as you are going to get. 

The park itself is in the George Gill Range and encompasses a number of dry creeks as well as a few permanent waterholes. The main tourist area is around Kings Canyon and seems to see a half dozen (or more) tourist buses driving through each day. I'm not sure what you see of Kings Canyon if you have only a 20 minute stop from a tour bus as the park is best experienced on one of the longer walks. 

 There's an amazing corner crack in there

As you enter Watarrka National Park from the east, you pass first Kathleen Springs. The Giles track (22 km one way) ends here and there is also a short (2.4 km return) paved (wheelchair accessible) walk up to the waterhole at Kathleen Springs. You get a bit of a sense of the sandstone pagodas in this area from the Kathleen Springs track which is a pleasant half hour wander.
Another 40 km further west is the main Kings Canyon area where the other end of the Giles Track starts and a 6 km (8 km with side trips) loop walk leads up from Kings Creek onto the plateau top and wanders along sandstone pavements between sandstone pagodas around the head of Kings Canyon. This is a really nice walk that is pleasant to amble along taking in all three of the different side trips - the first up King Creek to a low viewing platform, the second out to the canyon rim above a superb splitter crack, and the third to a waterhole and dry waterfall at the eastern end of Kings Canyon. 

Doug walking among the sandstone pagodas

Unfortunately, like so many places around the Red Centre climbing is banned. The sandstone is hard and patched over with desert varnish plates. If you've climbed in Red Rocks, it all looks very familiar and you really, really, really want to go climbing, but you can't. 

The Giles Track runs between Kings Canyon and Kathleen Springs and intermittently wanders around sandstone pagodas, up and down into dry creek beds fringed with river red gums, and through brilliantly coloured wildflowers scattered amongst mulga forest. Its a really nice day walk, quite easy as there is very little elevation gain, and not too stony and hard on the feet. I walked from Kings Canyon to Kathleen Springs while Doug (who has some knee and foot issues) walked half the distance from Lila spur to Kings Canyon. If Kings Canyon is too busy with walkers, you'll be presently surprised on this track as I met no-one but Doug (walking in the opposite direction) all day. 

Sandstone pagodas on the Giles Track

The Catabolic Effects Of Being A Dirtbag

Every dirt bag dreams of living out of a van and travelling from one climbing area to another. It's a grand dream, but I think the reality can be a little less positive than always portrayed in social and other media. However, I am beginning to think that most things are a little less positive than portrayed in social and other media. Along with all of us wanting to present ourselves in the best possible light looking like true a badass, I think there is also a tendency, particularly in social media to only showcase the positive and never reveal the negative. No marathon runner ever snaps a selfie of themselves limping like a pimp to the toilet the next day, nor does a sea kayaker snap a picture of themselves falling out of the boat at the end of a long day because they can no longer stand up. 

Being on the road is great fun, but there is no doubt it is not good for your long term health. I have certain things I do which I consider basic "health maintenance," some of which are easier to continue on the road than others. It's not that hard to have a pretty clean, albeit somewhat invariable diet. We can always buy and store staples such as bacon, eggs, cheese, vegetables and protein. Some protein and a big ass salad gets you through lunch, and the same, perhaps with cooked vegetables makes up dinner. Not too exciting, not hyperpalatable, but healthy. We've even successfully managed to keep our kefir alive on multi-day backpacks and sea kayak trips with no difficulty. 

Stretching and mobility work can be done fairly easily, most easily if you are settled in one place and can get outside while the sun is still up and it is still warm for lying on the ground. Cold nights are not conducive to stretching outside nor is our small caravan conducive to stretching inside. We do carry a foam roller, hard rubber ball and yoga mat. As I now pass over the half century mark, mobility work has become even more important and I make it a priority to lay the yoga mat out in the sun and work on mobility for an hour a day. Long days in the vehicle, which we try to avoid, make mobility work even more important requiring as a matter of course, long periods sitting inert.

Maintaining muscle mass is the most challenging aspect of living on the road and, since leaving Cairns five months ago, Doug and I have both watched our hard earned muscle mass decline. Doug is getting skinnier, while my muscle just seems to turn to flab. It's all very discouraging. 

Recently, I was chatting with a fellow who did a lot of hiking but also wanted to get into sea kayaking as he thought (not totally incorrectly) that he was doing a lot of work on his lower body but none on his upper body and sea kayaking would, he thought, counteract this. I didn't want to be negative so I focused on the positive aspects of sea kayaking but, truthfully, if he really wanted to build/maintain muscle mass the most effective strategy is focused weight lifting. 

Doug bouldering back in Cairns

The sad truth is that all these endurance type activities, whether it is running, hiking, or sea kayaking do very little to maintain or build muscle mass and, in most cases are catabolic. Long distance runners are the extreme example of the catabolic effects of endurance activity, but, as Doug and I have discovered to our chagrin, those endurance activities don't have to be done at a highly elevated heart rate to catabolize muscle. Hiking and sea kayaking at relatively low levels of effort are almost as effective at stripping off muscle if you do them for a long enough period of time. 

Climbing could be an anabolic activity but it's actually tough on the road to climb as hard as you would in your local climbing gym, certainly it's hard to climb hard enough to be building muscle. In Australia, the climbing is almost always on dodgy carrot bolts or run-out gear routes so you tend climb below your maximal level in order to maintain a reasonable degree of safety. So, while not strictly catabolic, climbing isn't exactly an anabolic activity either. 

When we first planned this long trip we were on, I considered buying one kettlebell to haul about so we had one heavy weight to lift. In the end, kettlebells proved more expensive than I thought and difficult to transport and store, so we never bought one. In retrospect, I doubt the kettlebell would have been used that much as time on the road just gets eaten up so quickly that it is difficult to make time for a regular session with any kind of weight, particularly if you've just walked or kayaked 30 km that day. We have a set of rock rings which we hang in trees for pull-ups, A2B's and various types of hangs, but even finding time and energy to do that proves difficult at times. 

So, we struggle on. I try and do some body weight exercises - pull-ups, push-ups, squats, etc., on as regular basis as I can, but, none of it is near enough to counteract the catabolic effect of our endurance activities. Ideally, I think, an off-season of a few months a year when you could get into the gym and train hard with heavy weights, supplemented with some sport specific training (like bouldering) and only very light low level endurance activities (pretty much what we were doing in Cairns for five months) would result in a much better level of performance than is achieved by just travelling about doing your sport - whatever that sport is.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

In Defense Of Mediocrity

Today was a great celebration in mediocrity. I woke up early - 5 am - but it was dark and cold outside so, instead of jumping out of bed with alacrity and running 20 km backwards wearing a 30 kg backpack, I staggered outside - completely stiffened up after a night in bed - took a leak, crawled back under the covers and promptly fell asleep until the sun rose. Then, I drank a couple of cups of tea while I did some super easy word puzzles - absolutely badass no cryptic crosswords or super extreme sodukos. Breakfast was bacon and eggs, no juiced greens, pureed beets or chia seeds soaked in quoll piss, just plain old bacon and eggs washed down with black Woolies coffee. About as mediocre start to the day as you can get. 

Finally, I packed a lunch, a thermos of tea, and my bouldering shoes and chalk bag, and, set off to stroll past Alice Springs to the Telegraph Station for a day of bouldering. I set a really mediocre pace, about 4 or 5 km an hour, which is really easy considering the path is completely flat. By the time I got to the Telegraph Station a couple of hours later, my thirst had passed mediocre and all I could think about was getting a drink of water, and sitting with my swollen feet up for a minute or two. I'm not sure what the deal is with my feet; it could be the hard path, the poor quality shoes I own (La Sportiva trail running shoes suck), or just a bit too much pounding on feet that are half a century old lately. 

In any case, I filled up my water bottle - I had such a mediocre day that I did not want to carry it full to the Telegraph Station when I knew I could get water there - and sat in the sun for a while watching the parrots squabbling in the grass. I desperately wanted my thermos of tea, but, if I drank it now, I'd have none left to drink before I had to walk the 8 or 9 km back at the end of the day. Most people, being way less interested in mediocrity (or much less a tight-wad) would drink the thermos of tea and then go buy another cup from the kiosk. But, Doug and I didn't get to retire at a shockingly early age by spending $5 for the privilege of watching a barissta wafting a three cent tea bag over a too small cup of not quite boiling water, so I saved the thermos for later. 

 Hard to say which of us (me or the birds) is the bigger galah

The inevitable could be delayed no longer, mediocre bouldering beckoned. I'd like to write about how I sent a bunch of V5 highball routes, but, once I got up and started looking about for boulders I realised how appallingly stiff I felt from the mediocre workout I'd done the day before. But, I was here to boulder and boulder I would. Or wouldn't.

From a distance, the landscape around the Telegraph Station looks as if it would yield a plethora of short, mediocre boulder problems and, likely it would if the rock didn't have the consistency of Weetbix soaked in milk overnight. Everything broke. The footholds broke, the handholds crumbled, I seemed to be able to crush - literally not figuratively - entire boulders in my hands. 

This was all to the good really, as all that walking in those crappy shoes wasn't making me any more limber. I was secretly quite happy to revel in my mediocrity and saunter back to a picnic bench in the sun for lunch and my thermos of tea. After a while, I figured I should start wandering back. There were more boulders on the way back and even while I was luxuriating in all this mediocrity I thought I really should pull at least a couple of problems so I filled up my water bottle expecting a powerful thirst to overcome me, and trundled back along the path. More crumbly Weetbix rock, and me getting less and less inspired as the sun warmed my back and made me feel drowsy.

I ambled into Alice Springs, my pace much more mediocre on the way back than it had been on the way out, much more in the 3 to 4 km hour range, nowhere near badass and really quite sub-mediocre. Passing the library, I decided to call in and have a browse. I love libraries. Inside it was cool, quiet and there were infinitely comfortable seats. I settled down with some back issues of Wild and began reading about other people's badass bushwalking trips through trackless Australian bush - truthfully most of them sounded horrendous. Bushwacking in Canada, even in the infamous Gold Range, pales in comparison to bushwacking in Australia. In Canada, you know the bushwacking is a time limited offer. Gain a few thousand feet of elevation (at the most) and you'll be up in the alpine. In Australia, the bush just goes on and on and on with no respite. Australian bush is wickedly scratchy too. 

Reading about all those badass adventures was really tiring me out, my feet were beginning to throb, and I desperately needed to take a leak after the litre of tea I'd drunk at the Telegraph Station. There was, however, no way I was going into one of Alice Spring's talking public toilets. If you've never experienced these space age contrivances you should. They are silver metal and look a lot like Doctor Who's Tardis but are a lot less comfortable inside. You push a button and door slides open to reveal a wretched piss spattered interior with no toilet paper or other conveniences. As soon as you step inside, the door slams shut and a voice blasting out at about 300 decibels announces that you have 10 minutes remaining before you will be summarily ejected. An old Australian ballad that has a tag line about "The Alice" begins to play and the ten minutes is counted down with such solemnity you could be mistaken for thinking your at a NASA space shuttle launch. Good luck trying to eliminate anything with that stress hanging over your head. 

Anyway, just as I was pondering all this, I saw Doug coming into the library to do some printing. I was able to get a ride home, avoid the Tardis toilet, not boulder a single real problem and have a day of stunning and unmitigated mediocrity. Now, if only I'd taken a selfie looking poised and together in my best duds as I pulled a V10 highball on a single pinkie finger to post on Crackbook.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Stop The Insanity

Social media is one of those things that it is easy to have a love-hate relationship with. It can connect you with friends who are far away and help you to hook up with people who share your passions, all the while making you a slave to showcasing yourself in the best possible light and fuelling the festering sense that you might not be quite as badass as your badass friends who are, in fact, suffering from the same simmering insecurities as you are, which is why they are posting all the time about how badass they are. 

In this provocative blog post, Mitch Joell argues that we put stuff out there into social media land for two basic reasons: (a) we want people to think our lives are more badass than theirs (he doesn't actually use the term badass probably because he's not a climber, if he was, he'd be concerned with looking badass), and (b) we want people to think our lives are more badass than they really are. 

I think this is largely true. You never see anyone spraying on Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media about how they went for a nice relaxing walk along the river/beach/forest with friends accompanied by a picture where they are dressed in their oldest most daggy sweat pants with bed head. That would be so non-badass. Instead, people update their status with a story about how they just ran 50 km up and down several mountain ranges before breakfast accompanied by an air-brushed photo in the snappiest looking togs and glowing with good health. I wish even my best clothes looked as good.

No-one ever posts about going out for an easy scramble up a handy mountain (something we'd call NTD in the old days and be somewhat embarrassed to admit climbing) a few hours from civilisation. Not badass enough. Instead they are in a "remote" area, climbing a "seldom visited ridge," "pushing outside their comfort zones" to overcome almost insurmountable difficulties in reaching the summit - yet somehow arriving back in time for nachos and beer at the local designer brewery. The casual sea kayak trip across a flat ocean becomes an epic voyage fighting 40 knot winds (there are some folk out there who are really fighting 40 knot winds, but they aren't spraying about it), the casual day at the local crag climbing a few favourite routes becomes a big day red-pointing, pink-pointing, flashing, onsighting all within reach of the car bumper. The ski runs at our favourite yo-yo hill somehow morph into epic descents down powder filled colouirs dodging death by avalanche. Don't even get me started about those fucking selfies. 

Years ago, some weight loss guru, who has since shrunk (no pun intended) into obscurity, put a book out there called "Stop the Insanity." It is time to stop the insanity. To stop the endless narcissistic posts/updates/photos of our carefully crafted images sliced, diced, pruned, and spruced for public consumption showing us at our most badass. 

So here's my non-air-brushed, bicycle helmet hair, 51 year old, hardly svelte, more like stocky, face-pulling while making the final moves to tag the finishing hold self about to peel off what is likely a super easy route (I have no idea of bouldering grades but this is probably a Vnegative5) totally pumped, and, as you can see wrinkled, gray haired, clearly not badass, more like mediocre.  I haven't just run 50 km, more like biked 10, and, after bouldering for an hour, I'll go back on home and enjoy a quiet cup of tea. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Simpsons Gap By Bicycle

When we finished the Larapinta track a couple of weeks ago, I am somewhat abashed to admit that our feet were so sore when we passed by Simpsons Gap that we felt quite unequal to the task of walking an extra kilometre along hard black top to see the actual gap. Accordingly, after lunching at the group campsite, we simply trudged along the track passing Simpsons Gap a half kilometre or so to the south. In this age of selfies, self-promotion, and general unabashed hubris, surely this bit of honesty will be seen as refreshingly simple rather than symptomatic of moral turpitude. 

There is, however, another way to visit Simpsons Gap that doesn't involve driving or staggering up as you travel past on the Larapinta Track and that is via the excellent and enjoyable Simpsons Gap bicycle path that runs from Flynns Grave (7 km west of Alice Springs) to Simpsons Gap. Australia really does do public facilities well. This is a bicycle path you would never find in a town of similar size anywhere in North America. 

I rented a bicycle from The Penny Farthing in Alice Springs - a shameless plug for this little shop on the north end of town who rent bikes for virtually half the price of the much better publicised competitor ($25 day versus $40 day, and you can pick a bike up much earlier in the day). The guy in shop gave me a bike lock, an inner tube, a pump and offered a helmet. I declined the helmet as legally they are not required in the NT unless you are riding on the road, and, legally, you can ride on footpaths. I wasn't really sure how I was supposed to change the tube on the bike should I get a flat as I was not issued with any of those little gizmos (the name of which escapes me) which you use to pop tires off wheels, but, I felt lucky as the entire time I rode my borrowed bike around Cairns (five months) I didn't get a single flat. 

 Looking north to Wallaby Gap

About 9.30 am I set off riding south to Larapinta Drive where a good bike path leads west to the Simpsons Gap bike path. The only thing of note on this section of the ride was a house with a big police sign affixed to the fence indicating it was a "drug house." I'm not exactly sure what a "drug house" is, but it seemed to allow the police to conduct random body cavity searches of the inhabitants, and, almost definitely does nothing to improve property values. I admit to feeling a certain frisson of excitement as I rode past the drug house. 

The bike path itself is fantastic. The entire 17 km is sealed and undulates pleasantly up and down passing dry creek beds, stands of ironbark and ghost gums, mulga and witchetty bush. There are many interesting interpretive signs and a few picnic sites with picnic benches set under spreading ghost gums scattered along the way. About 4 km from the east end, a side trip up another sealed track leads to a short walk up a granite boulder pile above Wallaby Creek and a spreading view of the Heavitree and Chewings Ranges.
The last kilometre or so is on a side-walk beside the access road to Simpsons Gap and this is likely the only place you'll meet anyone else. 

The waterhole at Simpsons Gap

By the time I got to Simpsons Gap, I had a butt that was sore enough to rival the sore feet I had endured on this section of the Larapinta Track. I was all too happy to park the bike for a half hour and stroll up to Simpsons Gap. Simpsons Gap is similar to the many other gaps in the East and West MacDonnell Ranges but the cliffs on either side are much higher. Apparently, 10 or 20 rock wallabies inhabit the area around the gap, and a few tourists were hanging out in the gap in hopes of catching a glimpse of these small and agile creatures. 

I wanted to have lunch away from any infernal combustion engines so I cycled back along the bike path towards Alice Springs until I came to a picnic bench in the shade of a beautiful old ghost gum and rested my sore butt while I had a thermos of tea and a big salad. At this point, I was wondering what, if anything could be done to relieve my butt pain, which was beginning to consume my thoughts. The only thing I could think of, apart from riding back sans any clothing on my lower torso (not legal in the NT on bike paths, side-walks or the road) was to remove my underwear which I did, riding the rest of the way home "commando" - although strictly speaking I guess women don't go commando. 

Back in Alice Springs I detoured to the old cemetery, along a "discovery track" and out to the railway station where The Ghan was in Alice Springs. I still had a couple of hours left on my bike rental and could have idled this time away riding out to the Telegraph Station but after 50 km round trip on what must surely have been the poorest possible design of bicycle seat available, I just wanted shot of the bike. "Great ride" I told the guy in the bike shop when I returned the bike, "but my butt is killing me." He claimed the seat was one of the best standard issue seats available, but I'm pretty sure he was yanking my chain. I drove back to the caravan and put my underwear back on.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Breaking Eleven

I think I'll never climb 11. You might be forgiven for thinking I'm talking about climbing 5.11 (YDS), but I'm actually talking about climbing Ewbank 11. This sad truth has probably been slowly worming its way into my brain, much like one of those nasty African worms that enter through people's feet and make them dreadfully ill. My first experience with 11 was at a small crag in bushland in the Sutherland Shire where I grunted my way up a hugely overhanging route on tiny slopes. After that, came the Frog Buttress affair when I whipped off a steep 11 that I was stemming and slammed into the wall with such force that Doug was nearly ripped from his feet. At Ormiston Gorge in the West MacDonnell Range, I thrutched my way up an 8, but cruised a 16. I know that 8 is not 11, but, you are probably beginning to get a sense of things. Just a couple of days ago, I only got up an 11 at a small crag near Alice Springs on the second try. Today, I managed to lead a 14 and a 15, but clearly, neither of these is 11. 

Doug, not on an 11

At first glance, the Ewbank system of grading seems like a frightfully good idea. Start at one, make the scale open ended and just keep going up. Up the grade if the protection is poor, tricky, or non-existent. Somewhere in the implementation the whole thing seems to fall apart. During our two years in Australia we have climbed 8's that are harder by a few grades than 18's. 16's that are easier than 10's, 17's that are indistinguishable from 13's and pretty much every combination in between. We've retreated from "trad" routes with zero gear for the entire climb, and, after swearing we would never climb on those retard bolts (aka carrots) climbed on them dozens of times (I'd still prefer a ring bolt). But, one thing I'll never, ever do is climb 11. 

Me, feeling happy that I'm not on an 11

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Once A Peak Bagger .... Hiking Mount Zeil

You can see Mount Zeil quite clearly from Mount Sonder, and, perhaps that is where we got the idea that hiking to the summit would be a good idea. Mount Zeil, at 1531 metres, is the highest peak in the Northern Territory (NT), and, as we had already easily (except for that knee-knackering day on Mount Bartle Frere) knocked off the high points of the three other Australian states we had visited on our travels, strolling to the top seemed like a good idea. At the time, we had no idea that there exists some kind of ethereal tribe of "State 8" people who are also busily (more or less) tackling the highest points in each state/territory. There is even a website that details everything (again, more or less) you need to know about hiking to the top of each state/territory highpoint.

We got a sketch map and small topographic map section from the West MacDonnell National Park rangers. This was all very efficient and arrived via email within minutes of talking with one of the rangers on the telephone who also gave us the telephone number of the owners of Glen Helen Station. While Mount Zeil is in the West MacDonnell National Park, the quickest access is from the north via Glen Helen Station. The station owner, a jocular fellow, was quick to give us permission to drive through his property (which is probably round about the size of a small European country), camp on his land, and hike across to Mount Zeil as long was we didn't start any bushfires, refrained from molesting the cattle, and left any gates as we found them. This all seemed quite reasonable as, we hate campfires, are unattracted by cattle unless rendered into steaks, and with a couple of advanced degrees among us, should be able to close shut gates and leave open ajar gates - plus, our mothers brought us up well. 

Camp on Dashwood Creek

It is a three hour drive from Alice Springs to even get close to Mount Zeil so we left the day before and allowed ourselves enough time to drive to some kind of campsite location while it was still light. Cattle at large (whatever that means) and kangaroos have a nasty habit of running in front of moving vehicles, particularly after sunset, and we wanted to be camped before the night creatures began running amok. For some unfathomable reason, the Tanami Road, which as far as I can tell takes you straight out into the Tanami Desert had more traffic than downtown Alice Springs. It is one of those one lane black-top Australian roads where you have to pull off into the dirt when another vehicle approaches, something which we seemed to be doing every few minutes. Then it's onto the dirt Gary Junction Road, typical bulldust and corrugations, and finally, a driven in track to Dashwood Bore on the dry Dashwood Creek. The bore road gets less and less driven in as you approach the bore until finally it disappears altogether. 

There was a great quantity of irate bovine characters at the bore all of whom were trumpeting noisily. A quick glance at the summit register the next day would indicate that most people drive across the dry sandy river bed of Dashwood Creek, pick up a driven in track on the other side of the creek and get much closer to the mountain than we did. Our only, and indelibly burned into our memories, experience sand driving was when we bogged our rental 4WD many years ago in sandy ground on small backroads near Shark Bay when we were putting in fresh water caches for a long sea kayak trip. Vaguely, we knew there was something you were supposed to do about tire pressure, and, I'm almost sure you are supposed to let your tires down, but, as we had nothing to reinflate our tires afterwards, this didn't seem like a great idea. Nor did we have shovel, winch, or any of those other things that intrepid Australian drivers cart about. 

We deliberated for some time as the cows bellowed in the background, and then decided we would do what has always worked in the past, simply walk. Camping where we were, however, was not an option as we would surely be either trampled or crapped on during the night by rogue cattle, and, we didn't want to fuss about driving to and fro the following morning, so we simply drove back along the road until we thought we were about as close to Mount Zeil as the road got and camped in the dry river bed for the night - the only spot free of nasty thorns and prickles on the ground. 

Doug moving so fast in the early morning he is a blur

We were up in the dark the next morning, chowing down on some homemade paleo granola and fueling up with a large mug of instant coffee (we aren't coffee snobs), and, near dawn, we began the long walk south to Mount Zeil. The evening before we had decided to follow a series of draws (not the thing in a bedside table, rather the Canadian draw, which is a shallow gully) to the northwest ridge which is the normal ascent route. We hoped to minimise any unnecessary losses and gains of elevation on the ridge and our exposure to spinifex. 

Now I can hear you thinking to yourself, "what sort of sheila worries about a bit of spinifex, it's only grass?" Well, thinking of spinifex as only grass is akin to thinking of Stephen Harper as just another neo-Con. Spinifex has an incredible ability to pierce anything not made of 10 cm thick lead, and after even the most oblique contact. The sharp spines pierce the skin, break off, cause nasty infections requiring even nastier antibiotics, and, it hurts! We wore long pants and gaitors and, for good measure (it was highly effective if a bit sweaty) wrapped our legs from ankles to thighs in duct tape. Red Green would be proud (Canadians will understand this reference). 

 Stylish duct tape gaitors

It took us 1:45 to walk south to the big valley tucked behind a glob of ridge that protrudes from the north of Mount Zeil through mulga scrub with the occasional larger tree. Near the end of the approach walk we did pick up a cow track that was heading in the right direction and followed it for a while, but most cow tracks were running perpendicular to us towards Dashwood Bore. As we got further up the valley, the ground got stonier and stonier and the cow tracks fewer and fewer. It's too bad really that cows aren't interesting in joining the State 8 tribe as they make a pretty good track. 

Turns out that approaching and egressing from the mountain via a draw was probably not one of our best ideas. It wasn't too bad on the way up, and I found the intermittent slabs much better for walking than through the rocky spinifex covered ground nearby, but there did seem to a fair quantity of bushy vegetation in the draw, and, coming down at the end of the day was really pretty painful. 

Nevertheless, up we plodded, thinking eternally of that classic dialogue from the Eiger Sanction: "I think we'll make it." "I don't think so," in strong Swiss accent, "but we will continue with style." Eventually, we came out on the NW ridge but still about three kilometres from the summit, which was not even in view yet. Finally, after one last short descent, I could see the tower on the top, and, 15 minutes more, and I was there. Doug arrived a couple of minutes later and we sat down for our first rest, and my first drink of water (I was paranoid I would drain my water bladder, not realise until the last drops had been drunk and then suffer from unrelieved thirst for the rest of the trip, so I had nothing at all to drink in the first five hours of the trip). 

 Looking down our ascent draw

We had something to eat, drink, snapped a couple of photos, perused the summit register (discovering to our chagrin that most people drive across the river bed and shorten their day by about 10 kilometres compared to ours), and reinforced our duct tape gaitors. I admit there was some desperate perusal of the topographic map in case we could find a "short-cut down" but nothing immediately (or even later) presented itself so we resolved to simply go back down the way we had come up. Actually, the first half wasn't bad, the last half, however, did begin to feel gruelling with the somewhat treacherous footing of loose rocks hidden by spinifex. My left knee, which every so often (particularly on long downhills) locks in position since I tore the meniscus a few years ago while skiing (and refused to have surgery for) locked up part way down which made the last half of the descent a bit more troublesome. 

 Doug on the last climb to the top

Once on the flats, it was simply a matter of trudging back. We even managed to get along at a pretty reasonable speed using a couple of small hills to the west as handrails to help us find where we had parked the car. Doug had very cleverly, at least he thought so at the time, made a mark on the map using the GPS in our mobile telephone and we got a compass bearing off this for the last 2.5 kilometres, which, should have been very effective except, it turned out the mark was somewhere other than where our car was parked. Luckily, our superb innate navigational ability enabled us to find the car. Doug's footprints on a cow track parallel with the river from his stroll the previous evening may have helped. 

After sitting three hours in the car on the drive back to Alice Springs, we both just about fell flat on our faces when we tried to get out of the car and into the caravan. The hot shower felt great, and, the day after, now that my knee has half-unfrozen, my feet are only slightly tender, and I've had as much hot tea as I can drink, it all feels worthwhile, kind of. 

Doug reaches the top of the NT

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Last Days On The Larapinta Track: Sections Six Through One

After walking the last six sections of the Larapinta Track (sections 12 through 7) as day walks, we decided to walk the first six sections (sections 1 through 6) as a "through" walk. You could (and the tour companies do) walk the whole walk as day walks but, sections one through six involve longer car shuttles and more 4WD tracks, all things we detest. So, we packed for six nights on the track, put a food drop in at Standley Chasm on the way out to Ellery Creek Big Hole and began the walk one cool morning.

There is water and camping about every 15 km along sections one through six, a distance that is a little too short for a full days walk, while 30 km seems a little too long for a single days walk; a conundrum frequently encountered on long distance Australian tracks. There are campsites in between the recommended camps, but many of these are waterless and we had already decided that carrying 6 or 7 litres of water about was not on our agenda. Some mid-point campsites have water but, as these are officially "semi-permanent" you never really know if you will find water there, unless, you meet some helpful walkers coming in the other direction. Sometimes, even helpful walkers don't know as the water may be a distance off the main track and not immediately obvious. 

 Looking west along the Heavitree Range to Mount Sonder

Section Six: Ellery Creek Big Hole to Hugh Gorge

In any case, our first day was only about 15 km to Rocky Gully campsite where there is a toilet and water tank, but sadly no camp furniture. We had all day to walk 15 km so strolled idly along enjoying the views. Section six is one of the easier sections of the walk with no real elevation gain or loss. A few kilometres east of Ellery Creek Big Hole, the track climbs 100 metres or so to a saddle on the Heavitree Range before descending out into the Alice Valley. This is the first time on the track that we would walk on the north side of the Heavitree Range. There is a gorgeous view from the saddle north to the Chewings Range, across the Alice Valley with the dry creekbed of Ellery Creek winding through. Once down the north side of the Heavitree Range, the track follows the dry and sandy creekbed of Ellery Creek, pleasantly lined with big eucalpyts for a couple of kilometres, before the creek turns north, the track continues east and reaches Rocky Gully. The campsite here is a fairly standard Larapinta track one, nothing special, but not bad either. 

Nights are cool out in the West MacDonnell Range and, as we had another easy day planned, we waited until the sun hit the tent to get up - the only morning we would do so. The track ambles northeast across the Alice Valley to Ghost Gum Flat where there is a dry campsite and, inexplicably, a large wooden bench/table. Two young women, who had come into Rocky Gully camp the afternoon before but had subsequently moved on to camp at Ghost Gum Flat had left their illegal campfire burning and two other hikers, heading west, had spent an hour burying the smouldering remains and clearing up the subsequent eyesore. An Australian Hobby (a raptor) was nesting in one of the big Ghost Gums by the campsite. We chatted with the two "clean-up" hikers and they advised us to camp at Hugh Gorge Junction if we had the energy/time to continue upstream from Hugh Gorge campsite as not only is water available, but the upper camp is near to a side trip up Hugh Gorge which they highly recommended. 

This all sounded like a sensible plan so I began to walk faster instead of strolling along at my "amble" pace. We reached Hugh Gorge campsite at around 1.00 pm. There is no toilet or camp furniture, just a water tank and Larapinta track sign. There are actually some nice campsites up the creek a bit, but, Hugh Gorge Junction is a better camp.

 Doug at Ellery Saddle looking north to the Chewings Range

Section Five: Hugh Gorge to Birthday Waterhole

The track runs north up Hugh Gorge to Hugh Gorge Junction which is a large area of sandy dry river bed at the bottom (west end) of the narrow Linear Valley. Our new hiking friends had cautioned us to allow 2.5 hours to walk the 3 km or so up the gorge to camp as the walking was reportedly tough, but we walked up in about half that time. Most of the way, there was a not too bad foot bed beaten in but in other sections one must cross from one side of the wide river bed to the other or scramble on water-worn rocks around water-holes. Deep green cycads and red river gums grow in the gorge bottom.

There are many large campsites at Hugh Gorge junction where we caught up with the illegal fire-lighters who had scattered their gear across a large area. A small milky waterhole provided drinking water (boil or treat first). We put our tent up, had some afternoon tea and wandered the half hour up to Hugh Gorge. The further up the gorge you go, the closer together the red rock walls become and, in the late afternoon, they emitted an eerie red glow. About half a kilometre from camp a permanent waterhole of icy water lies between steep red rock walls. The great thing about swimming in such cold water is, no matter how cold a wind is blowing when you get out, you actually feel warm. 

Next morning, with the valley still in deep shade we walked east up a good track in Linear Valley to Rocky Saddle where a cold wind whistled over. Below and to the east, we could see Fringe Lilly Creek cutting a two kilometre gorge south through the Chewings Range. There is another campsite at Fringe Lilly Creek near short red rock walls, and, apparently, if you walk south a good waterhole, deep enough for a dip and offering plenty of drinking water. At Fringe Lilly Creek the track climbs on a well built track up the western end of Razorback Ridge and follows the ridge east to drop down a short distance to Windy Saddle, where it was, indeed windy. There are wonderful views on the track as you walk along Razorback Ridge and this is one of the more scenic parts of the whole walk. 

From Windy Saddle, a rocky descent down a narrow dry stream bed leads to Spencer Gorge where we had some lunch and caught up with the young female fire-lighters. It is almost two kilometres south through Spencer Gorge which descends more steeply than most gorges at first but soon flattens out and, as you walk south through the gorge, the track gets better and better. At the south end of Spencer Gorge, a short climb up a narrow draw on the north side of Paisley Bluff is followed by a longer descent down the east side to a dry sandy creekbed. There are two "pinches" on the map as you follow this drainage south, the second pinch houses Birthday Waterhole, a large pool of weedy water under a short rock bluff. The water was much warmer for swimming than up in Hugh Gorge and, despite the lack of furniture or toilet, this is a really nice campsite. The ranger was there filling up the water tank as well as two other hikers heading west and the infamous fire-lighters. 

A refreshing dip at Hugh Gorge

Section Four: Birthday Waterhole to Standley Chasm

We left camp early the next day with long shadows still cast by the rising sun to walk one of the most spectacular sections of the walk. An easy hours walk contouring below Paisley Bluff and its outliers brought us to broad Stuarts Pass, a gap in the range where the dry sandy river runs through. There is another campsite here and a puddle of water, which, apparently walkers were drinking, but, in this instance, it was literally a puddle. From Stuarts Pass the track climbs steadily up a dark valley to a small saddle south of Brinkley Bluff and then descends to cross the head of a narrow creek that falls over cliffs at Rocky Cleft. Another climb, this time up the steeper south side of Brinkley Bluff and you reach the highest point on the track, apart from Mount Sonder. Brinkley Bluff commands tremendous views in all directions and we sat by the huge cairn enjoying the scenery for a while. There are many campsites up here, dry obviously, and it is a popular place to camp for a night. 

The track east along the ridge top is stony but spectacular and this was one of my favourite walk sections. Ahead is the complex knot of ridges above Standley Chasm where the Chewings Range fans out in all directions. After a gradual descent down the ridge, a short climb leads to a small pass, and traversing a steep side hill, the track reaches Reveal Saddle with a view out to the south. Before the real descent down to Standley Chasm there is a short side trip out to Bridle Path Lookout where you can see a different perspective on Brinkley Bluff. The descent to Standley Chasm is wearying on tired feet as the track starts out on the north side of the creek, running in and out of small gullies before dropping down into the stony creek bed for the final few kilometres. If you have your wits about you, you can climb out of the creek to the north about a kilometre from where the track/creek bed meets the access road to Standley Chasm and follow the "loop walk" up a short hillside and then down to come out at the back of the Kiosk at Standley Chasm. This is shorter, more scenic, and avoids some tedious walking on river stones and tarmac at the end of the day. 

Camping at Standley Chasm is on a small piece of green grass, pleasant but narrow, and there are hot showers (if you heat the water in a wood fired boiler) or cold (if you can't be bothered like me), and you can get good gluten stuffed meals at the Kiosk. We were greeted by the other walkers as some kind of hiking heroes for having walked the 18 km from Birthday Waterhole by 2.00 pm but, truthfully, the walking was generally pretty easy and it is so scenic that the time passes quickly. We had a food drop at Standley Chasm - I had put in a fruit yoghurt, but Doug had put in about 7,000 calories worth of food which he proceeded to eat his way steadily through. 

 Doug hero posing on Brinkley Bluff

Section Three: Standley Chasm to Jay Creek

For some reason, this section broke us. We had been walking the Larapinta for many days by now and had no muscle fatigue or any other symptoms but on this day my feet got painfully sore and I developed three blisters in really weird places. I think it was the cumulative effect of walking on stony, rocky ground with nearly worn out approach shoes. 

Before leaving, we detoured up Standley Chasm, a narrow defile of red rock, before climbing on a well built trail up to a saddle overlooking the narrow twisting course of the upper reaches of Standley Chasm. A short downhill leads to Angkale Junction where a side valley runs west, and then another climb leads up to Gastrolobium Saddle. The track ahead is clearly visible winding down the narrow valley heading northeast. It is stony walking in and out of a creekbed down to Millers Flat (dry campsite), followed by more scrambling, rock hopping and stony river bed down narrow Cycad Creek. The track then turns north and climbs up another stony creek bed before heading east and over a 900 metre saddle and down (more stony ground) to Tangentyere Junction. 

There is another two or three kilometres of fast walking on a blessedly smooth track until you reach a big waterhole at Fish Hole. The waterhole blocks access to the north side of the Chewings Range so the track climbs up cliffs on the west before descending again on the east. Around about here I realised my feet were sore and beginning to blister. I tried taping them up, but it didn't really work. On the north side of Fish Hole, a slow trudge in deep river sand leads to a new shelter, toilet, and campsite at Jay Creek. 

 Fish Hole near Jay Creek

Section Two: Jay Creek to Simpsons Gap

We had a very brief stop at Jay Creek as we had another 10 or 11 km to go to our planned camp at Mulga camp. Luckily the walking was easy as my feet were very sore. We wandered east in a broad valley on the north side of Mount Lloyd before turning south through short Spring Gap where there is another waterhole shaded by big eucalypts. A bit more walking east and we reached Mulga Camp, relocated apparently and in a less appealing location than previously, but there are two picnic benches, a water tank and a toilet and we were glad to stop for the night. It was a cold night and we were in the tent early. 

The next morning, we walked 14 or 15 km before lunch into Simpsons Gap. Along the way we passed Bond Gap, permanent waterhole, red rock cliffs, and Arenge Bluff. Our feet were so sore by now that we did not detour up to Simpsons Gap from the track, one look at the hard blacktop we would have to walk deterred me (we'll go back later), but continued on another 10 or 11 km to Wallaby Gap to camp. 

 Spring Gap

Section One: Simpsons Gap to Alice Springs Telegraph Station

Wallaby Gap lies just below (south) of Euro Ridge. A short walk up a mixed sandy and gravel track, or a short hobble leads to a sedge lined waterhole where we managed to splash around in shallow pools having a bit of a wash. There is furniture, a toilet and water tank at Wallaby Gap and we shared the camp with one other hiker. 

The last climb of the walk was up Euro Ridge from which we could see Alice Springs and Heavitree Gap looking very close. The track meanders along Euro Ridge and I enjoyed the final ridge views of the walk, before descending off the north side and continuing east to cross the railway track and under the Stuart Highway at Charles River. The final four kilometres I had walked before through the Telegraph Station and I hobbled along, the anti-inflammatory I took that morning long since worn off. 

At the Telegraph Station we sat on a bench in the sun and had lunch before walking the final four kilometres into town. Doug and I both felt like old steam engines that needed some time to get up to speed. When we had to wait for traffic lights in Alice Springs to cross the road, we started slowly again, stuttered a bit, and finally built back up to speed. A surly young man served us at the rental car place (we rented a car to go pick up our car and caravan from Ellery Creek Big Hole) - I believe he was surly before I even took my shoes off - but we managed to escape without multiple extra charges. Driving west to retrieve our vehicle it was a little hard to believe we had just walked over 200 kilometres and completed a track that we had first thought of walking over two years previously. 

Doug on Euro Ridge

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.