Walking The Larapinta

Sprawling west from Alice Springs are the entrancing West MacDonnell Ranges. I recently spent a week there. Trekking, smelling, touching, and sleeping in the dirt. Being enveloped by the dry air, transfixed by the endless patterns in rock formations, and falling in love with every new flower I discovered. This is the meandering tale of my trip. 

I flew into Alice with my friend and housemate JP, for a six-day trek from Red Bank Gorge in the west to Serpentine Valley, about 80km in total. JP is a biologist and all round interesting guy.

On landing in Alice we headed straight to the Olive Pink Botanical Garden, a collection of arid Australia’s plants. I love the garden’s story. Olive Pink was born in Hobart in 1884, and after having travelled through central Australia on a sketching holiday it seems she fell in love with the region, living in and around Alice for a few years before relocating to a waterhole in the Tanami Desert, living with the Warlpiri people. Here she commenced her anthropological research of Australian Aboriginal people, attempting to set up a secular sanctuary for the Warlpiri. She then moved to Alice, and in 1956 at the age of 72, she set up a tent on the site of the current botanic garden, lobbying the Northern Territory government to set up a flora reserve to preserve the native plants of the arid region.

With the help of local Warlpiri man Johnny Jampijinpa Yannarilyi, she collected seed and planted arid region native plants around the garden. The flora reserve was upheld by the Northern Territory government after Olive Pink’s death in 1975, and is now known as the Olive Pink Botanic Garden.

The following day we hitched a ride west with Ken and Kate, grey nomads from the Grampian’s region of Victoria. Driving out along Larapinta Way and then turning onto Namatjira Way, JP commented that he had always thought the work of the latter road’s namesake Albert Namatjira more stylised until then.

Experiencing the landscape, seeing the reds and purples of the rocks and the whiteness of the ghost gums (Corymbia aparrerinja) clinging to a single crack in an orange cliff, a lone red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) in a dry river bed, gnarled and burnt by fire but not destroyed, and the textures and patterns of the sharp inland spinifex (Triodia sp.) on the hills and mountains. These brought Namatjira’s work into context.

We started our walk back east towards Alice the following day, having stayed overnight at Redbank Gorge. I had been sick the previous day and started on the back foot, a little dehydrated and worn out. Walking in the hot sun and cool wind that day made the desert a surreal place for me. Beautiful flowers, twisted plant forms, sheer cliffs, and no water anywhere. I was struck by the beauty of the landscape, yet at the same time felt a real fear for it. How had people lived here?

I was carrying all my water, filled from a national parks tank, transported from a bore in Alice. I was carrying six days supply of couscous and noodles, oats and powdered milk, some dry anchovies, and chocolate. If I didn’t have these things, I wouldn’t be able to survive. But I was in a place where people had lived for tens of thousands of years.

The surreal scenes continued, a desert version of a meadow, with mixed grasses (including the relentless needles of the spinifex) between vast sprays of mauve and cream fluffy flowers of the various Ptilotus species. The English name for this genus is pussytails, however I prefer species names such as hairy mulla mulla, describing the brilliantly purple, and very hairy, Ptilotus helipteroides. The delicate, soft Eremophila flowers and the desert rose (Gossypium sturtianum, not actually related to roses but in the hibiscus family, Malvaceae) seemed so out of place.

The day ended at a hilltop campsite. No toilets or taps, just six hikers. We sat in the gentle breeze watching the sun set. In some parts of the world you watch the sun disappear in a blaze of unimaginable colours. But out in the desert where the atmosphere is as dry as your cracking lips, the same sun you know at midday is there, sitting on the horizon, blinding you while you try and stare it down to a soft red or even an orange. It just goes behind the mountains with no costume change, as bright as ever.

Next to us where we sat was a wattle like none I had ever seen. It was a shrub perhaps two metres high with more spikes than leaves. The trunk and branches were covered in spikes, and so were the ends of the leaves, which were a brilliant green and rounded. There are almost one thousand wattle species in Australia, so I may be wrong but I believe the species was most likely Acacia strongylophylla, the round-leaf wattle.

The following day we walked from the hilltop camp to Ormiston Gorge. I was struck by the strange forms of familiar genera. A grevillea that looks like Christmas holly, with scarlet flowers. And maybe my favourite plant for the trip, the corkwood hakea (I probably saw two similar species, Hakea suberea and Hakea lorea). These twisted little trees had fissures so deep in their bark it seemed the crevices would go through to the core of the trunk. With only a few thin, stiff tufts of leaves we were amazed at how the tree created enough photosynthetic energy to live, let alone produce brilliant lemon-yellow flowers and the typical thick woody fruits synonymous with the genus.

The hakeas of the Royal National Park south of Sydney seemed to fit with Australia being an ancient, undisturbed land. With their roots sitting in sand seemingly devoid of minerals, no megafaunal wombat from an earlier age would bother chewing through the woody seed capsule to get at the little dry seed. But these corkwoods really seemed ancient and entirely indestructible, regrowing after fire from a lignotuber, and requiring hardly any water. They seemed to typify this desert environment that, comparatively, has hardly changed ecologically over millions of years.

After a few days walking, I awoke to the vitality and stability of the ecosystem. The evaporating water holes had seemed like stagnant pools of rotting plants and gasping fish, but the easy pickings were appreciated by the whistling kites trying their hand at fishing and the relative newcomers to the ecosystem, the dingo. And the health of the plants amazed me, especially the glossy green leaves and pink fruit capsules of the hop bush (Dodonaea viscosa), the leaves so pungent when they’re crushed, so full of fragrant oils. The hop bush was apparently so named because beer was bittered and flavoured with it in early colonial times when hops was unavailable.

I came across the native caper bush (Capparis spinosa subsp. nummularia), the same species as the little flower buds we pickle and pop on pizza or on a bit of fancy biscuit with smoked salmon.

JP was intrigued and enamoured with the depth of the aromas from the native lemon-scented grass, Cymbopogon ambiguus, like walking past a bush spice shop. The smell is far more subtle and varied when compared with the related culinary lemon grass, Cymbopogon citratus.

Maybe the strangest plant I came across was nardoo. To look at, it could be a bunch of four-leaf clovers or oxalis, growing next to a waterhole between the waterlogged sand and dry ground. However, nardoo, the common name for eight Australian species of the Marsilea genus, is a fern. Apparently Burke and Wills would have had a chance if they had paid closer attention to how the locals prepared this fern to eat, but by not baking the spore cases they effectively starved themselves by consuming thiaminase, a chemical that blocks the processes of metabolism. They would have died experiencing symptoms not unlike end stage liver failure.

The final day we walked through two long valleys, and then through the Inarlanga Pass. This well shaded, narrow gap between cliffs was maybe fifty metres across and a few kilometres long. The numbers of ghost gums decreased as we walked. We came to a cool, shaded cycad dominated environment. Spreading about two metres across and as high, these locally endemic ancient plants were Macrozamia macdonnellii. We sat in the pass for an hour or so before walking out to the camp where we ate the last of our couscous with some weeds we had found along the trail.

Back in Sydney, I feel a real awareness of what is actually over the range and out into the centre of our continent. The stillness, the silence, the ancient land with life continuing. Here, the road traffic hums, the planes rattle the sky, and my chickens bay for more grains.