There is a mystery about Central Australia that is deeply, quietly alluring. I had felt drawn to it for a long time but it wasn't until I embarked on the Larapinta Trail, just outside of Alice Springs, that I came to understand why it is so captivating and confounding all at once.
There were times it was so challenging that I wondered why on earth I was doing it, but when I found my feet, a world of incredible beauty opened up to greet me.
My spirits were lifted by delicate wildflowers scattered over the jagged orange-red rock like fairy dust, by flocks of tiny flitting fairy wrens and honey eaters, by the valleys and gorges that descended from the precarious ridges we walked along, by the ethereal ghost gums with their branches outstretched like arms across the bright blue sky, and by the gentle sparkle of the stars and muddled current of the Milky Way that mesmerised us in ways no human entertainment could.
I must admit it took time to find my way to that perspective. In the early days on the trail, my attention was often immediately focused on the challenges right in front of me, which at times felt like they would overpower me if I let them.
The most pressing of these were the soles of my superlative Asolo boots of seven years finally giving way on day one to the harshest, sharpest ground I’ve ever walked on, leaving us to feebly hold them together with duct tape, string and my gaiters. My broken boots produced blisters all over the soles of my feet and under my big toes and then there was the cyst behind my knee whose appearance on the first day made my knee and calf muscle strangely stiff, swollen and shaky. This wasn’t helped by the weight of my 20 kilogram backpack bearing down on my shoulders as starkly as the sun, to which we each added five litres of extra water every second day to sustain us until we got to the next water source.
I can feel the dread again in my body as I list these challenges. You might think I’m complaining about something that I volunteered to do and is part of trekking, and that’s true. But to appreciate the beauty of this journey, I had to be honest about what was hard. I had to be humbled by the disappointment that this was not the nurturing experience in nature I wanted it to be, and to accept that I was in it all the same.
There were many times I was just as hard on myself as the landscape. I wished I could be faster, fitter and unfazed by the challenges of the trek and the unhelpful places my mind leapt to as I faced these struggles. But I learned it takes more courage to keep walking with humility and compassion for my body, with all of its limitations and all of its capabilities; to hold space for power and frailty, beauty and brokenness to co-exist.
I was also nurtured by the kindness and compassion of my friend and hiking partner, who graciously took on camp responsibilities when I needed tend to my feet and aching legs. Kirsten and I have been friends a long time so she knows how to gently chide me when my expectations of walking time are rather unrealistic, to keep my clumsy hands and feet away from the gas stove, and to make me laugh with her jokes along the way.
On the fourth day, I found my groove. And as my spirits lifted, so did my eyes. I was able to open to and delight in the landscape. Even with my calf muscle giving way and the wind whipping around us, I felt a lightness and joy bubble up inside. It carried me up the rough, steep climb to Brinkley Bluff where we camped that night.
I knew that all the challenges had been worth it for this: the panoramic views of the West MacDonnell ranges, the dusky pinks, blues and burnt oranges as the sun set to reveal the most spectacular stars, and then again as the sun rose in the morning.
Like every place we camped along the trail, we had Brinkley Bluff all to ourselves. Experiencing such peace and solitude here made it very hard to leave. It will remain one of the most treasured of all my trekking memories.
Now that my physical injuries are fading and I’m back with the comforts of home, I look at these photographs and it seems so otherworldly that I ask myself, Was I really there?
In that way, the enigma that drew me there lingers. My mind can't name it, but my heart knows.
Big thanks to Kirsten for her friendship and the wisdom to bring duct tape and string (even if they originally were meant for the tent, they literally kept me walking!). Gratitude also to Zak of Larapinta Trail Trek Support for the transport to and from the trail, food drops, invaluable tips and insight into his fascinating life. If you decide to do the walk yourself, call Zak and make sure you have new boots!