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Larapinta Trail 
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Post Larapinta Trail
Comments on walking the Larapinta Trail

The Larapinta Trail is a hard but rewarding and beautiful long-distance desert walk in Australia. I just completed most of it, and will use this thread to muse on the discussions and writings and thoughts I had, especially on the two books I read, Modern Man in Search of a Soul by Carl Jung, and The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin.

Stretching over 230 kilometres west from Alice Springs in the Northern Territory through the West MacDonnell Ranges, the Larapinta Trail is a well maintained hiking track. It passes over mountains, plateaus and plains, and through the iconic gaps and gorges and dry riverbeds that mark the ancient geology of this semi-arid region. Although sometimes described as timeless, the region is only too affected by the temporal impact of the modern world.

Much of the country was devastated by wildfires during the heatwave of February 2019. The fires were extremely hot and destroyed ancient trees in places that never usually burn. The extreme heat came from the combination of global warming delivering unprecedented temperatures and hot winds, and the spread of the pasture pest weed buffel grass, which burns much hotter than native grasses. Buffel grass is the invasive cane toad of the desert, and has spread into the magnificent natural cathedrals such as the creek bed of Standley Chasm, where it brought fire to kill massive ancient trees and cycads in regions that usually don’t burn. https://www.alicespringsnews.com.au/201 ... nd-sorrow/

I joined a group of five highly experienced hikers, and completed 200 km of the walk, missing one section of 40 km from Serpentine Gorge to Ormiston Gorge due to a bout of stomach upset. Two of us caught a lift with a tour group for that section. We could have waited and walked the section later, as some other walkers did who caught the same bug. In all honesty, the three days off were a relief. I expected the walk to be long, but not so hard and rough and steep, and I was nowhere near physically prepared enough for it.

The journey involves carrying a backpack weighing between 15 and 20 kg depending on how much water and food is required for each section, with three food drops over the course of the twenty days, with some high mountain camping grounds not having any water. The weight and distance place a severe test on the body, and for me it was my sore feet and overall exhaustion due to the length of the daily walks that were the hardest thing. While I have a high level of general fitness, it is twenty years since I did overnight hiking, and I had never done a walk anywhere near this long or hard. But it was absolutely great, and life changing, making me think hard about how to sustain my competence in all ways, while also providing clarity and opportunity to think and talk about some important questions.

On the first day, as we climbed the first mountain Euro Ridge, we were rewarded with spectacular views back to Alice Springs and forward into the Chewings Range. It was like we stood at a portal into eternity, between the comforts of society and a harsh unchanging natural region, entering a separate reality, reminding me of the book of that title by Carlos Castaneda with its theme that eternity surrounds you. These long high views from mountain summits are a main part of the walk, giving different perspectives on the region. The environmental and geological perspectives are as valuable as the spiritual angle of the rugged power of place and the personal resources of organisation and perseverance needed to walk through it.

Looking at the maps at our campsite that evening, it dawned on me that this first hill was tiny compared to some of those to come. My running and cycling and day walks and weightlifting and yoga were all too short and infrequent, nowhere near the preparation that someone in my condition should put in. Before hitting the Larapinta, I should have done several multi-day hikes up and down mountains and valleys this year, as the others in my group were doing in the Blue Mountains.

So the next day, walking into Simpson’s Gap, the sheer distance of walking ten or fifteen hard kilometres every day made me think about the physical and mental and spiritual competencies needed, wondering if my personal sense of resilience and mental toughness and determination would compensate for my lack of endurance training. Throughout the walk it was great to talk these issues through with the group leader Mel MacArthur, who is a multiple PhD in pilgrimage, with his latest doctorate on walking the Camino walk in Spain with Qoheleth as provocateur, as well as an astounding range of endurance feats, such as cycling from Dublin to Jerusalem and from Sydney to Uluru, and regular marathon runner.

Section Three took us up Brinkley Bluff, a long, rough and steep climb that taxed my patience to the limit, trudging one foot after the other carrying five days food and two days water. In the book on the summit I wrote my favourite quote from Martin Heidegger, from his book An Introduction to Metaphysics, asking what the “is” means in Goethe’s graffito in an alpine hut, ‘over all summits is peace’.


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DWill
Sun Jul 07, 2019 11:39 pm
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Post Re: Larapinta Trail
Loved that post, Robert. I find, too, that nothing instills a certain humility like a new physical challenge. What the poet James Dickey said was true: "You can't fake the body." If we haven't put in the work, forget it. But the body is an incredible thing, and in my own trekking I found myself especially appreciative of the design of the foot. Also appreciative of bipedalism in general, as the problems we encounter with the back and blame on its design are probably to be blamed on sitting and how we do that.

On the Appalachian Trail, the hikers adopt, or are given, trail names that they use in place of their given names. Mine was Wheeler. I would explain that 2-wheel travel is actually my first choice. For one thing, it's a hell of a lot easier and faster than backpacking.You hang all your gear off your bike. But some don't agree with me on that. In general, of course, you can get "farther away" if you ditch mechanical devices such as a bike.

Congratulations on your hike and thanks for telling us about it.



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Robert Tulip
Mon Jul 08, 2019 7:22 am
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Post Re: Larapinta Trail
I kept a daily journal during the Larapinta walk, in which I recorded my main impressions as well as some of my conversations on philosophy and other topics, and also dreams. Sleeping in a one man tent presents an interesting logistic exercise, but provides the time and lack of distraction needed to maintain a writing habit.

I borrowed my tent and air mattress from my daughter so was not familiar with it. The first nights I tried sleeping with my backpack in the tent, but it got rather crowded, so I switched to emptying the pack and putting it outside. My brother lent me a bunch of the modern camping Exped folding dry bags, so I had at least a modicum of organisation in my pack and tent compared to my usual chaos.

We were walking in winter, with the longest night at the solstice on June 22 in the middle of our twenty days on the track, and got used to going to bed soon after dark and getting up before dawn each morning. I just relied on a head torch for light, and despite taking many more spare batteries than I needed, did not even need to change the batteries once, despite sitting up in the evenings reading.

The Songlines, a book I took on the walk by British author Bruce Chatwin, explores the Australian indigenous nomadic affinity with land through the ancient mythology of sacred places. The book was a bestseller in the 1980s, and has a high level of controversy, since it depicts the racist culture of white Australians in Alice Springs together with rather caustic stories of Aboriginal squalor, while exploring the abiding theme of the nobility of hunter gatherer culture, and the value of keeping these ancient heritages alive in the modern world. Chatwin sadly died of AIDS in 1989, just two years after The Songlines was published to wide acclaim. In it he tells of his trips into the desert with old Aborigines to ask them about their stories of place, for example travelling together with an anthropologist to invite Aborigines to comment on the proposed alignment of a railway to prevent destruction of sacred sites.

I wanted to read The Songlines on this walk, because the Larapinta Trail goes through some of the most iconic Australian landscape, creating a sense of the sacred. The West MacDonnell Range has a mythology that its linear shape separated by gorges is like the Yipirinya furry caterpillars who walk across the ground in a line. The gorges that separate these ‘mountain caterpillars’ are sacred sites for the indigenous people, for example with Simpson’s Gap known as Rungutjirpa and forming part of the songline of the big Australian lizard known as the goanna. Several dreaming trails and stories cross at this important spiritual site.

Central Australia has the oldest geology on the planet. Its dry river beds have billion year old rocks in myriad colours from purple to orange and red to white and grey, black, brown and green. The rivers have followed the same courses for 350 million years, since a time when the mountains were higher than the Himalayas are now. This gives a quality of timelessness, at several magnitudes greater than the already deep timelessness of the tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal tradition. Of course our modern apocalyptic world is now changing this old stable situation faster than ever before through fire and pestilence and cultural genocide, so any efforts to respect and celebrate and maintain this deep identity are good and valuable.

One of my longstanding habits is transcendental meditation. For the last year or so I have meditated with a brain sensing headband together with my iPhone, using biofeedback to still the brain in a way that generates a deep stillness and silent calm. While I did not take this headband on the walk for reasons of fragility and space in the pack, using it has deepened my sense of contemplative tranquillity and serenity. I took the opportunity to meditate in each of the dry river gorges we camped at, and also on top of mountains, feeling an intense oneness with the magical identity of place.

The whole psychological process of imagining the mystical unity of all things is enabled by retreating to special isolated places where the reflection of the earth and the cosmos can be thought of in evolutionary causal terms. The great beauty and physical stability and complex endurance and creative power of each unique place reflects all the forces that have acted on it over the aeons to produce a transcendental identity. These are themes that I discussed with our walk leader Mel MacArthur, who invited me to come to his church next week to reflect on the theme of as above so below, how this natural transcendental philosophy can inform the Biblical idea that the will of God should be done on earth as in heaven.


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Wed Jul 17, 2019 7:39 pm
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