The Larapinta Trail stretches 220km through the rugged West Macdonnell Ranges in Central Australia. Over a two week journey, Joel Johnsson questions why we do what we do and what it is that we’re looking for out in the middle of nowhere.
After two weeks on the Trail, we all stand in a dusty carpark and wait for a lift from a friend in Alice Springs. We’re sore, our gear is falling apart, and we’re in desperate need of a shower.
But we’re buzzing.
We pull on clean clothes and pile into the car, speaking disjointedly about the things we’ve seen. We launch into stories excitedly… but trail off when we can’t quite capture the essence of the experience. The meaning, the significance of it seems to slide off the side of our tongue and tumble out of our mouths awkwardly, caricaturised and clichéd.
We have no words to properly describe the interplay between light and colour, the flux of heat and cold through your body, the crease and texture of the landscape – perhaps even if we could describe it, we would each describe it differently.
How do you describe an experience?
I’m not talking about the scenery; not the logistics, a trip report or a how-to guide. Can you describe the feeling of connecting with a landscape to someone who wasn’t there to experience it; the way it resonates with you and sparks something that will echo in your memory long after the tightness in your muscles has faded?
The very reason that we go is often the hardest to explain. Many people focus on the achievement – of having DONE the Larapinta, or climbed that mountain, or trekked the distance. But often what comes away with us is more indescribable than an end goal. We dwell on moments and experiences that are unique to us. Feelings of competition (‘my experience was better than theirs!’) or uniformity (‘hundreds of people do this trail each year!’) are stripped away in the privacy of those experiences and a solidarity remains with those that understand that everyone experiences the same places differently.
This is an attempt to describe the aesthetic of an experience – the feeling of being there.
The topographic details are simple enough.
I remember climbing knife-edge ridges of rock in the relentless heat, the broken and upturned sheets of stone forming razorback spines, half buried in the scree. It’s as though the wind has scoured the land, peeling back the layers of soil and vegetation to uncover the bones of the earth, twisted under the immense geological pressures. Here, there is a structure to the landscape, an order. Neat, uniform ridges march out towards the horizon in straight lines, evenly spaced like ranks of soldiers. Concentric bands of rock undulate down the face of each ridge in rigid symmetry. The land unfolds beneath our feet and there are 360-degree views out over the ranges, as far as we’ve come and as far as we are going.
There’s a sense of vastness, a feeling that the concepts of time and space have started to fray at the edges and unravel in the heat. The horizon draws back and you have the sensation of being swallowed up by the endless march of ridge and valley as they dissolve out toward the plains.
In the mornings, the clear sky runs a gradient from scarlet to indigo.
The new sun crests the horizon and the morning light casts everything into relief, washing up the valleys and crashing on the red cliffs. The dawn bleeds colour into the sky, spilling red, yellow, purple and gold across the horizon. Spiderwebs hold up the dew drops of the night.
One morning, a double rainbow stretches down over us and the desert seems to sense the moisture, laden in the clouds – everything leans towards it. On that day, we get caught in a rainstorm that soaks us to the bone and fills our boots with water. The annual rainfall for this area falls in an hour. But the torrential downpour charges the streams, and sweetwater flows softly through the gorges. The river bottoms we cross are sheathed in water and we wade amongst giant red gums, sometimes having to cross the thick, silty rivers with the water lapping at our chin, holding our bags above our heads.
On these days, the valleys seem alive.
Everywhere, the spring wildflowers are out, like bundles of bright fairylights in the bush. Devils and dragons, splattered with dots and blotches to disappear into the landscape, scurry off the track. Shoals of Zebra Finches ripple through the tussocks of spinifex, which bristle like urchins crowding the seafloor, and the large gums overflow with bright green and yellow Budgies. You don’t even notice the birdsong all around you until everything falls silent, as two Nanking Kestrels slip silently overhead.
As we cross the broad, hot valleys between ranges, we pick the ‘gaps’ – portals in the ramparts of crumbling quartzite rock where the ridge has been eroded by an ancient watercourse, dipping smoothly down to the level of the valley floor, where quiet pools well up. We tumble into the water, and our muscles seize against the chill, the cool water washing away the sluggish stupor of intense heat. Some of these gaps narrow to slot canyons, a hairline crack through a wall of stone that lets the sky in.
Swimming deep into these canyons, the towering walls twist in and the sky above us closes, enclosing us in an ochre womb lit only by reflected light. All the colours of the desert are here – red, orange, black and yellow. For long stretches of canyon, our arms span the space between the walls and we brace our bodies between the narrow gap. Still we press on, deep into the bowels of the earth, until the cold seeps into our bones and we shiver uncontrollably.
You feel the sense of place most strongly at the days’ end. As the sun goes down, it pours golden light over the land and huge waves of coral and violet wash across the sky.
We would climb to some high point nearby to watch the great bow of the Milky Way stretch out across the night sky, as silver-lined clouds wheel across the tapestry of stars. Some nights we explore as the moon blazes brightly overhead – even a half-moon was enough for us to find our way without headlamps. In the cool of the night, a Stimpsons python stretches out across the fading warmth of the hard-packed ground to soak up the last of the days’ heat. Even the white Ghost Gums seemed to radiate their own cold light, cloaked in black and silver. The quiet of the desert absorbs us.
As we sleep, the eerie singing of the dingoes drifts through the grasslands under a moon so bright that it casts shadows and turns the river-sand to drifts of pure white snow.
Those are the details. The topography of the human response is much harder to map.
As days roll on and melt into each other in the heat, the little things that define us begin to dissolve. Sleep patterns change. Time is measured in footsteps and sunsets. Strangers are friends by mere virtue of proximity. You appreciate the small miracles – unlimited water from a tap; new socks; the sense of freedom in carrying everything that you need; the feeling of cool water against your skin.
The abiding memory I have of the Larapinta, the pivotal moment, was one particular morning, camped on the flanks for Sonder.
Since the halfway point, Mount Sonder, once a shadow on the horizon, has been looming ever closer as each day passes. It is the goal, the end. It stands like a silent clock which measures time in distance rather than minutes. It’s early, but I’m late. The morning rain that kept me in the tent too long drapes its muggy cloak around me. I’m jogging through the soft sand and rocks of a creekbed, pushing hard as the pre-dawn light waxes, stumbling too often. I can see the light coming.
Cutting across the dark grassland, studded with skeletal shrubs whose black branches twist upwards like pyres, I reach the ridgeline in the middle of the valley and start to ascend. It’s steeper than I gauged; I’m racing the light as the sun starts to rise behind me. As I reach the head of the ridge, the telltale red glow is low in the sky. The ridge sweeps in a wide arc below Sonder, falling away steeply on both sides – a natural saddle sits at the midpoint.
I have two minutes, maybe less, before the light hits it – I drop my pack and sprint. I make it, but only just, breathing too hard to hold the camera steady. My heart pounds in my ears and my lungs are in my mouth.
On one side, the ridge drops away toward the rising sun and the great bowl of the valley spreads out below me. Beams of light radiate out across the sky as the sun crests the cloud base, then sweep down over the grasslands below. Just below the ridgeline, there is a rock outcrop that juts out into that void.
High above everything, I watch the light unfold. Behind me, the other side of the ridge falls toward Sonder, which rises monolithic above. The walls are ablaze with light, new light, ancient light, from which all colour and shadow springs. Sheer sheets of rock, like the leaves of an upturned book, stand off its face, and a double rainbow pierces down through the fiery clouds to the upper crown.
“The wall of daily noise, the modern trappings that define our identities, finally give way… You no longer know where you end, and where the world begins.” –Kyle Dempster, The Road from Karakol.
This is why we go.
For the memories that will haunt us down the dusty halls of old age. It is these quiet, fleeting moments that we seek, where we dissolve into the landscape and it pervades us completely. Everyone that goes, wherever the trail takes you, will have similar, indescribable moments that they carry with them – theirs alone. When time strips us of our abilities and our faculties, we will remember those moments. Perhaps not the details, not a photographic memory of the scenery, but the feeling – the feeling of being in that moment, of being absorbed by it.
In the end, the words on this page are just an echo of the experience. They don’t convey the heat and the hardship, the quiet, the wonder. But maybe they spark a memory in you – a shared feeling of connection, in another place and another time.
There’s nothing much left to be said. It’s the end of our trail, and weariness consumes us. The car ride lapses into silence. On the plane home, I sit at the window and watch restlessly as the horizon consumes the landscape – that great, unending swathe of desert, the march of gorges and ridges that appear and disappear, shimmering and fading, end upon end, until I sleep.