Following the Great Walk through the central Northern Territory, Thomas Bywater finds a steady rhythm along Australia's songlines.
Day one: Dreamtime
Telegraph Station to Wallaby Gap, into Nick's Camp; 22km
Within the first hour I'd seen a dingo, two kangaroos and two-dozen galahs. If this were a safari, I'd be happy to get back on the bus and head home.
However, wildlife watching was only part of the reason I was heading west out of Alice Springs, into Australia's McDonnell Ranges. The dependable clicking of poles and chatter of 11 fellow hikers and three guides was a constant reminder that we were here to walk the Larapinta Trail.
The Larapinta is one of Australia's 10 great walks. However, setting out from the most central point of the country's landmass in a desert of Martian red, it was apparent this hike was unlike any other.
Leaving the old telegraph station in Alice, we passed the tombstones of the frontiersmen who built the town. The situation would have been ominous, were I not taking part in a World Expeditions guided trek called 'Larapinta in Comfort'.
Instead of a shallow, dusty grave, at the end of the day's hike waited a state-of the art eco-camp — or so the guides assured me.
Bookending the caravan of ramblers, our guides were invaluable from the start. Brett, Anita and Ried made light work of the 100km trail — topping the team up with regular water breaks, chocolate rations and snackable bits of bushlore.
The first lesson in bush survival concerned the old telegraph cable. Bushmen lost in the desert would cut the cables and wait for a repair party to set out down the line to search for the break — a trick that doubtless saved countless lives, and cost countless cricket scores. However, since the last overland message was transmitted about 55 years ago, hikers have begun carrying satellite phones. Today, it's far safer and more sociable to stick with the guides.
The further along the trail we ventured, the clearer my picture of the desert became.
It was no longer an unknowable, red dustbowl. Even the short way we had come from Alice was full of lines, tracks and trails. Beyond the telegraph cables paths criss-crossed, picked up then took off; the tracks of the Ghan railway dissected the desert and disappeared over the horizon towards Darwin; then there were the ridges of the MacDonnell Ranges.
Songlines are an important part of the indigenous culture of central Australia. Sometimes called "dreaming tracks", they are real paths through the landscape in which folk stories are embedded.
It is a way of memorising routes and information about the landscape, filling them with character. The Caterpillar Dreaming, for example, describes how the mountain ranges were formed by an army of retreating insects, defeated in battle.
It might be less accepted than the scientific tale of seismic folds and ridges — but it holds far more descriptive detail in terms of the landscape and important wildlife observations.
They are also aids for memory: drop a giant anthropomorphic caterpillar into your story, hey presto! It makes for a far more memorable tale.
Day 2: Detour through Arrernte land
Nick's Camp to Simpsons Gap, plus Standley Chasm and Lookout Walk; 9km
Our journey into the Outback was split between work days and lighter rest days.
The hike out of camp to the impressive red fissure of Simpsons Gap was brisk, enjoyable and — best of all — short enough to provide us with time to fill with something other than walking.
On rest days like today, the expedition team had planned activities around the trail.
Waiting for us at Standley Chasm was Deanella Mack of Cultural Conversations NT to help us connect with the local Arrernte culture.
Standley Chasm, or "Angkerle Atwatye" as Dee corrected us, is a giant red fissure filled with silvery gum trees and lemon grass. The natural attraction is where she has been leading workshops into the local culture and language of the central Northern Territory.
As the only outsider in a group of Aussies, I expected this to be way over my head.
However I wasn't the only one for whom this was a new experience.
Of the 11 other walkers, only a couple had been to the Northern Territory. Sydneysiders and Melbourne-ites rarely venture into the centre; it's even rarer they have an encounter with and indigenous language.
Unlike Te Reo, there are over 250 first languages of Australia and none of them get anywhere like the public usage Māori does over here. Though at times awkward, it was a privilege to be part of this group as they posed questions about another side of their country — interacting with something both part of their cultural inheritance and at the same time totally alien to them. With this food for thought and conversation, it was back on the trail.
As Dee said, the first cultures of Australia have a "roundabout way" of getting to a point or a place but every detour carries significance.
One of the joys of the rest days was the chance to explore the camps.
Arranged around a covered central living space, the sail-like tarpaulin welcomed you in from a day's walking. One of the most remarkable things about these eco-camps is that after every season the structures are removed from the Outback. At the end of September the regiments of sleeping tents, gravity fed showers, kitchens and Esky coolers full of G&Ts disappear. So we were determined to make the most of them.
Day 3: The Ridge
Serpentine Gorge to Counts Point; 15km
Day three was a work day, for sure.
We set off up the Serpentine Gorge early as to beat the heat of the day to the top of the ridge.
Exposed on the top of the hill, it caught up with us fast. Before long the mercury soared well past the 30C mark.
The distant ranges crawled in the haze as if the Dreamtime caterpillars had in fact been summoned by these heat hallucinations.
Following the ridge lines, it was then we saw it: Mt Sonder.
The end of the walk was visible for the first time at the end of the grooved canyon. Like looking down the rifling of a barrel, we had it in our sights.
As we made our way down from Counts Point, the mood was lifted. Passing over the baking rocks, we knew the next camp was not far, along with its bucket showers and a cooked meal of lemon barramundi fillets. Bliss.
Day 4: Ancient water
Charlie's campsite to the Ochre pits; 18km
We hiked towards Mt Sonder and our final stop, 'Camp Fearless'. The shape ahead of us became clearer and larger. Much larger.
Mount Sonder or 'Rwetyepme' is said to look like a pregnant woman sleeping on her back.
Like all Outback myths it takes some imagination to picture. Still, we approached with trepidation. As her mountainous form swelled on the horizon, we passed mines of yellow, red and white ochre. Pigments originally used in ceremony, these are the colours of the outback and they lend a surreal heightened quality to the landscape.
However, natural paints weren't the most remarkable thing hiding in the gorge.
Upon reaching Glen Helen I thought I was seeing a mirage more welcoming than giant caterpillars: a pub! The Glen Helen Lodge is the only bar in the desert for 100km and stocked with a selection of Australian beers, and wines.
And then behind this oasis, a real oasis.
The ice cold waters of the Finke River provide a year round watering hole and swimming spot. At 400 million years old, the Finke was running with water before prehistoric animals crawled out onto the land. With water this blissfully cooling, you wander why they ever left. It might claim to be the oldest river in the world but a dip in the river is welcomingly fresh.
Donning a pair of swimming trunks, I jumped straight in. It was a scene straight out of Nick Roeg's 1971 Outback film epic, Walkabout.
Day five: Sunrise on Sonder
Mount Sonder; 16km
At 2am precisely, we were rudely awoken by Nancy Sinatra.
Music blared though the speakers of the camp and our team of hikers swung out of tents and into action.
We had precisely four and a half hours before we had to be on top of the 1400m mountain for sunrise.
"Come on boots, start walking!" croons Nancy.
Out into the darkness we stumbled, climbing the sleeping form of the mountain.
"I presume we're somewhere about her ankles," reasoned a companion hiker.
It was slow progress.
Our guides had to stop us regularly to keep tabs on the group and check the batteries in our head torches. Walking in the small pools of light from downlit torches, it was hard to gauge progress.
We continued rising and falling with the contours of the recumbent mountain.
As the sky gained a bluish tinge I reasoned there couldn't be much further to climb. But there was.
At 6.29am, we surfaced above the summit just as dawn began to creep in over the horizon.
Then all at once the red disc turned into the makings of another, blistering Northern Territory day.
Yes, we'd all seen a sunrise before, but to have been whisked up the top of a mountain in complete darkness made this sunrise special.
Even after going over the plan, few of us imagined we'd be watching the spectacle from the top of the MacDonnell ranges that morning.
Looking back East, the fresh morning illuminated the trail we had taken during the past five days. Thanking Ried, I told him this trek wasn't something I'd ever thought I'd do.
"If a place was easy to get to, you wouldn't have taken a guide," he said, quite reasonably.
flies from Auckland to Alice Springs, via East Coast cities, with Economy Class return fares starting from $1053.
World Expeditions' Classic Larapinta Trail in Comfort is a six-day, guided hike, with prices starting from $2850pp.