In central Australia, the time is told in millennia. It is claimed the Finke River is the oldest waterway on Earth, with its headwaters in the West MacDonnell Ranges, one of the world's oldest mountain chains. Peaks have been worn down to stubs and deep gorges furrow the ranges like wrinkles. In this ancient landscape, only one thing is new: the Larapinta Trail, a 223km walking track across the worn backs of the ranges.
Completed in 2002 after 13 years of work, the Larapinta Trail is Australia's newest, and arguably finest, long-distance hiking path. It connects the West MacDonnells' most striking peak, Mount Sonder, to the outback city of Alice Springs. It's a trail that can be dashed across in 10 or 11 days, though it seems almost rude to hurry through a land so long in the making. With my walking companion, Mark, I set out to spend 16 days on the trail.
At a glance, completing this trek seems a task worthy of explorers, involving days spent walking across a desert as miserly with water as it is rough with rock. The names of landmarks, such as Rocky Cleft, Scorpion Pool and Windy Saddle, betray the nature of the terrain, and rivers flow only in rare times of flood. But the Larapinta Trail is an elongated oasis, built around world-class infrastructure that has all but quelled the harshest elements of Australia's red centre.
The trail is divided into 12 sections ranging in length from 13km to 31km. Each section can be walked in a day, though several are more comfortably divided into two. Water supplies are never more than 29km apart and camp sites no more than 20km. Food drops can be securely made at four points along the trail or buried in sandy creek beds. Even at the most casual pace, the Larapinta can be walked without carrying more than four or five days' food at a time.
We begin our walk on Mount Sonder, where a trio of wedge-tailed eagles, Australia's largest birds of prey, is circling the summit. As a current sucks the birds away west into the desert, we commence our own less graceful journey east.
Two days later we stride through the dry bed of the Finke River, crossing from range to range towards Glen Helen Gorge, where red cliffs arch so far it seems the range has simply snapped in two.
A day later we cross back to the range in which we started, marking a curious feature of the Larapinta Trail. In this land where the rivers seem too ancient to be bothered with bends it's only the trail that meanders, winding between the myriad gorges characterising the West MacDonnell Ranges. Alice Springs and Mount Sonder are 120km apart as the wedge-tailed eagle flies, but to walk between them on the Larapinta adds 100km.
We wander out of Glen Helen into the finest of dawns.
A strong wind soon arrives, stirring the dust, but the weather is of little concern. In the next fortnight we will see only a handful of clouds, fewer than the number of endangered black-footed rock wallabies we spot in the gorges.
At Ormiston Gorge, with its ghost gums like blond implants atop the high rock walls, we face our greatest logistical challenge. We pick up a food drop containing five days worth of supplies and add 16 litres of water to our load, struggling out to confront the trail's longest waterless stretch.
We walk in silence at the foot of the range, our thoughts turned to effort not enjoyment, ascending to a bare saddle that could be alpine but for the heat. From here, our day truly begins, as we climb 250 metres to the top of the range, hauling 30kg on our backs like camels. Behind us, Mount Sonder is still visible, five days after having left it. It will be another four days before we shrug it off.
Slowly, the days blur into a mountainous, desert continuum, uniform but never dull, with regular curiosities as treats. Inarlanga Pass, for example, is a dry gulch that promises little until one is confronted with high cliffs as orange as fire. Choked with cycads, a fern-like plant once grazed by dinosaurs, the gorge looks more like a montage than reality.
Even potentially monotonous stages avoid being so. Section seven, for instance, does little more than follow below the range, just a few hundred metres from the main tourist road. Yet it seeks out almost every rocky ridge and small hilltop along the way, even doubling back at one point to collect another mini-summit. Depending on your state of mind it can be one of the most enjoyable sections, though it has also frustrated a great number of walkers.
'It's as though the person who made this section was annoyed they didn't get a mountain stage,' Mark grumbles, finally worn down by the rollercoaster profile.
We begin our final crossing of a plain - a graft of 30km through fire-ravaged country - as if serving a kind of penance ahead of the Larapinta Trail's most exciting and challenging sections. For four days we thread through gorges with walls as high as buildings, scramble to mountain tops and balance on an apex sharpened to such a point it is known as Razorback Ridge.
We enter Hugh Gorge, the beginning of the section, with a warning sounding in our ears. A woman at the gorge entrance has heard dingoes inside and assures us we will - not might - be attacked if we continue. We have survived nights under the stars without so much as a lick from a dingo so this causes scant alarm.
A few nights later we are given cause to reconsider.
As we try to sleep at Jay Creek we catch sight of a dingo circling the tent. From the bush comes the howl of a second dingo, then a third, then maybe a dozen. It's a chorus as beautiful as a church choir, if rather more haunting. The scouting dingo growls a warning at the tent, howls a signal into the bush then turns and leaves, its inspection complete.
Through gorges popular and anonymous we edge towards Alice Springs, making our final climb to Euro Ridge, 12km from the town's telegraph station. The eponymous euros (small kangaroos) bound through the bush ahead of us; to the south, Alice Springs looks less enticing than we expected; these desert mountains feel like home.
Even now, so near to the end, the trail continues its meanders, turning at times away from Alice and ambling across hilltops for no apparent reason. I remember a comment in the last trail logbook, entered by a walker on his first day out of Alice heading for Mount Sonder: 'Hopefully there will be a day without hills.' I can't remember one.
Two hours later, we wander into the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, unwashed, unshaven and unconcerned, with 16 of the finest days imaginable behind us. With our trek complete, we could telephone for a taxi to take us the few kilometres into the city, but somehow it seems easier to walk.
Getting there: Qantas (www.qantas.com) flies from Hong Kong to Alice Springs via Sydney. Mount Sonder and Glen Helen can be reached by road from Alice Springs; Glen Helen Resort (www.glenhelen.com.au) and Alice Wanderer (www.alicewanderer.com.au) offer transfers and food drops. There are 22 camp sites along the Larapinta Trail, many with water tanks. World Expeditions (www.worldexpeditions.com) and Trek Larapinta (www.treklarapinta.com.au) offer treks along the entire trail. More information can be found at www.nt.gov.au/nreta/parks/walks/larapinta.html.