We've come to the Telegraph Station, four kilometres north of Alice Springs, for a welcome to country by Marie, an Arrernte elder and traditional owner. Marie informs us that she writes and teaches, leads a dance troupe and artists' group among other things, and that she dislikes long conversations. She doesn't care for stupid questions either and promises to tell us straight up if she doesn't like us. Any stupid questions we might have had dying in our throats, we back off slowly towards the table with the tea and cake.
With a sense that we've been both formally welcomed and obscurely chastened, we strap on our packs and head into the heart of Marie's stunning country to begin our Desert Writers tour of the Larapinta Trail. One of Australia's greatest walks, the trail meanders for some 223 kilometres through the West MacDonnell Ranges, from Telegraph Station in the east to Mount Sonder in the west. The whole trail can be hiked in 12 days at a clip. We're doing a kind of ‘greatest hits' version over four days as guests of Tourism NT.
Our guide is Raymond Hawkins of Into the Blue Creative Walks, a handsome 56-year-old with desert-sky-blue eyes, an infectious love of the land and a sly sense of humour. His offsider for the journey is Evan (‘Evo'). With his rugged build and square-jawed good looks, no-worries calm and proficiency in the outdoor arts - humping swags, building campfires, cooking roo steaks to perfection - Evo could have been conjured up by Central Australian Central Casting. He's from Sydney. Shannon Miskelly and Rachel Piggott from Tourism NT are part of the group as well and prove excellent company. If there's a literary bent to the conversation, it's usually thanks to them: "It's very Cormac McCarthy, isn't it?" Shannon remarks at one point. Finally, there are the writers: novelist Shane Maloney, Jennifer Byrne, the American David Vann (Legend of a Suicide, A Mile Down) who'd arrived in Oz days earlier, and myself.
As a creature of the Great Indoors, I'm a trifle apprehensive: four days seems a long time to be outside. Shane's natural habitat is urban as well. Jennifer, by contrast, is a seasoned camper and hiker. Her gear is nicely worn in; mine, from hoodie to hiking boots, is so obviously new that Evo nicknames me the Action Figure. David, part Cherokee, born and raised in Alaska by fart-joking duck hunters, and a writer for National Geographic Adventure, gives the impression he'd be more out of place indoors.
On our first day we hike across Euro Ridge into Wallaby Gap. Raymond suggests that we enter the desert quietly, in a contemplative spirit. We contemplate the suggestion, then go on talking. Already our conversation feels as long, rolling and seemingly endless as the West MacDonnells. It's not even halfway through day one and we've traversed not just Euro Ridge but the subjects of Cuba, Keating (man and musical), refugees, king browns and the dreaded drop bear (well, we tried that anyway, but David wasn't biting).
Still, the combination of physical exertion and spectacular scenery does occasionally manage to shut us up. We even notice things: a grasshopper caught in a nest of spinifex, the empty pod of a bush passionfruit, the droppings of a small animal. Raymond tells us these last came from a euro, a marsupial "somewhere between a kangaroo and a wallaby".
"The exchange rate is pretty good," Shane quips. "Three euros for a kangaroo." He takes up Raymond's challenge to pick up a pellet of euro poo and squeeze it. The shiny black casing crumbles between his fingers and dry vegetative dust scatters in the light breeze. A creature of the desert, the euro is adept at extracting every bit of moisture from its food. The tacky excretions of horses and cattle and indeed humans seem wasteful, even extravagant by comparison.
Water is desert gold. Desert flora, with their typically narrow leaves and metered overhang, are moisture-conserving machines. They even tend to hoard their scents. You need to rub the soft drooping leaves of the desert fuchsia between your fingers before they yield their perfume. Over four days we will walk on stones - rounded, angular, splintered, in shards, small as sand or big as boulders - but rarely touch anything as soft or brown as soil. River reds grow along long-gone creeks, roots seemingly tapped into memories of water. Ghost gums spring from sunset-red cliffs as though feeding on light alone. Yet every so often, under our feet we espy the miracle of rock imprinted with the ripples of an ancient sea. Raymond wonders if we'd like to compose haiku. Shane comes up with "Us mob / Waves of stone / Surf's up. Not."
The unimaginably great age of this landscape - some of it over one billion years old - is reflected in the sunburnt escarpments with their deep craggy wrinkles and the faded, parched green of the spinifex and other desert plants. There are hints of it in the reptilian bark of the corkwood tree and the stegosaurus-plate shapes of the stone outcrops that fortify the hills. I imagine the piles of squarish dolomite boulders are the fossilised droppings of the wombat's dinosaur ancestor.
When we emerge elated at the end of section one of the trail, Evo is waiting to drive us to our first campsite, in the dry bed of the Hugh River. There, Raymond has organised a surprise. We get our first hint of it when a van pulls up out of nowhere and eight Arrernte girls with sunlit smiles spill out the back. They're part of Drum Atweme, a project begun by Peter Lowson, a teacher in one of the local communities, to give Aboriginal girls access to musical instruments, develop their self-confidence and, with paid gigs such as this one, earn money towards their education. It keeps kids in school who might have drifted, and gives them such adventures as performing at WOMAD. The girls, who range from about seven to 17, are in contagious good spirits. They set up their djembe drums in horseshoe formation on the sand and run around for a bit before playing, singing and even dancing in a manner which somehow conjures up both emus and Britney. I take up their invitation to dance with them, conjuring nothing but laughter. Evo throws some sausages on the barbie for the girls and we share giggles, hugs and hats until the sun sets and Peter and his wife drive them home, instantly missed.
For all the excitement and exertions of the day, the stars, the moon, the Milky Way, the silhouettes of the river reds and the deep quiet capture my interest. It takes a while to fall asleep.
Day two is to be our toughest, an eight-hour trek. Raymond and Evo muster us from our swags just after dawn; they've already got the fire going and the billy boiled.
By the time we have topped the ridge and pushed ourselves five kilometres along it, on a path at times indistinguishable from the jagged rocks through which it wends, we are (I am) both delirious and rapturous with both the effort and the reward. Before our eyes rise the four highest mountains west of the Great Dividing Range and a complex and stunning landscape of ridges, spinifex-dotted slopes, saturating light and multiple horizons. I think about Albert Namatjira and Emily Kame Kngwarreye with fresh awe.
David's dry humour and refusal to believe in drop bears has made him an honorary Aussie. We christen him Dingo Dave. That night in our new camp at the foot of Mount Sonder, Shane recites ‘Clancy of the Overflow' and Dingo astonishes us with a recitation of Beowulf in Old English.
The next day Raymond has promised a relatively easy, flat walk along the Ormiston Pound circuit. We are beginning to understand that when Raymond says "easy" and "flat", he is consulting a different dictionary to the rest of us. We climb one steep ridge and then a lesser one, but when the natural arena of Ormiston Pound opens up to us on the other side it is breathtaking: a space where, eons ago, ranges collided and then eroded. We hike through the ghost of a granite dome from 1.6 billion years ago.
When we come upon our first waterhole it seems miraculous, and we slide grateful feet into the cool, near-opaque green liquid.
Later that day, at Glen Helen, about 135 kilometres west of Alice Springs and halfway along the Larapinta Trail, we swim in a swimming hole that is part of the Finke river system. Though it's had something like 300 million years to warm up under the sun, the water is so cold it makes us squeal.
That night the moon is full; I hear the howling of a pack of dingos and fall asleep smiling.
On the final morning we drive out to Ipolera, some 70 kilometres further west. Elders Mavis and Herman Malbunka, who appear to be the only ones at home in this tiny, tidy community with its solar panels and neat schoolhouse, welcome us. Mavis is all solidity and warmth, Herman a portrait of dignity with his weathered face and neat white beard.
Mavis is particularly excited to meet Jennifer; she is a fan of the First Tuesday Book Club. She and Herman talk generously to us about their dreaming, the tjilpa, or quoll, min min lights, the origins of a distant crater, of which they are traditional custodians, and even kadaitcha men. Mavis also speaks of her dismay at the inattention to tradition of so many young people. She points out tiny mice tracks in the red sand and shows us how to eat bush tomatoes. Neither Mavis nor Herman seems to mind long conversations or stupid questions. This suits our mob rather well.
Before we know it, we're on our final walk through Standley Chasm, picking our way across the boulders that lie between the dramatic, sheer rock walls with a carmine glow. Four days outdoors, I realise, is not nearly enough.
There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.
That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.
The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.
Select your digital subscription