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At Human Speed: A (non-fiction) story


Day 1—Larapinta Trail, Section 2—Simpsons Gap to Jay Creek—26.7km (16.6 miles)/35,545 steps

In the past year or so, a number of friends have hiked to established pilgrimage routes around the world—particularly in southern France and Peru. While more focused on a “big walk” than spiritual pilgrimage, their experiences had caught my imagination.

“Humans have never forgotten that they were designed as walkers,” writes Charles Foster in The Sacred Journey. “All the great religious traditions have acknowledged this fundamental relationship between the man, his feet and his place in the universe. This acknowledgement has taken many forms. One of them is pilgrimage.”

Not that I had many spiritual objectives to my “quest.” My first motivation was simply to get away, to find some a sense of space and, having visited Alice Springs (in the central Australian desert) a number of times, I had become aware of the Larapinta Trail, stretching along the ridgelines and between the rocky gaps and gorges of the West MacDonnell Ranges. It promised a walking challenge—officially a total of 12 sections and 223 kilometres (139 miles)—dramatic landscapes, far horizons and an attractive remoteness. This was key: I wanted to be out of touch, uncontactable and beyond the relentless noise that fills our everyday lives. I wanted to spend some time at human speed.

I am not necessarily busier than anyone else but my year so far had included an average of about one flight each week, a number of major writing and editing projects, and the constant flow of emails, phone calls and text messages, among other tasks and commitments. So when we paused on a gently sloping part of our first section of the trail in the cool mid-morning under a clear blue sky and my wife, Angela, commented that it was “so nice without power lines” it was not just the visual impact she was recognising as an amateur landscape photographer who often wrestles with the blight of electricity poles and the lines strung between them. More importantly, we were entering “uncivilised” country. We were “away.”

It was a gentle first day of walking. A well-marked trail rose and fell gently though a mild day to our first night camping at the Old Hamilton Downs Homestead, a former cattle station now operating as a youth camp, about 120 kilometres by road from Alice Springs but only a good day’s walking from our starting point at Simpsons Gap.

One of the insights gained by one friend from an 80-year-old fellow pilgrim walking in southern France was a practical tip we had decided to adopt. “Always carry an extra pair of socks,” he had advised. “Change your socks after every two hours of walking and pin the other pair to the outside of your pack to dry until you change back to that pair. Do this and you’ll never need to worry about blisters.”

We followed this ritual faithfully throughout our walk but, by the end of the first day, I had three blisters on my right heel, which grew during the next few days to form one golf-ball-sized blister that I had to nurse through the rest of our walking.

Day 2—Larapinta Trail, Section 3—Jay Creek to Standley Chasm—16.1km (10 miles)/26,564

After an easy first day, we dawdled into our second day of walking, not starting on the trail until after 9, when we soon realised it was a warmer day and we had missed the best walking conditions. Much of the day’s walking followed dry creek beds and the gullies that formed around them as they climbed the hillsides. This offered a variety of habitat types—the broad sandy riverbeds dotted with larger red gums, the sheltered and comparatively lush gullies, and the exposed hilltops and ridges.

Working around other commitments and workloads, we had planned our trip for a time that was too late in their year to be assured of mild temperatures, so we had been closely watching weather conditions in Alice Springs before our arrival. In the week before we began walking, Alice Springs broke the record for its longest period without any recorded rainfall, with more than 150 days without rain.

According to Alice Springs folklore, a person can be considered “local” when he or she has seen the usually-dry Todd River flowing through the town three times. Having never lived in Alice Springs but as occasional visitors over the past 15 years, we have seen the Todd flowing twice but we did not expect to be inducted as honorary locals on this trip.

Nonetheless, I was surprised at the number of waterholes and even occasional springs that the trail took us to. In the desert environment, these water sources are centres of life, even if only small or sheltered deep in the rocky gorges. They are gathering places for all kinds of birds and animals and, unsurprisingly, considered sacred sites by the traditional Aboriginal people of this region.

On this day of walking, we visited two such sites—Fish Hole and Fig Spring, a leaking of water from a rock that perpetually replenishes a rocky hollow that we stepped across easily. These places are beautiful and life-giving, but not sacred in ways I readily recognised, places to pause and appreciate along the way but not the goal of this “pilgrimage.”

The last and steep hill of the day was not something we had anticipated from my reading of the trail map—and seemed extra-difficult by virtue of its unexpectedness. But then we descended into the visitors’ centre at Standley Chasm, the only Aboriginal-operated tourism destination amid the West MacDonnell Ranges National Park. After setting up camp and hand-washing some clothes on the lawn area beside the car park, we walked back into Standley Chasm in the late afternoon, feeling the stone foundations of the hills we were walking along.

I had developed two more blisters, including a baffling blister between my two largest toes on my right foot.

Day 3—Larapinta Trail, Section 4—Standley Chasm to Birthday Waterhole—17.7km (11 miles)/27,951

Section 4 was the first trail section rated “Very Hard” and took us to the highest elevation (1209 metres (almost 4000 feet) above sea level) we would reach in our walk. We were walking early and the overcast morning saw us climbing steadily to arrive at the cairn atop Brinkley Bluff just before midday.

Somewhere during the morning, Ang stopped ahead of me and signalled for me to pause while she took a photograph looking back down on me and the trail and valley behind us, offering me an excuse to catch my breath and an opportunity to take in the views that even half-way up the mountainside were spectacularly huge. When I caught up to Ang, she explained that I had been “just a dot” in her photo.

In 1860, explorer John McDouall Stuart described Brinkley Bluff as the “most difficult hill I have ever climbed.” As the colonial explorer of central Australia who “discovered” most of the landmarks in this rugged but largely flat landscape, and who either named or had many of these landmarks named after him, it seems likely that mountains were not his specialty. But the Bluff—named by Stuart after a Captain Brinkley from Adelaide—is a steep and rocky climb that made us sweat, then made us work harder still in our descent.

We had lunch on the bare hilltop, trying to take in the horizons that stretch so widely that at sunrise and sunset the curvature of the earth is reportedly visible. The views were impossible to capture even with the wide-angle lens on our camera. We were compelled to simply absorb the scenery, rather than chopping it into pixels for some later experience. We were there—on a remote hilltop under a low but enormous sky that looked like it should rain but did not get beyond a few drops.

But still the rest of the world intrudes. We had been told that on these peaks there was the chance to get mobile-phone reception and I had taken the phone with us to send an update to our respective parents after two-and-a-half days out of contact. Something like “Hello from a remote mountain top. About 50 kms walked. A few blisters and tired muscles but so far, so good.”

One reply came back with a number of other messages. As a reflex, I began replying to one of the work messages until Ang interrupted, “You aren’t writing back, are you?” I deleted my draft reply, turned the phone off again and we started down the hillside, where we met our first fellow trail walker.

Day 4—Larapinta Trail, Section 5—Birthday Waterhole to Hugh Gorge—16km (10 miles)/25,886 steps

Birthday Waterhole was a beautiful place to camp with a large and permanent waterhole in which we washed, despite the challenge of getting into such cold water. But a windy night repeatedly tearing the tent pegs out of the sandy riverbank waking us a number of times, our air mattress leaking flat and an early morning start to another hard day of walking did not start us out well. By 8 o’clock and only three kilometres walked, it was already hot and the cumulative weariness of the three previous days had me feeling an absence of energy as we tried to scramble over the rocks in Spencer Gorge.

With another steep climb and our hottest day yet ahead of us, I was feeling unwell and not sure how far I could go on. I found a shaded rock and sat with my head between my knees, trying to will myself to get moving. I ate some of our hiking snacks and drank deeply. After a few minutes’ rest, I began to feel a little better and we went on slowly.

I was learning that hills are best climbed at a slower pace. At human speed, it does not make sense to expect to keep going at the same speed regardless of the terrain. A slower climb is OK and leaves more energy for the rest of the day’s walking.

But this was a slow and difficult day. Around midday we began another long, slow ascent and I found myself walking in a kind of hiker’s trance. Step by step, the heat seemed almost more from the reflecting rocky ground than what comes from above. We climbed over another saddle and dropped down to the bed of the Hugh River, “upstream”—if that applies to a river that rarely flows—from Hugh Gorge.

Under the sparse shade of a river tree, we ate lunch but I was so dry that I could not swallow the sandwich I had carried all morning. Instead, I ate what might well have been the best orange I have ever eaten. Just into the gorge, we had to climb around a waterhole. I stripped off, eased into the shockingly cold water and felt the best I had all day.

The rest of the walk down the gorge was still challenging but I was over the worst of it. However, the weather had been becoming hotter each day and the next day was forecast to be hotter still—somewhere around 37 degrees (99F)—but with a cool change predicted over the weekend. After my fatigue of the morning, we decided to spend the next couple of days as car-based tourists. Human speed has its benefits—and its challenges.

Day 5—Larapinta Trail, Section 10—Finke River to Ormiston Gorge—10.1km (6 miles)/17,146 steps

Our weekend away from the Larapinta Trail saw the promised cool change bring some gentle rain across the region—three millimetres recorded in Alice Springs—and broke the 157-day record dry spell. On Monday afternoon, we arrived back at the Finke River, near Glen Helen Gorge, to re-join the trail. During the next five days, we planned to walk back to where we had previously left the trail.

The Finke River has given its Aboriginal name to the trail. Lehrepirnte (pronounced “lhura-pinda”) is literally translated “salty river,” highlighting the only occasional river flows that rarely flush out the river’s scattered waterholes. The river is often described as the oldest river system in Australia and runs for hundreds of kilometres before disappearing into the sands of the Simpson Desert.

The Larapinta Trail itself was completed and officially opened in 2002. It links together a few pre-existing walks and connects the string of “postcard” attractions that draw so many tourists and travellers to Alice Springs. The usual Larapinta Trail walk concludes with the climb to the top of Mt Sonder but after mechanical problems with our support vehicle and our couple of days away, we had decided to put off this goal for another trip.

Section 10 is the shortest of the Larapinta Trail but this day marked the anniversary of a significant contribution to my undertaking this “pilgrimage.” A year earlier, I had been challenged to wear a pedometer as part of a workplace wellbeing program. While most of my work colleagues had abandoned the pedometer at the end of the first month, I had kept wearing mine as a way to monitor and motivate greater everyday activity. As someone who sits for much of each working day and too often outside the office as well, I had become increasingly conscious of my need to be intentionally active and researchers have found that simply wearing a pedometer commonly results in individuals taking an extra 2000 steps per day.

Over the course the year, I had logged more than 3.5 million steps and had noticed the physical benefits of this increased activity. While walking our dog one Sunday morning, I had thought about the possibility of walking the Larapinta Trail—one of those things that I had wanted to do for many years—and that this might be more realistic after being more active for most of the previous year.

The two-and-a-half hours walking took us along the Finke River to the trailhead, through some recently burned, black and bare hillsides, and to the awe-inspiring rocky cliff face and famed lone ghost gum of Ormiston Gorge.

Day 6—Larapinta Trail, Section 9—Ormiston Gorge to Serpentine Chalet Dam—30.2km (19 miles)/38,516 steps

The next day’s walking was daunting even in contemplation—the longest time-rated section of the trail, the longest section without water supply and perhaps the longest I had every tried to walk in a single day. We left early and made good progress before the day became hot, stopping for lunch at the enticingly-named Waterfall Gorge, which was dry, hot and almost airless.

In the afternoon, we stepped into a valley that, after its first two saddles, stretched before us for about 8 kilometres (5 miles). The valley was mostly bare and rocky but adorned with a surprising number of tiny wildflowers. The steep slopes on each side of us offered occasional dramatic rock slides or narrow gorges that ducked through the stony walls. Puffs of breeze helped keep us cool but our water supplies were fully used up by the end of the walk near the remains of the dam that was built to supply water to the failed and abandoned early 20th-century tourist development of Serpentine Chalet. I later added up that I had drunk more than 5 litres (1.3 gallons) of water while walking.

We did not see any other hikers in more than 10 hours of walking. Only the regular trail markers prompted us on and checked off the kilometres slowly covered. While through much ruggedly-beautiful scenery, it might have been merely a long and perhaps even boring walk if not for the physical challenge of covering such a distance and the sense of remoteness that came with being so far from the nearest trailhead, much less any other human connection.

But one of the joys of moving at human speed is that the need for occasional rest prompts closer examination of the patterns in the rocks along the trail, the flowers that seem inexplicable in such a dry and harsh terrain, and the tiny birds that flit around the grasses, sticks and small shrubby trees we had been trudging past.

Day 7—Larapinta Trail, Section 8—Serpentine Chalet Dam to Serpentine Gorge—15.6km (9.6 miles)/23,198 steps

Counts Point promised one of the most-photographed views from the Larapinta Trail and our last experience of being on top of the ranges during our walk. I was looking forward to one more experience of big sky, vast horizons and rugged ranges laid out in rows at our feet. But it was another experience that took me by surprise as we walked.

It was a warm and still morning and, as we commenced to climb up to the ridgeline, we were walking through low, sparse woodlands. It was here that I heard the silence. There were birds twittering and insects buzzing and whirring but these noises were background to the silence and seemed to complement it, rather than break it. There was stillness.

I found myself trying to walk more quietly as the crunching of my shoes on the gravel seemed to trespass on the silence around us. Perhaps this is why removing shoes is a common response to the experience of the sacred. But, at the same time, the silence was too big, too complete, to be disrupted by our intrusion. If I was to stomp and yell, it might damage my experience of it but the silence itself would still be there as soon as I stopped.

It was the healthy, full, alive silence that can only be accessed at human speed. Even if we could drive to such a place, such a moment, we would need the experience of stopping or at most walking for some period of time before it could be felt. It might even need some healthy weariness—such as comes on the third day of walking—to quiet ourselves so we can hear and feel it.

We climbed the hillside, quietly, slowly, reverently, soon puffing with all our human lungs. Ang chose to rest under a small hilltop tree rather than the climbing the final few hundred meters to the lookout point and I soon stood alone on the edge of the view. I snapped some useless photos, then simply stood there echoing the silence and soaking in the grandeur and the space.

“The experience of natural beauty is not a sense of ‘how nice!’ or ‘how pleasant.’ It contains a reassurance that this world is a right and fitting place to be,” wrote Roger Scruton in Beauty: A Very Short Introduction. “The thrill you feel is an endorsement of the things you observe, and of you, the observer. . . . In the experience of beauty, the world comes home to us, and we to the world. But it comes home in a special way—through its presentation, rather than its use.”

Day 8—Larapinta Trail, Section 7—Serpentine Gorge to Ellery Creek—14.8km (9.2 miles)/21,582 steps

The weather was heating up again. With this day forecast to reach 35 degrees (95F) and the following day heading for 38 (101F), we had agreed that this would be our last day of hiking, with a day to spare before our flight home.

I had joked with Ang that the more authentic experience would be to walk the trail barefoot. And on the last night of camping, I had stood under the stars with my feet bare on the cooling sand. As Charles Foster explained this human impulse: “When they want to feel what it is like to be a human being (instead of a lawyer, an academic, or an acronym), they lace up their boots. When they want to feel even more human, they take off their boots and walk bare foot.” Above us, the clear desert sky offered still another scale of wonder—until I had the authentic human experience of standing on a bull-head burr and hopping back to the tent to pull it out.

That last morning, we started early by climbing to the lookout above Serpentine Gorge, a violently twisted gap in the red rocks and a significant environmental habitat. In Aboriginal lore, it was a place only to be visited if necessary. Ang and I took a self-timed photo of us together on the rim of the gorge as we set off on our last day of hiking.

The map showed a comparatively flat and short walk but the ruggedness of the trail increased the degree of difficulty as we went up and down a succession of small lime stone hills, punctuated with jagged and sharp rocky hazards. Ang showed me the difference between the two kinds of spinifex grass—both spiky. As we went, we also picked up a selection of small textured rocks as relics or maybe icons that would remind us of our rock-strewn, rock-built, rock-adorned journey.

The heat was increasing in its intensity, confirming our decision that this would be our last stage for this trip. Already we had talked about a return to complete some of the remaining sections of the trail.

As we began to climb what might have been the last hill, it was about midday and well into the heat of the day. The small valley was almost stifling and I was beginning to feel dehydrated even though I had drunk about all the water I physically could. A cold and refreshing waterhole awaited us at Ellery Creek but I felt myself slowing. Our human speed would get us there soon enough but I wanted to savour this moment for a little longer. Sometimes even human speed feels too fast.

I’m not sure if our walk counts as a pilgrimage but that probably doesn’t matter. As it turned out, there was yet another small hill to climb after that one. I smiled to myself, shrugged my shoulders and walked up one more hill—at human speed.

This continues our monthly feature, Stories with Nathan Brown. Previous works include: “The Wanderer,” “Arrival,” The Regular,”  “The Veteran,” and “The Dead Book.” See all of them here

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