Hiking the Larapinta Trail (1): Redbank Gorge to Ormiston Gorge

The Larapinta Trail is on Arrernte Country. I acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of this area and their connection to Country, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present.

If you’ve missed my Larapinta Trail Overview post, you may want to read it first to give you an idea of how we hiked the trail and why we left out Section 12 (Mount Sonder). Or you can just dive into Part 1 of our Larapinta Trail experience. 🙂 I plan to write up our hike as a 4-part series.

The first part of our Larapinta Trail hike took us from the end of the trail at Redbank Gorge to Ormiston Gorge, a stretch of roughly 35km.

This covers Section 11 and 10, both of which are on the easier side of things but are not without hills and some steep ups and downs.

Most people tend to do this stretch over two days. We decided to allow three days, just to help us ease into the hike and see how things were going with our gear. It turned out that we really did need three days.

And so on a Tuesday morning in mid-June we were ready for our big hiking adventure.

Sunset over Finke River, Larapinta Trail, Section 10
Sunset at Finke River


Day 1 started off great.

We had a cracker of a sunrise in Alice Springs, our food drop boxes were packed, we had slept great, I was feeling almost no anxiety (which was not what I was expecting given my general disarray of nerves at the beginning of multi-day hikes), …

Sunrise in Alice Springs
A quick phone snap of the sunrise at our accommodation in Alice Springs

We were ready to roll.


We used Larapinta Trail Trek Support (LTTS) for our drop-off transfer to Redbank Gorge (including food drop box delivery and gear retrieval), getting picked up at 7:30am from our accommodation in Alice. This year was a bit of a slow season for LTTS (with all the media coverage about alcohol-fuelled violence in Alice and so forth) so that it was just the three of us heading out to Redbank Gorge that day.

Most of the transfers stop at one of the food drop locations to swap out some boxes along the way. We briefly stopped at Standley Chasm, actually dropped off our Standley box, and then arrived at Redbank Gorge around 10am.

The sky was looking nicely overcast.

I had dreaded that we might start hiking at 10:30am or later, and the sun would be beating down on us with little shade in sight. But we got perfect Day 1 weather: a sky full of clouds and cool temperatures.

I was happy.

Views from the Larapinta Trail, Section 11
Even on an overcast day the desert still looks amazing


Having climbed Mount Sonder (Section 12) two years earlier already, our plan for Day 1 was to hike to Rocky Bar Gap, about 10ish km away. We would potentially camp there if it was nice enough, and call that Day 1, especially if it was a warm day. I knew the next campsite, Hilltop Lookout, would be much better for photos but I didn’t want to put that extra pressure on myself for the first day.

The trail from Redbank to Rocky Bar Gap is almost flat. You basically cross the river, completely dry for us, and then traipse around the base of Mount Sonder and past it.

It is fast walking, especially with fresh legs.

I really enjoyed this first stretch through mostly Mulga forest and open scrubland, all the while walking in the shadow of mighty Mount Sonder. My pack was sitting right, I was excited and not plagued by headaches or anxiety.

We made pretty good time but since we had started hiking so late in the day and breakfast had been a few hours earlier, we decided to be smart and have an early lunch before we got to Rocky Bar Gap.

(We’ve made the ‘let’s walk a bit further and have lunch later’ mistake plenty of times before and it’s never gone well. My blood sugar drops, I get headaches, and become dizzy and eventually shaky and unstable on my feet.)

So far Day 1 was going great.

Until it wasn’t.


As the husband lifted his trusty pack back up again after lunch, he heard something tear. It didn’t sound too good and about five steps later, there was another rip. Then his backpack lurched off his shoulder as his right harness strap completely detached from the backpack seam.

We were eight kilometres into our 200+ km hike. Oh no.

While his heart sank to his stomach, I found another strap to sort of tie the now loose strap to and we nervously marched on to Rocky Bar Gap campground, only about two kilometres further along.

Rocky Bar Gap campground is nothing to shout about. It’s not the prettiest campsite but there is a toilet and a water tank. The gap and creekbed is a bit further on and would be a much nicer option if you wanted to stay here.

I was desperate for the toilet, and the husband was desperate to take a look at his backpack so we stopped for a while.

In the end, he managed to tie his loose harness strap to another strap and the backpack handle, all held together with a cable tie. I always thought cable ties are more or less indestructible but they’re not. The first one snapped off clean as soon as he lifted his pack and only a medium-sized one held things more or less (badly) together.

Since Rocky Bar Gap campground looked fairly uninspiring and I knew that Hilltop Lookout would offer stunning views of Mount Sonder, we decided to continue on and camp at Hilltop Lookout.


The only problem was that Hilltop Lookout is a dry camp and we’d have to refill our water bottles at Rocky Bar Gap.

As such not a problem but it suddenly dawned on me that I had left our spare collapsible water bottles (1L + 2L bottles) in our first food drop box. Which had already been delivered to Ormiston Gorge. 25km away.

I was so focused on making sure we had enough water containers for our dry camp leaving Ormiston Gorge that I had completely forgotten about needing extra water for camping at Hilltop Lookout. Never mind that we had been talking about this option for weeks. Duh.

We still had 5km to go that afternoon, another 10km to cover the next day before we’d reach our next water tank, and dinner + breakfast to cook. And we only had a 6.7 litre capacity between the two of us for all that.

This might sound like a lot but isn’t in a dry climate like Central Australia.

Once you subtract 0.6L for dinner, 0.6L for breakfast, 1L for hot drinks (one each at night + breakfast the next morning), we were left with 4.5L for the remainder of Day 1 and part of Day 2.

I would usually carry four litres of water just for myself, not including any water needed later at camp.

So we each drank almost a litre of water before leaving Rocky Bar Gap (pre-loading really helps with dehydration), refilled all our bottles, and then repurposed our lunch box into an additional one-litre water container (wrapped in a ziplock bag and a semi-dry bag). I was dubious that it would hold and not leak water everywhere but it worked. Plus it was cool and we didn’t end up drinking as much as we ordinarily would.


From Rocky Bar Gap, the trail takes you through the gap, basically a sandy creekbed. Once through the gap, you’ll start seeing Mount Sonder from its eastern aspect and then gradually wind your way through the plains and up to Hilltop Lookout (1010m).

Mount Sonder, Larapinta Trail, Section 11
View of Mount Sonder from the trail winding across the plains

The last couple of kilometres are a relatively steep climb.

To me it felt like Hilltop Lookout was never going to appear. I was puffed, the climb was much harder and longer than I had expected, my earlier excitement had vanished, and the daunting adventure that lay ahead was starting to sink in.

Eventually the campsite came into sight and with it 10 or so other people. I don’t know what I had expected but it wasn’t a camp full of people.

There are about 10 cleared sites at Hilltop Lookout but if you get there early enough, you can snatch some pretty nice ones that look directly out onto massive Mount Sonder. Beautiful sunset and sunrise views guaranteed.

We didn’t have a lot of choice but managed to find a reasonably flat site a bit away from the others. It had no real views but I wasn’t much in the mood for photos anyway. All I wanted was to set up the tent, make a cup of tea and relax.

The husband was preoccupied with his broken backpack but the light was fading fast so there wasn’t much he could do that night.

After a bit of chit-chat with other hikers, watching the sunset and cooking dinner, we basically went to bed.


Day 2 was nowhere near as ‘afflicted’ as Day 1 had been.

I peeked out of the tent around 6:30am to check what the sky was doing, and seeing that it was totally overcast, I was in no hurry to jump out and get ready for some sunrise photos.

I hadn’t slept well because I was paranoid about mice activity and ‘heard’ mice all night long despite no reports of mice that year (and no evidence of any mice activity the next morning either). But every slight rustle of wind was a mouse in my head… so relaxing.

By the time we were packing up and having breakfast, the sun was starting to rise and all of a sudden a beautiful rainbow appeared above Mount Sonder. It was glorious!

Hilltop Lookout, Larapinta Trail, Section 11
Early morning glow and a rainbow on Mount Sonder

We eventually got on our way around 8:30am, which is pretty late for us. But it was cool and overcast again, and we had more or less decided to only walk to Finke River that day anyway, so had a mere 10km ahead of us.


From Hilltop Lookout the trail meanders across the ridge for a bit before zigzagging down into Mereenie Valley. This seemed an even steeper descent than our uphill the day before.

Both of us found the downhill section really scenic and I kept stopping to take photos.

Eventually the trail flattens out taking you across the plains and a couple of river crossings. Davenport Creek had a bit of water in it but there were enough stepping stones and old logs to cross easily without getting wet.

We met some hikers who had camped on the sandy banks of Davenport Creek the night before, and they said the birdlife was amazing that morning. I could certainly see the appeal of camping here.

The trail gets flatter and flatter from Davenport Creek and by 11:30am, we’d made it to the Finke River shelter.

Day 2 turned out to be a very easy day, a relief given the stress the day before.


We had vaguely planned to explore the trail towards Glen Helen and find the rock formation called ‘Window in the Rock’ that afternoon but with a backpack that was more jerry-rigged than actually fit for purpose, the husband was fairly preoccupied.

He spent the afternoon fixing his backpack, which luckily turned out to have a second harness strap attachment and could be reconfigured using that. I wrote some notes and just relaxed.

I loved the Finke River camping area. It was so peaceful with the wide sandy riverbed lined with river red gums and Mount Sonder peeking out in the distance.

My anxiety had crept up a bit by mid-afternoon. I think having had time to sit around and let my mind fill with ‘what ifs’ wasn’t the most productive thing to do so after spending what seemed like an inordinate time choosing a campsite (we always seem to take forever to decide), we set up our tent and then explored the river.

By the time we got back to the shelter area, I felt much calmer.

Only two other parties had stopped by the shelter that day but both of them moved on to Ormiston Gorge. This was to be our first night on our own, and it was wonderfully quiet.


Day 3 marked the last day of our first leg and the start of Section 10. It was another short day but it turned out to be much hillier than expected.

We woke up to a clear blue sky, and I spent far too much time taking photos in the early morning light and being distracted by the gorgeous reflections in the Finke River.

Morning light at Finke River, Larapinta Trail, Section 10

By the time we had packed up and were ready to go it was almost 9am.

We were finding that it took us about two hours to pack up camp, which we both thought was extraordinarily long. Yet we weren’t dawdling when packing up and couldn’t quite work out why it was taking us so long (we never quite solved the mystery but managed to cut our packing time down to 1.5 hours if we had a ‘dry’ breakfast, e.g. protein bar, and our gear wasn’t soaking wet).


From Finke River the trail is initially quite flat but soon starts meandering uphill.

The elevation profile looks almost flat for the whole section but neither of us found this section to be flat. The trail slowly winds up to Ormiston Lookout, where we promptly lost it. We turned right instead of continuing on straight, which we eventually worked out after traipsing about the spinifex grass for a bit and backtracking.

From there it’s undulating until you reach Ormiston Gorge.

The views towards Ormiston Gorge are stunning: Giant red rock walls looming large and becoming ever larger.

I thought I was walking the undulating stretch at a snail pace, getting quite hot and sweaty, but it was only two hours and 20 minutes later that we found ourselves at the Ormiston Gorge trailhead. So I couldn’t have been too slow.


We decided to get our food drop box first, eat lunch, then pay our campsite fees, and check out what the kiosk offered in terms of treats these days (mostly scones and muffins).

A coffee and a delicious date scone later (for the husband, nothing GF for me), the afternoon turned into an afternoon of sorting (and realising that I already had too many snacks and thus passing on some chocolate and treats to a fellow hiker), washing (including my hair six times and clothes), repairing my broken camera lens hood, and prepping for the next day.

(If you’re wondering about my slightly obsessive hair washing: I first washed it with Dr. Bronner’s soap, which did not work and made my hair disgustingly greasy and far worse than it had been. Out of sheer desperation, I tried my eco facial soap, which helped a bit but turned my hair into dry straw still with a layer of grease. Finally, I remembered seeing some actual shampoo in the ‘freebies’ bin in the food drop store room so I dried myself off, got dressed, walked back to the store room, got the shampoo, and washed my hair again.

I had read multiple accounts of using Dr. Bronner’s soap for washing hair and relied on its efficacy. Well, I cannot recommend it. I don’t know if it’s the soap or the bore water at Ormiston Gorge but I’m not game to try it again as shampoo. Ever.)

By the time 4pm rolled around, I felt like I hadn’t actually done anything yet despite being busy all afternoon. So we quickly walked up to Ghost Gum Lookout to have a look at Ormiston Gorge.

We’d been here twice before so we weren’t going to walk the Ormiston Pound again anyway but I at least wanted to have a look at the massive gorge from above.

View from Ghost Gum Lookout at Ormiston Gorge, Tjoritja National Park
Late afternoon views from Ghost Gum Lookout into Ormiston Gorge – never fails to impress

The rest of the afternoon was spent chatting with the one other hiker in camp but by 7pm we all felt bedtime was approaching rapidly.

We wanted to get an early start the next day as our first big water carry and ridge ascent loomed large over our heads.


Apart from the husband’s backpack breaking on Day 1, our first three days went fairly smoothly. We left a bit late both mornings on the trail but the cool weather and short distances allowed for that.

Here are a few post-hike tips for Section 11 and 10:

  • These two sections could be done in two days if you’re pressed for time or a fast hiker but we really loved being able to take our time and spent three days here
  • Don’t forget additional water containers if you plan on staying at Hilltop Lookout so you have adequate water for the night and next morning
  • Mobile reception for Telstra (and second-tier providers like Aldi) possible at Hilltop Lookout; Optus coverage at Ormiston Gorge
  • USB-charging (5V) worked fine at Finke River shelter; check for the blue light to see if it’s working; it was overcast when we got there but I could still charge my head torch fine; can’t charge in-camera batteries given low voltage output (which I expected)
  • Camping options:
    • Camping in the dry creekbed at Rocky Bar Gap (both ends) seemed much nicer than the actual campground but you’ll be about 400m away from the toilet and water tank
    • Hilltop Lookout has about 10 campsites so don’t get there too late or you might miss out
    • Camping on the sandy bank at Davenport Creek, some 5km before reaching the Finke River trailhead, might be a nice option if you don’t want to stay at Hilltop Lookout (or Finke River if you’re coming the other way)
    • Finke River only has about 2-3 viable campsites close to the shelter but there’s plenty of space in the wide creekbed (we just didn’t feel like camping in the sand so chose a site close to the shelter)
    • Some hikers prefer to camp in the sandy creekbed of George Creek, about 1.5km before you reach the Ormiston Gorge trailhead (coming from the west); it didn’t make sense to us since we were continuing east and would have had to walk back another 1.5km after retrieving our food drop box, showers, etc. (and then again the next morning); but if you’re heading west, George Creek might be a nice option, especially if Ormiston Gorge is very busy


From here we moved on to our second leg from Ormiston Gorge to Serpentine Gorge. It’s even longer than this one. I’ve also included post-hike tips and thoughts again.

You may also want to read my overview and general post-hike thoughts on the Larapinta if you haven’t yet.

Questions? Comments? Let me know below.


  • Spophy
    20 August 2023 at 6:37 AM

    Das war bestimmt Haarseife, die du da hattest oder? Da hab ich noch nie Gutes drüber gehört, da gibt es wohl einen feinen kleinen Unterschied zwischen Seife und Shampoo Bars. Richtig blöd, dass dir das unterwegs passiert ist!

    • Kati
      13 October 2023 at 10:58 AM

      Oh, hab deinen Kommentar voll nicht gesehen! 😳 Nee, nee, das ist so altmodische Seife, die auf castor oil basiert, und irgendwie hab ich mir dann nur Oel in die Haare geschmiert, sehr angenehm. 😫 Zum Glueck hinterlassen andere ihren unerwuenschten Kram und ich konnte mir dann nochmal die Haare sauber waschen! 😂


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