Hope in the heart of the outback

The unique NT trek to support the homeless

In May this year, Mission Australia’s Executive Chaplain, Paul Molyneux, was joined by seven Mission Australia supporters on an adventure of a lifetime. They walked the Northern Territory’s (NT) Larapinta Trail, covering 60 kilometres over six days (May 13-18), from Alice Springs to the peak of Mount Sonder in the West MacDonnell Ranges. The walk was for ‘Together we Trek’ – a Mission Australia campaign raising funds for a much-needed Missionbeat service in the NT. 

Missionbeat is a mobile outreach service that seeks to help people who may be experiencing homelessness or are in need of assistance; providing food, clothing, medical care and links to safe accommodation. Missionbeat services also work in close collaboration with other organisations to help break the cycle of homelessness for individuals and families.

Here is Paul’s story:

When I signed up for a six-day trek, through some of Australia’s most unforgiving terrain, with a group of complete strangers, I was understandably nervous. Where would I sleep, who would help me if I struggled and what if something went horribly wrong?

But I really didn’t need to worry. This adventure was a truly wonderful experience, leaving me with fond memories, new friendships and a reinvigorated appreciation for the importance of the work Mission Australia does to support Australians in need.

I kept a journal along the way to record the highlights, the challenges and my reflections on this adventure. I am pleased to be able to share this journal with you.

“… in the Territory … homelessness is ten times the national average.” – Paul Molyneux

Day 1: Arriving in Alice

I arrived in warm and sunny Alice Springs this morning, full of anticipation to meet my trekking companions. What an interesting and diverse group of people! We have come from different parts of Australia and different backgrounds, but we are all connected by our passion for the work that Mission Australia does.

This afternoon we were given some wonderful news that really started our adventure off on the right foot. We were told that our group had successfully met the 2019 ‘Together we Trek’ fundraising target of $91,000, which means that Mission Australia now has the funding it needs to open a Missionbeat service in the NT later this year. This is a much-needed service in the Territory, where homelessness is ten times the national average. It’s a great feeling for each of us in the group, knowing that we have helped to make this fantastic initiative happen.

We had the pleasure of meeting local Aboriginal elder Uncle Craig. He welcomed us to country and shared the history of the local terrain. The Larapinta Trail follows the West MacDonnell Ranges, which are located on the land of the Arrernte people. In the Arrernte Aboriginal people’s Dreamtime story, the East and West MacDonnell Ranges were created by giant caterpillars, which became the ridges of these ranges. It was a privilege to meet Uncle Craig, and to learn from him about his people’s connection with and care for the land we are about to walk through.

It has been a great first day in the NT, and I’m looking forward to what tomorrow brings.

Day 2: Filling our minds and stretching our legs

This morning we visited Mission Australia’s Aherlkeme Development Centre and Hartley Street services. It was a wonderful opportunity to introduce our supporters to the work Mission Australia does in the local area. We offer a range of services in Alice, including accommodation and support programs for men, women and children who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness.

Visiting these services, and seeing first hand some of the social issues that the Territory faces, was a very moving experience for our supporters. It really helped them to realise how their fundraising efforts will help to change the lives of many.

“It made me think of the generations of Aboriginal families before us, walking through the ranges and living off the land.” – Paul Molyneux

This afternoon, we began the trekking part of our adventure – “stretching our legs” from Alice Springs to Wallaby Gap. While I have been to Alice Springs before, this is my first time walking in the Territory. It is hard to truly understand how red the dirt is until you see it. Looking up at the ridge of the West MacDonnell ranges, I could picture the caterpillars that Uncle Craig talked about in his Dreamtime story. It made me think of the generations of Aboriginal families before us, walking through the ranges and living off the land.

We arrived at the campsite at Ormiston Gorge this afternoon and I was relieved to find it had great facilities and warm showers – a very welcome surprise after a big day.

Glenhelen towards Mt Sonder

Glen Helen towards Mt Sonder

It is now dark outside my tent and the bright, night sky is spectacular. It’s a reminder of how remote we are out here, far from the pollution of a big city. It also leads me to reflect on the beauty and vastness of God’s creation, and this verse comes to my mind:

Psalm 19:1: The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

I’m off to bed now. Hopefully I will get a good night sleep ahead of our first full day of walking tomorrow.

Day 3: Scaling the caterpillar

Today was a tough day of walking as we made our way from Glen Helen to Serpentine Chalet Dam. We started with a steep, two-hour ascent to reach the top of the West MacDonnell Ranges, but I very quickly forgot the pain when we were greeted by the beautiful views from the top. For the next five hours, we walked along the ridge line, up and down, following the terrain. We were transfixed by the landscape below, stopping regularly to enjoy the view and take some photos. We descended the range to the Ormiston Gorge waterhole in the early afternoon, where we enjoyed a refreshing swim after a hot and tough day.

I am blown away by the beauty and diversity of the landscape here, from the sparse terrain of the ranges to the beautiful gorges with their sheer cliff faces that look like coastal headlands.

Tomorrow is supposed to be a much easier day of walking, through the low-lying regions of the Ormiston Gorge. I can’t wait.

“The walk really tested a few of us in the group, but it was wonderful to see the team supporting each other through the tough moments.” – Paul Molyneux

Day 4: Fire and friendship

Today’s walk was supposed to be the easiest part of the trek, but the hot conditions made it a very challenging day. A bushfire had ripped through the area in January, and there was hardly anything left of the trees. Unfortunately, that meant there was no shade to protect us from the desert sun.

The walk really tested a few of us in the group, but it was wonderful to see the team supporting each other through the tough moments. Our group has built such a wonderful camaraderie already. Perhaps it is because of our shared values and passion, or the result of being out here in the wilderness with no other support. Either way, it feels so special to have formed these connections in such a short time. I’m thankful to God for the ways he has allowed us to bond, for his protection over us and for how he’s sustaining us.

It’s only 8.30pm, but I’m off to bed in preparation for a very early start tomorrow. We will be climbing to the top of Mount Sonder to watch the sunrise.

Day 5: From the top of the mountain

It felt like my head had hardly touched the pillow when the alarm went off at 1am to start the day.

We arrived at the base of the mountain at 2.30am and started our ascent. We climbed the steep, loose, rocky path in pitch black. Despite the darkness, we didn’t lose the path and arrived with plenty of time to settle in for what was one of the most incredible sunrises I have ever seen.

As the second highest point in the NT, Mount Sonder offers exceptional views. From the top of the mountain, you can see uninterrupted for more than 100 kilometres. We watched the landscape change below us as the sun rose and started to move westwards across the sky. The colours of the land were subtle at first light, shifting and brightening over the 90-minute period we were at the summit. Any lingering memories of the difficult ascent disappeared as we watched this beautiful scene unfold. I was particularly fascinated by the mountain’s shadow. It stretched out 50 kilometres towards the horizon, and moved across the terrain as the sun rose. It truly is a special place up there.

Sunrise from Mount Sonder

We arrived back at our campsite in the early afternoon and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing. Today’s walk was wonderful but very exhausting. It’s 6pm now and I think I will skip dinner and head straight to bed.

Day 6:  Time to reflect

Today was the last day of our adventure. We had another early rise this morning, but the 4.45am alarm felt like a sleep-in compared to yesterday. We watched the sun rise as we walked along the Ormiston Pound in the direction of our camp. The Pound is like an amphitheatre, surrounded by beautiful hills and ridges, and the subtle, early morning light made everything look wonderful.

“This adventure has challenged me to consider how I am caring for our earth and taking seriously God’s call to be a good steward.” – Paul Molyneux

I have been so impressed by each of the walks we have done over the last few days. The West MacDonnell ranges – these beautiful, giant caterpillars – are a truly spectacular place. It is so important for us to look after this gift that we have in our own nation. I have come to appreciate the significance that this area has for the local Aboriginal people, who see this land as their sustenance. I think that is a very important lesson for all of us. This adventure has challenged me to consider how I am caring for our earth and taking seriously God’s call to be a good steward. It is something I’m keen to think more about and act on when I return home.

Packing up my tent this afternoon, I reflected on how this experience compared with my expectation of it. One thing that struck me was how nervous I had been before the walk about missing my creature comforts. I dreaded the thought of not having showers, and was relieved when I found that our tour company would furnish us all with warm sleeping bags and a good tent. It made me think of the thousands of Australians who sleep rough each night – people who might not have access to these comforts or a warm shower. It is a very humbling thought and makes me prouder than ever to have been part of this adventure, raising money for an incredible service that will offer life-changing support for people in need.

Mission Australia is a Christian charity that supports people around Australia by combatting homelessness, assisting disadvantaged families and children, addressing mental health issues, fighting substance dependencies, and much more. For more information or to to donate to Mission Australia, head to missionaustralia.com.au.