Mount Sonder / Rutjupma Walk

Shapely Mount Sonder, named in 1870 for a German botanist, is known as Rutjupma (‘the pregnant lady’) to the Western Arrernte for whom it is sacred. It is the fourth highest peak in the Northern Territory, its distinctive twin-peaked profile visible from as far away as Ormiston Pound. You might recognise it from the landscapes of Albert Namatjira, for whom it was a favourite subject. Mount Sonder is the highpoint, both literally and figuratively, of the celebrated Larapinta Trail and many hike that last leg to the summit by torchlight for the spectacular sunrise views. Predawn start or otherwise, Mount Sonder is a ‘must do’ for the fit bushwalker!


Grade: Hard | Time: 6-7 hours | Distance: 16km return


Walk directions

Step 1

The walk commences at Redbank Gorge carpark where there’s a toilet, a picnic table and a shelter plus information about this walk on a signboard for Larapinta Trail section 12. Head northwest on the signed Redbank Gorge track, descending gently for 200 metres to Redbank Creek. By the creek, set amid some magnificent river red gums, is a small informal campsite and a nearby water tank, provided for Larapinta walkers (today that’s you!). The track forks here – left, upstream, is for Redbank Gorge (Walk 15) – you should continue ahead, crossing the (usually dry) sandy creek bed, on a good track marked as Larapinta Trail sections 11 and 12. The track heads east uphill for 500 metres or so, leaving the sand behind for rock, to reach a second track junction. The right fork, Larapinta Trail section 11, heads for 30 kilometres to Glen Helen Resort.



Step 2

Head left (north) on the track sign-posted ‘Mt Sonder summit 8 hrs 16 km return’ which is a little inconsistent with the sign at the carpark. The climb, through increasingly stunted woodland of mulga and eucalypt along with the spinifex, is gentle initially. You’re soon ascending the side of Mt Sonder’s western slope more steeply, aided by some stone steps and a rocky, zig-zagging track. Look back south to the scalloped edges of the Pacoota Range, bisected by the passage of the Finke River – Australia’s largest and oldest desert river – through Glen Helen Gorge, and the green vegetation marking the course of Redbank Creek. Views ahead also improve as you climb onto the main ridge crest and reach a saddle, an hour’s walk from the start.



Step 3

Pause here to get your breath while admiring the view northwest towards 1274-metre Mt Razorback (Ntharparra) ten kilometres away and beyond to 1531-metre Mt Zeil (Uriatherrke – ‘green forehead’), the Northern territory’s highest peak and the highpoint of the Australian mainland west of the Great Dividing Range. The climb eases now you’re on the ridgeline walking southeast and views get even better over the next half kilometre to a knoll.


Step 4

The well-formed walking track ends here at the Mt Sonder Lookout, a destination for many walkers (see Walk variation). Below to the south is the Mereenie Valley through which flows Davenport Creek; to the southwest, 37 kilometres distant, is Gosse Bluff (Tnorala), a massive 140-million-year-old comet impact crater. Five kilometres to the east looms today’s object of affection, twin-peaked Mt Sonder. Its spine is 850 million-year-old Heavitree quartzite, uplifted and folded between 350 and 310 million years ago and exposed when many layers of softer rock eroded from a huge ancestor mountain to produce Mt Sonder’s present form. From here the ridge-walk continues on a mostly distinct footpad traversing loose, fractured rock, punctuated by pointy termite mounds through sparse, fire-recovering vegetation. Familiar blue arrows prevent you from going wrong and distance markers count down each kilometre walked. Keep an eye out for the lavish pink flowers of the mountain hakea and the yellow blossoms of Mt Sonder’s various mallees: stunted, multi-stemmed eucalypts adapted to poor, arid soils and fire-prone environments. Growing here is the sweet-scented Finke River mallee, the mallee bloodwood with its urn-shaped gumnuts, the round-leaved mallee, and the long-leaved red mallee.



Step 5

At the 5-kilometre mark, having crossed a couple of shallow saddles, the path makes a short steep descent and nears the southern cliff edge as the ridge narrows, providing more great views from both sides. On the northern edge the ridge has been eroded in a large bowl-shaped depression, which drains two side-creeks of Redbank Creek. A zig-zagging climb ensues before yet another saddle is traversed to reach the 6-kilometre marker. On the last, long uphill stretch, the winding path negotiates outcrops of fractured rock. A final, shallow saddle protects a weather station to the left of the path after which you soon arrive at Mt Sonder’s summit cairn with its nifty built-in visitor book and orientation plaque.



Step 6

You’ve earned every one of the 360-degree views awaiting your inspection on a clear day: to the distant west, Haasts Bluff and Mt Edward can be seen; to the northwest the Napperby salt lakes shimmer near the horizon; to the east, 18 kilometres away, Bowmans Gap breaks the west edge of Ormiston Pound’s fringing mountains and 1389-metre Mt Giles (Ltharrkelipeke) stands proud. Look skyward for wedge-tailed eagles and peregrine falcons soaring the thermals. There’s a certain Alice-in- Wonderland aspect to Mt Sonder: the path ends at the summit of the lower (by some 20 metres) of its twin peaks from where you have an excellent close up view of the higher peak, about 750 metres away: Mt Sonder’s true 1380-metre highpoint. The plaque states otherwise, ignoring the true summit and attributing its height to the lower peak, perhaps because the pathless route to the top involves a potentially dangerous descent and a steep scramble which you’re asked not to attempt. After contemplating this mystery, return the same way.

mt sonder map

Getting there: From Alice Springs, drive 45km on Larapinta Drive, turn right onto Namatjira Drive for 105km, then turn right to drive 5km on an unsealed access road to Redbank Gorge car park. If you're concerned about your vehicle coping with the steep and rough descent to the carpark, leave your car at the Ridgetop Camping Area and road-walk the final kilometre.


Walks book cover 

Text, images and maps taken from the guide book, Best Walks of the Red Centre, courtesy and copyright © Woodslane Press, John & Gillian Souter. For 15% off your copy (and other great Red Centre books) visit here.


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