Monday, August 29, 2011

Hiking Mt Sonder - the proper true summit

When I first did the Mt Sonder hike back in August last year, when I reached the top I discovered - much to my horror - that the trail lead to a false summit, not the true summit of Mt Sonder. Initially I figured it was for safety reasons, but later people replied to my blog, informing me that the Arrernte People had special beleifs about Rwetyepme (Mt Sonder), and that was the reason the trail did not reach the true summit.

Mount Sonder (proper), West MacDonnell National Park, Northern Territory

At Glen Helen a few days ago, having traipsed across the countryside for three days in search of Mt Zeil, I had flicked through a collection of newspaper articles in the cafe. I stumbled upon one from the Sydney Morning Herald from back in 2005, when a reporter did a story on the Mt Sonder hike. He had fished around, suspicious of the story of the false summit trail. Interviewing a park ranger, James Pratt, "he shattered one illusion when he explained that the supposed Aboriginal legend was 'just an urban myth'. ... He also confirmed that the official summit was not the real one. 'It was a decision made for safety.'" They held beliefs of the mountain, just not the one that is being thrown around, and it was not the reason the trail did not go to the true summit.

Enough said, I was convinced. We were off to reach the real summit. The newspaper article referenced a Norwegian professor, Petter E. Bjorstad (referenced below). He had climbed many mountains around the world, including the true summit of Mt Sonder. He had some track notes, we were set.

At the campsite on the dry sandy banks of Redbank Gorge the night before our hike, we met Jas and Kev, from Parkham in Melbourne. They had just completed 19 days on the Larapinta Trail, hiking out from Alice Springs. The wildfires had chased them down the trail. They had one final section left, the climb up to Mt Sonder. They were keen to reach the true summit. We shared our track notes.

The next we saw of them was when Graham and myself reached the false summit early the following morning. Off on the distant true summit, we could see a couple of silhouetted people wandering around the summit cairn. They were only about 750m away across the rocky cliff-sided saddle, but we could hear their voices. They had risen at 4.30am, so they could enjoy watching the sunrise from the false summit. We didn't care for the early rise and hike in darkness.

Reaching the false summit is easy, a 7.5km track along the rocky spur from Redbank Gorge. Reaching the true summit was another matter. We headed back along the track, down from the false summit cairn, then headed north to the cliff edge. From here we surveyed possible routes down. The Norwegian professor included a photo of possible routes down from the false summit peak to the saddle below. From there crossing the saddle and then climbing the true summit was straight-forward. We were watching Jas and Kev return down the true summit. We thought we might wait it out for their advice since they had just made the crossing. We shouted out our hellos, and they soon shouted back their directions.

We climbed down the steep slope along the rock strata, heading for the top of the steep gully. Halfway down, we met up. They looked maggotted. Truly. The steep gully was tough work, returning later to make the ascent was even tougher. This was the hardest bit of the climb from the false to the true summit. Having reached the bottom, we contoured around to a small saddle at the base of the true summit, then climbed the rock 'staircase' to the true summit.

Jas was right, it was glorious and well worth the hike over. There was more to see, and unlike the view from the false summit, no thumping big mountain in the way of a 360 degree panorama. We could see wide wildfires burning on the western horizon.

We did a few laps of the stone cairn searching out the illusive logbook. We kept up the search, there must be one. Then I caught a glint of plastic, there, buried deep from the top of the cairn was the logbook. Placed there in 1965, in quite a rustic steel container, we found lots of pieces of paper, no book as such.

Leafing through the papers, I was surprised to find none from this century. That's right, not this decade, but this century. Not for a moment do I think we were the first people up there in 12 years, I mean Jas and Kev had been here moments before. I think it was more a matter that the logbook had been lost deep in the cairn for a number of years. I really was eager to find it, you see, I knew there had to be one lurking around somewhere. The Larapinta Trail was opened in 2002, which would have included that trail up to the false summit. The number of people reaching the true summit probably would have dropped around then, but the sheer number of people who reached the true summit in the '90s was proof enough that many people would have been up here since then.

  • Have you hiked up to the true summit of Mt Sonder? What route did you take?
  • Did you find and sign the logbook?
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View full hike from Redbank Gorge to Mt Sonder South (the false summit) and onto the true Mt Sonder summit in full screen format
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Proceed back down the marked trail some 180 metres from the cairn on the false summit. The ridge is wider, the track having just come off from steep north-south cliffs facing the east. There is a number of small paths leading off the north (GR528901), some no doubt in part to take in the view of Mt Sonder proper. A number of rock stratems lead downwards to the west. 50m to the east there are three pines on the east facing cliff edge mentioned before. Study Petter E. Bjorstad's photo of possible routes, taken from the true Mt Sonder, looking back to the false Mt Sonder summit. It is easy enough to use his red marked route, you can ignore the blue rope-using route. Walking down the steep strata, proceed down the steep gully. Careful, there are lots of loose rocks on the slippery surface, plenty of spinifix and other hostile bushes you will need to be friendly with (they don't really want to be your friends.) The grid reference around this steep gully is 529 903. From the base of the steep gully, contour around to a small saddle at grid reference 533 904. From here, climb the rocky 'staircase' to the true summit. Return by the same path, being careful to pick out the right steep gully to climb. It took us 2.5 hours to hike from the false summit to the true summit, and return again. It is 2km return. I wouldn't tackle this section unless it is in the morning, without a breeze it can be insatiably hot climbing the steep gully with the northern sun.

Mt Sonder (proper)
Redbank Gorge to Mt Sonder South, then onto Mt Sonder proper
Distance 17.3km
Start Time 6.30am
End Time 12.50pm
Moving Duration 4h26m
Stationary Duration 1h47m
Moving Average 3.9km/h
Overall Average 2.8km/h

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hiking Mt Giles, Ormiston Pound

With four sets of track notes we were almost assured of success in our plan to climb Mt Giles. The NT's third highest mountain, and as Wild magazine puts it, "For such a prominent peak, with relatively easy access and the best views in the MacDonnell Ranges, it was surprisingly little visited. Not being on the Larapinta Trail had, to a great degree, kept its secrets hidden."

Mount Giles, West MacDonnell National Park, Northern Territory

Over the last two summers it has rained an awful lot out here, unusually so. The rains here come in summer, not winter, the rain from the left-over tropical cyclones from the north. Ormiston Gorge was flooded, people wanting to walk the 7km/3hr Pound Circuit would be rewarded with a very cool swim through the gorge. I gather not many people took that reward, opting to hike in halfway along the circuit, into the pound, then return the same way.

We hiked in halfway, and as the track veered north-east we veered off the track. With Mt Giles in our sights, we trekked across the pound floor, which was by no means flat or easy going. We hopped over rocks, between spinifex and around other more deadly bushes, seeking shade under the occasional tree or, if we were super lucky, stand of trees in a dry creek bed.

Approaching the main Ormiston Creek, which we had not seen up close since our shortcut across the pound, I saw what looked like shimmering water. The mind plays funny tricks, I thought. I gather Graham may have been thinking similar things, neither of us confident enough of our own eyes to make a call about water. Just as I convinced myself the appearance of water was caused by a strange mix of shiny rocks and grasses, a bird landed on this strange surface and caused ripples across it. Strange rocks indeed. We couldn't believe it, none of the track notes we were armed with mentioned water in the creek, quite the opposite, they all mentioned the lack of it. Making a bee-line for the water, we were rewarded with what seemed like endless pools of water. We wouldn't need to search out the illusive springs on the side of Mt Giles, or any lingering pools elsewhere.

Following the creek upstream we got wet, muddy boots, most unexpected. We even caught sight of some fresh foot prints, there were others out here recently. Having chosen a nice campsite out of the hot sun, on the sandy banks of Ormiston Creek, aroundabouts where the national park people recommended you camp (there are no formal campsites out here in the pound), it seems we had lucked on the exact spot specified in the main track notes we were using. With a couple of nice pools of water, we relaxed in the late afternoon shade and contemplated the madness of climbing Mt Giles which dominated the view before us.

The following day, somewhat before sunrise and when it was still cold, we headed off carefully following a set of track notes.We sidled up to the mountain base, and sure enough the spur ahead of us looked like a good option. Up we went, it was very steep to start with, almost scarily so, but the hardest bit was this first section, each higher section was gradually flatter until we eventually came upon the false summit, large and rounded. Now Mt Giles and it's distinct tin-on-a-pole cairn visible in the distance, we strolled along the ridges and saddles and made the final climb up to the summit.

From the top we looked around in every direction, generally ignorant of what we were seeing. I spotted a few landmarks, Mt Sonder, that so illusive Mt Zeil and Gooses Bluff in the distance. Scanning through the logbook, we were only the sixth party up here this season (there seemed to be seven to 11 parties each year), we noticed the many references to the south spur route up. People had been making some pretty quick times up. We had followed John & Lyn Daly's notes, from Take a Walk in Northern Territory's National Parks (referenced below), which could very well be the same route described by John Chapman in his Bushwalking in Australia book, although scanning through the book back in Alice we could find no mention of Mt Giles. A Wild magazine article from last year mentioned a quick, direct route up, but was lacking any good directions to find the base of the spur. Up here though, it seemed all to obvious, so down we went. Indeed it was quick and direct, the grade was steady and unrelenting, but easy enough. Both spurs offer numerous routes forward of each step, but the route up involved quite a few grade changes, flat spots, a false summit and much ridge walking. This southern spur was direct, constant and only 1.45km long (the route up was 2.2km). The grid reference for the base of the quick spur is 793827, for the longer spur 786827, check out the track notes on the topo map below.

Back at our previous night's campsite at lunchtime, Graham didn't take much persuading to convince him of the benefits of laying low in the cool shade under one of the big gums lining Ormiston Creek. So instead of hiking out, or over to Bowmans Gap in the other corner of the pound, we sat and read the afternoon away.

The third day, once again setting off super early, we made excellent time in the cool of the morning and were soon back at the car.

The sun had been bloody hot, the shade refreshingly cool, sometime positively cold. Hiking in the mornings had been a good thing. It seems only too evident now that last time I was here hiking the Larapinta Trail, I had benefited from the two months in the tropics of the Kimberley and the Top End to acclimatize to the heat. Dropped in here from the cool south's winter seemed to make the afternoon heat just a little too much.

  • Overnight Walks or Ormiston Gorge, official national parks leaflet

  • Take a Walk in Northern Territory's National Parks, by John & Lyn Daly, Take a Walk Publications 2006, ISBN 0 9577931 5 4. Walk article titled Ormiston Pound, Mt Giles, Bowmans Gap Circuit, pages 224-228

  • Wild magazine, issue 119 September-October 2010, pages 24-28, article by Michael Giaometti from a hike on 25/7/07

  • Mt Giles deviation in Ormiston Pound, a subsection of the page titled The Larapinta Trail, Central Australia by Roger Caffin

  • Have you hiked up Mt Giles? If so, which route did you take?
  • Where did you find water?

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The route we took going to the basecamp follows the creek more, this is good for afternoon walking, and to find water.

The route we took returning from basecamp to the carpark is more direct, it is better for the cooler morning as it involves more cross country ups and downs, and less shade.

The down route from Mt Giles to the base is probably the better of the two spur routes to summit the mountain.

Day 1

Ormiston Gorge carpark to Mt Giles basecamp



1 - Ormiston Gorge carpark







Break (tree)




lunch (trees)




Ormiston Creek (water pools)








8 - Campsite

National Park recommended campsite

Ormiston Creek


Day 2

Mt Giles basecamp to Mt Giles summit and return

8 - Campsite

Leave 6.55am with daypack





Base of mountain and spur



Mt Giles summit


Mt Giles summit

Return downhill, leave 10am


Base of direct south spur



Plenty of suitable campsites here in creek

8 - Campsite

Arrive 12.20pm/7.86km

Day 3

Mt Giles basecamp to Ormiston Gorge carpark

8 - Campsite

Leave at 7.15am













Ormiston Gorge carpark


GPS Stats

Mt Giles
Wednesday Thursday Friday
24/8/2010 25/8/2010 26/8/2010
Ormiston Gorge carpark to Mt Giles basecamp Mt Giles basecamp to Mt Giles summit and return Mt Giles basecamp to Ormiston Gorge carpark
Distance 12.65km 7.86km 12.07km
Start Time 9.07am 6.46am 7.13am
End Time 4.32pm 12.23pm 10.53pm
Moving Duration 3h15m 3h14m 2h51m
Stationary Duration 2h00m 2h21m 44m
Moving Average 3.9km/h 2.4km/h 4.2km/h
Overall Average 2.4km/h 1.4km/h 3.4km/h
Oodometer 12.65km 20.5km 32.6km

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hiking Mt Zeil, one of the State 8

The wildfires were burning on the Larapinta, even the reopened sections of burnt out, smoke smelling bush didn't seem too attractive to hike. We opted for Plan B. Hike Mt Zeil, maybe Mt Giles and then some more.

Mt Zeil, MacDonnell Ranges National Park, Northern Territory

This blog post is about an unsuccessful climb of Mt Zeil.
I've since made a successful climb,
refer to this July 2012 post.

I have planned to tackle Mt Zeil for a couple of years now. It's in the State 8 - NT's highest peak, the State 8 being the highest peak in each of Australia's states and territories. I was up here this time last year, but I was all lonesome, and that's no condition to set out off the track for a couple of days.

With Graham beside me, Mt Zeil presented a very viable option. Most people used to access the mount from the northern side, driving a 4WD - or a few brave souls 2WDs - along the Tanami Track, then along some isolated bore access roads until they or their cars could drive no more. From here it was a short 6km up to the summit. That route is no longer an option, that pastoral station on that northern side has closed that access route off.

I hadn't yet contacted the ranger here at West MacDonnell National Park, he is widely held to have the access info from Redbank Gorge, I had planned to do that later this year in preparation for a tackling of the summit next year. Plan B was enacted just a day before we left for Alice, so there was no time to contact him then. I had already thought a walk in from Redbank Gorge seemed a much better option than hiring a 4WD and tackling the Tanami Track and bore roads.

We parked our hire car in Redbank Gorge, possibly the world's smallest car, and our packs full of weighty water, we set off through the gorge. Our base load was 11kg each, but adding 9 litre of water too that hefted that weight up somewhat.

Redbank Gorge posed our first problem. It is a narrow gorge, full of water. So we hiked up and around it, quite an adventure in itself, all to avoid getting a bit wet. Next time I thought - why would there be a next time - we should float our packs through and swim for our dear little lives. Surely a refreshing swim in water that never sees the sun, perhaps three or four degrees, would be pleasant enough compared to hiking up a scandalously steep gorge?

Safely through over to the other side, I surveyed the scene before us. Mt Zeil lay well off to the north-west horizon, much as expected, and a series of creek fed into Redbank Gorge. It was crucial we set off up the right one, but really that was a matter of choosing the one that seemed the biggest (it really wasn't that hard.)

Heading upstream, we experimented a little with walking along the grassy banks, which sounds nice enough was seemed fraught with danger. Rock hopping along, we set off to our major creek junction at GR468942. Ahead of me I soon spied what seemed to be water, was it a cesspool full of half dead-fish? The closer I got the less likely that seemed, we were soon upon an expensive pool of lovely clean water. Or course we would have to share it with those ducks, but I think we could deal with that. Walking further upstream towards that before mentioned junction, we came across a few small pools, and another large pool.

These all abruptly ended, perhaps they are semi-permanent, but all much too close to Redbank Gorge to be of that much water resource use for our hike. The creek became wide and flat, much like the super creeks of our homestate Flinders Ranges.

Once we reached the important creek junction, we began following the north-western creek. The hills to the right looked more direct, and we were overcome with temptation to take a shortcut. The scrub was freshly burnt out, it seemed like a good idea at the time. It soon turned outright miserable, as we followed the landscape from one saddle to another, eventually emerging not that far where we would have passed on the longer creek-following route. Lesson learnt, we stuck to our creeks from there on.

It soon became all too apparent though, this was a dismal plan. Our speed was slow, the terrain tough. I'm not sure at our current rate we would make it around to the northern side of Mt Zeil, the best place to attempt a summit from. Enraged with summit fever, or just the sheer stupidity of many "best-laid-plans", a shorter and more viable day's hike to the south-eastern base of the mountain seemed like a viable idea. The summit was still achievable, or so I convinced myself while carefully looking over the broad empty contours of the 1:250 000 topographic map. For you novices back at home, a 1:250 000 doesn't show much, indeed for the most part it allows the cartographer to do some very sloppy work. In an afternoon they could map out much of Australia with a few squiggly lines here and there for the biggest of the mountains. I pity those cartographers assigned to drawing up the 1:50 000 topo maps, they're going to spend the rest of their lives steeped in detail of every hill from here to, well, not Timbuktu but somewhere equally remote in this vast country of ours.

We soon broke out of the creeks, the terrain was flatter and broader now, so we set our sights on distance features and made straight lines to them - thankfully, or we would never have got that bloody far from Redbank Gorge.

The sun setting on our hard day's hike, we set up camp in our dry creekbed. Unbeknownst to us, we were camped within a couple hundred metres of the Tropic of Capricorn, who could imagine that just over that imaginary line lay the glorious wet tropics of our country's north. I guess it doesn't really work like that, and I already knew that.

The followed day we set off on our mad plan, neither of us any the wiser to the madness of it all. Atop the first saddle I was little dismayed to see a few more hills than I expected. On we went, eventually realising our plan was right royally stuffed. The summit cairn of Mt Zeil was clearly visible, but oh so long away. We had to give up, we had three days water with us on this trip, scantly that, stretching it out to cover four days in this heat was just bloody stupid.

A little bit inside me was relieved, managing our water stocks was somewhat stressful anyway. Back at camp we threw everything back in our packs, and set off in the direction of Redbank Gorge, out destination for tonight's campsite would be one of the two major waterholes we found this side of Redbank Gorge.

Dodging enraged bulls and their fellow cattle, we headed back to our creek system, there would be no shortcuts this time. We discovered these cattle form their own little trails which look every bit like trails designed for people, most are strangely many kilometres long, slowing wandering along creek banks.

We climbed over the fence back into the national park, safe from the crazy bulls, over a somewhat strangely placed chair aside the fence. We weren't the first people to cross here, that much was certain.

That night we were much pleased to reach the first waterhole before sunset, setting up camp after refilling our water bottles. Nine litres each had just got us back here. Sitting back relaxing the local birds put on a show for us, dancing across the surface of the water catching insects, and a couple of willy wagtails doing some kind of foreplay with each other.

Sitting under the cool verandah at Glen Helen Resort, just a few short kilometres drive away, sampling every cool drink we could lay our hands on, we pondered the madness that our scheme was. For one, I really did need to contact the park ranger's name I had been given for Mt Zeil info, there must be water out there somewhere. For one thing, those cattle need to drink something. Being well trained off-track hikers, driving into Glen Helen Resort we spied a small helicopter plying tourists for scenic flights, oh yes, here was another viable option of reaching Mt Zeil at some point in the future. We could charter it to drop us and a whole heap of water out on the northern base of the mountain, summit the mountain on the first day, and enjoy a pleasant day and half's walk back to Redbank Gorge.

Well our reconnaissance to Mt Zeil involved some walking, alas, but many an off-track mountain requires more than one attempt. We are now set to tackle it again with sensible, realistic and achievable plans - a plan that is not the least bit mad.

  • Have you climbed Mt Zeil? Let us know how.
  • Have you swam through Redbank Gorge? If so, tell us some info, is it narrow? Too cold? How long?
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The return route is the better of the two routes to follow, no bad shortcuts, follows creekbanks rather than creekbeds.



Day 1

Redbank Gorge carpark to Mt Zeil base

Redbank Gorge


Halfway across above gorge




In Redbank Creek having crossed above gorge



First waterhole




Second waterhole




Major river junction




First saddle on questionable shortcut



Lunch on creek




Open country




Cattle country



1-8 - base campsite



5.5+2.5 hrs

Day 2

Mt Zeil base, attempt on Mt Zeil, return to second waterhole

8 - campsite

Leave 6.45am








Turn around



Back at base camp


















Back at 2nd waterhole for campsite


Day 3

2nd Waterhole to Redbank Gorge


Leave campsite at 7.25am

Redbank Gorge carpark

GPS Stats

Mt Zeil attempted summit
Sunday Monday Tuesday
21/8/2011 22/8/2011 23/8/2011
Redbank Gorge carpark to Mt Zeil base Mt Zeil base to summit attempt, return to 2nd waterhole 2nd waterhole to Redbank Gorge carpark
Distance 21.42km 26.35km 3.97km
Start Time 8.03am 6.45am 7.19am
End Time 4.48pm 4.36pm 9.06pm
Moving Duration 5h38m 6h38m 1h24m
Stationary Duration 2h37m 3h05m 18m
Moving Average 3.8km/h 4.0km/h 2.8km/h
Overall Average 2.6km/h 2.7km/h 2.3km/h
Oodometer 21.5km 47.8km 51.8km

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Unfinished Business

We had unfinished business with Mt Aleck, an attempt to summit it in 2009 had failed.

Mt Aleck, Elders Range, Flinders Ranges

Back in 2009, it was a hot October day, over 30 degrees. Today it was cool, sunny winter’s day. Ideal hiking weather.

Back in 2009, we undertook the hike as a day hike. Leaving the car at 7.30am, we gave up on summiting around 1pm, realising we would run out of time. Today we set out from an elevation of 645 metres, yesterday afternoon we hiked up from 385 metres where the car was to our campsite at 645 metres – with plenty of time allocated to do so. Today we set out at 7.30am from our campsite, we summitted by 10.20am in the cool of the day. As the weather warmed we returned to the car, back by 3.15pm.

Back in 2009, we ran very short on water. This time we took extra water and left it under a tree on the flats, there as a contingency for camping a second night.

Back in 2009 we used a Wild article as a route plan. This time we used that as a broad guideline, and interpreting the contours on the topographic map made our own route plan, shorter and easier.

It’s arguable that 2009 was a reconnaissance trip for today’s hike, what we learned from that we put into a carefully calculated plan with a number of contingencies. We didn’t need to use any of the contingencies, the excellent weather lent itself to pulling the plan off within the allocated timeframes.

By continuing due west from the Umberutna ruins rather than skirting around to the north, we saved some distance in exchange for a short, steep - but quite manageable - climb. This led to a valley in which we selected the best creek to climb from, south of the first saddle. Back in 2009 we had gone up a very steep creek to the north of the first saddle. It had been tough climbing, there couldn’t have been a greater contrast with the creek we went up this time.

We had left Adelaide early Friday morning. Our afternoon plan was to climb that 260 metres above the plains to our chosen campsite. It was cool and windy. In Hawker it had been cold, I feared we would have a miserable night at such an elevation, but we had a fire on the sheltered side of the hill. We could have camped higher, on the first saddle, but it would have been very tough climbing up there each carrying out pack with a tent, sleeping bag and food. Light as they were – around 15kg - it would have been tough. Our campsite had a stunning setting. Behind us lay the sawtooth escarpment cliffs of the Elder Range, before us the valleys between the Elder Range and Wilpena Pound. We were treated to a spectacular sunset, and an equally spectacular sunrise the following morning, albeit after a very cold night.

Early the following morning, with the whole day before us, we started the steep climb, following an escarpment cliff, to the first saddle. In only 20 minutes we were on the saddle, this route was so much quicker than our route of 2009. From here, we climbed and descended each ridge along the sawtooth escarpment, sticking closely to the escarpment edge. We had learned only too well back in 2009 that it was much easier to stick to the open rocky escarpment edge, rising up and down the sawtooth profile, than to try the flatter route contouring around each peak. The vegetation makes it slow going, the spinifex made it quite unpleasant. The vegetation was considerably denser this time compared to 2009, since then there had been two wet summers. Last time there was very little shade on the ridges, this time there was plenty provided by the two to three metre shrubs.

By the time we reached the third saddle, we had spotted a cairn looking structure atop what might be the summit of Mt Aleck. It seemed impossible that the summit was that close. It was a little askew, so we weren't certain it was a summit cairn. However after another tough climb, we could see the unmistakable cairn ahead, and it was an easy to matter to close off that last distance. The cairn was indeed an interesting one, carefully perched atop the highest point of the mountain.

Leafing through the summit logbook, we were only the second group on the summit this year (2011). The previous year, 2010, saw no visitors, and 2009 just one. Yes, there was a pencil in the logbook container.

Our hike times had been perfect to the plan. There were a couple of sections along the sawtooth ridge that were particularly tough, dense vegetation with no escarpment route. We tried one shortcut, but it was woefully time consuming.

We retraced our steps back to the campsite. Even though we summitted by 11am, it was quickly getting warm. Yesterday had been a cloudy day, with strong wind and a few drops of rain. Today had been glorious, clear skies and warm sun, a thankful relief from the winds of the previous day and the cold night. From our campsite we descended back down the steep line to a saddle, down a steep creek onto the flats to collect our water drop. We walked back to Umberutna ruins, and along the Heysen Trail to the car, and on to the pub at Hawker for a celebratory beer and meal.

1st August: Some hikers have since told me of an easier route. Proceed up either of the scree chutes close to the summit. We debated doing this, but we never got close enough to the bottom of the chute to see how it started. It's steep, but quick.

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Track consolidated into best route:
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* The stats for the second day are divided into the ascent and descent.


Mt Aleck
Friday Saturday Saturday
15/7/2011 16/7/2011 16/7/2011
Moralana Scenic Drive up to campsite campsite up to Mt Aleck summit Mt Aleck summit down to Moralana Scenic Drive
Start Elevation 385m 645m 1095m
End Elevation 645m 1095m 385m
Distance 7.45km 2.9km 10.49km
Start Time 12.25pm 7.30am 10.50am
End Time 3.15pm 10.20am 3.15pm
Moving Duration 1h51m 1h41m 3h19m
Stationary Duration 59m 1h12m 2h08m
Moving Average 4.0km/h 1.7km/h 3.1km/h
Overall Average 2.6km/h 1.0km/h 1.9km/h
Oodometer 7.45km 10.4km 20.8km

Monday, July 11, 2011

Three lil' hikes

Three lil' hikes - with steep hills - led by Simon

Three recent afternoon hikes which Simon led, we enjoyed some sunshine and rain and exploring some of the hills, and, of course, some tough hills.

Sturt Gorge

Sunday 19 June 2011

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Cleland Conservation Park

Sunday 26 June 2011
Found a tough new hill.

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Gandys Gully

Saturday 11 July 2011

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Monday, June 13, 2011

Swimming strokes through the scrub

In the words of our leader Mark, we swam through the dense scrub of Wilpena Pound. Whatever your technique, breaststroke or freestyle, we pushed our way through the scrubby bushes from Rawnsley Bluff to Moonarie Gap, and out to Bridle Gap.

Rawnsley Park Station and Wilpena Pound

Mark from Canada remarked on how well marked the trail from Rawnsley Park Station up to Rawnsley Bluff was, a clear made trail with markers every 100 metres, noting the distance from each end of the trail. Well, was this typical of Australian trails, he asked. Mmm. Well, no. After lunching beside the old survey cairn at Rawnsley Bluff, we started those swimming strokes through the scrub, along the ridge to the north into Moonarie Gap. In the Gap we eventually decided to set down our packs and split up, four to go get water, two to continue to look for the illusive sandy campsites Mark, our leader, had seen on Google Earth, the same that I recalled seeing on a hike up to Iluka Peak a couple of years ago. It took Dave and I just three minutes to find the first of the sandy areas and select a suitable campsite. The following day, hiking up to the base of Iluka Peak, we came across the actual site we both knew of, broad and sandy in the upper reaches of the the Gap.

This was another Adelaide Bushwalkers hike, a trip up to the Flinders. There were three groups, in my group there were six of us - Mark our leader, Trevor, Dave, Mark - recently from Canada, Ben and myself. A great group, sharing leading the way through the scrub bashing, and had no trouble walking together.

Sunday morning we set out to the north, leaving our heavy packs behind, to try Point Bonney. I think we all knew we would did not have the necessary time to reach the summit and return, but hoped we would be able to at least achieve Iluka Peak. Defeated once before, back in 2009, due to a rather half-hearted effort - we were awaiting updated road reports to travel further north to hike - and slow progress. We took a different approach route this time, last time we went west from the Pound rim, following a terrace up to climb over the hill between Moonarie Gap and Iluka Peak. This time we climbed but not as much, following the contour around the rim face into the next saddle. Approaching the saddle a strong wind picked up behind us, warm air being sucked in from the valley floor up to the summits of Iluka Peak and Point Bonney, a fierce cold wind forming dense foggy clouds above us. Although slowly the clouds retreated upwards, revealing the summit of Iluka Peak, we soon realised we had insufficient time to even achieve Iluka Peak. Instead we climbed the hill upon which we had given up our Iluka Peak ascent last time. Unnamed, we decided to name the peak Mark's Nob after our leader. There's a few nobs around the Pound. Although the cloud was slowly receding, we could see new cloud being constantly formed just east of the peaks.

Grabbing our packs from Moonarie Gap, we followed the creek down to Wilpena South Creek. Plenty of water around at the moment, slowly the creek opened up with less dense scrub and the occasional native pine tree. Out on the Pound floor, we strode out to meet up with the Heysen Trail near Bridle Gap, before ascending Dick Nob. We raced the sun down from the Pound rim along the Heysen Trail to Black Gap - the sun won btw, we came a close second. From here Davo was waiting, rather patiently it would seem, with his van to take us back to our campsite. Black Gap is on Arkaba Station, the station was sold a couple of years ago. The new owners have set up a new venture, a luxury top-end resort with luxury safari hikes. There have been a number of changes with the new owner; camping is no longer permitted along Moralana Scenic Drive; the Heysen Trail's Red Range campsite has been moved out of sight of the luxury hikers; bushwalkers are not permitted to camp anywhere on the Arkaba Station property, outside of the Red Range campsite on the Heysen Trail. I can't say I agree with Arkaba's stance. It is a pastoral lease rather than freehold, so they are stakeholder in the property - no doubt though a very important stakeholder. I think it is a loss to the community that camping is no longer permitted on the property. That said though, they are making a good innovative go of turning the property into a profitable one. Its history as a pastoral property has long since shifted to providing tourist accommodation, the new owners have taken that to luxury stance. Make no mistake, accommodation here is luxury with a matching pricetag, on a par with Kangaroo Island's Southern Ocean Lodge. However, they are generous stakeholders in the Heysen Trail, as quite a distance of it traverses their property from north of Hawker to Wilpena Pound.

Next morning Davo dropped us back, and we set off to complete our circuit back to Rawnsley Park. Following the valley between Wilpena Pound and the much smaller Ulowdna Range we strode across the open plains, finishing our hike by mid-morning. A fantastic weekend.

View in full screen format
Download GPX file - for use as a navigational aid in a GPS unit
Download KML file - view in Google Earth


Wilpena Pound
Saturday Sunday Monday
11/06/2011 12/06/2011 13/06/2011
Rawnsley Station to Moonarie Gap Moonarie Gap to Black Gap Black Gap to Rawnsley Station
Distance 12.55km 18.94km 8.86km
Start Time 8.36am 8.08am 8.12am
End Time 4.11pm 5.39pm 10.44am
Moving Duration 4h10m 6h11m 1h57m
Stationary Duration 3h26m 3h24m 35m
Moving Average 3.0km/h 3.1km/h 4.5km/h
Overall Average 1.6km/h 2.0km/h 3.5km/h
Oodometer 12.5km 31.5km 40.3km

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Using a GPS on a Hike: A How-To Guide

GPS units have become quite affordable over the past few years. They can be a useful tool for hiking, but they can also be a little overwhelming. What are they useful for? Can they be useful along the Heysen Trail?

An article prepared for the Friends of the Heysen Trail Trailwalker magazine

Let’s Distinguish GPS Units

There are hundreds of GPS units on the market, and not all will be useful to hikers. We need to make a distinction between the handheld portable receivers for hikers, and the myriad of GPS units for other uses such as car navigation. A GPS unit filled with road maps and driving directions isn’t going to be very useful when you are out hiking in the bush. GPS units suitable for hiking tend to be small, fit in the hand, contain a map screen, and be waterproof and durable.

What is the GPS System?

How does Trilateration work?

Imagine you are somewhere in Australia and you are TOTALLY lost - for whatever reason, you have absolutely no clue where you are. You find a friendly local and ask, “Where am I?” He says, “You are 1290 km from Adelaide.”

This is a nice, hard fact, but it is not particularly useful by itself. You could be anywhere on a circle around Adelaide that has a radius of 1290 km, you could be in Newcastle, Towoomba, Alice Springs or on the Nullabor.

You ask somebody else where you are, and she says, “You are 1451 km from Cairns.” Now you’re getting somewhere. If you combine this information with the Adelaide information, you have two circles that intersect. You now know that you must be at one of these two intersection points.

If a third person tells you that you are 1368 km from Broome, you can eliminate one of the possibilities, because the third circle will only intersect with one of these points. You now know exactly where you are - Alice Springs.

The example uses only three locations - not four - because it is only working in two dimensions. GPS uses a fourth location to determine the elevation, and to improve accuracy.


GPS stands for Global Position System. It is a system of orbiting satellites that a GPS unit, or more accurately, a GPS receiver, will use to find its position anywhere on the surface of the planet. GPS is a US military application developed in the 1970s. A network of 24 core satellites with six additional satellites orbit the planet, each completing two orbits of the planet a day. A GPS receiver needs to have an unobstructed line of sight with four satellites in order to find its position. Each satellite has an atomic clock installed - a very accurate clock. The GPS receiver compares the time a signal left the satellite to when it arrived at the receiver in the hand, the time difference is used to calculate the distance. Receiving signals from four or more satellites, the GPS receiver can determine its x, y and z coordinate (longitude, latitude, elevation.) This is called 3D Trilateration - don’t worry, you never need to remember that term or understand how it works in order to use GPS. The panel on the right explains trilateration in more detail.

Other Satellite Systems

You’d be right wonder about long term access to a US military application. During times of war or conflict the US could disable or suppress the GPS system for non-US military use. Indeed, prior to 2000 the signal was encoded so only the US military could accurately use it. US military GPS receivers are far more accurate, and less prone to interference than the civilian GPS receivers available to the public.

Other countries have sought to secure their own satellite navigation network, the Russians have built the GLObal NAvigation Satellite System (GLONASS), which was opened to the public in 2007. The European Union is developing the Galileo positioning system, due to commence in 2014, and the Chinese the Compass navigation system, which will consist of 75 satellites.

Three Basic Ways for a Hiker to use a GPS Receiver

There are three basic ways to use a GPS receiver when hiking, you could use one, two or all three:
1. Use the Trip Computer to display how far you have walked, and for how long.
2. Use the coordinates to find your location on a paper topographic map.
3. Load a GPS file onto the GPS receiver and use it to navigate along a trail, or to a known place.

The first is easy, the second a little more complex, the third even more so. Let’s look at each one in detail, and how you could use them on the Heysen Trail.

1. Use the Trip Computer to display how far you have walked, and for how long

This is similar to how a dashboard in a car will display the speedo and odometer. You can see how long you have been moving for, and how long you have been resting. If you know how long the hike is you can work out how much is left and estimate how long it will take.

You will need to reset the Trip Computer at the start of each hike. On most receivers you can customise which fields are displayed, and sometimes how large or how many fields appear.

2. Use the coordinates to find your location on a topographic map

By default GPS receivers report their location in longitude and latitude. Whilst some topographic maps include some references to longitude and latitude, generally it would be very difficult to find your precise location on the map using these figures. Much easier is to use grid references. Grids overlay topographic maps, including the maps in the Heysen Trail guidebooks. On paper we often refer to grid references in six digits, ie

This system is called UTM for short. UTM covers the planet with a grid, each grid line at a 1000m (1km) spacing.

However GPS receivers will display each of these UTM fields as a seven digit field (as in the photo above right), not the two sets of three digits as seen on the GR note above. The seven digits are a measurement in metres, and is too accurate for our needs. 2cm on our topographic maps represents 1000m, or 1km - this is true of all 1:50 000 topographic maps, including the Heysen Trail guidebook maps. A single metre will appear as only 0.02mm, 10 metres will appear as 0.2mm. 100 metres will appear as 2mm. So of the seven digits, the last two digits are of little use, we can discard them. We really only need the middle three digits of each set of six digits. The first two of these three digits are the numbers seen on topographic maps. The third digit you will need to measure off on the map yourself.

The two 7-digit numbers in the Location field represent a measurement on that map. The Grid Reference here is 810 220 (ie xx810xx and xx220xx)

You will need to set the GPS receiver to display UTM coordinates. Usually found in the settings menu, you’ll see formats like hddd°mm’ss.s” and New Zealand TM - choose UTM UPS - this is what we use on Australian topographic maps.

3. Load a GPS file onto the GPS receiver and use it to navigate along a trail, or to a known place

This is the most complex of the three basic ways to use a GPS receiver. There are files on the Heysen Trail website you can download onto your GPS receiver and use to navigate along the trail, or to find campsites. Depending on the brand or model of GPS receiver, it could be an easy or complex task to load the file onto the GPS receiver from your computer.

To download the file, visit

The files are in GPX format, a universal file format which can be used on most GPS receivers. Once you have connected the GPS receiver to the computer, you can save the GPX file onto the GPS receiver via Windows Explorer (for PCs). In the case of Garmin receivers, you would save it onto the drive of the GPS receiver, not the drive of the SD card (the SD card is only for background topographic maps.) Place the file in the GPX folder.

Older GPS receivers, like some of the Garmin eTrex series, will not accept this format. They require files to be loaded in their native file format, in the case of the Garmin eTrex this is usually Garmin Mapsource program - GDB files, or Garmin Trip and Waypoint Manager program. You will need to use a program to convert the GPX file to the GDB format. GPSBabel is a free/donation piece of software for converting files from GPX files to GDB files (it can convert to and from almost any GPS file type.) You can then open the converted file in the Garmin Mapsource program/Trip and Waypoint Manager program and send it to the GPS receiver.

The GPX file on the Heysen website contains the entire Heysen Trail as a Track. Track is a GPS receiver term, and differs from route and waypoint. Track, route and waypoint are the only possible things a GPX file can contain. You will often see these terms used on GPS receivers. Each Heysen Trail guidebook chapter is a different track - so six chapters in each of the two guidebooks equals 12 tracks.

The GPX file on the Heysen Trail website also contains waypoints of campsites, shelters and huts along or near the Heysen Trail.

3.1 Navigating Using a Track

Once loaded onto the GPS receiver, you will see the 12 tracks under the Track Manager menu. For Garmin receivers, if you select the relevant track and select ‘Show on Map’ you will see the track on the map screen. When you are out hiking, you can use the TrackBack feature on Garmin receivers to navigate - access this feature via the Where To menu or Track Manager menu. The GPS receiver will already know where you are, you might be at the start of the chapter track, somewhere along it, or at the end. Each Heysen Trail chapter track heads in a south to north direction. Activating the TrackBack feature, some GPS receivers will ask if you which direction you wish to head, ie from start to end, or end to start, others will work it out for you. If you are heading northwards along the trail, it will be start to end. If you start somewhere along the chapter track - not at the chapter end, this is not a problem, select the TrackBack direction and navigation will begin from where you are. If you move over to the compass screen, the arrow will now point you in the right direction to walk, and may show you a few extra fields like distance to destination (which is the end of that chapter track - it might be many days walk away), and may as you walk attempt to provide an estimated arrival time.

This can be very useful as it can save you from getting lost when you can’t see any Heysen Trail markers (the white posts with red markers, this isn’t another GPS term.) I’ve used this feature before on many trails, including the Heysen Trail, and I’ve met plenty of independent hikers using it. Generally you follow the Heysen Trail markers, also reading the map from the guidebook. If you come to a Y-junction on the trail, and can find no marker, or stumble off the trail, or just haven’t seen a marker in a while, this is where the TrackBack feature and the compass screen will be so useful. Head just four or five metres down the wrong trail from a Y-junction and the compass arrow will move from pointing straight ahead to pointing to the other trail, the arrow being left or right rather than upwards. Continue merrily in the wrong direction, the compass will eventually point downwards, instructing you to turn around go back. Continue a long way off the trail it will start to recalculate the shortest distance to get back onto the trail, which it might not necessarily be backtracking but be a straight line which might not passable.

3.2 Navigating to a Waypoint

GPS Receiver Advanced Use

Further to the three basic ways to use a GPS receiver, there are more advanced uses. You could find and download GPX files containing tracks or campsite waypoints of other walking trails. Firstly, try visiting the official website of the trail as the files may be available there. Sometimes published as KML or KMZ files - these are the native file types of Google Earth - you can use GPSBabel to convert these KML/KMZ files to GPX files.

If you can’t find an official file, try doing an internet search for other people who have walked the trail and published files. Be wary of following their track too closely, you could end up wandering off the trail where they did.

In turn you could share your GPX files with others. Many people publish their GPX files on

Software programs are available which automatically assign the longitude and latitude to each photo. Comparing the photos you have taken on your hike with the GPX file, the program can add the position data to the metadata of the photo file. This means when you upload the photo to say, Picasa Web Albums, you can view on a Google Map where the photo was taken. Using such a program though relies upon you synchronising your camera date and time with your GPS receiver.

You could also self-publish files on your own website via the Google Maps Javascript API interface. This involves code programming, visit

Once the GPX file is loaded onto the GPS receiver, you can also see all the waypoints, one for each campsite, shelter and hut along or near the Heysen Trail. With Garmin receivers, these will all appear on the map screen by default - unlike the chapter tracks in which you need to select ‘Show on Map’. In the Waypoint Manager the waypoints will appear in a list, sorted by how close they are to your current location.

Using the Where To or Go To function, select to navigate to a specific waypoint. The arrow on the compass screen will point you in the correct direction, and inform you how far away that waypoint is. The map screen will also show you a straight line between your current point and your waypoint.

It may not be as useful as it first seems, as the distance to the waypoint will be in a straight line, rarely are trails straight paths. However this can be very useful for finding the camp site when you are close by, but can’t see the camp site.

You could create a waypoint at the start of the walk. If you have already been to the end of the walk, say when you left a car there, you could have created one there too. This can help you to return to the same place later, and know how far the end of the walk is (as the crow flies.)

3.3 Navigating using a Route

Route is the third item that can appear in a GPX file. Creating and using a route is much more complex than navigating along a track or to a waypoint. A route is a series of waypoints you create on a computer, placing them at significant junctions along a map. You then navigate along the route, from one waypoint to another. You don’t need to do this on the Heysen Trail as you can navigate along the track provided in the Heysen Trail GPX file.

Walking with a GPS Receiver

The GPS receiver should always be left on while you are walking, including breaks. When the GPS receiver is on it saves your path to a track, sometimes referred to as a breadcrumb. In the Track Manager it is often referred to as the Current track. If you get lost, you can use this track to navigate back along your path to a previous known place (refer to the instructions on the previous page - 3.1 Navigating Using a Track.)

Why Different Results?

Why do people report different walk lengths when they have undertaken the same day walk? No two GPS receivers will report exactly the same figure, the same GPS receiver will often not record the same figure if the trail is followed again. I have tested out someone else’s GPS receiver alongside my own - almost identical models. I placed them hanging vertically side-by-side in my pack, yet they slightly yielded different results. Why?

  • GPS receivers are complex devices performing many calculations on signals from many satellites (up to 12 at a time.)
  • Poor stowing of the GPS receiver in or on your pack will affect its ability to receive satellite signals.
  • Newer GPS receivers generally provide far more accurate results than older receivers.
  • Old GPS receiver software may contain bugs which cause over or under reporting of walk lengths. For instance, Garmin Oregon receivers (the x50t models) with early software under report the walk length on-screen by around 20%.
  • Different GPS receivers update their position more often than others - between one and perhaps 15 times a minute. The more often, the more accurate the overall walk length.
  • The more satellites visible to the GPS receiver the more accurate the tracking - the signal from the satellites is weak, dense foliage, tree trunks or narrow gorges will block signals.
  • Although the GPS receiver attempts to compensate, the signal from a satellite slows the further it travels through the atmosphere - particularly affecting signals from satellites close to the horizon.
  • The signal from a satellite can be reflected off objects such as large rock surfaces and buildings.
  • Each GPS receiver is using its own internal clock to measure the length of time since a signal has left a satellite. When four or more satellites are locked in, it can start checking the accuracy of its clock, but regardless its clock is not anywhere near as accurate as the atomic clocks on board the satellites.

The signal from satellites can still be received through your backpack material, so you can place it in a pocket close to the edge of the pack. The signal can travel through fabric, canvas, plastic, glass, clouds - but not metal, brick, rock, wood or heavy foliage. However, poor placement of the GPS receiver in or on your pack can affect its ability to receive satellite signals. This is particularly true of older GPS receivers. If the GPS chip faces upwards when you are looking at the screen (parallel plane to the screen) - as with many older GPS receivers - but you stow the receiver vertically, it can only ever see up to 50% of the sky and available satellites. You should stow such a GPS receiver near the top of your pack, preferably laying flat in a top pocket - not side pocket - or attached to a shoulder strap. Newer GPS receivers are often designed to hang vertically, and with significantly improved reception are less prone to make errors like in the above diagram.

An example of a track from poor placement of a GPS receiver. The two tracks overlaying each other are from the same GPS receiver, but on different days. The bolder track is when the GPS receiver has been poorly placed, in this case a Garmin eTrex receiver in a side pocket of a backpack. The track points fluctuate, successive points taken just a few seconds apart are some distance apart. The light track in the background is from the same receiver, but when it has been placed lying flat in the top pocket of the backpack. It shows a consistent smooth path, the points appearing at regular distances and times apart - providing a much more accurate track and overall hike distance.

What to Look for When Purchasing a GPS Receiver

Determining which of the three basic uses of a GPS receiver you will use can help determine which features to look for in a GPS receiver. GPS receivers can cost as little as $100 for an entry level unit, receivers with more features up to a $1000.

Most newer GPS receivers are easy to use with large colour screens. Some have touchscreens, memory cards, compasses (that function even when stationary), altimeters (using barometric pressure to improve elevation accuracy and monitor weather changes) and cameras.

Know what you are purchasing, check the manufacturer’s website for the model details, you might find the model you thought was quite new is a discontinued model.

On-Screen Maps

Most GPS receivers come with a map screen, but some do not. Navigating along a track or to a waypoint will be much more difficult without an on-screen map, and easier with a larger rather than smaller screen, and easier on a colour screen than a black and white screen. Some GPS receivers have a map screen but come with no maps, or come with very basic maps. A very basic map can be of little use to hikers. Often called a Base World Map, it includes broad detail of country boundaries and major highways - but none of this will be very accurate as a minimum number of points make up each object.

Most GPS receivers allow this map to be upgraded. There are a number of options, ranging from free open source software, to expensive highly detailed topographic maps.

A GPS Receiver or a Paper Topographic Map?

Debate raged for several years as to whether a GPS receiver, loaded with topographic maps, could negate the need to carry paper topographic maps. People discussed the pros and cons of relying on an electronic receiver that could break, fail or run flat, or relying upon paper maps that could be lost or water damaged. However the debate has long been settled - neither is the clear winner. If you carry a GPS receiver you’ll still need your paper topographic map. For one, most on-screen topographic maps available for Australia are based upon 1:250 000 scale topographic maps - the Heysen Trail guidebook uses the more detailed 1:50 000 topographic maps (around 5 times more detail.) Secondly, even the larger GPS receiver screens still can’t parallel unfolding a large topographic map to get a sense of where you are walking over several days.

Both Garmin and Magellan sell GPS receivers with preloaded 1:250 000 topographic maps - if purchasing one of these receivers ensure you buy from an Australian retailer and double check that you are receiving Australian topographic maps. Highly detailed topographic maps of the US or Europe may not be of much use to you in Australia. This can often be a very cost effective way of getting on-screen topographic maps.

You can also purchase topographic maps from a third party and load them onto your GPS receiver. These start from several hundred dollars. They come supplied on a DVD and you will need to use a program to upload the maps onto your GPS receiver. Some retailers offer preloaded SD cards as an alternative, this is a no-fuss solution, you simply insert the SD card into your GPS receiver and it is ready to use. OzTopo sell Australian topographic maps for Garmin receivers - visit These maps are based on 1:250 000 topographic maps.

A free option for Garmin receivers is ShonkyMaps - visit Allegedly based upon GeoScience Australia’s 1:250 000 topographic maps, there are reports that the level of detail is not the same as that offered by Garmin or OzTopo.

Another free option is to use the Open Source Map of each Australian state - anyone can update these maps online. These maps are not topographic, but show highways, roads, dirt roads and some tracks. Visit, you may need to use something like Img2gps to upload the map onto your GPS receiver.

Whether topographic maps are preloaded or not can significantly affect the price - if you intend to purchase topographic maps factor this in.

Battery Life

Some feature rich receivers can use a lot of battery power. 20 to 30 hours of battery life is good. Battery life could be more important if you undertake multi-day hikes where you won’t have the opportunity to recharge or replace batteries. Lithium batteries tend to last the longest amount of time, followed by alkaline, and rechargeable batteries the shortest. Lithium batteries are much more expensive, but can last up to a week - however some GPS receivers will not permit lithium batteries as they may interfere with the screen display.

Track & Waypoint Memory

Some older GPS receivers can only store a small number of tracks and waypoints. The Heysen Trail GPX file contains 31 tracks (12 chapter tracks and 19 spur and alternate trail tracks) and 135 waypoints. Some devices can store as little as 20 tracks.

Smart Phones

A smart phone (an iPhone or Android phone) may offer a viable GPS receiver alternative. There are apps available that function as trip computers, showing your track on the map and allowing you to add waypoints. Weatherproofness and battery life could be issues. A fully charged smartphone may last as little as three hours whilst running a hiking GPS app. Also, the basemap is likely to be Google Maps - principally a road navigation map - and only visible where there is mobile phone coverage, however there are some topographic maps coming onto the market which complement Google Maps.

Further reading for smart phone users can be found by purchasing (from $4.99) a copy of this BackPackingLight article.

A Note on a Popular, but Old, Model

Garmin’s basic eTrex, the yellow one, although once trusted amongst walkers, is fairly old technology now - first produced in 1998. Unless your computer is a decade old you will need to buy a serial to USB connector for your computer. Saving waypoint names is limited to 8 character names. No maps are displayed and its accuracy level is not as good as others, despite the “Now with high signal capability” stickers on the box. It doesn’t record as many points in its breadcrumb track as other GPS receivers, and there isn’t a setting to adjust this. The eTrex receivers also use a joystick control, phased out in laptops and other devices as they were notoriously unreliable.

In mid-2011 Garmin upgraded their eTrex range of receivers, releasing a new, updated version of the yellow eTrex.

An example of two different GPS receivers, one recording its position more often than the other. The bolder track shows the less often recorded track, recording just 20% of the points. This has resulted in a shorter distance being measured - 3.3km compared to the more detailed receiver’s 3.7km - amounting to 3km over a 25km hike. The problem is more pronounced when the track meanders over short distances, and could be barely discernible on long road walks.

Where to Purchase

Purchasing online could save you money, but be wary of preloaded maps that might be for the US or Europe. It could be reasonable for a shop to assist you in setting some of the basic receiver settings for Australia so it is ready for you to use.

Product Reviews

Excellent non-biased, thorough product reviews can be found in BackPackingLight articles. Single articles can be purchased for $4.99, or by annual article subscription. Conduct an Advanced Search for articles with your GPS brand and model.

Run the Latest Software

GPS receivers operate on software, much like your PC needs Windows to run. You should periodically check you have the latest software version, manufacturers may release software updates to fix bugs - visit the support section of your manufacturer’s website.

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