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Top end trouble in Australia’s far north

We saw Florence Falls, the first of our Litchfield waterfalls from a high platform on the rim of its gorge. Some fifty metres below us lay the black pool, contained within a deep basin and fed by two spouts of water that crashed out of the upper jungle and drowned the shouts of the swimmers. A wooden staircase brought us to the pool’s edge and a crowded area that doubled as changing room and picnic place. At least the crag above, with its curtain of trees afforded us shelter from the fierce noon sun.

In some ways, Litchfield, just south of Darwin, in Australia’s Northern Territory, is a more attractive National Park than its near neighbour, Kakadu. While the latter is utterly magnificent, it is a vast wilderness, into which the visitor ventures only so far, to look, be overwhelmed, then pass on without leaving a mark.

Litchfield, however, feels friendlier. Here, it is almost as if Nature has carefully laid out her wares, then opened her doors to invite everyone to admire them. There are few roads, and some of these are negotiable only by 4WD vehicles and in the dry season. Yet the sights remain accessible, with frequent surprises thrown in, almost casually, to maintain the sense of wonder.

We drove into the National Park from the east, having spent the night at a tourist and van park near Batchelor. After a few miles, we came to what, at first glance, looked like an abandoned cemetery, its headstones almost swallowed by scrub and corroded with age. Termite mounds are a recurrent theme in the bushland scenery. They range from infant humps less than a metre high to elaborate Henry Moore statues, more than twice the height of a tall man.

Magnetic termite mounds

Magnetic termites, however, build differently. Shorter and less bulky than their counterparts of other species, these structures are only a few centimetres wide. They are not magnetic, but their name derives from the fact that the tombstone-like mounds are all aligned in a north-south direction. By this means, they can capture the heat of the early morning sun, yet remain relatively cool at noon, when the day reaches its hottest.

A short distance beyond the magnetic termite mounds, we stopped at Buley Rockhole, a series of river pools linked by small cataracts. Some of the pools were deep enough to jump or dive into from the rocky banks. Others were sufficiently shallow for children to paddle in safety. A few were fed by tumbling falls that churned their warm waters into a jacuzzi. The pools stretched for two hundred metres and catered for the couple of dozen bathers without crowding. There was no breeze, and the trees provided little shelter from the sun, so most people stayed in the water rather than baked on the banks.

The sudden appearance of a two-metre-long goanna caused some excitement, and perhaps a little trepidation.

The creature itself remained unperturbed, and slowly ambled over the rocks, fell without finesse into the deepest pool, and emerged half-a-minute later to climb onto the opposite bank.

When the sun grew too oppressive, we followed a narrow track for two kilometres through the bush toward Florence Falls. Apart from a sundew that clung to a rare damp patch, I was unable to put a name to any of the flowers we passed on the way. Wasting little time, we joined the bathers in the pool. Though it deepened rapidly a few metres from the edge, the outflow was shallow enough to be safe for less confident swimmers. Most, however, swam out into the centre, or across to the far wall, where a rocky ledge served as a diving platform. Some swam into the falls themselves, and clung to the rock as the water cascaded over their heads.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at Wangi, which was quite the most beautiful waterfall I have seen. To the left of a broad cliff, a narrow cascade descended through a channel that looked to have been scored by a knife. Farther to the right, a much larger volume thundered out of the trees that clung to the crag’s summit, crashed onto a step half-way down and burst into a rainbow spray that we felt on the wooden boardwalk, fifty metres away. The pool was dark and deep, and looked even better for swimming than Florence Falls. Unfortunately, a notice warned of the possible presence of crocodiles that might linger in the pool following the wet season that had recently ended.

After a night on the nearby camp and van park, we returned to follow the walk over the top of Wangi Falls. Our track led steeply uphill, through a monsoon forest of tall trees with names like pandanus and Carpentaria palm. Many of the trunks supported epiphyte ferns, which took no sustenance from the trees, but lived on water and dead leaves falling from the higher branches. Some trees had grown from seeds carried here from Papua New Guinea or Irian Jaya by migrating birds.

Wangi Falls

An orb weaver spider, as big as my hand, hung motionless at the centre of a web three metres wide. A twig fell from above and was caught in the web, which shone golden in the sunlight. We watched for several minutes, while the mistress pulled in the broken strands, devoured them, then set about repairs. The twig remained suspended on the gossamer.

On the sunny summit of the crag, the river trickled quietly toward the edge, looking far too small to swell to the volume of the falls. Dragonflies paused in flight over the water, their wings golden veined. Exquisite butterflies settled on flowers. Beyond the lip of the falls, the unbroken bush reached to the horizon.

Returning by the road we had followed the previous day, we pulled into the car park for Tolmer Falls. A 400-metre track brought us to a lookout on the edge of a deep gorge. This was as far as we could go. Access to the falls is closed, because caves around the base are home to colonies of rare Ghost Bats and Orange Horseshoe Bats. We could have followed a track to bathing pools beyond the top of the falls, but that would have involved a walk of more than a mile in what was becoming an oppressive heat.

Across the gorge from our platform, the cliffs sloped back to a rocky hill. To the side of this, the water appeared to gush straight out of the crag, and fall in a single narrow line into a dark green plunge pool, that was almost swallowed into the shadow of the left wall. Beyond the top of the fall, a natural rock arch spanned the gorge. To the right of our platform, the walls continued for a few hundred metres before opening out onto the seemingly endless forest.

We stopped at Buley Rockhole for another cooling bathe, then continued on the road to Batchelor. But Lichfield was not going to let us leave without tossing us another free gift.

Clouds of smoke rose from the trees to the side of the road ahead of us. As we drew alongside, we saw an inferno racing through the underscrub. There appeared to be nobody around, so we could not tell if the fire was natural or deliberate. Following the end of the wet season in the Northern Territory, the grass and scrub is systematically burned. It is an activity that has been employed as a means of control by the aboriginal people for millennia. It removes old vegetation and allows new, tender shoots to flourish, providing food for the bush creatures. If carried out at the right time, it does no damage to the eucalyptus trees, and prevents much more serious fires that could start naturally and devastate the forests.

Indeed, as we watched, the flames rose tall enough to lick the lower branches of the trees, but fell back again. They sped over the ground, and with each gust of wind, blew up for a few seconds, then died down. This continued for many minutes, yet burned only the grasses around the base of the trees. And while all this was going on, about two dozen black kites circled on the periphery of the smoke, ready to swoop onto any scrap of carrion the fire might leave in its wake.

As we stood among the ashes that drifted across the road, Brendan commented, “There’s no end to the surprises in this place, is there?” After seven days driving around the ‘Top End’ of the Northern Territory, this pretty well summed up, succinctly, what had been a week of wonders.

Anthony Toole is a freelance travel, science and outdoor writer with specialist interests in mountaineering, Nature and conservation. Website:

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