On that bus, I was the only one below 40.
As I made my way to my seat, I was greeted with cheery hello’s by a bus-ful of middle aged to senior tourists, all ready to explore the wilderness. It was not my usual travel company, but it was a welcome addition to my growing list of first times here in Australia. The bus, or coach as locals call it, was bound for Litchfield National Park, 100 km southwest of Darwin, roughly an hour-and-a-half drive.
Traveling with people not my age was a breath of fresh air. As the youngest of the bunch, everyone seemed to be very protective of me. (“Watch your step, dear.“) And everyone was amused by the littlest things. (“That’s a long stick, honey.“) She was referring to the monopod. It was an enjoyable ride, needless to say.
Our Driver Guide for the day was Warren, armed with a great personality and an even greater sense of humor. How he was able to turn what could have been a snoozefest-ish drive into a humorous but highly informative journey was astonishing. He did have a lot of help from nature, though. Along the way we spotted a dingo wandering by the roadside and a wallaby trying to outrun the
bus coach. But that’s not everything this park has to offer.
Established in 1986, Litchfield National Park was named after Frederick Henry Litchfield, a member of the Finnis Expedition a pioneering exploration of the Northern Territory. The 1500-sq. km sprawling land is covered in bush, woodlands, and monsoon forests, that have nurtured a wide array of wildlife including the agile wallaby, northern brushtail possum, flying foxes, the dingo, and the vulnerable ghost bat. The land is scribbled with rocky rivers that are punctuated by thundering waterfalls. It will take days to explore much of the park, but here’s what is in store for you should you take one of those popular day tours. (We booked ours with ATTKings!)
WHAT'S COVERED IN THIS GUIDE?
1. Batchelor Town
The first time the bus pulled over was in a small town of Batchelor. I hopped out and followed the scent of sweet coffee that filled the chilly morning air and found a small al fresco cafe sprawling under the shade of a giant banyan tree.
At first glance, the township doesn’t look like anything more than being that place you pass through before entering Litchfield. But this sleepy hollow is rich in history. During World War II, it was transformed into an air base. The town seemed to have taken a nap when the war was over, only to be reawakened when uranium was discovered nearby in 1949 up until 1963.
2. Cathedral Termite Mounds
When we entered the park, we were captivated by curious structures that stick out from the ground. At first there were only a few, but the deeper into Litchfield we got, the more they became common. Termite mounds, they turned out.
“There are two types of termites in Australia,” our Guide said as everyone began gathering around a 4m-tall heap. “Those that eat grass and those that eat wood. This is the home of a grass-eating colony,” he said while touching one side of the mound. It is just one of the many Cathedral Termite Mounds that rise from the reddish land of the Top End.
Each mound is home to a colony of cathedral termites, so-called for the similarity of the mounds they built to medieval cathedrals.
3. Magnetic Termite Mounds
Just across the street from the giant Cathedral Termite Mound is a sea of another type of termite shelters. Wildly different from their neighbors, these mounds are erected by magnetic termites (of genus Amitermes). The mounds are often called “compasses” for their natural north-south orientation, thereby minimizing exposure to and avoiding the heat of the sun.
4. Florence Falls
A trip to Litchfield National Park is actually a waterfall crawl. And the crawl kicks off with our first step into the grounds of Florence Falls, a double waterfall that plunges 9.8 to 15 meters on a series of tiers. Its tallest drop pours cool water into a pool that has been a favorite swimming spot for visitors.
There are two options to get there from the designated parking space: via the Florence Creek Walk or Shady Creek Walk. I took the shorter route — Florence Creek Walk — to get to the cascade, and used the other one on my way back. The Shady Creek path takes hikers through a monsoon forest and then across a savanna woodland. Many of my companions didn’t reach the bottom pool, as they already dreaded how hard it would be to climb back up. Some settled by the creek.
“There are no saltwater crocodiles here,” Warren shared. “The place is just too high and steep for the salties to reach. The pool is perfectly safe for a swim.”
5. Buley Rockhole
Buley Rockhole is a series of, well, rockholes. Its cascading pools make it perfect for a refreshing dip.
6. Litchfield Cafe
After a quick dip, it was time for lunch. Our bus pulled over not far from where a helicopter was starting to take off. Apparently, Litchfield Cafe is also a jump off point for those taking the helicopter tour over the park (or over Top End, if you have more time and money). The ride starts at AUD 79, something I could not afford, so I went inside the cafe for a much needed healthy lunch!
Lunch was included in the tour package, but you’re free to order more at your own expense, of course.
7. Tolmer Falls
Tolmer Falls is, in my opinion, the most spectacular out of the three waterfalls I had seen that day. Tolmer Creek takes a plunge from 102 meters above sea level and forms a narrow 32-42m cascade that splashes into a plunge pool. The pool is surrounded by sandstone cliffs, which have sheltered ghost bats and orange horseshoe bats. This glorious sight can be enjoyed from a lookout platform far away from the site.
8. Wangi Falls
Arguably the most popular of all attractions in Litchfield, Wangi Falls is also the most accessible. There is no trek required to reach its catch basin at its base(to the delight of my companions)! But for those who wish to do it the hard way, walking trails are available, too!
Wangi descends from 84m above sea level on a series of levels. There are two cascades, with the one on the right getting the bigger share.
There are freshwater crocodiles in the pool, but they usually eat fish and leave humans alone. However, during the wet season and after significant rainfall, the pool is closed and swimming is prohibited. Often, when the creek floods, saltwater crocodile moves in. The salties are known to attack humans.
Where to stay: Darwin is the closest major city. Darwin YHA Hostel offers affordable accommodations right at the heart of the city center and with fast internet connection. Day tours are also available.
Where to book tours: I was booked with AAT Kings, a leading tour operator in Australia and New Zealand. Check out their guided tours at: www.aatkings.com.