Litchfield National Park is a great starting point to explore the Top End. Or the ideal homecoming. For me, it was the latter. After visiting Nitmiluk and Kakadu national parks, Litchfield would be my last hurrah adventuring in the Northern Territory.
Located just over an hour's drive south of Darwin (106km), the park is the territory's best-kept secret. The park is a convenient playground for city folk, perhaps often overlooked by travellers who venture further afield for adventure, sending their odometer into overdrive.
But Litchfield is one not to bypass. The smaller park — roughly 1500sq km — packs a punch with similar lures to those previously mentioned parks: stunning waterfalls veiled by monsoon forest, natural pools, granite escarpment, and spring-fed streams. But Litchfield also has its own drawcards, one-of-a-kind outback oddities: cathedral-like terminate mounds and a ‘lost city’ of battered boulders.
A visit to Litchfield is the perfect homestretch from adventures in the Top End. Even if you visit for a day or two, it’s worthy to include it in your itinerary enroute to or from Darwin.
Go with the flo
My sister and I left Kakadu National Park's Cooinda Lodge to travel some 352km via National Highway 1 and Kakadu Highway to arrive late afternoon at Florence Falls. Good timing, too; no vehicles in the car park meant we had the falls to ourselves. Lucky us.
Flowing all year around, Florence Falls is a triangle of tiered waterfalls along a tabletop plateau cascading into one pool. From the lookout point just 120m from the car park, the falls appear carved out of the dense jungle, escaping waters in a sea of green — a mix of monsoon, woodland, and Cypress pine forests below our toes. But as gorgeous as the view is from the designated vantage point, it is much more impressive (and fun) wading in its waters.
The inviting pool at Florence Falls (image Tourism NT — Lucy Ewing)
We embarked on the grade three Shady Creek Walk, which includes the lookout and the plunge pool via 135 stairs. It's a 2km/40-minute round-trip to the bottom, but that doesn't include splash time. As we had this slice of utopia to ourselves, pool noodles in tow, we made the most of our private pool.
As expected, the gorge's water was nippy, with the sun now towards the horizon. But the chill factor was drowned by my feelings of euphoria; being in such a magical place, clear waters flanked by reddish sandstone sparsely covered in trees. Thundering falls and birds showing off their vocal range overhead further capture this therapeutic setting. We stayed until the light almost vanished. Not even frigid waters or wrinkled fingers urged us to move on.
Another place that also has the zen factor is Buley Rockhole. A five-minute drive from Florence Falls, this popular cooling-off spot appeals to those who like lounging in shallow waters. Its numerous rock formations and holes make it easy to find your groove between boulders and let the stream gush over.
An ethical adventure
From easy-to-explore waterholes, it was time to venture the roads less travelled — that's if you can spot them. We joined Ethical Adventures on a day trip to venture to parts of Litchfield that are less frequented, overgrown, and precarious — my kind of outback thrill.
“This is nature's classroom,” owner and guide Rob Woods declared as we followed him along Tabletop Track. Open all year round, the 41.7km loop trail along the Tabletop Range starts from Wangi Falls — another drawcard to the region I'll get to later.
I was glad we had someone to lead us the way. Being mid-year, the challenging route was carpeted with pale tangerine and brown leaves, every step a resounding crunch. Parts of the trail were unmarked, which made it difficult at times to discern where to go. It was also uncomfortably hot, with temperatures in their mid-30s and limited shade enroute. Thank goodness we were only doing a 12km snippet of the hike. (If you feel compelled to trek without a tour guide, take a map, GPS, and plenty of water.)
“We are minions of change,” Rob said as we trekked through the monsoonal forest, steering an informed discussion about the region's conservation efforts. His words stirred me as we walked through torched landscapes, blackened trees and parched grounds, the apocalyptic aftermath of natural bushfires. Not all appeared gloomy; pops of yellow flowers gave parts of the walk a sense of renewal, reassuring that it is part of nature's cycle.
Two hours in, we reached our rest point and what a perfect place to recharge. Along the escarpment, we had panoramic vistas of a cloud-streaked sky and a field of green treetops that stretched towards the horizon — a vivid scene. It was the perfect setting to enjoy a picnic lunch along the rocky ravine before being treated to the ultimate pay-off — a dip in nature's infinity pool.
The pool had been hidden from view. It was a wonderful surprise, considering I thought I’d be washing my dirty, sweaty body at Wangi Falls — where we would finish the hike. Careful footwork along stony terrain and tree trunks is required to take a refreshing dip in this secluded setting, and gosh, it's worth the slight detour. Again, the water was frigid on my body, but this time, it was welcomed under the blazing sun. I was half-submerged, enjoying nature's respite while taking the views in. What a lucky dip.
Where the locals hang
The rest for the wicked would be short-lived. After four hours, the end was nigh as we followed a flight of rocky stairs to arrive at the base of the towering Wangi Falls. Knowing you are back in 'civilisation' at the Top End is seeing flashes of fluro pool noodles and bopping heads dotting a natural pool. That scene was met here, too, with a handful of people enjoying splash time in the ginormous pool below the gushing twin waterfalls.
Wangi Falls, Litchfield (Image Tourism NT — Riana Crehan)
Cloaked by woodlands, Wangi Falls is the most accessible waterfall in Litchfield. A popular swimming hole with locals, the area features sprawling manicured lawns opposite the falls, making it easy for relaxation and refreshing dips. It's also tempting to stick around with a kiosk on-site and barbecues located in the park.
There are also much shorter walks around the falls if you are not keen to spend half a day trekking in the heat, with Treetop Deck (800m return) offering a scenic viewpoint and the steep Wangi Loop (1.7km return) visiting the plateau beyond the falls.
And while you're down this end of the park, don't miss checking out Tolmer Falls and Sandy Creek Falls.
Skyscrapers in the outback
Adventures with Rob continued to the ‘The Lost City’.
It was a 10km ride along a bumpy four-wheel-drive track to arrive at this eerie landmark. What awaited was an assortment of freestanding sedimentary rock pillars that gives the landscape the illusion of ancient ruins. What was once part of the sandstone layer along the Tabletop Range are now soaring remnants, shaped by erosion over 500 million years, over golden grasses.
Some outcrops are clumped together as if they previously formed buildings and passages; others stand as skyscrapers. Most of the oxidised rock scattered is sandstone, with siltstone, ripplestone and conglomerate also found throughout. Don't know which is which? There is an interpretive trail to guide your way around the 'city'.
Meandering around this behemoth brickwork of nature, I wondered how this backdrop hadn't been featured in an Indiana Jones movie already. The landscape is the size of a small town. It is unlike anything I have ever seen before, a real maze to explore. It's a good thing there is a trail with signage to follow, or else it would be a mission figuring your way around the jumble.
And once we did arrive back to the start — an empty car park — an afternoon spread was waiting. Rob — the on-the-go canteen man — pulled all the stops, with complimentary cheeses, dips, beers, and even canned gin and tonics laid out on a wooden picnic area, ours for the taking. How good.
The last hurrah
Leaving Litchfield doesn't mean leaving adventures behind. En route back to Darwin is another famed outback tower along Litchfield Park Road. The magnetic termite mound dubbed ‘The Cathedral’ towers over the floodplain at 5m tall. A viewing platform surrounds the wedge-shaped spectacle to admire the collective work of 5mm long termites — impressive stuff. There were also many more anthills in the area to measure yourself next to one of the iconic magnetic termite mounds..
Termite Mounds at Litchfield National Park (Image Tourism NT — Ashley Dobson)Towering magnetic termite mounds (Image Tourism NT — Shaana McNaught)
For that last bit of splash time, we headed to Berry Springs Nature Reserve. Once a recreational camp for the armed forces in World War II, people now charge its two pools and waterfalls with pool noodles instead. It is the busiest attraction we had encountered, perhaps due to its proximity to Darwin (48km south) — no wonder locals make a day of it. Besides barbecue and toilet facilities, the reserve also features a kiosk with the NT playtime essential pool noodles available to hire and buy.
We pulled into Berry Springs Tavern for a bite. The place is heaving in and out. The menu was extensive, and I could not go past the unusual pub classic, a Laska schnitzel. The chicken is marinated in the spicy coconut broth, then coated with breadcrumbs and topped off with a blob of whipped cream Laska butter for an extra assault of flavour. Served with a noodle salad and chips, it did the trick.
Throughout my time in Litchfield, I saw no crocodiles, but the pub visit changed that. Behind the tavern are separate crocodile, emu, and deer playpens — just in case you need a dose of wildlife before you hit the road, the last bit of titillation. And that is what Litchfield offers, a convenient escape to the extraordinary — and all just down the road (well, kind of) from Darwin. Too easy.
Litchfield traverses four language groups: traditional owners of the area, the Werat, Koongurrukun, Waray and Marranunggu people.
Litchfield National Park requires a Parks Pass to enter. A Parks Pass permits you to visit parks and reserves managed by the NT Government.
Day pass: $10 per adult, $25 per family
Two-week pass: $30 per adult, $75 per family
Passes can be pre-purchased via the online booking system.
When to visit: While there's always something to see and do in the NT so there's no 'best time' to visit. But be sure to prepare for the Top End's wet and dry seasons. During the wet season (November to April), the NT's heavy rains mean the waterfalls will be at their most spectacular and powerful, but you may have to contend road closures and parts of the park (including some main attractions) being inaccessible. The dry season (May to October) can be busier, but you'll have more luck ticking off a lot of your bucket-list items.
Litchfield Tourist Park
P: 08 8976 0070
P: 0488 442 269
Berry Springs Tavern
P: 08 8988 6186
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