Guide to Australia’s Litchfield National Park

Litchfield National Park is a gorgeous chunk of Australia’s Northern Territory, entirely shaped by nature. It’s full of exciting 4WD tracks and lovely walking paths, panoramic viewing spots, thundering falls, crystal clear natural pools, gorgeous monsoon rainforests and intriguing magnetic termite mounds. We spent two days in the park, checking out eight highlights on the map. 

Today’s the day we meet our compagnon de route:  The Britz Challenger 4WD! The taxi-driver takes us to the rental centre. “Are you running away from home?!” Yes, our bags are too big, we know! At the centre, we’re given a portable dvd-player. “Take a seat anywhere in the room and carefully watch the instruction video.” We sit, we watch and we watch again. And again. There’s a lot involved when driving a campervan: the operation of the slide-out stove and gas supply, the sink and water tank, the side and rear awning, the installation of the bunk bed, the solar shower, the power supply, the spare tire, the transmission and 4WD function, … And the driving on the left, of course.

Apparently we are covered for everything but broken windscreens and tire failure, so we somewhat reluctantly pay for an additional insurance. It’s not an obligation but it’s a peace of mind for sure: no matter what creature jumps in front of our car, no matter how many tumbles we make or how many windscreens we break (for the record, none of the above is actually planned!), our accident liability is now zero. „Keep the receipt of any costs along the way and we’ll reimburse it.” It turned out to be the best 350AUD ever spent …

The Britz Challenger 4WD – isn’t she lovely… 🙂

On our second day we’re already torn between two National Parks: Litchfield or Kakadu. We choose Litchfield (200 km shorter in distance + less people = like!) but I’m sure Kakadu would have been an equally good choice. In fact Litchfield is often called a mini-Kakadu: it has everything Kakadu has (stunning rock formations, gorgeous waterfalls, lots of wildlife) but in smaller proportions. As we approach Litchfield on a seemingly infinite highway, small but promising hills arise on the horizon. First they are covered with trees that are never quite close enough together to call them a forest (think tufts of hair on a balding head), but once at the National Park, things turn bigger, greener and fuller. And also wetter: unlike most of the bone-dry creeks and rivers we passed so far, there’s actual water flowing in Litchfield. And you can swim in it, hooray!

Our stops in the park (the green dots on the map above: the Termite Mounds, Florence Falls (day one), Tabletop Swamp, Tolmer Falls, Wangi Falls, Blyth Homestead, Tjaynera Falls and Surprise Creek Falls (day two) – © Litchfieldnationalpark.com

Termite mounds

Friendly giants along the way

Driving around in Litchfield is a whole adventure on itself: there’s the famous termite mounds alongside the road and it’s not so much their appearance that is so fascinating, it’s their large number. They are literally EVERYWHERE, dominating the landscape and claiming their place in the huge fields of burnt flora, crawling up from the red soil next to the blackened trees (dying or recovering, we’re not sure) and peaking through the tough and dried grasses.

When we take a turn to see the ‘Magnetic Termite Mounds’ we’re not sure what to expect since we saw thousands of them already  from the car. A small pathway next tot the carpark takes you to a field full of ‘Magnetic termite mounds’: they all are about 2 meters tall and are sort of two dimensional: they seem round and thick from the front but when you look at them from the side, they are as thin as paper. Okay, paper might be exaggerated, but definitely thin. Apparently, the huge piles are made from feces, plants, termite saliva and soil. They are built this way to minimize the exposure to the sun and keep the inside cool. Air-conditioned skyscrapers for termites! But the real showtopper here is the Cathedral Mound on the other side of the carpark : standing next to this colossal architectural curiosity makes us feel like WE are the insects… If you’re going to Surprise Creek Falls though like we did, this stop is unnecessary; you’ll see plenty of these giants along the way, some of them right next to the road.

The Cathedral Termite Mound
From the ground up!
The field of Magnetic Termite Mounds
More Magnetic Mounds alongside the unsealed road to Surprise Creek Falls

Don't mention the flies

(but we do it anyway)

As soon as we get out of the car for the very first time in Litchfield, we discover that the park has another phenomenon: flies. Actually you don’t discover the flies, the flies discover you… I thought about skipping this chapter and go straight to the waterfalls like any other travel guide or person does when describing Litchfield (perhaps even Western Australia in general). Even Lonely Planet ignores the existence of the flies so there could be an unwritten rule in force here: whatever you do, don’t mention the flies!

Well, I’m breaking that rule because without the flies, the story is incomplete. You can already hear them from the moment you stop your engine: a hole troop of buzzing flies is out there, thirsty and desperate for some human sweat. They don’t bite, but they for sure make every walk a torture as they only have one mission: trying to get as close to your head as possible. The tireless little vampires land straight on your lips (bad news if you are just speaking), they try to crawl in your nose and ears and they sneak behind your sunglasses. And if there’s no satisfying landing spot in sight, they’ll just circle around you, incessantly buzzing until you let your guard down for a second and a new nose-, ear- or lip-opportunity arises. They are so quick there’s no way to avoid always having a few flies on board with you in the car.  You can imagine the impact of these little bastards on the whole Litchfield experience, so, again, why does no one mention the flies?! Just a little heads up would have been sufficient to get some precautions because all we have now is a towel to put over our heads (it’s too darn hot with a towel on your head!) and our two arms to flap around with like puppets on a string.

Another walk, another fly on the lip!

Florence Falls

No swimming, no party

And now, to the real attractions of the park: the falls and holes! It’s all about the combination of driving, hiking and swimming in Litchfield, but mostly about the swimming. Once you get over the heat and flies and you plunge in a pool (the water is not at all cold but still refreshing), it all makes sense. Plus, the views never let you down. Stunning hidden green valleys as beautiful as you’ve ever seen, water so clear you almost feel like you’re floating on air and waterfalls to make the picture even more perfect.

The waterfalls themselves aren’t as impressive in the dry season as they probably are in the wet season (they are more brushstrokes than falls most of the time), but it’s still a wonderful sight and you just can’t get your eyes of the surroundings. A lot of the times we were by ourselves, so that added a bit of extra magic to the already paradise-like scenery. Oh and there are crocodiles, but if you don’t look for them, they won’t look for you … It’s clearly marked where you have to be extra careful.

Our first waterfall is Florence. A short walk in a nice and shady monsoon forest first gets you to a viewing platform (out of order at our arrival) for a panoramic view over the valley of the Florence Falls. Then some practical stairs take you all the way down to the plunge pool. Since the falls are very accessible  (no need for 4WD), the pool is quite crowded with people from all over (some French guys showing off their bodies and some Brits jumping of cliffs as a form of compensation) doing a daytrip from Darwin. Later on though, people start to leave and we stay behind with just a handful of people. (Tip: visit the Forence Falls before sunset and you’ll probably be alone!)

Florence Falls

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Florence Falls

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4WD camping

Starlit skies and ubiquitous ants

My boyfriend and I both have never camped before, so ‘interesting’ would be the appropriate word to describe our first night at the ‘4WD-only’ camping close to Florence Falls. I reckon they deliberately put some holes in the access road to make sure no 2WD vehicle can get through undamaged!

There’s two cars on the camping when we arrive and park right in the back. The roof goes up smoothly and my boyfriend turns out to be an excellent ‘bedmaker’. When the flies decrease in number as the sun sets, we feel like victory is ours! But then at dusk (around 5 pm it’s completely dark), our pull-out stove decides not to slide back in. Armed with a sad face and a wind-up flashlight (the handle breaks off the same night due to ‘overwinding’) we seek help from the Dutch couple that is closest to us. The guy, Kees, takes a look at the stove. ‘Vet Bakkie’, he says when he sees the car, but the stove stubbornly refuses to cooperate. Off to the Aussies then in the other camper! Father and son pause their movie ‘We Bought a Zoo’ to come have a look at our camper and the dad unravels the secret of the stove: a big, yellow handle on the side must be pushed in before sliding.  I guess it’s a part of the instruction video that we didn’t watch 3 times.

Officially it’s bedtime, but the heat inside the camper keeps us outside a bit longer. And so does the sky: one of the many, many beautiful starlit skies we’ll encounter during our trip. Too bad we couldn’t capture it on camera but I’m sure you can imagine what it must be like when there’s nothing surrounding you but darkness and stars. And creepy animals for sure but tonight, everything we can’t see, doesn’t exist.

Tonight is also the night that we ignore a ‘Warning, crocodiles’-sign to get some water from the nearby creek to do the dishes. One of us scoops the water, the other one keeps watch. If you don’t do the dishes straight away, it’s only a matter of time before you’re in war with ubiquitous ants: we had some leftovers on the table and the next morning a whole parade of aggressive green ants was enjoying a fancy meal. Leaving the rubbish behind is not an option in a National Park and you don’t want ants in your car either, so … it took us longer to remove the ants than it did to cook. Did I mention we’re not experienced campers?