HARD to TOP

IT’S COLD AND WINTERY DOWN SOUTH, SO IT’S THE PERFECT TIME TO ESCAPE TO THE TOP END, AND DARWIN IS SURROUNDED BY WEEKEND DESTINATIONS THAT ARE STILL CONSIDERED WILD AND UNTAMED.

WORDS JUSTIN WALKER PHOTOS JW/TOURISM NT

LITCHFIELD NATIONAL PARK

JUST over an hours’ drive from Darwin, Litchfield National Park will fulfil that cliché of transporting you to another world. In this case, one of huge waterfalls, challenging four-wheel driving (in the southern section of the park), big rivers, even bigger wildlife (read: saltwater crocs), numerous bushwalks, loads of safe swimming options, and excellent camping. The park is a microcosm of the Top End; smaller than its famous neighbour Kakadu, Litchfield gives visitors with limited time the chance to gain a real sense of the Top End’s timeless appeal.

The bitumen run from Darwin to the park’s northern gateway, the township of Batchelor, is the quickest way to enter the park. Follow the Litchfield Park Road into the northwest corner of the park where you’ll find all the famous attractions such as Florence Falls, Buley Rockhole, Tolmer Falls and Wangi Falls directly off this main sealed route. The Tabletop Swamp and The Lost City are accessed via dirt tracks off this main road as well. You won’t be alone up here in this northern section – day visitors, tourist buses and the like swamp this part of Litchfield during the dry season. Swimming in the Top End is generally a no-go due to the proliferation of dangerous saltwater crocodiles in the region’s waterways; however, most of the pools at the bottom of Litchfield’s many waterfalls are croc-free (Parks NT checks each one at the end of the wet season), so you can escape the park’s warmth and humidity with a dip in Florence, Wangi or Tjaynera Falls, Walker Creek or Buley Rockhole.

For those looking to escape the Litchfield crowds, you can explore dirt access tracks south of the main drag that will take you to Tabletop Swamp or The Lost City and its eerie rock formations. For a more remote, wilder experience, we’d highly recommend spending the day and night in this part of the park (and camping at Wangi Falls). Then we’d suggest heading into the deep south of the park, via the 4x4-only track that takes you south from Greenant Creek. This track swaps between slightly challenging and straightforward, with a big dose of fun. There are some great highlights along here, not the least being the numerous water crossings – the Reynolds River crossing, in particular, is a cracker, with its winding path across this wide waterway – but also make time for a stopover at historic Blyth Homestead in the upper section of this track, and also for a swim at nearby Tjaynera Falls.

Blyth Homestead was an outstation of Stapleton Station and was the historic home of the Sargent family. The building wasn’t always at this location, though; Harry Sargent had dismantled the building at its original location (at a neighbouring station) and transported it using a team of horses. It was rebuilt at its current location after Sargent discovered the abandoned Mt Tolmer Mine, which he hoped would supplement his grazing income. Plus, this location was close to a creek and springs, so water supply was never an issue. It was, much later, sold to the Townsend family, and then in 1986 was included in the newly-formed Litchfield National Park and is now Heritage-listed.

More water crossings follow as you continue south before reaching Surprise Creek Falls, another fantastic swim spot and also a good place to camp for the second night. From here you can continue to the park’s southern exit/entry and turn east on to Daly River Road which, in turn, takes you back to the Stuart Highway. For those who wish to stick to the north-western section, where a large percentage of the waterfalls are located, you can still camp at Wangi Falls and then loop north and east to take in Cascades, Walker Creek (great swimming here) and the Bambook Creek Tin Mine area.

THE PARK IS A MICROCOSM OF THE TOP END, GIVING TIME-POOR VISITORS A SENSE OF THE REGION

For those keen to explore the park on foot there are plenty of walks to choose from, ranging from short strolls to various swimming holes, through to longer walks and the big Tabletop Track, a 39km, twoto three-night loop that is accessed via Florence Falls, Greenant Creek, Wangi Falls or Walker Creek (these can be linked separately, i.e. Greenant Creek to Wangi Falls as shorter overnight walks). This is a relatively serious undertaking reserved for experienced hikers (you have to lug plenty of water with you, along with all the rest of your gear). Birdwatchers will also be kept busy trying to spot some of the 169 recorded bird species inside the park.

IT’S A BRILLIANT WEEKEND AWAY FOR THE ACTIVE FAMILY, AND YOUR 4X4 WILL NOT BE TESTED TOO HARSHLY

NITMILUK NATIONAL PARK

ONLY three-and-a-half hours’ drive south from Darwin, this 293,000-hectare park offers plenty for adventurous travellers, with numerous outdoor activities on tap, along with some (very) comfortable campgrounds and amenities close by. Plus, it is significantly rich in the culture of the local Jawoyn people. In short, it’s a brilliant weekend away for the active family; your 4x4 will not be tested too harshly here – except in terms of how much outdoor gear you can jam in to cater for all the park has to offer – but it is a definite must for that Darwin weekend destination list.

This spectacular national park centres on a deep gorge carved by the Katherine River through rugged sandstone. It also includes numerous waterfalls, more than 100km of walking tracks, a number of lookouts that offer those less mobile some fantastic viewpoints over the park’s unique landscape, and a great campground. It is the Gorge itself (also known as the Katherine River and comprising nine gorges) that is the park’s centrepiece, with good reason: this waterway offers excellent canoeing and kayaking, with the potential to paddle for as long (or short) a time as you like. For the less active visitors who still want to experience the gorge’s many charms, there are daily boat tours through the gorge.

Canoeists can either head farther into the gorge, using a hire canoe or paddling their own (a small fee applies for this), or you can paddle downriver in kayaks/canoes. Whichever way you float, you’ll be shadowed by an ageless and spectacular landscape, and have the chance to spot plenty of wildlife including turtles, barramundi and – if you’re lucky and a quiet paddler – the odd freshwater croc sunning itself on a sandy beach or semi- submerged tree. A long, leisurely day of paddling starts at Gorge 2 (there’s no canoeing allowed in Gorge 1 anymore) and should see you reach the eastern end of Gorge 3, while still allowing for plenty of swimming stops along the way, a checkout of the Jawoyn rock art dotted along the cliffs, and food breaks at some of the pretty sandy beaches that line parts of the gorges. If you’re keen for an overnight journey, there are canoe campsites at Gorge 4, 6 and 9, with toilets at Gorge 4 and 6. This is a brilliant experience if you have the time. For those super-keen and not afraid of challenging portages (the rock bars and rapids get bigger farther into the gorge system), the campsites of 6 and 9 are worth all that sweat and strain as you will be pretty much on your own. You can even throw a line in and try your luck for a barra (legal size is 550mm).

AT UBIRR, YOU CAN LOOK OVER THE PARK’S NORTHERN FLOODPLAINS AT SUNSET. IT’S BRILLIANT

For walkers, the Big Bopper is the Jatbula Trail; although, that covers four days. But, don’t despair, there are myriad tracks that range in distance from a couple of hours to overnight that offer a true insight into this park’s history, geology and culture. The park’s southern section includes seven walks, with the Baruwei Lookout walk perfect for young and old adventurers, while the overnight Jawoyn Valley walk takes you to some impressive rock art.

Most visitors to Nitmiluk think that the gorge and surrounds are ‘the park’, but it’s well worth tacking on a side-trip to Leliyn (Edith Falls), in the park’s northern section, on your return day to Darwin. The walking tracks that start at the expansive picnic and camping area (unpowered sites only) take you to great swimming at the upper and lower pools of Edith Falls. If you’re keen and have the time to take the longer walk (8.6km) to Sweetwater Pool (actually the final camp for those tackling the Jatbula Trail) you’ll revel in this amazing waterhole. If you have the time, you can even make this walk an overnighter. Whatever you do and however you wish to experience it, Nitmiluk is, without doubt, a brilliant Top End experience.

KAKADU NATIONAL PARK – NORTH

IGNORE the grumblings of “Kakadu, Kaka-don’t”, this globally famous 20,000km² national park can fill half a year’s worth of weekend adventures – and you’ll need all that time to do this huge world wonder some kind of justice, with some of the lesser-known areas of the park worth exploring just as much as the more popular ones.

Our northern Kakadu adventure kicks off with a leisurely 1.5-hour run from Darwin via the Arnhem Highway before you reach the park entrance. The temptation here is to punch through to the main tourist hub of Jabiru, but to do so means you’ll miss one of Kakadu’s less-visited highlights: the Waldak Irrmbal (West Alligator Head) track, which heads north to Pococks Beach located on the park’s northern coastline, abutting Van Diemen Gulf.

This drive is a cracker and if you have a spare day it is well worth camping somewhere along this route. Two Mile Hole and Four Mile Hole are great fishing spots, with Two Mile Hole (12km in from the turn-off) allowing some access to the Wildman River, plus a billabong just before the river. However, be aware that this is saltwater croc country; this writer has seen a sizeable salty sunning itself in the long grass beside the billabong at Two Mile, only spotted when its head moved as we walked toward the billabong’s banks. There is a small campsite here.

Four Mile Hole is even better for fishing and is reached by backtracking four kilometres south from Two Mile to the Two Mile/Four Mile junction. Four Mile is, itself, reached via another junction – turning left and driving for about 15 minutes will see you at the Four Mile camping area, which has no facilities. So, if you’re looking to doss down here, be prepared.

Returning to the main Waldak Irrmbal track and continuing north for a farther 50km is challenging in parts, but a great experience overall; the near-flat Manassi Floodplain that dominates this part of the park is only occasionally interrupted by stands of savannah forest, which increases in density (and is joined by huge palms) as you near Waldak Irrmbal and Pococks Beach itself. The facilities at Waldak Irrmbal are relatively basic, but both Jungle Camp and Pococks Beach campsite offer a far more remote camping experience than you’ll find at one of Kakadu’s more easily accessed (and thus popular) campsites.

You can explore Pococks Beach (be croc-aware; saltwater crocs are found here) by foot, and it’s also worth exploring east of the campsites. The rocky outcrops and mangroves near the mouth of the West Alligator River are full of things to check out. It’s also worth keeping an eye out for the native orange-footed scrub fowl – or easier – its nest. This ground-dwelling bird builds what is more appropriately dubbed a huge mound (they can be up to 4.5m tall and 9m in diameter) that is quite a sight.

Just be prepared for noise during the night if your camp is too close to said nest…

The next day is the 80km return south via Waldak Irrmbal track, before reaching the Arnhem Highway and turning left. However, instead of following the highway all the way to Jabiru, follow it until you see a signposted 4x4-only track that leads south. This is a great ‘shortcut’ that, again, takes you away from the heaving dry season crowds on the bitumen roads and passes by some beautiful waterholes – Bucket, Alligator and Red Lily billabongs – before you ford the southern ‘tail’ of the Alligator River and join Old Jim Jim Road, another 4x4-only route.

Eventually, and a bit sadly, you’ll have to rejoin the bitumen at the Kakadu Highway, the park’s other main thoroughfare. For this second night we’d recommend camping at Yellow Water (located slightly north just after you rejoin the Kakadu Highway) and partaking in the next morning’s sunrise cruise on this huge waterhole; birdlife, saltwater crocs and turtles can be easily seen here. For the final day continue north along the Kakadu Highway to the Nourlangie turn-off. Nourlangie contains some brilliant rock art and some short walks that take you to all the main sites. Next stop is Jabiru for the excellent cultural centre before (hopefully) timing your drive right and reaching Ubirr – another globally lauded rock-art site – where, after perusing the eons-old artwork, you walk to a vantage point that looks over the park’s northern floodplains for sunset. It’s brilliant.

KAKADU NATIONAL PARK – SOUTH

THIS southern adventure in our famous national park begins with a straight bitumen run down the Stuart Highway to Pine Creek, and then turning left and following the Kakadu Highway into the park itself. Just inside the southern border is the excellent Goymarr Tourist Park. Tracking north from here you soon reach the turn-off to one of Kakadu’s most famous waterfalls – Gunlom. Following this dirt road will bring you to the falls (made famous in the original Crocodile Dundee movie) and it’s easy to wile away a day here swimming in the lower pool. But, for the best Gunlom experience, we highly recommend tackling the short but quite steep walking track that takes you to the top of the falls and the rockpools that feed it from above. These are perfect swimming holes, with the final rockpool before the drop offering spectacular views over the park’s western and southern landscapes.

You can camp at Gunlom, but for that truly remote bush-camping experience in this busy park we’d suggest driving farther south-east to Jarrangbarnmi Campground (Koolpin Gorge). This campsite requires a permit (be sure to book well ahead), but the effort is worthwhile as it is sublime; the campsites are nestled beside Koolpin Creek and short walks (2km return) take you to remote plunge pools and waterfalls. It’ll be hard to return to camp.

Leaving this heaven-on-earth behind the next day, you will backtrack to the Kakadu Highway and continue north to the turn-off of the 4x4-only track to Maguk (Barramundi Gorge). This is yet another beautiful location – some short walks take you to one of the park’s best swimming holes. A one-kilometre level walk from camp sees you reach a beautiful, long plunge pool, with the waterfall at its eastern end (and easily reached by swimming). There’s also a separate walking track that takes you directly to the top of the waterfall, where you can take a dip in the plunge pools above the falls. From Maguk, it’s a short return to the highway and then a farther drive north to the Graveside Gorge turn-off. This (very) remote campsite needs to be booked ahead and the drive in will take around three hours along the 44km of rocky, tricky terrain. It’s worth it, of course, if you wish to see another spectacular part of the park. Farther north from here – and again back on the Kakadu Highway for access – is Jim Jim Falls, one of Kakadu’s most famous destinations. The drive in here is 4x4-only and is slow-going until you reach Garamarr campground. This campground is sizeable (it can handle 200 people) and has excellent facilities. From here, the access track to Jim Jim Falls (and its beautiful plunge pool) continues, and you can also turn right to tackle the extra 10km to pretty Twin Falls (there’s a water crossing here and a snorkel is advised for your vehicle). Twin Falls Gorge is accessed via a boat shuttle these days (you used to be able to float in there with a lilo, etc.) but, as with everything in this park, it’s worth the time and effort. For both Jim Jim and Twin Falls you can also gain access to the plateau above, but both are steep and challenging walks (four hours for Twin Falls; six hours for Jim Jim). The many walks in this area take you to some fantastic locations, and it makes a fitting final night in Kakadu National Park.

Equally fitting is the last day’s journey out of the park. Rather than taking the bitumen of the Kakadu and Arnhem highways, we’d recommend backtracking south slightly from Jim Jim Falls and taking the 4x4-only Old Jim Jim Road, as this tracks west through some fantastic floodplains and waterways. A great morning tea/lunch spot is Giyamungkurr (Black Jungle Springs) camping area. From here it’s a straightforward run northwest to the Arnhem Highway and, after a few days in what seems like a totally removed, wild and untamed land, a return to ‘civilisation’.

DALY RIVER AND SURROUNDS

THE DALY RIVER IS ARGUABLY AUSTRALIA’S BEST BARRA’ FISHING DESTINATION

LESS than three hours’ drive and you’re at arguably Australia’s best barramundi fishing destination: the Daly River. This 351km-long waterway winds its way past the town of Daly River and the aboriginal community of Nauiyu and offers plenty for (obviously) the angler, but also for Top End history buffs, birdwatchers (thanks to the river and the many surrounding lilycovered billabongs) and off-road tourers.

The area has been the home of the Malak Malak people for eons, with the discovery of copper back in 1882 at Mt Hayward seeing Europeans arrive in more significant numbers (and the occasional conflict; four miners were attacked by members of the indigenous population with consequent – and devastating – repercussions). There is little remaining of the copper mine today, besides the mineshafts. The next European visitors to the region had more success; Jesuit missionaries established a small mission (now in ruins just near the Day River Mango Farm – accommodation is available here, allowing visitors to check out the ruins) and then, much later in the 1950s, Roman Catholics moved to the community of Nauiyu, now the area’s main town/centre, with the majority of the population Roman Catholic. Visitors to the area should definitely check out Nauiyu; besides the obvious resupply and refuel opportunities, the community’s Merrepen Arts Centre is brilliant. Visitors can purchase indigenous artwork here for reasonable prices (without the big city markups) in a variety of styles and formats, ranging from paintings to shirts and weavings. The community’s church is also worth a look.

Of course, it is the big (some say biggest) barramundi that most visitors come to the Daly River for. Arrive just after wet season is over and the roads (and the Daly River Crossing itself) are passable and you’ll be in with a great chance of snaring that big barra – or multiple barra. There are numerous accommodation options around here that revolve around the hunt for barra, or you can camp down beside the river if you wish. However, it’s not only the barra that are big; as with most Top End waterways, the Daly River is home to both species of crocodile, and some of the saltwater crocs lazing on the river’s shore are indeed bloody huge – as in longer than some tinnies. Cruising along the river in your boat, throwing out a line and ogling the massive crocs is great fun though.

There are a number of short fourwheel drive adventures surrounding this area, including a day visit out to the community of Peppimenarti (you will need to apply for a visitor’s permit beforehand), or a trundle down to some of the nearby large billabongs for some bird spotting. Alternatively, there’s the 1.5-hour drive to Oolloo Crossing and the chance to camp in this pristine, remote part of the area. The crossing here is rarely used due to the build-up of sand banks on the opposite side of the river (and the fact it is now Aboriginal Land and thus requires a permit) but the bush camping on the banks above the river is great. You can even launch your tinny here if you wish to hook a barra or two.

As well as the same-named crossing on Oolloo Road, there’s the Douglas River Esplanade Conservation Area, slightly north of the crossing. This conservation area contains some fantastic thermal springs that are great for washing the dust off and simply relaxing. There are nine campsites here, with plenty to occupy both those on a day visit or those camping. The Arches (a rock formation carved by the river’s flow) is well worth an hour of exploration, as is The Weir. Keep an eye out for water dragons, snakes and other native wildlife that live in this riverine environment.

Going from Daly River/Nauiyu to Oollo Crossing and the Douglas River Esplanade Conservation requires some backtracking, but a long weekend would make this more than worth the effort. For lovers of the big NT waterways, barramundi fishing, croc-spotting and a rich and thriving indigenous culture, it’s a no-brainer.