Darwin is located at 12.5ºS, and it shows. In the morning and evening walking around can be “quite lovely actually”, a favorite saying of New Zealanders. During the day the temperature, even though it is technically winter in the Southern hemisphere, is about 30ºC and humidity is about 85%.
We have worked hard the last week, and today we are having another day off. During our 24 day expedition we will have just four such days off – one can’t really say that all we are doing is relaxing on our trips. But today is a different story: there is no ash cloud to track, no schedules to change (knock on wood) and for the first time in the last two weeks I did feel actually relaxed. What lies ahead is just regular work, not hectic modification of a network of project connections by events that may or may not happen in the near future. From Darwin to the North we have the work pretty well defined. So, today we can relax for real.
We slept in until almost 7 am, and went for breakfast at 8 am. There is nowhere to hurry! What a feeling. The pressure of the last weeks does not want to leave though and I couldn’t help but think I am forgetting something and kept on checking the phone – why is it not ringing like crazy, as usual? Well this time it is because there are no issues! How can that be.
After discussing our options leisurely at 9 am in the hotel lobby we have decided that we must see the Australian natural parks, and since the Kakadu National Park with its 20,000 square kilometers is way too big, we decided to go to Litchfield National Park. Located just some 2 hours from Darwin and famous for its waterfalls and plunge pools, the park sounded like a great place to look at Australia’s Northern Territories’ nature.
Our rental car, large enough to carry the luggage and five people from the airplane to the hotel, afforded even a 4wd, so we felt quite empowered when the locals told us that we could take a Berry Springs loop road through the park if we had a 4wd. Jumping ahead, it turned out that since there were no rains lately any vehicle with enough gas could have made it across the 30-40 km section of gravel road without any problems. I would advise to watch out for occasional dips, washouts along the sides and quite severe washboard on occasion but when dry the road poses no problems to cars. In wet weather I would strongly recommend to stick to paved roads, as this one had several quite long sections that clearly would be a lot of fun if wet, with their glossy clay surface and washouts on the sides.
Your drive on the left side of the road can be quite fast, with speed limit of 130 km/h (81 mph). Time flew as we drove and talked, and we were at the park in what felt like very little time. On the way we had to stop, of course, in Batchelor, which won the Australia’s Tidiest Town award in 2000. We visited the Rum Jungle Tavern, which had three customers, drinking beer, at 11 am already, and the general store, where we stocked up on lunch food for the day ahead of us. It was quite expensive, as it is in the Darwin area in general.
The next stop on our way was Florence Falls. This place is very popular and there were a lot of people in the plunge pool of the falls, swimming around, fighting the current, climbing on the cliffs around the pool and falling off back into it, young men trying to impress ladies by doing somersaults from the rocks and landing with thunderous belly-flops most of the time despite the stern warnings on the signs on the dangers of doing so. As an aside, do women know that most stupid things men purposely or subconsciously do are aimed to impress them, and that women could prevent men from doing many of these things if they just showed a bit of interest and encouragement? Back to the subject on hand: the water was very comfortable, not nearly as cold as I have seen in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, even though the waterfall looked like a mountain river. The shores and the bottom of the pool are very rocky and most people, barefoot, balanced precariously when trying to walk around, with their towels in one hand and cameras in the other, looking rather silly and pitiful, like penguins might on an icy slope covered with olive oil. I wondered for a minute what would would the aboriginal people, able to run through these rocks barefoot without even slowing down, think about this? The modern people, proud of their technology and accomplishments, would have probably appeared so useless and clumsy to them. Did we happen to lose some of our former abilities along the way of our progress? Anyway, we returned from the waterfalls by the way of the Sandy Creek Walk, a cobblestone-paved trail devoid of any dangerous challenges to a modern man and some 950 m long. The walk led us back to the parking lot along a beautiful little creek with tiny cascades of waterfalls, followed by deeper quiet pools, so warm and inviting that I even dipped into it at one time.
The next stop was the Tolmer Falls. Taller and more secluded, the waterfall was beautiful and the plunge pool deep and green. Thinking that wallabies hide around it somewhere in the rocks and orange bats fly out at night made this place mysterious and fascinating. I wanted to stay, go down into the canyon and observe all this amazing wildlife but, again – we only have so much time for a visit to this place they call home. So I quietly wished well to the inhabitants of this small opening to the fantastic world of the Australian wild, and we moved on.
Of course, on the way through the Litchfield Park one should not miss the Wangi Falls. The swimming area here is closed during the wet season (which is now) because salt water crocodiles occasionally make it up the river to the waterfall’s plunge pool, probably looking for tourists to eat. Fresh water crocodiles live there all the time but apparently those are small, fish eating, don’t like people for food and in the worst case only would bite you slightly to scare you a little, so no worries about them. We did not see any crocodiles but the waterfall and the pool, without dozens of people swimming in it, were beautiful (disclaimer: I don’t dislike people in general but you have to admit that as much as it is enjoyable to swim in such a place when you are a participant, the presence of bobbing heads and splashing bodies everywhere does take some of the charm and wilderness impression away from the pictures you may try to take there when you are just an observer). So, even though a swim in the Wangi Pool would be very inviting, I was totally willing to trade that for being able to see the falls without the swimmers.
Moving on, we drove North on the Litchfield Park Road. Just as I made a comment that, sadly, we did not see any wildlife on this trip, not even 10 seconds later a wallaby appeared sitting in the middle of the road 100 yards in front of our car. We slowed down and prepared all the 5 or 6 cameras we had for the four of us but the wallaby did not wait, she bounced into the burned trees on the side of the road and disappeared before we could press the shutter button.
On the burned trees: in the Northern Territories people apparently understand the balance of nature and the importance of fire as the force controlling the vegetation overgrowth. Unlike the U.S., where every wildfire is put our with determination suitable for a better cause, promoting the buildup of biomass and even larger fires eventually, in Australia they let the fires burn. This helps maintain lower amounts of natural fuel resulting also in the lower fire intensity, which allows the trees to easily survive the fire. Such fires recently burned in the area we drove through, and we saw some stumps on the roadside still smoldering. Sadly, my white pants did not benefit from the charred surroundings nearly as much as the the fresh new vegetation does when we stopped on the side of the road to take pictures of the magnetic termite mounds.
These fascinating structures could be seen along the main paved road into the park but here on the back side of it there were more of them and they were much larger. The rough surface of the mounds resembles concrete but you can see on the broken edges here and there the intricate internal corridor structure that the little creatures have built. As small as they are it is amazing that the termites can be so well organized as to create these “buildings” thousands of times taller than themselves, plus orient them accurately North to South, or at a certain inclination, like 10º to the East. A quick comparison in sizes tells me that humans would have to construct a building 1,020 m (3,350 ft) high to compare to the termite mounds. I don’t think we are quite up for that yet, however advanced we think we are, even if the comparison is not quite fair from the structural and materials standpoint. A small lesson in humility, found alongside an Australian road.
Another interesting observation is that the park is free. There are no entrance fees or parking fees, yet the boardwalks use metal framing and quality planks, the buildings are in good repair, and the toilets are flush type, not pits. Roads are in very good condition and the trails are well maintained. The fact that similar scale parks in the U.S. all charge a substantial entrance fee must have to do with how the public money is spent, and since everything in Australia is more expensive one could not say that maintaining the park would be cheap in comparison. Sad that the U.S. can’t figure out how to make its parks affordable to everyone. I know that $20-40 access fees stop many people from visiting, and public national parks should be accessible to all regardless of their income level.
Looking back at today, it was a great day off. Totally different scenery from anything I have ever seen, red soil, sparse trees, parrots making loud sharp noises and road signs giving a distance of 1,464 km to the next town – there will be more than enough to remember about our short visit to the Northern Territories to make me want to come here again some time.