AUSTRALIA has enjoyed a robust and consistent population growth over the past seven years.
At this point in our history, every one minute and 44 seconds a new baby is born. A continuation in the current growth rate will see more than a million people added to the population every three to four years. So, what does this mean to the four-wheel driver who enjoys the unbridled freedom while travelling those dusty outback roads?
Well, the solitude you seek from visiting some of our world class national parks may not deliver the peace and quiet you had pictured. Rather, you may be greeted by a full carpark and busloads of tourists crawling all over the place, already a common reality for the spectacular Litchfield National Park in the Northern Territory.
At only 1500km² in size, it is much smaller than its counterpart Kakadu, but there are dynamic developments on the horizon for this compact national park.
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We live in a country famous for such things as a former Prime Minister (Bob Hawke) setting a world record for sculling more than 1.1 litres of beer in 11 seconds, and we are fortunate enough to have a forward-thinking Parks and Wildlife team initiating change in the NT.
Working together, Parks and Wildlife and the Four Wheel Drive NT organisation have initiated a project committed to opening up the hidden gems of Litchfield NP. It’s refreshing to see both groups immersed in their purpose by assisting each other in this new chapter for Litchfield.
The man responsible for this union is Mal Stewart. An avid four-wheel driver, Territorian and president of Four Wheel Drive NT, his love of everything outdoors has led him to acquire a specific set of skills. His ability to rediscover old tracks is like the camel’s ability to sniff out water up to 80km away.
Some of the old tracks in Litchfield date back to its pastoral days and can still be identified from the air. Mal, with the help of two other NT four-wheel drive clubs, has, over a period of three to four years, put the hard yards in on the ground, unearthing these forgotten tracks.
Along the way they have also been clearing tracks to enable NTPW vehicles to carry out maintenance activities, such as weed poisoning and feral animal control.
In July 2018 I was invited to come and see these new developments. Pondering the preliminary drawings of the future campsites, carparks and picnic areas on the tray of my Land Cruiser, I felt a sense of excitement for what we were about to explore.
The tracks are in their infancy and have only had a dozen club members and a few Parks vehicles over them since their pastoral days, making them difficult to distinguish at times.
On day one we crept closer in low range to the Camels Hump, west of the Lost City. The terrain holds you captive as you navigate down ancient sandstone steps with hardy native trees clawing at your vehicle. As the name implies, the Camels Hump identifies a section of track you pass through, with a tight corridor of rocks on the backbone of a small ridge.
Approaching this obstacle with trepidation, I spent the next hour in a cold sweat, inching my Land Cruiser and camper-trailer up and over one of nature’s four-wheel drive stumbling blocks.
With help from others, rocks and logs were placed in front of my rear wheels to push my vehicle away from the unforgiving sandstone. With millimetres to spare for the most part, I ran out of luck and space, resulting in a scratch to my rear tray storage box.
Satisfied with only that scratch and thankfully not missing one side of my camper-trailer, we continued to the last challenge for the day: a steep descent with loose rocks which crumble beneath the tyres, pushing you forwards. Not a great feeling in a Land Cruiser that has a handbrake as a decoration.
I remember thinking at the bottom of the hill, “Gee, that was loose … hope there is another way out of here.” Three full-length winch pulls were required on the way out.
As the shadows lengthened, our three vehicles came to a stop at a place known as Crystal Springs, named by the 4x4 club members because of the beautiful transparent waters that flow through this area. Being a thermal spring made it a very pleasant temperature for a swim along with our dusk happy-hour drinks. This would be our base camp for the next five days as we analysed the nearby areas.
Trekking on foot downstream of Crystal Springs, the creek’s waters eventually flow into the Reynolds River. It’s an inspiring walk, listening to the rustle of the water flowing over the creek bed as you follow alongside it. At the end, don’t dive into the Reynolds River as it may be inhabited with saltwater crocodiles. However, in the pools above, we enjoyed a swim with the occasional yabbie nipping our toes.
Day three involved four-wheel driving to our next point of interest. With the current track conditions, you will need at least two inches of lift to equal the demands of this harsh landscape. After passing through a recently burnt-out section, our vehicles climbed up a rock ledge that led us downhill into a secluded valley.
We parked the fourbies in the future carpark area and started our trek to Curtain Falls, which are only a few hundred metres from where you park. But if epic is what you are chasing, keep walking north and you will find the breathtaking pools below the falls of the East Reynolds River.
The lower pool looked too deep and mysterious even for me. Instead, we enjoyed a dip in the top pool, complete with waterfall and not another soul in sight. Climbing up the valley will give you a vantage point of the sprawling Tabletop Range.
With the light of a new day shimmering down on our camp, we locked the hubs in on day four and headed southwest to a place we have temporarily called Lightning Gorge. All of these future tourist destinations are so new they don’t even have names as yet. Parks are yet to advise on this.
Today’s drive was relatively easy, with a small creek crossing that ejects you onto an open flood plain. The track soon progresses to a high point of scattered escarpment country.
Parking the vehicles, we switch from four wheels to walking boots. Of all the places we have explored in the last few days this is my favourite; it’s beauty is on a grand scale.
From the air the beginnings of the gorge look like a lightning bolt, and with cascading waterfalls and peaceful pools there are acres to explore. The flora and fauna are brimming with life, and with multiple shallow pools this would be an excellent choice for families wanting to evade the dry season heat.
The secret is out
Day five was our ticket out of the secluded gems of Litchfield NP, but they won’t be hidden for long! Part of the $12.1 million invested from the Government Tourism sector will be put towards establishing these destinations on a park map within the next two years.
With more than 370,000 visitors each year, Litchfield will soon spread its wings to encompass five new swimming spots, 40km of new 4x4 tracks, mountain bike tracks, three new campsites and one additional picnic area. Many thanks to Parks and Wildlife and Four Wheel Drive NT’s clubs and their hard-working volunteer members.
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Litchfield National Park is located approx. 120km southwest of Darwin in the Northern Territory. Travelling the sealed Stuart Highway you will pass through the township of Batchelor, which is the gateway to Litchfield NP.
Hema’s Australia Road and 4WD Atlas.
There are various existing campsites available within the park. However, these new destinations DO NOT have any infrastructure set-up as yet and are not available to the public. The only way to access these new areas is to join one of the local Northern Territory four-wheel drive clubs: Top End 4WD Club and Toyota Landcruiser Club.
Accommodation, dining and camping are also available outside the park at several commercial sites. Generators and caravans are not permitted in some campgrounds. Phone NT Parks & Wildlife: (08) 8999 455
FUEL AND SUPPLIES
No fuel is available in the park, however the town of Batchelor provides fuel and grocery supplies. A cafe is also located at the Wangi Centre at Wangi Falls.
RESTRICTIONS AND PERMITS
Camping fees are collected at the existing camps on-site and cannot be pre-booked. Camping is on a first come, first served basis. Road conditions may vary shortly after the wet season and can be checked by phoning 1800 246 199 or at www.roadreport.nt.gov.au
*Most of the access tracks and natural features in Litchfield NP shown in this article are not yet open to the public. The recent exploration of this area was mostly carried out by Four Wheel Drive NT and its member clubs as part of the MOU agreement between themselves and the Parks and Wildlife Commission NT.
There are development proposals for many of the sites shown. When they are developed, Parks and Wildlife will provide regulated 4x4 vehicle access for bush-style camping to enable the enjoyment of this beautiful area. Mountain bike and bushwalking tracks are also planned for the area.