If you’ve heard or seen anything about Northern Territory National Parks, you immediately conjure up images of dramatic landscapes, swimming holes, deep gorges, an abundance of aquatic and bird life, flood plains …and of course, heaving waterfalls. Arguably, Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks epitomise these types of images if tourist numbers and territory sales and marketing is anything to go by. And we, too, were lured by these types of images and to experience them up close.
Litchfield National Park made its way to the top of our national park list when we decided to venture up to the Northern Territory’s Top-End once we accepted we could not drive the Birdsville track from heavy rain road closures in central and northern South Australia. (Click here if you didn’t read the back story to this change of route-plan).
Despite the Top-End’s poor wet season this year (some locals we spoke with even terming it as a drought), we were still excited to visit and experience as much of the park as we could in the couple of days we allocated. And when we did, worse than the impact of the drought itself, was the obvious (over) tourism impact issues we witnessed in some parts of Litchfield NP. It was very disappointing to see …and this got us thinking. Are these unique and biodiverse areas being exploited by government(s) in the pursuit of tourism dollars without the necessary practises in place to assist, manage, sustain and protect these parks adequately for generations to come? But more about some of our Litchfield observations later.
On the day of our arrival from Katherine the temps were still stubbornly hanging around 37Deg, the 80% humidity mark, which were all above April averages. We chose to stay at the Litchfield Tourist Park (LTP) not far from the Rum Jungle area made infamous by a Uranium mine that operated here until the mid seventies near the township of Batchelor, just so we could run A/C in the van to get a decent nights sleep.
For those who may not know too much about Litchfield NP, it is located 120Kms south of Darwin and is very popular with Darwinians – especially on weekends. Whilst we observed this first-hand, Litchfield is also popular with the backpacker crowds as well as bus tour day and multi-day groups. The park is accessible all year round and the (two) main roads in and out of the park are “all-weather” sealed.
We arrived at LTP on Sunday mid-afternoon, and after set up, all decided to laze in the pool to cool down for a while. Whilst doing so, we noticed an exodus of cars, 4WDs and especially tourist buses and large coaches all leaving the park in procession like. We quickly forgot about this sight, that is, until the next morning. We awoke to a cloudless hot day and were excited to experience our first taste of the park. In order, our “hot list” for day 1 visits was as follows;
We pulled out of LTP 9am sharp onto Litchfield Road, immediately cross over the Finniss River (known for a few Salties at times) and a few minutes later we were at the park boundary. We pull over for a customary photo of the D4 next to the National Park entrance sign and, not long after, are on our way to the Termite Mounds. As we arrive, we pull into the car park behind a large tour coach which disgorges scores of people with their iPads, iPhones, Androids, DSLR’s, GoPro’s and many other types of photographic equipment, who converge en-mass to the termite viewing boardwalk. We come up behind them and somewhat disappointed to only see 4, maybe 5 termite mounds in total, approx. 5-6ft in height and about 150M away from the boardwalk. Celia and I look at each other and ask each other is that it? Apparently yes. The park had allowed the grass to grow so high that most mounds were covered. We take a token shot or two of the few mounds we could see and head back to the D4 to get ahead of the large tour bus for our next stop – Wangi Falls.
We arrive at Wangi Falls 25minutes later with the temp now rising quickly and look for a shaded spot to park.
Immediately as you open your car door you instantly hear the waterfall thundering away in the distance, albeit out of site from the carpark full of large tour groups, buses, caravans and all types of visitors in between. We grab some gear, don a hat, and make the short walk through a group of tall eucalypts to the falls area where you start to feel a fine water spray coming off the falls as you round the large deep looking pool below the falls.
We scout around looking for good view points and take a few images in what was harsh light and perhaps on my part, an over-use of filters trying to reverse some of the effect of colour washout from the glaring sun. There were many people walking around and crowding was not nearly as noticeable as at the termite mounds because of the many different walks and pathways you can follow at Wangi Falls.
About 45minutes in and as we had a full day planned, we opted to leave Wangi for the quieter Reynolds River area open only to 4WDs. The national parks website was showing the Reynolds river as closed (due to wet season) with the last update posted on Feb 2, 2016. We are now in early April and the wet season had long passed with a poor showing in March (see rainfalls at the bottom of this post), so we drive over to the Reynolds River road entrance on the off chance they had forgotten to update the website – we were wrong. The road was still closed and the gate locked so none of the falls or the Lost City we wanted to see off Reynolds River track could be accessed. After a bit of digging around into the road closure later that day, we discover it was still closed due to a possible crocodile threat at the crossing of the Reynolds River. It is a crossing of 150M or so in length, 80o+mm depth of water, and the odd 4WD gets bogged trying to cross there. We were already aware of this challenge when doing our prior research. Other words, if you get bogged at this crossing, you’re going to have to get out of the vehicle at some point and into the water to start what ever method of self-rescue you can carry out, and this is where the danger is. So we are forced to give Reynolds River a miss at this time and decide to head across the park to Florence falls which we had planned on doing the following day.
Florence falls is arguably the most popular of all the waterfalls and swimming holes within the Litchfield National Park. This was quite evident as we pulled into the fancy carpark which can accomodate many cars, buses, coaches, 4wd/caravans etc etc. The carpark looked half-full when we arrived and we grab our swimmers and camera gear and head out along one of two walks down to the falls. As we’re walking along, it was hard not to notice an unusual amount of litter scattered around the place.
The shorter of the two walks down to the base of the falls was the 1.2kms stairs walk and we opt for this one. On the way, 300M or so from the car park, is the only lookout that provides views over the falls. We stop there for a few shots and quickly get on our way again to escape the heat. By Aidan’s counting, 142 steps later, we arrive at a small stream at the bottom and a few minutes further on you arrive at the plunge pool at the bottom of Florence Falls. There were people EVERYWHERE – perhaps as many as 80-100. It looked like the Bondi-beach of waterfalls on a hot summers day. We initially struggled to find a suitable area to put our gear down and after someone else leaving we took their spot. As more people arrived, more were leaving so there was a constant stream of activity and in the 2 hours we spent there it never seemed to get any less busy.
The falls themselves are wonderful. The plunge pool is lovely and clear and appeared reasonably safe of submerged logs and large rocks that we could see, but of course, there are always idiots jumping off cliffs into waters despite signs everywhere instructing no cliff jumping or diving. After our first swim, we see a film crew with a park officer (ranger) and we felt for the ranger as he was more occupied in having to instruct several cliff jumpers on many occasions to “cease and desist” whilst the film crew stood twiddling their thumbs in waiting.
The sheer number of people aside, the real disappointment with these falls was the amount of rubbish and people using the area as their own personal toilet. It was hideous in places and showed how some self-centred people have no regard for the ecology of an environment that is fragile at best. To highlight a similar problem, whilst waiting for the boys to put their shoes back before for the walk out, I counted over 30 cigarette butts laying in the dirt in front of us and jammed into forks of trees and crevices of rocks all within 15ft from where I was standing. There were empty beer cans lying around – even large pieces of broken glass we collected! Is this what we all want to experience in a National Park, I thought to myself – the behaviour of some people is an utter disgrace. Anyway, after our 2nd swim, we pick up some of the rubbish we could take out and head back up to the car.
By this time it was a little after 3PM and still in the mid-thirties. We decide to drive over to the nearby Buleys Rock Holes for the last swim/dip of the day. We arrive at the car park in under 10 minutes from Florence Falls and were immediately surprised by the volume of cars – seemingly more than at Florence? We park next to an old, but well loved Toyota Troopy with NSW plates housing a cool designed pop-up camper on its back tray. We grab our stuff and walk the less than 100M down to the bottom of the rock holes and were stunned to see how many people were there. (Upon reflection, I now wish I took a photo of the number of people sitting in the rock holes up and down the various cascading waterfalls in this area). We take one look at it, Celia and I look turn to look at each other and decide to abandon this idea and go back for a swim back at LTP pool – and thats what we did.
After a swim back at home, the boys and I take a walk around the camp ground to marvel at the scores of giant golden orb weavers. These are the giant spiders that hang between trees and various structures in enormously large sticky webs that sometimes can catch small birds. We saw several fine examples of these amazing spiders around our van in LTP. We read that these spiders, despite their enormous size, are harmless (not to some birds obviously) and don’t bite. We preferred not to put this newly acquired knowledge to the test and just look at them – from a comfortable distance.
That night whilst cooking dinner and the boys out exploring the toads & frogs about the place, Celia and I were discussing the day and arrived at the conclusion that we didn’t really want to go back into the park for day 2 as we had originally planned, especially since Reynolds River was still not accessible. It didn’t make too much sense to us to jostle with the crowds again however I felt the need to take a few images of Buleys Rock Holes in quieter times and decide to go back into the park at sunrise the next day.
The following morning, after downing a quick heart-starter (an espresso), I drive back into the park and out to the Buleys Rock Holes and arrive at the carpark at 6:30AM. I was somewhat surprised to see an old 70 series Toyota Land-Cruiser wagon with both its back doors open but I couldn’t see or hear anyone around. I grab my camera equipment and head down to the bottom of the pools. As I arrive, I gradually look up the line of the cascading pools and see a woman standing in the top pool, a scantily dressed woman I might add, who I think was more surprised to see me. She quickly got dressed and looked eager to leave soon walking past me as I was setting up. She gave me a sheepish smile on the way past as I bid her a good day.
Initially there was not much light around and the entire length of the rock pools were in shade. I was looking for some early morning reflective light wherever possible but I quickly realised this was not going to be for quite a while longer so I make do with the shaded light I had – the above image of the pools was the result.
Whilst walking around the site of Buleys Rock Holes waiting the light to increase, you could not help but notice the fragrant smell of human waste in the air and lots of litter lying around. For the above image, I had to wade into the stream a few times to retrieve several plastic bags and various bits of paper, even popper juice boxes. Buleys is a beautiful site and, as I previously mentioned, you can easily see why so many people want to come and spend time here. However, we need to ask ourselves, seriously, why do people treat places like this as their own toilet and rubbish tip? Having thought about this for a while and discussing it with Celia, we think the answer to this question is based on two primary factors; Education and Facilities. From what we saw in the park, and compared to lots of other National Parks we’ve been to (click here for the updated list) on this trip alone, these two things are deeply lacking for a high traffic National Park like Litchfield and the park simply cannot cope.
Make no mistake, Litchfield is a stunningly beautiful National Park and its plain to see why so many people all over the world come to visit. But it has some glaring issues. Perhaps these exist due to lack of government funding to keep pace with tourist numbers or other management concerns. Whatever the root causes are, we hope in the near future they are adequately addressed because how many national parks in Australia, indeed the world for that matter, are like Litchfield.
Geoff & Celia
A final thing; For those who maybe interested in rainfall stats below is the Australian Bureau of Meteorology rain fall figures for Northern Territory (March 2016) and “Fraction of March Average” is the most interesting metric and I have highlighted a few regions that recorded below 50% of their average rainfall for the month.