Litchfield National Park

November 17, 2023
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DEPARTING from Alice Springs, I hit the road once more for the 1,500-kilometre drive back to Darwin.

The worst part is the drive from Alice Springs to Tennant Creek, as this part of the Stuart Highway crosses a very thinly populated desert region where one of the best-known localities is Barrow Creek, developed around the Barrow Creek Telegraph Station, established in the 1870s and now the site of a historic reserve. There’s also a roadhouse, the Barrow Creek Hotel, though hardly anyone else actually lives there these days.

The following video begins with a still photo of the Barrow Creek Telegraph Station. It goes on to show one of the road trains, articulated trucks hauling several trailers, that you see on Northern Territory roads, which I filmed somewhere near Alice Springs.

Then I discuss some of the grim history of the Barrow Creek area, the site of the 1928 Coniston massacre and the murder of the backpacker Peter Falconio in 2001, a sensational case where people initially thought Falconio’s girlfriend, Joanne Lees, who barely escaped, had done it and somehow faked being tied up, etc.

The Falconio case helped to inspire the 2005 film Wolf Creek, as well as a whole Australian fiction genre of backpackers getting done in by weirdos in the outback.

It isn’t really till after Tennant Creek that you start to get back into country that’s a bit less lonesome and, perhaps, a bit more wholesome.

I carried on past Daly Waters with its quirky pub, and pretty Katherine with its gorges, and finally pulled into Batchelor—the gateway town of Litchfield National Park.

Batchelor is a short distance south of Darwin by Australian standards: a bit more than 100 kilometres, as this information panel shows.

On the right side of the sign, there was a list of local attractions, some of which you could only get to by four-wheel drive, and only in some cases when the weather permitted as well, as many roads in this area are prone to flooding in the wet season.

The area where Batchelor now exists used to be called Rum Jungle, and perhaps still is by some: a name that supposedly dates back to an incident in the 1880s when a teamster hauling a wagon load of rum plied some local goldminers with the goods he was hauling, got them drunk, and made off with 750 ounces of their product (fortunately later recovered).

Another tale holds that, in 1871, a wagon load of rum got hopelessly stuck in the mud and that the hauliers had no choice but, regrettably, to drink the contents over a certain period.

In any case, gold wasn’t the only thing to be dug in the area. It was also a centre of tin mining. And Batchelor, itself, was founded in the late 1940s as the headquarters of a uranium-mining enterprise, digging up uranium to make Britain’s first atomic bombs. In those days, the area was fenced off from the outside world with a fairly heavy security presence. I learned about this in Batchelor’s fascinating local museum.

Incidentally, the name Batchelor honours the first Federal Minister in charge of the Northern Territory, Egerton Lee Batchelor, who unfortunately served for only a few months before dying of a heart attack. Already well-regarded, Batchelor was sufficiently progressive, by the standards of the time, to acknowledge that “the treatment of the natives formed the blackest page” in the annals of Australian history, and introduced various reforms to improve their condition, though it wasn’t until the late 1920s that the very last massacre of Aborigines would take place.

One such survivor was Alyandabu, who became a well-known figure in Darwin, dying in her late eighties in 1961. Most of Alyandabu’s people, the Kungarakan, had died in July 1895 after eating damper, a kind of bread, made with a deadly powder that they mistook for baking powder. I wasn’t able to find out whether this was an honest mistake or something the local settlers had organised. It seems that no one has ever been prosecuted for deliberately poisoning Australian Aborigines, yet such mass poisonings used to happen with suspicious regularity and in ways that involved the very deadliest of poisons, not just something that would make you a bit sick.

Litchfield National Park was proclaimed in 1985, and is very popular with people from Darwin, as it is in some ways more suited to family outings than Kakadu, which has more to do with culture and crocodiles and thus more inclined to attract long-distance tourism.

By contrast, Litchfield National Park is known for its waterfalls and swimming holes, which are also highly accessible, unlike the Jim Jim and Twin Falls in Kakadu.

The park rangers do their best to keep the Litchfield National Park pools free of crocodiles: though it seems that you can never be completely sure in the Top End.

Litchfield National Park is organised around a plateau called the Tabletop Range, from which the water drains off to form the waterfalls and permanent pools that are its main attraction. Here’s a photo I took from a lookout on the Tabletop Range. You can see the low-lying country that surrounds the range in the background.

A peak in the Tabletop Range

One of the most popular spots for an outing at Litchfield National Park is at the Wangi Falls and their Plunge Pool.

The Wangi Falls

Swimmers in the Wangi Falls Plunge Pool

Here’s a video I made of Tolmer Falls, Wangi Falls, and myself soaking in a swimming hole early in the morning, when I had it to myself!

There are lots of short hikes in Litchfield National Park as well.

I visited the Buley Rockhole.

And Walker Creek, which has many campsites along it.

Greenant Creek and the Tjaetaba Falls are also worth a visit.

There are lots of campsites everywhere in the park, including ones close to every major attraction and eight separate campsites along Walker Creek alone.

Walker Creek and wider Litchfield National Park campsites

Other places I visited within the park included the Florence Falls and the Florence and Shady Creeks.

And the Tolmer Falls, which are the biggest, I believe, and much more impressive in the wet season than on the day I was there!

The Tolmer Falls: Much more impressive in the wet season, of course

Selfie at Tolmer Falls

You can see that Litchfield National Park is a gentler sort of a place than Kakadu.

Though I was camping in a tent, I didn’t stay at any of the park campsites but at a commercial caravan park called The Pandanus on Lichfield, where I parked the rental car. This is a good option if you are just making short visits to each site.

I certainly did not get to see everything: other attractions at Litchfield National Park include the curious Lost City rock formations.

The Lost City. Photo by Bill Bradley, 10 May 2007, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Plus, the Blyth Homestead and the Bamboo Creek Tin Mine, both reminders of the tough life of some of the region’s early European settlers. And other waterfalls and pools, including Tjaenera, where the pool below the waterfall is an Aboriginal sacred site and therefore not swimmable.

I also got to pet a rescued joey, a little wallaby or kangaroo that had been retrieved from the side of the road (probably its mum got run over), and to see the ‘magnetic’ termite mounds that are plentiful in the area, oriented north-south so that they catch the early morning and afternoon sun but present a thin edge to the full glare of the mid-day sun. Both are in the following video:

Finally, though Litchfield National Park is not far from Darwin, there are two routes back.

And so, I conclude my posts on the Northern Territory. My next post will be about a return visit to a city I never get tired of: Wellington, Aotearoa/NZ.


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