Whilst it’s always interesting to wander round a new city, I’m really a lover of nature, wildlife and open spaces. So it was inevitable that my trip to Darwin would include a trip out of the city. Both Litchfield and Kakadu National Parks are within reach of Darwin, and I would have loved to have explored both, but alas, I really only had 1 day to spare, and that meant making the decision to do a day trip to Litchfield National Park, being as it was both smaller and that bit nearer to the city. Without my own transport, I looked around at the day tour options, made my choice and hoped for the best. My big bugbear with organised tours is being restricted to the itinerary that they set, meaning missing out on places, or not getting to stay for as long as I would like. I also hate being stuck with a group of strangers being ferried about the place, so if I have to use them, I’ll do my best to use a small group, locally run tour service, rather than a big group corporate tour company. Whilst this was an option for Litchfield, it meant an additional stop at the Adelaide river to go crocodile watching, something that I really wasn’t fussed about doing. It really came down to the choice between a big couch tour to Litchfield alone, or a small group tour to Litchfield and the crocs. In the end I chose the latter.
I waited outside my Darwin hostel in the early morning light, and was collected by my guide early. In fact everybody being picked up was ready early meaning we got out of the city ahead of schedule. There were only 7 of us which was great. As we were such a small group and had extra time, our guide decided to take us to the Window on the Wetlands visitor centre where we had time to peruse the display on the local flora and fauna, and have a look over the landscape from the upstairs viewing deck. Whilst the ground wasn’t as red here as I’d seen from the plane, there was definitely a frontier feel with forests bordering onto exposed arid ground. The access road to the Adelaide river crocodile cruise had a similar feel with a watering hole next to the road attracting wild cattle and a plethora of birds. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve visited Australia, but despite hiking out bush in every state I’d previously visited, I was yet to spot a snake in the wild. As we trundled along next to the watering hole though, a snake suddenly appeared on the road and rapidly shot across to the other side, disappearing out of view as quickly as it had come into it.
I’d seen pictures of these crocodile cruises where they entice crocodiles to jump out the water with bait, and I am uneasy at wildlife being manipulated for the sake of a tourist buck as much as I am about the association that these wild and deadly creatures will make between the food and the humans. I wasn’t really sure how I’d feel about this part of the tour, and I wouldn’t have done it in any other circumstance, but I duly boarded the little boat and listened to the skipper tell us about the local crocs. They’d been sailing this river for years and had named the crocodiles they saw. They knew their behaviour, their personality and had a reasonable idea of their age. Despite my reservations, I had to give them their dues: they really did have a keen interest in the crocodiles.
The Adelaide river is broad, and even this far upstream could have quite a tidal influence. The water itself was silty and brown and so there was no way of telling what was in there. It didn’t take long for us to find crocodiles. Unlike the freshwater crocs I’d seen at Kuranda in Queensland, these saltwater crocs, or salties as they are known, are huge. Stumpy who was missing part of a leg was the first to come over and investigate us. Like an iceberg, it is a mere fraction of the beast that is visible above the water, and that is why they try to make the crocodile jump, to show off its hunting style and sheer size. They explained to us that they were selective with who they tried to bait, making sure they didn’t pick the same crocs each time, and gauging their behaviour as they went. So although Stumpy came over voluntarily, they left him alone, moving further along the river. Next we found Candy, a female and although smaller than the males, still a good sized croc. She eyeballed us, circling the boat, and when the bait was lowered, she demonstrated a shallow jump.
Despite the dirty-looking water, it was a lovely river to cruise down. Even in between croc sightings there was an ever changing bank to look at. Our third crocodile interaction was with Cassanova, the largest of the crocs that we had spotted. He was absolutely massive, and this was apparent even before he jumped out the water, but when he did leap upwards, the extent of his size became undeniable. These are definitely creatures not to be messed with. He demonstrated his jumping skills several times before we left him behind to cruise back along the river. As we did, the crew started throwing meat morsels up into the air and suddenly multiple birds of prey appeared, and these kites swooped in with great skill to catch the meat in mid air. They followed us for quite some time along the river until the meat ran out.
I had enjoyed the experience, and was glad to have seen some wild crocs up close, but I still wasn’t sure how I felt about the way they went about it. As we left, there was still plenty of activity at the watering hole. Now, there were water buffalo and a large black-necked stork amongst the crowd of fowl. After watching them briefly, we headed onwards towards Litchfield National Park. Our lunch stop was interesting to say the least, a random cafe in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere that was run by a nudist. The food was fantastic, and after filling up, it was time to get going.
100 kilometres (62 miles) south-west of Darwin, Litchfield National Park covers 1500 square kilometres (932 square miles) and is most known for its waterfalls and giant termite mounds. There was no way I was going to see everything in just one day, so this was always going to be a highlights tour, but it gave me plenty of desire to come back another time with my own transport. Our first stop was at the giant termite mounds. I’ve seen termite mounds in Australia before whilst out bush, but these were different. Within close proximity there were two types: magnetic mounds which were thin and on a north-south orientation to aid with temperature control, and cathedral mounds which were comparative giants. One of the largest cathedral mounds was surrounded by a boardwalk, allowing a 360o exam of it without being able to damage it. They might be built by tiny insects, but these structures were impressive.
With several waterfalls to choose from, I didn’t know which ones we were going to get to see. Our longest and first stop was at Wangi Falls, probably the more well-known and busiest of the waterfalls. It was exceptionally busy with groups of people in and out of the water. Whilst everyone else got straight in the water on such a hot tropical day, I took a quick wander along a short walkway leading round the pool edge, viewing the scene from a differing angle and coming across some rather large St Andrew’s Cross spiders. I’ve seen these in Australia before but none this big and their webs were laced across the gaps between the foliage.
The water temperature was perfect, but it was murky so judging the depth was completely by feel. After hanging around in the shallows, I started swimming across to the rock face, initially straight across the pool, then around the edge where I could hop between the shallower parts. I’m not ashamed to admit I have a fear of drowning. If I can see the bottom below me, even if it is out of my depth, I don’t have a problem, but like out in the open ocean, the murky waters made me uneasy as I didn’t know how deep it was. Once at the rocks, the side was exceedingly slippy and it was difficult to find something to hold on to without banging my legs against the rocks or slipping into the water. Myself and one of my companions for the day worked our way between the narrow ribbon waterfall and the wider waterfall, above which a group of guys in their twenties were unbelievably scaling the rock face quite high up and jumping into the water below. They had some balls climbing up the slippery rocks and as much balls jumping into the water when you couldn’t see where the rocks stopped or the deeper parts were.
Eventually we had to get out of the water, and we tucked into the tastiest watermelon I’ve ever eaten as we dried off, then we were off to the next stop. Florence Falls is a multi-tiered waterfall with a plunge pool at the bottom of the gully. We didn’t have time to go swimming here, instead we took the path to the lookout with a view down onto the falls from above. The guys who had been cliff diving at Wangi were already here doing the same thing and we watched again as they scaled the steep rocky sides, finding narrower and narrower ledges to jump from. I’m not sure how it came up in conversation, but I mentioned to the guide about my experience licking the butts of green ants in Queensland, and before I knew it, we were all letting green ants bite our skin in order to lick their abdomens. I remember thinking the first time around that it was a sentence I never thought I would say, and yet here I was, once again licking ants’ butts.
Our final stop in Litchfield National Park was the Buley Rock-pools. Here we had time to go swimming again, and I really didn’t need much persuasion to get back in the water. A series of small waterfalls cascading down a gradient created a myriad of little plunge pools, some of which were just deep enough to sit in, and a couple that were deep enough to swim in. I sat under one of the upper falls letting the thundering water massage my shoulders and back, before moving to the deeper pool at the bottom. Again the water was murky and the rocks were slippery resulting in me accidentally kicking the rock with my foot. The cool water helped to dull the throb a little bit, but unfortunately my toe nail had separated itself partly from my toe. It didn’t detract from the experience though, and lazing in the pools was a nice way to round off the afternoon.
I had hoped we would see Tolmer falls on the tour as well, but it was now time to leave the park behind and head back to the city. It didn’t take long for the head nodding to start as most of us slept our way back to Darwin. The light was getting lower as we drew into the city, but the day wasn’t over yet. I got dropped off at Mendil Beach, instead of back at my hostel, ready to experience a Darwin gem.