It’s 11am and already sunscreen and sweat form a sticky film across my winter-white skin. Two days ago I was in Melbourne – heavy traffic, 10 degrees and drizzling. Now it’s 30 degrees, and apart from my hiking partner, Yasmin, there’s not another person for miles around.
This is day one of our four day, 38km circuit of the Tabletop Range, the sandstone plateau that is Litchfield National Park’s most distinctive feature. Savanna woodland stretches across the plateau like an African landscape, dry stalks of spear grass giving it just the right coppery hue. A rainbow bee-eater watches warily from a tree, as colourful as its name suggests, its elegant tail divided into two long streamers. We only left Florence Falls, at the base of the plateau, this morning, but it already seems long ago.
Sweat drips from my nose as we pass beneath a stand of woollybutt trees, their orange flowers strewn along the path. It surprises me this arid looking country has such a diversity of plants, and that so many of them are flowering. Large golden blooms burst from the bare branches of a kapok bush, a species that drops its leaves to conserve moisture during the dry season. Turkey bushes line the path, so densely covered in pink star-shaped flowers they look swathed in a layer of gauzy fabric.
We continue towards our first camp at Walker Creek, following the blue trail-markers through recently burnt woodland. About half of the track was burnt at the end of the wet season, a vegetation management technique started millennia ago by the local Aboriginal people to keep trails open and maintain species diversity, a practice now continued by the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife service.
We reach the junction of the Walker Creek Link Walk, the creek appearing as a verdant green stripe on the plain below. Tired and hot, we descend towards it through the sweet-smelling kapok blooms.
We find a campsite beside the creek. I can’t believe that we have such a beautiful site to ourselves: a crystal-clear swimming hole spilling its water over an orange sandstone ledge in a series of cascades. We drop our packs and slide into the cool water, disturbing a metre-long Merten’s water monitor slumbering beside the creek. The cool water revives us, as do the small freshwater shrimp nibbling at our toes. The abundance of water in this dry landscape, including Litchfield’s famous waterfalls, is from wet season rains being stored in huge underground fissures within the plateau, to be gradually released into springs and creeks during the Dry.
Setting up the tent is a slightly disconcerting experience for a Victorian: there is no chance of rain, so there is no need for a fly. The stars are as bright and sharp as I have ever seen them, and the burble of the creek quickly lulls me to sleep.
Back at the junction with the Tabletop Track the next morning, we head southwest towards Tjenya Falls. We take a break at a copse of fern-leafed grevilleas, covered with large orange flowers like bristly hairbrushes. We mimic the lorikeets and suck sweet honey-like nectar from the flowers. The liquid is still night-cool and deliciously refreshing, the pollen staining our lips into big cheesy grins.
The track crosses grassy woodland before descending along a rocky escarpment to reach a dry creek bed. The width of the creek gives an indication of the amount of rain that falls here in the wet season (over 400mm in January, the wettest month), although today is – as every day seems to be in July – low 30s and sunny.
The track heads into diverse woodland and then follows a shady oasis of dense monsoon forest. We disturb two wallaroos who give guttural warning coughs before bounding away between the pandani. The track becomes harder to distinguish as it crosses slabs of purplish sandstone mottled with grey, green and white lichens.
After lunch we cross through more burnt woodland, dotted with brown termite mounds like tombstones. We reach a viewpoint at the edge of the plateau, the shadows of clouds the only disturbance in the vast forested plain beneath us. Tjenya Falls campsite is nearby; a table, a fire pit and pit toilet. The falls are fifty metres from camp, a narrow rivulet dropping down a sandstone cliff into a series of deep rock pools. We share today’s swim with tiny bronze-coloured frogs and electric-blue damselflies.
We eat dinner seated on rocks at the edge of the plateau, watching great bowerbirds forage for berries in the bushes below. The sunset doesn’t disappoint, throwing neon streamers across the sky before finally extinguishing itself beneath the plain.
The next day we continue along the edge of the escarpment, a cool breeze sighing through the tips of the stringybarks. The track turns away from the edge and we soon reach a sign marking the Wangi Falls Link Walk. We follow the track as it descends steeply, the shrieks of the flying foxes in the monsoon forest drowning out the roar of the falls.
At Wangi Falls two plumes of water tumble down a dark rock cliff, the first narrow and graceful, the second wider, throwing out great arcs of spray. The swimming hole at its base is the size of an Olympic pool and so clear that we can see every detail of the fish that circle in its depths. Unfortunately the pool is closed due to saltwater crocodiles. The crocs move into the area during the wet season and depart when the water drops during in the Dry. We climb back to the Tabletop Track, happy to leave the crocs and holiday crowds behind: the escarpment acts as an effective barrier to both.
Back on the Tabletop, grass yellow butterflies flit in the shade of the monsoon forest lining Wangi Creek. We cross the creek where the water peels over a knee-high drop in the orange sandstone. On the other side it’s difficult to locate the track in the thick grass and we have to repeatedly scout around to find the trail. We enter drier forest, crossing rock slabs bearing the ripples of the seabed they had once been. The heat and the difficulty finding the route has sapped our energy, and the last kilometre to the campsite seems to take an eternity.
It’s worth the effort. This nameless campsite is arguably the most beautiful yet: a flat area beside the upper Wangi Creek where a series of rock platforms creates a chain of small waterfalls linked by shallow pools. As always, the first thing we do is to clamber into the care of the creek. The waterfall in the bottom pool is just the thing to massage tired shoulders.
It’s our last day on the track. We follow the creek, with bronze-coloured dragonflies circling ahead and velvety, orange kurrajong flowers dotting the forest. The morning sun plays on the water where lily pads hold delicate white flowers towards the sun. We reach a tributary of Florence Creek and crisscross it through groves of silvery-fronded cycads then veer away to enter more grassy woodland, sparrow-sized grasshoppers leaping away from our feet. We pass between pink and orange sandstone knolls, the silver-green grass beside the track bending in the faint breeze, before we reach the sign for the Florence Falls Link Walk.
It is hard to believe that we have finished the circuit, that this is the same place we set out from only four days ago. Four days ago this landscape felt so different it was almost foreign. But now we have walked through it, slept on it, seen its creatures and been covered in its dust.
As we descend from the plateau towards the falls the temperature seems just right.
Florence Falls is 136 km southwest of Darwin and 46 km from the nearest town of Batchelor. There is no public transport to the park. The best option for those visiting from interstate is to rent a car from Darwin. The park is 2WD accessible; you can leave your car at the campsite at Florence Falls.
The Tabletop Track can be accessed from ‘link walks’ at Florence Falls, Walker Creek, Wangi Falls and Greenant Creek. The circuit can be walked in either direction. The track is open from late May/early June to mid/late October (depending on the season).
The best time to walk the track is July–August when it is relatively cool and many plants are in flower.
The ‘Litchfield National Park Map (Edition 6)’ is required to do the walk. It can be purchased from the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory on (08) 8999 8265. Click here for more information on Litchfield National Park. Check the latest track conditions with the Batchelor Parks and Wildlife office on (08) 8976 0282.
This article originally appeared in Australian Outdoor Geographic September 2011.