Most visitors come to Mitchell River National Park to see the famous Mitchell Falls. This is because most visitors are sensible. An easy 4.3km walk leads to the falls, where the river drops 80m in an elegant series of four tiers. We are not sensible; we not only haven’t seen the falls, we are heading in the opposite direction, off-track, towards the coast. Our plan – refined in consultation with the park rangers – is to hike out of the Punammii Unpuu campground, cut across the plateau and drop down to join the river. We’ll then follow the Mitchell downstream to just below the seldom visited Lower Mitchell Falls – a four day, 26km round trip.

Going down

The descent to the Mitchell River is vertiginously steep, more scrambling than hiking, as we pick our way over sandstone boulders the size of cars. It’s 10am and already well above 30 degrees, although the heat radiating from the rock makes it seem warmer. The river lies below, a tantalising jade green snake looping through the khaki valley.

Finally, in a lather of sweat, scratched by branches, grazed by rocks and bitten by green ants, we reach the river. The water tastes deliciously sweet, but we don’t dawdle in the shallows. Although the rangers told us it was “very unlikely” any saltwater crocs would be above the Lower Mitchell Falls “we don’t really check”.

We find some shade between two boulders for lunch and a siesta. It’s so hot our peanut butter has the consistency of syrup. Afterwards we discover a nearby cave containing a wall of Aboriginal paintings known as Gwoin Gwion or Bradshaws, long thin figures with knobby elbows and knees finely drawn in russet paint. The figures wear high, conical hats and tasselled skirts with what appear to be sacks or bags hanging from them. This style of picture has been dated around 17,000-years-old, a reminder that this area has been visited by the Wunambal and Gaambera people for thousands of years.

We head downstream, the walking easy along water-smoothed rock platforms. An intense smell of honey comes from sprays of yellow flowers adorning the paperbarks lining the river. The paperbarks host colonies of flying foxes squabbling and screeching in the afternoon heat. Three metres above the water level, bark and sticks are wrapped around the tree trunks, giving a hint of the volume and power of wet season flows.

A place to camp

Further on, a natural rock weir across the river creates small waterfalls and languid rock pools – a safe place to swim. Yasmin and I look at each other and drop our packs. A rainbow bee eater watches us set up our tent on a sand patch among the smooth slabs of stone above the river. After bathing I dry off on a sun-warmed rock and listen to the gurgle and growl of the waterfalls. Apart from Yasmin there is nobody around for miles. This is the real thing – remote, untamed, spectacular. The breeze on my skin lulls me to the edge of sleep…

The sound of the helicopter is masked by the water, so I only hear it as it comes up the river directly towards me, flying low. In an instant it passes overhead and all I can do is wave, as naked as the day. So much for splendid isolation. (We subsequently discover helicopters are part of the scenery around Mitchell Falls. While they mostly take scenic flights over the main falls, they sometimes take people down the river to see the lower falls too. On the bright side, if you did have an accident you could call the rangers on a satellite phone or radio and organise a chopper out.)

That night bats fly overhead, silhouetted in the bright weave of the Milky Way. The latent heat radiating from the sand and rock beneath our tent warms our sleeping bags.

The next day we resume our journey along the river. The rock platforms beside the waterway have been buffed to a glassy shine by wet season flows, highlighting the rich ochre, sand and charcoal colours.

To the northeast a rocky arch comes into view, a striking feature in the otherwise flat landscape. We decide to veer from the river and have a look. Once we’re closer it resolves into an extensive area of sandstone outcrops where massive slabs of stone are precariously balanced on one another like some giant’s game of Jenga. The outcrops create large overhangs, ledges, arches and caves. Our exploration disturbs a rock wallaby. With dazzling agility it bounds over the rocks and is gone.

Spirit art

Indigenous art is everywhere. More Gwion Gwion figures in elaborate headgear, but also hand stencils, animals such as turtles, and Wandjina. The Wandjina are mostly in white pigment, large figures with helmets of hair and blank staring eyes. Wandjina are the spirits of the clouds, the makers of the land, sea and humans beings. Some pictures are faded and hard to distinguish, while others seem as sharp and bright as the day there were painted.

We return to the river and resume downstream until we reach the top of the Lower Mitchell Falls. A series of cascades are the prelude to a 4m waterfall dropping gracefully over an arched ledge into a deep waterhole. A second waterfall drops 7m in a tidy white veil into a vast pool surrounded by sheer walls of salmon coloured stone.

As we sit on a rock to admire the falls we inadvertently flush a northern quoll from its hiding place. It scampers away towards the river, tawny and white-spotted, the size of a lean cat, with a single nervous glance over its shoulder.

Unlike the quoll it’s not so easy for us to get down the 30m drop to the new level of the river. We battle our way inland over loose rocks and spinifex before finding a dry creek bed leading down to the water. By the time we reach the river the sun is setting and we need to find somewhere to pitch the tent amongst the ledges and sofa-sized boulders. Finally we find a narrow rock platform far enough away from the river to be safe from crocs and flat enough to lie on in comfort. With the platform barely 10 centimetres wider than our tent my head is at the edge of a 2m drop. The thought of ‘dropping off’ to sleep keeps me awake.

Salt meets fresh        

The next morning we pack our gear as the sun turns the gorge’s sandstone walls brilliant orange. We leave our packs behind and head further downstream through a maze of massive stone boulders and snarls of driftwood. When the river becomes murky green we’ve reached our destination: the confluence, some 20km inland, where the freshwater of the river meets the tidal surge from Walmesly Bay. We immediately see a croc, at least 2m long, swimming in a large pool. There is no mistaking the thick head and powerful jaws of a saltie. The pool brims with life. There are splashes, heaving fins and flashes of colour from beneath the opaque waters. We take a seat and watch the show. Freshwater crocs drift in the pool like weathered branches. Schools of fish surge and turn, some sleek and slender with yellow fins, others as long as your arm with blunt heads streaked with white. Three 1m long sharks move purposely upstream with powerful sweeps of their tails. A school of smaller sharks circle, moving in tighter, their fins sending slashing sheets of water across the surface of the river as they lunge at unseen prey.

We sit there for hours transfixed. There are some things you just can’t see from a helicopter.

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This article originally appeared in Great Walks.