Saturday, January 28, 2017


visited Nov 2016


Most people know KAKADU is a "SHOULD SEE" when visiting the TOP END. But manyknowledgible folks say LITCHFIELD is as good. Lotsa locals claim LITCHFIELD is better (more on that later). So I made sure a LITCHFIELD TRIP was on my dance card.

LITCHFIELD NP on the left has an eastern entrance on ROUTE 30 abt 120km from DARWIN (you can also come in from the north but that route has unsealed road - sometimes closed in wet season) - for a good sealed road all the way, go down the Hwy1/STUART Hwy 92km to the Route 30 BATCHELOR/LITCHFIELD turnoff. Follow ROUTE 30 eight km to BATHCHELOR and then another 14km to the PARK ENTRANCE.

The above image is a good for the relative sizes of LITCHFIELD and KAKADU (at right). Now wonder KAKADU can offer everything LITCHFIELD has, plus a lot more.
Note NITMILUK NP to the south - almost as big as LITCHFIELD: this is the site of the fabulous KATHERINE (NITMILUK) GORGE, another of my TOP END "should sees".
(image Brookes Australia Tours)

A usefully detailed map of LITHCHFIELD can be seen ON THIS PAGE 

As a bottom budget traveler I researched best value. I took WAYOUTBACK's ONE DAY LITCHFIELD TOURViator and TripAdvisor have this on their sites, although they don't name the operator.
The tour exceeded my expectations in a big way – as the least expensive of many online I wasn’t expecting a lot, but afterwards I’m finding it hard to think what the others can do better for often a hell of a lot more money.
Maybe their vehicles are more comfortable although our small aircon bus was not painful.
Ain't a Merc, ain't 4wd, but our Toyota minibus did the job well.

Some other operator's vehicles may be 4wd which allows access to dirt road venues – but I’m not aware we missed any SHOULD SEES the guide books mention.
Perhaps others' food is better – not that our luncheon was lacking in quantity/taste (although morning and afternoon tea was NOT included: we had the option to purchase same at one of the several roadhouse stops. But is this worth many extra dollar?)
I know for a fact that some of the more expensive tours include a stop on the way down at one of the JUMPING CROC places. 
These are excellent but burn time meaning that you may visit one less venue at LITCHFIELD itself – if 2 instead of 3 swimming spots is not important this may be no bad thing: me, I’m a super keen swimmer plus I find sitting in a cool pool of burbling clear water one of the better things to do more than twice on a 40C day. Besides I’d already done a JUMPING CROC CRUISE as part of my KAKADU trip. 

So I’m giving this one 5 stars for value.

It gets 5 stars for commentary/leadership too – tour leader JOEY was excellent, with interesting and often humorous information beginning in Darwin. His knowledge of flora/fauna/geology was first rate (bit of an expert on bush tucker which he had us try – the green ants were pretty good), he was no slouch on preparing dinner while we soaked in a cool pool - and for the nervous he was a careful driver.
Joey searching for green ant bush tucker

He had a thing about how great early wet season is in the TOP END. Thing is it isn’t very wet at all – my 3 weeks in the region saw rain (short sharp) on 3 days only – 80% sunshine. It rained maybe 10 nights – short, sharp again. “TELL ALL YOUR FRIENDS!” said Joey. He pointed out other advantages – the crowds are way down: often the big car park at FLORENCE FALLS is packed out in high season: we had no problems even on a nice Saturday when lots of Darwin residents seemed to have decided a cool pool at waterfall’s base is the place to be on a hot day.
I noticed another plus – plenty of walk in vacancies at accommodation, tours etc often with good low season discounts. And this is the time for cheap flights into DARWIN - from Sydney was less than $100 each way.
The downsides include some trips having to be rescheduled because of not enough takers on the original date (as did mine), some trips not running at all, and some venues being closed (seems more common in KAKADU).

The trip venues rate highly too – the MAGNETIC TERMITE MOUNDS, WANGI FALLS, FLORENCE FALLS, BULEY ROCKHOLE are all "should sees" according to the guide books - although I was not whelmed by the first. These plus several stops at roadhouses along the way make for an informative but not too rushed day. Note all these places are accessed by sealed road meaning the tour can run right thru wet season. As said, some of the more expensive tours may use a 4wd vehicle allowing access to some of the many 4wd dirt tracks of Litchfield – a few had interesting destination signs (viewpoints etc) although I’m not aware that any are SHOULD SEES 

TRIP ROUTE AND VENUES - we went along 30 to theTERMITE MOUNDS, then direct to WANGI FALLS, after - retracing our steps to FLORENCE FALLS and nearby BULEY ROCKHOLES and then back to DARWIN thru BATCHELOR .
BTW - R30 doesn't end just past the WANGI turn-off: it continues north, becoming unsealed in parts, and exits the park abt 20km on. It then runs north roughly 70km (still many unsealed sections) where it joins main road B24 (COX PENINSULA RD) which to the right (east) runs abt 30km across to Hhw1 only 45km south of DARWIN CBD.
Alternatively, you can turn SOUTH off 30 at its most southern point just short of WANGI and bounce abt 45km down the dirt 4wd SOUTHERN ACCESS TRACK for abt 45km joining DALY RIVER ROAD (28) - go east abt 50km (mostly sealed) to DORAT RD (23) - turn left and go abt 30km to ADELAIDE RIVER.  DARWIN CBD is 112km north via Hwy1.

btw - the distance marker near the intersection of HWY1 and 30 should read 92km - too hard to change once map is posted.


Pick-up in DARWIN. Took a good 30mins over maybe 8 different locations. 
Then onto Hwy1 for the trip south - JOEY was already on the PA with information about DARWIN, lifestyles of locals, major features along the way. Plenty of humour. 
Turned right onto R30 after about 70mins. Another 10 mins saw us in the town of BATCHELOR. This is the closest to the park for resort/motel type accommodation as far as I know. 
We called at a nice aircon roadhouse to purchase some morning tea.

Back on 30, another 10 minutes got us to the PARK ENTRANCE where....
....we dud the obligatory group shot. It's around this point where the road starts to climb onto the low plateau which dominates northern LITCHFIELD NP. Heights and slopes are unremarkable.

Another 10 minutes on 30 got us to the MAGNETIC TERMITE MOUNDS. This is one of the higher mounds and was located in the bush between the main road and the pull off parking loop....
....while on the other side of the loop was a boardwalk with an outlook on a kind of "mound city".
Note different type of mound. Check out JOEY far right middle-ground - he was expert at explaining mound construction and differences.....
....and in finding edible insects ("bush tucker") in mounds and vegetation. I have to tell you green ants aint bad at all.

Northern Territory National Parks has put a lot of effort into this spot. There is a pull-off loop to the right of the main road (if you are heading into the park) with adjacent parking spots, rest rooms, some picnic facilities plus a boardwalk and viewing platforms to help mound inspections. Instruction panels in an information shelter explain structures etc but not as well as JOEY.

I was a bit underwhelmed with this spot. I reckon the mounds are worth a quick stop – both for their mildly interesting appearance and as a good driving break heading from park-entrance to the better attractions. But I would not go out of my way to see them.
Maybe the fact I have seen termite mounds in the Aussie bush many times, including at KAKADU the week before, dampened my enthusiasm – however I have to admit that KAKADU’S mound area did not have the hundreds of structures of MAGNETIC which kinda makes it a mound “city”. And I don’t think I’ve seen 4m high mounds before. Nor the variety of structure types in the one place.

Um....we didn't go to the actual LOST CITY because it is a considerable distance off the main road along a rough dirt track. So we stopped at a similar area alongside R30 a little further on from the termite mounds.
Here low granite cliffs have weathered and eroded to give a sort of ANGKOR WAT effect. Once again I was undewhelmed - I hope the real deal is better and worth the bouncy 30 min one way trip off the main road. But no worries, the above was another chance to stretch the legs, and the best was yet to come....

- pretty excellent place, but not the best (this came later): in fact I rate WANGI my #3 LITCHFIELD attraction.
I dunno id you can see, but the entrance to WANGI FALLS PLUNGE POOL is a set of steps, way better than at its competitor, FLORENCE FALLS. You are looking above at a really big pool - I reckon it was at least a 150m swim across to the twin falls - excellent places to sit below the torrent fer a free water massage. There was enough shallow water near the steps for our non-swimming guests to get wet.

Did I say a pretty big pool? Picture should click-expand nicely.

School excursion poses fer the happy snap.

WANGI is abt 17km further on from our stop to check out the LOST CITY-like granite cliffs - 165km from DARWIN, 82 off the STUART Hwy and 68km from BATCHELOR.

GOOGLE EARTH image showing:
-the POOL ACCESS TRACK from the car park: fairly short (abt 150m) and flat.
- the short (less than 2km) ACCESS ROAD from R30  - this is sealed, but may flood after big wet season rains. Check ahead.
- the LOOP WALK: a 1.7km/35 minutes circuitous path starting poolside and going up/behind the falls. Unfortunately when I visited it was partially closed not far past the branch to the VIEWING PLATFORM which gives a nice alternative outlook of the falls/pool.
THE CARPARK: spacious with plenty of room when I visited despite many day-tripping Darwinians on a gorgeous weekend. However this may change in dry season. JOEY, told us Litchfield overcrowding has become a problem at high season peaks  – particularly since the Commonwealth increased the entrance fee into KAKADU to $40 (LITCHFIELD is a Northern Territory NP – entrance is free unless camping) which diverted a lot of bucks-down backpackers and Darwin resident day-trippers from KAKAUDU. Since then it is often hard to find a high season parking spot at popular LITHFIELD attractions despite the NT govt spending big on expanding carparks.
the nearby VISITORS’ CENTRE with eats/coffee, free wifii, the usual local information and displays (including some cultural stuff on original inhabitants) plus touristy junk for sale.
- the CAMPGROUND at WANGI is fairly big, close to the pool and suitable for vans.

MY #2 LITCHFIELD LOCATION. I prefered it over WANGI because it was more spectacular and had more variety.

Great overview from a viewing platform on the main access track to the pool abt 150m from the carpark - before reaching the rather steep stairway.

I rate the 135 step stairway to the plunge pool a plus - but I'm an exercise nut. Less fit people may be less than impressed: all is not lost - you have that great overview before reaching the stairs and some really nice rock holes up the top for a cool soak on a hot day.

The pool itself is not as big as at WANGI - an advantage for poorer swimmers who fancy a water massage under the falls. I'm a keen swimmer - I found there was still plenty of water for a good workout. There seemed more shallow water close to the entrance for non-swimmers.

A disadvantage - entry to the water was a bit difficult. Fairly narrow with tricky rocks underfoot. Seemed a bit confined even with a moderate crowd on a lovely early wet season day (lotsa day-trippers seemed to have come down from DARWIN).

Up the top, virtually adjacent the car park (a bit east) were 3 or 4 nice ROCKHOLES - great for cooling down in the heat (and early wet season sure is hot!)


TUCKER TIME - Joey spent the time we had at the waterfall and rock-holes setting up lunch in the picnic shelters near the car park. The usual Aussie excursion luncheon - BBQ sausages and steaks, plenty of salad, bread etc - unlimited water, Went down real well.
Now I'm cheating here inferring picnic facilities are unique to FLORENCE - all our venues had same. But the timing here was perfect to put on the nose bag.

My #1 LITCHFIELD LOCATION - the BULEY ROCKHOLES are only 2km further up the creek so you can knock over 2 great venues at the one stop by taking the connecting bush track. Of course you can retrace your drive along the access road to BULEY's car park.

From WANGI we went back onto 30 and retraced our drive 22km to the sealed side road into FLORENCE (5km) and BULEY (3km). This makes the last 2 closer to DARWIN/BATCHELOR for the time-short. Another advantage - I've heard the access road is less likely to be cut after heavy prolonged rain. than that into WANGI.

Flornce layout. Not real clear - but there is a 4wd campground just out of image TOP RIGHT. 
I noticed NT NATIONAL PARKS have put in a new overflow car-park in adjacent the access road from R30 immediately east of image.

This place is a gem - what we have is a bunch (a half a dozen+) small/medium pools along 400m of creek - some are just deep enough for sitting, some you need to be able to tread water - but none big enough to swim distances. People who wanna do that have the great FLORENCE plunge pool only 2km down stream.
Oh yeah, a bit further downstream of the ROCKHOLES (but well short of FLORENCE) is a stretch of creek/river where we on the tour did an ADVENTURE TREK/SWIM over about 500m. Totally excellent - more later but it was this one extra which makes me rate BULEY #1 ahead of FLORENCE.

After checking the pools, Joey asked for participants for this extra small excursion - he stressed takers should be fit and able to swim. He seemed a bit surprised when I opted in seeing I'm a 71 yo geezer who hides behind a long-sleeved shirt and long duds most of the time - but the fact is I swim/cycle/run every day and am so fit I could take on a whole posse of pole dancers in one session without raising my pulse (okay, that's a lie - my ol' heart would be banging so hard it could fritz the sensors in my FITBIT) and I can swim further underwater than the average 25 yo can swim on the surface without a rest.

Thing that gets me is my camera is not waterproof so I can't show you shots (nor can I find any shots on the 'net of same) - we walked maybe 200m downstream on a track, then entered the water where we waded/swam another 300m - checking out local fauna/flora guided by Joey's expert information. At one stage a big WATER MONITOR (Australia's version of Indo's KOMODO DRAGON but not as big/scary) entered the stream (Joey doing a voice-over in a hushed tone like DAVID ATENBOROUGH). 
Didn't see any harmless FRESH WATER CROCS (I had my diving face mask) - it was too high for the dangerous SALT WATER CROCS (apparently they don't like heading upstream - I'm thinking FLORENCE FALLS would be an extreme barrier - actually the plunge pool below the falls is a fair bit upstream from the floodplain too).
Could a non-swimmer do this? Most of the journey in the creek was wading, but there were a few deeper sections and one spot where we had to dive under a big fallen log - I'm thinking a non-swimmer would find this very tricky.



Our one stop on the way back was at a roadhouse on the outskirts of BATCHELOR - had the usual stuff (very cold beer at a reasonable price) plus some pop-art like this old Hyundai.

80 minute's later we arrived back in DARWIN, to start the inevitable round of drop-offs. The town sure has a widely dispersed bunch of accommodation places.


Is the local saying: “LITCHFIELD DO – KAKA DON’T” true? Um....tricky. Each has its pluses making both well worth visiting. But time-short people may have to select one only. Hopefully the stuff below may help:

CLOSEST TO DARWIN – LITCHFIELD’S main attractions are centered about 130km from Darwin, KAKADU’S around 250-300.
LITCHFIELD much closer. Those smaller place-markers around the KAKADU marker are some of the attractions in the park - KAKADU is a BIG region.

LOWEST ENTRY FEE – KAKADU is a federal national park: Canberra recently increased the entrance fee to $40.
LITCHFIELD is a Northern Territory national park: entrance is free unless camping.
This may be unimportant to many, but some travelers are dollars-deficient.
The fee increase has diverted a lot of bucks-down backpackers and Darwin resident day-trippers from KAKAUDU to the already popular LITCHFIELD. 
WAYOUTBACK's JOEY told us that since then it’s often hard to find a high season parking spot at popular LITCHFIELD attractions despite the NT govt spending big on expanding carparks .

CROWDS – the above suggests LITCHFIELD may be the loser here. However leader of my overnight KAKADU trip, MATT from TERRITORY EXPEDITIONS reckoned that had we visited in high season we would have found difficulty finding space at many picnic areas, swimming holes and the rest. Such is the popularity of KAKADU.
So gang, I can’t really tell you which is better in respect to being uncrowded – except to say TIME OF VISIT contributes. My tours of both were in early wet (low) season November and both parks featured relatively few people – crowding was a problem nowhere except maybe at the rather confined entry to LITCHFIELD’S otherwise excellent FLORENCE FALLS gorge pool. Hate to see it in high season.
Entrance to FLORENCE FALL's plunge pool a bit squeezy and rocks make it quite tricky underfoot - required a bit of care even with low crowds of early wet season. Could be a bit of a circus with multiple people. Nice pool though.

BTW my LITCHFIELD TOUR was on a beautiful sunny Sunday when lotsa DARWIN residents had decided soaking in the various pools and rock-holes would be very appealing in the forecast 40C. So the place was certainly not deserted, but definitely not overcrowded.
Plenty of sunshine in this shot. Tourists look different from locals to a long-time former like me. Most of these people at one of the BULEY ROCKHOLES pools seemed locals to me.

BEST FOR DAYTRIPS – closeness to Darwin, plus the fact KAKADU’S more numerous attractions are spread out over its enormous area (at least 5x the size of LITCHFIELD), ensure LITCHFIELD gets the prize. In fact I can’t imagine doing a KAKADU daytrip – too much of the time would be spent in the vehicle and venues would necessarily be rationed. I found even my 2 day tour missed things I consider KAKADU “SHOULD SEES”.

VARIETY – LITCHFIELD’S size restricts variety. The low plateau has quite a few streams spillIing off its sides at attractive waterfalls. These have carved neat swimming holes and smaller rock-holes ideal for sitting and soaking. So it’s no surprise a lot of attractions are confined to waterfalls/swimming/soaking spots. The relative lack of verticality means panoramic viewpoints are limited (maybe some of the 4wd tracks feature these but WAYOUTBACK’S small bus was 2wd). 
Like Kakadu, Litchfield has an area of extensive termite mounds but I found these more a good excuse to break the journey and would have been underwhelmed without the informative spiel from JOEY. 
There are some sections of weathered granite which has eroded to produce a landscape a bit reminiscent of ANGKOR WAT. I found the section we saw a bit underwhelming too. The best of these, LOST CITY, is up a tricky 4wd dirt side road.
Not exactly LOST CITY, but as close as our 2wd bus could get. Didn't exactly float my boat. Plus KAKADU is so big I bet it has the equivalent.

KAKADU’S sheer size means It can offer plenty of LITCHFIELD-like waterfalls, swimming holes and rock-holes, termite mounds (although the area we inspected did not have the “mound city” seen at LITCHFIELD), plus quite a bit more. There are several world class rock-art sites, wetland cruises, big river floodplains, coastal areas and some upmarket accommodation (better than tents/vans) within the park. There were also a couple of roadhouses with nice swimming pools, bar areas, snacks etc actually within the borders of KAKADU. Plus 2 dedicated aboriginal cultural centers which outgun LITCHFIELD’S limited display at the WANGI FALLS visitors center. Hell, there’s even a  town – JAIBIRU – offering typical small-town services.
As far as I know, LITCHFIELD can't do rock-art like KAKADU.

And the way the multi-coloured ARNHEM PLATEAU ESCARPMENT has eroded has produced a more tantalising feature to me than LITCHFIELD’S weathered granite.

As far as camping is concerned, both have plenty of sites but once again, KAKADU’S size means it has more.

SCENERY – LANDSCAPE. We aren’t talking YOSEMITE at either – once again the lack of verticality (um- is that a word?) means any highlands aren’t all that high, cliffs and escarpments not gob-smacking and waterfalls drops limited. But what there is is not unattractive – and I reckon KAKADU gets the gong here – I don’t think LITCHFIELD has anything to compete with the long multi-coloured, intricately eroded ARNHEM PLATEAU ESCARPMENT or the YELLOW WATER (and other) WETLANDS, river floodplains-estuaries-tidal flats. 

And although LITCHFIELD’S waterfalls and pools are pretty good, several I visited in KAKADU were much the same - and JIM JIM  (track closed when I visited) from what I understand is far more gob-smacking.
The ARNHEM PLATEAU ESCARPMENT also gives visitors panoramic views over surrounding lowlands – an outlook not able to be matched by anything I saw in LITCHFIELD.
 (image Venture North)

SWIMMING/SOAKING – LITCHFIELD  is known for such things but two waterfall swimming holes I visited in KAKADU were just as good. I didn’t see anywhere to compete with LITCHFIELD’S fabulous BULEY ROCKHOLE, but with the sheer size of KAKADU, I bet there is somewhere which is just as good. Maybe this is the thing – in KAKADU you have to go searching for certain features whereas BULEY, say, is only 2km away and on the same creek at the best (IMHO) KAKADU waterfall place, FLORENCE FALLS.

TREKKING – each has good trekking. Time constraints on my visits meant a 15 minute walk at most but earlier research suggested KAKADU has more walking tracks and may be preferable to hard core trekkers seeking really long walks.

IMPACTED BY WET SEASON – KAKADU has more unsealed side roads to out of the way places - plus several major river floodplains the main roads must traverse. These can be cut after very heavy prolonged rain.
Note tour operators seem to have plenty of alternative venues at such times times.
Don’t hold me to this, but in my planning I seemed to find a greater number of attractive sounding KAKADU tours that didn’t run AT ALL in wet season.
I think rescheduling tours that DO RUN due to lower wet season customer numbers would affect both equally.
Oops! Tourists over-rate Land Cruiser's ability to ford KAKADU'S flooded and croc infested MAGELA CREEK. Lucky the police 4wd has a snorkel (image

COST OF TOURS – the far fewer kms and no entry fee of a LITCHFIELD tour means prices for equal duration trips are considerably lower. Plus to see KAKADU properly you need more than one day which starts to make tours there downright expensive (at least to tight-wads like me on a skinny geezers’ pension). Shop around – there are considerable differences.
I think an excellent way of seeing more of KAKADU may be independently with car/van/4wd over more than 2 days. But this is more expensive again if you have to hire the vehicle - plus you won’t get the excellent insider’s tour guide commentary.

DO YOU NEED A 4WD? It’s surprising how 2wd cars and campers can travel rough dirt roads. But they aint too hot in water over 40cm deep. However even in dry season many side roads in both parks have deepish creek crossings, sand patches, rocky sections needing high clearance, steep grades etc requiring 4wd and are signposted as such.
But here’s the thing – there are enough SHOULD SEE attractions in both parks on or very close to sealed roads, so even 2wd buses can access. And note that some of the more expensive tours have 4wd trucks with bus cabins and smaller 4wd vehicles and so they can get into the trickier places.
Many LITCHFIELD and KAKAUDU (pictured) side roads ask for 4wd (image Parks Australia)

SUM UP – overall KAKADU’S size allows it to offer just about everything LITCHFIELD can plus a fair bit more. But for time-short or bucks-down travellers LITCHFIELD is the way to go.
Time of year may have some impact too - LITCHFIELD seems less affected by wet season.
Of course if you have the time and are not destitute, do both. I would have felt short-changed if I had missed either in my TOP END visit.

Many of you have little choice re holiday timing, but for those not so restricted……
…..I reckon early wet season may be the go. According to guides MATT and JOEY, weather conditions are usually great that time of year with little rain and plenty of sunshine. In my 22 November days in the TOP END it rained (short/sharp) on 3 days only and about 10 nights. Days were 80% sunshine. “TELL YOUR FRIENDS” stressed JOEY  – he said as soon as dry season officially ends in October tourist numbers plummet. They find it hard to fill the buses and have to reschedule some tours.
So that can be a disadvantage even early in the wet – you may get an email like me asking you if another day is okay for your tour. I also found some places were already closed to visitors – eg the excellent JIM JIM FALLS in KAKADU - and some of the more attractive-reading  tours not being run at all Nov thru March, particularly for KAKADU.
Of course later in the wet things can deteriorate – after periods of sustained heavy rainfall even the main routes thru both parks can be cut by flood for a day or so, more side roads are liable to be closed and swimming holes raging torrents of water. They say the falls can be pretty spectacular at such times however. Btw my research said there is usually still plenty of sunshine in the really wet months – it just rains harder and more often. However if a low pressure monsoon trough settles in it can rain hard more or less constantly for several days - this is when it floods. 
Other advantage of low season in the parks – no overcrowding. And outside  – more vacancies (often walk in) and some good discounts, particularly for mid range and better accommodation.
But is sure gets HOT and HUMID.

Plenty of sunshine in this early wet season BULEY ROCKHOLE (LITCHFIELD) pic.