We had just enjoyed three days touring through Kakadu National Park. In that short time we had managed to experience just a few of the highlights of this magnificent part of the Northern Territory’s Top End, including several spectacular billabongs, incredibly majestic waterfalls, cool and refreshing natural plunge pools, a vast array of wildlife and a taste of the area’s living Aboriginal culture.
Most of the roads in this 20,000km national park are gravel, and there are plenty of 4WD only tracks, so you need a decent rig to visit places such as Jim Jim Falls, Twin Falls, and Gunlom. Fortunately, we were well equipped, touring in ARB Darwin’s brand new Isuzu D-MAX and trusty Toyota HiLux, so we had no problems accessing these impressive sites. Our party consisted of six people: Sara Jentsch (Tourism NT), Kim and Geoff Dawes (who had joined us on our previous NT trip to the Red Centre), Chris Humphries (a local Darwin copper), Michael Ellem (Offroad Images) and yours truly.
Our time in Kakadu was up and we were now heading west towards the second part of our Top End adventure in Litchfield National Park. First, we needed to freshen up, so we made our way along the Kakadu Highway to Pine Creek, where we could refuel the vehicles, recharge the camera batteries, have a shower and grab a bite to eat. All of these objectives were achieved at the comfortable and welcoming Lazy Lizard Caravan Park, Tavern and Info Centre.
After 2 pm and a decidedly leisurely lunch befitting the Lazy Lizard Tavern’s name, we mounted up and headed north. Up the Stuart Highway for 50kms or so, then turned left at Dorat Road, and left again onto Daly River Road, for the last few kilometres, to the start of the Reynolds River 4WD Track, at the southern entrance to Litchfield NP.
There’s less than 200km of blacktop between Kakadu and Litchfield, but we were glad to once again turn onto the gravel. We dropped tyre pressure to around 28psi and started up the track that would lead us to our next campsite at Surprise Creek Falls.
Only open in the dry season, the Reynolds River 4WD Track is so named as it follows the Reynolds River, and from the southern end, it crosses the river at a dry weather ford about 8km in. There are quite a few tracks in sections as people are forced to make new ones to avoid boggy, wet stretches, but it was anything but wet when we were here. In fact, Geoff, Kim and Chris had to hold back quite a distance in the HiLux to avoid the dust being generated by the D-MAX, in which Michael, Sara and I were happily motoring along in the fresh air. As well as sandy sections there are quite a few stretches of bulldust, so it pays to have a snorkel fitted, not just for the water crossings but also to keep your air filter relatively clean.
After the ford across the river, we stopped to photograph a small billabong to the left of the track called Queen Mary Lagoon, and not long after, we drove across Prousts Crossing and arrived at the Surprise Creek Falls campsite. It was now quite late in the afternoon so we found an appropriate spot away from the few other campers, rolled out our swags and got the fire going. Facilities are basic (fire pits, tables and toilets) but the campsite is usually uncrowded; there were only three groups the night we were there. And the surprise? Well, it’s only a 300m walk to a series of rock holes that are linked by small waterfalls, and Surprise Creek Falls is one of only a few designated swimming areas in Litchfield NP.
A young German backpacker, who was travelling with his girlfriend in an old Ford Maverick, wandered over to our camp for a chat that night. He complained about the “waves” (corrugations) and “speed humps” along the track so we suggested he lower his tyre pressure. He was a nice fellow but seemed more intent on talking than listening, so we weren’t sure if he heeded our advice.
The following morning we packed up camp early and got underway before breakfast. There was a heavy mist and the magnetic termite mounds not far from the exit of the campground looked like tombstones in an eerie cemetery, and Michael was keen to photograph the scene. When he’d finished we continued on our northern path and the rising sun soon burnt off the mist to reveal another spectacular blue sky day.
It was less than 15kms to the long, deep Reynolds River (East) water crossing. We pulled over and let the vehicles cool down for a few minutes before driving into the water. Signage here recommends vehicles be equipped with snorkels for this crossing and as I drove across I could see why. The water was deep enough to wet the bonnet of the D-MAX, and with plenty of saltwater crocodiles inhabiting the river, you don’t want to get stuck!
Once across we called to Geoff in the HiLux to come through. This would be his most challenging water crossing to date – deep, long and with varying levels of traction on its sandy and rocky base – but we had given him clear instruction on how best to tackle it. He selected low range second and kept an even throttle, and we could spot his smile from more than 100m away as he commenced his successful crossing of the Reynolds River.
Safely on the bank on the other side, we brewed a cup of coffee on Michael’s Bialetti and finally hooked into some well-deserved breakfast. We then continued north for another 3km or so to Tjaynera Falls on Sandy Creek. Facilities at Sandy Creek include a shaded campsite with toilets and showers, as well as day parking. We loaded up with water and camera gear and started off on the 1.7km walk to the falls. It was approaching 40 degrees, so we were happy that the walk was predominantly on a well-formed track, although there are quite a few rocks to clamber over towards the end. To take my mind off the heat I struck up a conversation with an Italian couple following us to the falls. When I told them I’d visited the little town they were from (Gorizia) near the Slovenian border, they were so amazed that we nattered about the coincidence all the way to the end of the track, where all of a sudden we found ourselves gazing up at the most spectacularly beautiful falls imaginable.
Access to Tjaynera Falls is not possible in the wet season but fresh water flows over the Tablel and Range and over the falls all year round. You can swim right up to the waterfall in the cool and refreshing waters of the pool here, or just sit on the bank opposite, taking in the amazing scene before you. The cliff face is brilliant with colours including ochre, blacks and greys, interspersed with the green of trees and bushes, and all contrasting with the white cascading water.
Several fish species inhabit the waters here, including the Sooty Grunter and Sleepy Cod. Birds attracted to the sheltered areas near the falls include the Yellow Oriole, Figbird, Spangled Drongo and Rainbow Bee-eater. It’s easy to see why; despite the ambient heat of the day, it feels much cooler here in the shade of the trees next to the water. And the sound of the falls gives this place a soothing and relaxing feel, almost meditative; it’s got to be one of the best places on earth to simply take a few minutes out to sit and contemplate the beauty and wonder of life.
After doing just that, it was time to press on. Without the company of my new Italian friends, I was much more aware of my surroundings on the walk back to the vehicles. The track here snakes alongside Sandy Creek through rich monsoon rainforest, and at one point it passes a particularly striking stand of Cycads on the hillside.
We bumped into the young German couple we’d met the night before and they informed us that they got stuck in the Reynolds River crossing on their way here – not surprising considering the 45psi he had in his tyres. Apparently, he climbed out in the middle of the river and hand winched his Maverick to safety, not realising it’s full of saltwater crocs. He was stunned when we informed him of this, and we reiterated that he should lower his tyre pressures, not just for traction, but also for comfort over the track’s rough corrugations… and to stay away from the crocs. We reckon he may have heard us this time…
Check out Northern Exposure Part 2 in the next issue of 4X4 CultureD