A distant howl cuts through the comforting murmur of the creek as it tumbles its way down the valley. Before I have time to worry about what might have disturbed my sleep – I find out later it was a dingo – I am captivated by the sight through the open flap of my tent: a vision of the Southern Sky shimmering with countless stars and a wispy hint of the Milky Way.
I’m camped out on the banks of Shady Bend, on the western side of Litchfield National Park, in Australia’s Northern Territory. The campsite is an Edenic spot, a small clearing on the edge of a forest-fringed plunge pool, which is fed by a cascade of crystalline water tinged a pinkish-red by the sandstone rocks it flows over and through.
Just a few hours earlier, we made the 2km trek into camp – aptly named Walker Creek – through the bush in darkness, with just our head torches and that spectacular night sky to chart our way along the rocky path. As shooting stars flitted across the heavens, every rustle and creak from the bushes and trees crowding in around us threatened the chance of a wild encounter. Wallabies, rock rats, bandicoots, brushtail possums, bush pigs and a variety of snakes all call this area of monsoon forest home. But aside from the glitter of the eyes of a multitude of spiders beneath our feet and the occasional chuntering of bats above, the creatures observing our nocturnal ramble remained stubbornly hidden.
It does nothing to dampen the thrill. Just to be out in such a remote location at night is special, a rare opportunity to truly step outside the comforts and distractions of modern life and to reconnect with nature on a more equal footing. This chance to experience a night in the wilderness comes courtesy of a recently launched tour created by local operator Ethical Adventures.
The brainchild of environmentalist and tour guide Rob Woods and his wife Tracey, the tour company has aimed to live up to its name since it was first set up in 2014. It’s been running tours to Litchfield National Park for the past five seasons, but this two-day overnight camping expedition I am on is a new addition. Through this itinerary, Woods shares his deep love of the Northern Territory and gives guests an introduction to some of the less-visited parts of the park.
“Camping next to the crystal-clear creeks of Litchfield is the perfect place to relax and reconnect with the natural world,” explained the broad-shouldered Woods as we sat in front of the campfire a few hours ago, at the end of the first day. “The sound of the creek bubbling over the rocks soothes the soul.”
Despite the wild setting, I am certainly not roughing it. The camping gear is provided, dinner was a hearty affair – Aussie steak followed by apple pie – and my tent comes fitted with a comfy bedroll. It’s perfect for visitors to the Top End who want to experience the region’s wilder side but want to do so in style and comfort.
The tour promises a very different encounter with nature than that enjoyed by most visitors to Litchfield. Sprawling across 1,500km2 of rugged Top End country – a mix of sandstone plateau, monsoon forests, tropical swamp and dramatic waterfalls – its well-kept roads and location, just over 1.5 hours south of Darwin, make it incredibly accessible for visitors.
As a result, over 330,000 guests pass through the park each year, making it one of the state’s most visited attractions. Most bus in on day trips from Darwin or Katherine, spending a few hours visiting the park’s numerous water holes or taking short hikes to the various viewpoints before heading back to the comfort of their hotels.
But Woods, who studied environmental management before spending another 10 years in various environmental roles, believes tourism is the best way of reaching people with his conservation message. His aim is for his guests to have a stronger engagement with the nuances of the park.
“Litchfield is the perfect place to show people how the natural world works, to see how delicate the balance is in nature,” he says, going on to explain the need for us to properly manage our own impact on this balance.
At times, Litchfield can seem starkly brutal, with frequent reminders that this is the real wilderness. At midday, the heat makes the air hum as the sun beats down on the bleached landscape. Most water holes are prefaced with signs warning of the presence of crocodiles – over 300,000 fresh and saltwater crocs call the Northern Territory home. Black Whip snakes and King Browns are among the venomous snake species found in the park. As Woods partly jokes, “The Top End is a place where nature still has the ability to fight back.”
There are also the constant tell-tale signs of recent bush fires, still smouldering stumps of trees and palls of smoke drifting across the clear blue sky. Some are due to fire management practices by rangers but many are accidents caused by thoughtlessly disposed cigarette butts.
Yet, Litchfield is also a land of subtle beauty, something that can only really be discovered by spending some quality time here. As the day wears on, the light softens the scene, lengthening shadows and turning the sandstone cliffs of the swimming holes shades of vermillion and peach. Bloodwood trees sport vivid red blooms, the endemic wild turkey bushes offer a blush of pink, acacias teem with helmeted friarbirds squabbling over the golden yellow flowers.
“You can walk past the same spot every day and it’s always changing depending on the time of day and season,” says Woods, who gained a deep insight into the bush from years spent studying and working in the different habitats.
Earlier in the day, we moved between tropical monsoon forest to open woodland to swamp in just a few hours. There was the riot of foliage – pandanus, jacarandas, paperbark and umbrella trees – all battling for a foothold in the sandstone gorge carved out by Cascades Creek; the jaw-dropping views across endless outback woodlands from the viewing platform at Tolmer Falls; the rocky landscapes of prehistoric cycads and hardy iron woods on the trek into the campsite at Walker Creek; and the fecundity of Tabletop Swamp, its rows of black and white paperbark trees, alive with the squawks of cockatoos and brightly coloured lorikeets.
But the highlight of the experience has to be the night walks. Rising before dawn, we step out of our tents to find that the landscape has transformed again. The moon has risen and bathes the surroundings in a silvery light.
The reason for our early start on the second day is to experience one of Litchfield’s most popular sites undisturbed by fellow visitors. Wangi Falls, which features twin cascades plunging 84m down a rust-red sandstone cliff into a clear pool, is often filled with tour groups by lunchtime.
But at this early hour, we have the place all to ourselves. Well, almost. Woods’ torch picks out the tell-tale glint of one of Wangi’s two resident freshwater crocs lurking at the edge of the pool. We leave the giant snappers and continue our pre-dawn walk through a thick grove of syzygiums and carpentaria palms. A sign telling us of the presence of Golden Orb spiders has us stretching out our arms to avoid becoming ensnared in their giant webs.
As we climb above the canopy, the air gets fresher and the view unfolds. At the top of the cliff face, we sit silent, lost in our thoughts, drinking in the first rays of the sun as they creep slowly across the miles of bush. As the land below begins to stir, a laconic red-tailed black cockatoo flaps by lazily, croaking out a wake-up call for the park.
Sitting there, I feel a million miles away from the city, a sense of remoteness underscored by a complete lack of mobile signal. It’s wonderfully liberating, a chance to reconnect with the fragile world around us.
With apologies to my family back in Singapore, there’s a tinge of sadness as we climb aboard the truck and head back to civilisation. As we approach the small settlement of Noonamah, the distinctive pings of my phone confirm our reconnection with the outside world. Yet I can’t help wishing for one more night with just the stars and the occasional dingo to disturb my thoughts.