Aus Update 12 - Litchfield National Park (IT'S SO HOT)


5th to 7th September 2006- Litchfield Park was named after Mr Litchfield who surveyed the area. Originally a mining region (mainly tin), it then became farming land before being designated a national park. We decided to visit it because it was on our track in a south westerly direction from Darwin.

The first sight to see in the park is the "magnetic termite mounds". I (Chris) expected the actual mounds to display some sort of magnetic property with a name like that, but it turns out the name is something of a misnomer. The reason for the naming is that all of the mounds are oblong in nature and line up on a north-south plane (well almost). Apparently the reason they do this is to allow precise temperature control of their mound. There is some scientific debate that the termites have some sort of magnetic sensing to do this, but other theories are that it is learned behaviour passed on from generation to generation. I would have thought that the more obvious explanation of "it allows the termites to pick a place to be all day long that is the temperature they like" would have been ok, but hey, I'm not a termite expert.

Paula thought that "tombstone termites" would have been another good name as she thinks the paddock looks like a cemetery full of tombstones.

An individual mound. They are distinctively gray as opposed to the red earth colours of other termite types.

Next stop was Buley water hole. In retrospect, we should have gone for a swim, it was SO HOT, but it was very crowded, so Paula just dipped her feet in and we continued on.

We took a short walk to the Florence Falls lookout too, but there was no way we were hiking down the steps to swim in the pool at the base. There was actually a health warning sign with the number of steps and notes about heat exhaustion and physical fitness. Beautiful from the lookout, but it's really hard to appreciate anything when it's SO HOT.

We stopped for the night at a campsite just below Florence Falls. There were two campground signs from the main road. 2wd camp and 4wd camp. We went and looked at the 2wd one first, just to see if we were going to miss out on anything. The ground on the sites was red dust, and we know very well how hard it is to keep it off of everything so we continued on to the 4wd site. Fortunately these were grey dust - a slight improvement nonetheless. We took this opportunity to watch our first movie under the stars. The flash went off, but you have to imagine what this was like. It's after sunset, the entire place is lit beautifully with a fairly full moon. Everyone else has gone to bed because what else is there to do, and we sat and watched the movie "Spy Game". Of course we were very considerate and used headphones to avoid disturbing anyone else.

In the morning we took a walk back along the river to the base of Florence Falls (avoiding the high temperatures of the midday and afternoon and the flight of steps down from the lookout above).

We then visited another 4wd only attraction, "The Lost City" (this having a 4wd is turning out to be a real bonus, lot's of the really cool sites don't have roads suitable for normal cars to visit). It was never actually a city, it's just natural rock formations that look like ruins. See below to judge for yourself. As we turned up at this site I (Chris) got momentarily confused with what I had in my hands as I picked up water bottle, sunhat (and not the car key) and locked the key in the car. Fortunately, I had another habit in place of always carrying my Gerber tool in my pocket while we're in these out of the way places and was able to use that to gain entry to the car without having to put a rock through a window. Boy, you could be in trouble fast if you actually LOST the car key and couldn't get out of the place. IT'S SO HOT you'd be toast in hours. On the plus side, it is a tourist site and somebody else should have come along  within the next few hours, and we do store water inside and outside the car.

In the afternoon we decided it was SO HOT that we needed to leave the park. We didn't stop at Wangi Falls (where we did go for a swim, along with 1/4 of the population of the NT) where we had planned to and headed out of the southern exit to the park (again, 4wd only track). This track turned out to be packed with the best and worst things of the park. Firstly, we hadn't really studied the map carefully enough to see that there were at least 4 water crossings even in the current dry season. We don't have a snorkel and do have to be careful about how deep we take the car. The first crossing turned out to be the deepest, but I wasn't going to get out and check because it had a crocodile warning sign and a depth gauge that only showed 0.6m at the deepest point. We got a decent spraying of water around the engine bay because I didn't stop and loosen the fan belts, but fortunately it didn't stop us. The view was really quite dynamic, forests, fields, tombstones (termite ones), rivers, fires...

After the first river crossing we came to this one which was actually signposted (once you got there) to suggest snorkel advised. Well, I wasn't going to play hero, I would turn around and exit the way we came in, but there was no crocodile warning, so I took all the necessary steps...

Checked the depth (all the way across)

Loosened the fan belts (note to self, fireproof gloves required, sustained a few burns, even the alternator pulley is 80+ degC). Placed all the recovery gear on top of the bed.

Entered slowly

Coaxed her along by saying "don't stall, don't stall"...

Passed the dip at the exit

And made it safely across

Now for those of you that haven't travelled in the Australian countryside, it's not that uncommon to see the many burnt out regions by the side of the road, but usually they happened some time when you weren't there. We could see the smoke in the distance, but it turned out you actually had to go through it. The flames didn't really seem to be threatening the road, and it was quite a gently moving fire, but boy, you could sure feel it through the windows as you went by...

We reached the campsite we were planning to stay at that night, Surprise Creek, and "surprise", there was nobody else there. Well actually, there was one other camper van (rental, it's amazing, they can go anywhere) and somebody else did pull in later. It was here that we met the complement to the insane temperatures. Every sort of fly and mosquito you could imagine. They worked in shifts, 24 hours a day. When it got a bit darker, the flys transitioned to a different breed, when it got a bit cooler, both breeds went at it. Then came the mosquitoes. Despite the use of "Tropical Strength Aeroguard"* as recommended (to prevent being infected with Scrub Typhus or Ross River Fever), the little rotters found any section of skin that wasn't quite covered and feasted anyway. Now when the flys bit, you felt it and covered up or put some more repellant on, but the mosquitoes bites were painless, and we were not aware how badly they were biting until morning. They have caused me slight itchiness, but Paula has reacted to them really quite badly, and coupled with the heat has been quickly driving her insane. She now has a local anti-histamine cream (the NZ stuff didn't work on these bites) and an oral anti-histamine (which caused a slightly drunken stupor and involuntary twitching of the legs all night), but is still suffering, getting up for a cold shower twice (the low was 25 degC overnight). Doubtless she will get over them in a few days, but we will make sure we are out of this heat and that she doesn't get bitten that badly again!

In the morning we had some encounters with the local wildlife. Our first wild snake lay across the track and rose up as we approached. We went back and forth trying to get him to move on, but as we drew closer, he just rose up ready to strike the car, and when we backed off, he lay back down. Eventually we backed off far enough for his liking and he continued on his way to whatever poor creature lay waiting for him on the other side of the track. I guess we could have just run him over, but that's no way to treat a 2m deadly brown snake is it?

The last wildlife we saw before leaving the park. This cow has been on a crash diet and will now need plastic surgery to trim up her saggy lines :-)

So we have returned to Katherine (about 300km south) where it is marginally cooler (38 degC) to rest, use the internet and decide what we have the strength to tackle next.

*Notes about Aeroguard Tropical Strength:

  1. "Reapply as necessary especially after excessive perspiration". So that's continually reapply then? This is the tropics, who doesn't perspire excessively all the time even without exercise when it's 40 degC?
  2. "May be dangerous, particularly to children, if you use large amounts on the skin, clothes or bedding or on large areas of the body, especially if you keep using it for a long time". Refer point 1, so this is bad right? Maybe just not as bad as Scrub Typhus or Ross River Fever.
  3. "Keep in  a cool dry place". Yeah, right, where's that in the tropics? An air conditioned hotel suite where you don't need the stuff? Oh dear, we'll do what we can.
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