Nitmiluk and Litchfield, 20th - 22nd October
Today we leave the desert. Well, I don’t actually know where the geographic borders are and if we have actually crossed them, but the landscape is new. We can see trees. It is green and alive.
The spot for today will be Mataranka Thermal Springs. In the pictures, you can see unbelievable natural pools with turquoise water in the shade of a rainforest. How could we not want to go especially as it is so close by the road to Darwin?
Fifteen minutes before taking the turn to the spring we see a tall cloud of smoke in front of us, probably from a bushfire. Erm, should we keep going? It doesn’t look all that safe. But the colour of the blue pools is in our heads and we continue towards the grey. Just in case we find an app online which shows a live map of the wildfires in the whole of Australia. The closest one marked on it is actually very far from here so we decide there is nothing to worry about. We continue ...
… Until we reach a point on the road surrounded by visible fires on both sides - smoke and flames on the tall palm trees. Scary! Nic still thinks that once we pass this bit and get to the other side it will be clear and we will be able to reach our goal. We are currently in a queue of cars. All waiting to go around a burning balm branch fallen on the road when a ranger car comes towards us and stops next to every driver … “I don’t advise you to keep going” - we are told directly. Well, as if we’re not gonna listen to the ranger! Especially as he enters into the forest under the red flames towards huge reservoirs of water.
Bushfire = change of plans. We return to the main road and pull over to decide what to do next. It is disappointing that we have to skip such places for reasons we can’t control. We didn’t see Mount Ziel because of the flat tyre and not we will miss out on swimming in Mataranka’s waters because of the raging element. However, our safety is more important so we are not considering any sacrifices for Australia’s sights.
Tomorrow’s destination becomes today’s - Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park (or as we like to call it as vegans Nutmilk NP). We arrive in the park too late to have time to see anything but also too early for dinner and bed. We check into the campsite which because of its location costs a fortune. The heat can not be underestimated so we escape to the pool in the shade. We don’t even get out for the video chat with Nic’s parents. Are we crazy?
It is hard to fall asleep. The flies are now easing off but the temperatures are horrific. It is 9 pm and the thermometer is still at 32 degrees. How does one manage without air conditioning, not even a fan!? And the air is perfectly still. At least there’s a fridge where we can salvage some of our food.
We wake up early. Nic goes to sign us up for today’s canoe trip as I pack up. 240 km south of the state capital, Darwin, Nitmiluk National Park is another area returned to the Aboriginal tribes and managed by them. The lands here belong to the Jawoyn people and take up close to 3,000 km2. Together with the national parks Uluru-Kata Tjuta and Kakadu, Nitmiluk is part of the main tourist spots in the state. Within the park, there are two gorges - Kathrine and Edith Falls which offer a variety of water adventures for locals and aliens like us.
In Northern Territory, there are no such things as spring, summer, autumn and winter. They have seasons but they are simply divided into wet (October-April) and dry (April - October). Although we’re at the crossover we are still in the dry season - other than the low levels of the water pools, another “symptom” of it are the flies. Well, that explains the nightmare so far. (In reality, the wet season is also unforgiving, especially for nomads like us, so we are glad we managed to avoid it.)
In the wet season, the waters of Katherine River are rapid and offer rafting experiences and in the dry one, it is much calmer and perfect for leisurely canoeing. We are here to see Katherine Gorge from down low, in a canoe. And so on the 21st October 2019, Vassya and Nic are the only people who will row on the waters of Nitmiluk. If that isn’t romance, I don’t know what is!
In its length, the Katherine River is divided by natural river bends which in the dry season create physical barriers. A series of small gorges are divided, suitably called One, Two, Three and so on, dug into the soft sandstone of the local lands. We board a boat that we take us through Gorge One. It is obviously meant for at least 50 people but it is just the two of us on it - quite the VIPs. The views are already unbelievable - with vertical cliffs on both sides and the wind in our hair from the speed of the boat.
We reach the first bend, get off the boat, walk through the dry area and get to the canoes on the other side. The young man who is with us, quickly equips us with safety vests and paddles and put us on a yellow double canoe. He’s not coming with so it will be just the two of us for half a day.
At the river bends we will have to manually pull the canoe through the dry area to go from gorge to gorge. We are told that there will be no issues crossing from Two to Three but the path to Four will take us at least half an hour with a canoe in hand so we better not put in the effort. Okay, that’s fine.
We also receive other instructions - about the freshwater crocodiles here. Excuse me??? Crocodiles??? According to them, the freshwater crocodiles are harmless to humans as they are more scared of us than we are of them. At the minute they are at a procreative stage so they could be seen on the sands by the river. If we spot any it is okay to stop and take a picture but in no case should we be going near it. When feeling threatened or without a path of escape they will certainly attack. In Nitmiluk’s history, there have only been two incidents caused by tourists trying their luck for selfies. Well, we’re not that brave/stupid.
Okay, let’s go!
Three hours of just the two of us on a canoe between the vertical cliffs of Katherine. Unbelievable! The place is impossibly beautiful and new, unexpected views are waiting behind every corner. To ensure that the experience is properly documented I make the sacrifice of not rowing and only taking pictures. It was so difficult for me while Nic exercises his muscles so well behind me. Well, art requires sacrifices.
The cliffs are colourful - flat in places, pleated in others. Greenery is growing everywhere it can hold on to. The distances between the cliffs to the right and left vary between 20 and 50 meters. The water is calm and dark and according to Google 100 meters deep in places, though I can not vouch for that. We row and admire.
We also keep looking out for crocodiles with great desire to see one. Though at the same time with the view of a potentially disguised crocodile as a rock or a branch, my heart gets quicker. Although I have been told they’re harmless, they are crocodiles after all - the perfect hunter, hardly touched, barely unchanged by centuries-long evolution. We think one of them swam underneath us. We saw some bubbles accompanying the canoe but that was as close as we got. A certain representative was not seen.
Crossing the rock bend was not an easy job. We did as a team but on the uneven surface, the canoe isn’t light at all! And the rocks are hot. The effort also cost me a flip-flop (and later on some other things were lost, probably ending up with the crocodiles). However, we manage it and successfully arrive at Gorge Three. That one is much shorter though perhaps more impressive too.
We reach the next dry area and confirm the words of the guy - this one does not get crossed easily. So we just park the canoe at a sandy bit and climb over the cliffs to at least see Gorge Four. The rock mass turns out to be so big that even from the highest point we can not spot the water in the next gorge. It is a good thing we didn’t start carrying the canoe up because the torture would have been endless. The lack of my recently lost flip-flop can already be felt. It is almost impossible for me to walk across the incandescent rock. And yet, the view from up here is wonderful.
We head back and the wind decides to help out. It gets stronger and pushes our back so we don’t have to row (Nic’s doesn’t have to row) and only from time to time we direct the nose of the yellow canoe. Well now, this is extreme relaxation! We also snack on some apples - at least that won’t attract the crocodiles.
It is an unbelievable experience to be here just the two of us! Not just because of the beauty and the silence surrounding us but also the fact that on this day only the two of us had the luck and fortune to feel this amazing place. The world is for two! (as a Bulgarian song says)
We return to the bend between One and Two and we don’t have to wait long for the guy to return for us. We were a bit early but he’s had quite the difficult morning too - poor him sunbathing leisurely in these past three hours watching videos online. How could you not take pity on him?
We return to the tourists centre and order lunch on the big terrace high above the Nitmiluk forest. We were planning to sneak back into the campsite to shower but I don’t want today to end just with the drive to the next campsite. I want to go to a small natural waterhole and relax for the afternoon. Not that it is easily found in a drought.
And yet Nic finds exactly what I picture. We move a bit to the North but go back into the boundaries of Nitmiluk to get to Edith Falls - the other gorge within the Aboriginal lands. Unlike Kathrine, Edith Falls is created mainly from cascades and waterfalls, lots of them, one after the other. We first start walking towards the higher ones, however, the signs indicate it isn’t likely they will be full at this time of the year. So we just head towards the Lower Pool instead.
Heaven on Earth! A big natural waterhole, filled by a small waterfall in the far corner with a small island in the centre. This is exactly what I wanted even if I couldn’t imagine it. I go in, brave and unapologetic - the water is warm and isn’t stopping me. I stand still to wait for Nic to also get in when a fish takes advantage and bites me.
We are finally together in the water and swim towards the fall (with the NoPro in hand, which once again did nothing). The air and the water are in perfect combination - neither too hot nor too cold. We feel great. We can stay in the water forever. Though not in one place because another fish will take advantage.
We manage to build some short-lasting friendships with other crazy people like us - two Australian girls in an endless photo shoot and two German guys looking for new adventures. It is nice to meet people like yourself and share stories to see who has the craziest plans. Naturally, ours are once again on top - four months around the entire continent is not often undertaken.
We leave without much desire and feeling as if we didn’t stay long enough. Maybe there were other experiences to be found in this Heaven. But that is how things are. The road is ahead of us and we insist on following it.
The campsite is once again next to the road but this time it is paid for - with showers and a bar. The bar turns out to be most useful when my Paranoia settles in. I can smell smoke very strongly but the local services online show the fire to be very far away. The bartender assures me that they know the area and follow the bushfire development. There is absolutely no danger tonight. Apparently the trees are also far from the campsite and the flames wouldn’t reach us. Yeah … they keep explaining and the brain is listening but the heart is not trusting. I wake up every hour to check the local news. Hoping that the paid fee for a night here means that they will wake us up if evacuation is needed. It wasn’t necessary.
The day doesn’t start off great. First, I hardly slept last night because of the fear of bushfires. Second, the heat started off early so we had to pack up extremely quickly to find salvation in the car’s air-con. Third, our food stock is very low and we have to skip breakfast, which makes me even more agitated.
On the way to Darwin, we will stop in Litchfield National Park. We first go to the termite mounds. I expect to see huge, twice a human-size mounds. Like those in the savanna but big. And surprisingly, that is exactly what we see. During the whole time I keep thinking they look like little Gothic cathedrals. As it turns out, I am not the first person with such an imagination because the information signs call them Cathedral Termite Mounds. I should have been a zoologist.
But around here you can see something new - magnetic termite mounds. Something that would have you thinking “God, what things Nature has created!” Well, their mounds are now definitely like gravestones. The ants build them flat and perfectly oriented North to South. It has been proven though that the termites are blind and it is believed that only an internal biological compass helps their orientation to build such perfect structures. And the goal is to prevent their “houses” from overheating. I can’t even imagine that Mother Nature could think of something like that and yet the evidence is right in front of us. A field of gravestones, full of life and ingenuity.
Our next stop is Florence Falls where we should be able to swim again like yesterday. But it is already late and we still haven’t eaten. I become visibly “hangry”. I am almost ready to cancel all the plans for today and to set off straight for Darwin. But Nic doesn’t let me give up, finds some old bread and calms me down for a bit. Enough to convince me to at least get to the lookout to see the waterhole and decide whether we want to get down. From then on Nature took control over me.
We see under our feet a large waterhole with two tall waterfalls flowing in. People are jumping from the cliffs into the deep water or hiding underneath the falls. It is a scene from a romantic film - whether it is a drama or a comedy is yet to be discovered. All of a sudden I am so excited that I basically run down the 160 steps.
It is surreal! Superb! If I have ever wanted one thing from this trip it is to swim in Heaven. The Universe has been making my unspoken dreams come true now two days in a row. The two Germans from yesterday are here. They are entertaining us all by climbing on the vertical rocks and bravely jumping down. With every step higher I get more worried but without reason - the waterhole is extremely deep and the bottom cannot be reached easily.
We swim, we dive, we get nibbled on by fish, we take pictures, we get massages under the strong current of the two falls! Oh, if only the stupid NoPro was working! After about 45 minutes in the waters of Heaven, an entire tourist bus arrives and the hole becomes small and overcrowded. We are hungry anyways so we will gladly say goodbye to this beauty. But first we will move to the next ones - Buley Rockholes.
This time we don’t intend on swimming but we take the towels just in case. At the end of the path, we see quite the VIEW! Cascading pools - so many! And although we weren’t getting wet again we quickly jump straight into the holes. The most incredible natural water park. We walk up and down the path to find the best place where we won’t disturb anyone. We choose the deepest hole. According to the surrounding people it is about 5-6 m deep so there’s no danger.
In the next hour we are like children again. Jumping in, getting out to jump in and immediately get out again. We run on the hot stone. We sit in the cascade stream to cool down from the hot sun. We are so immersed in the wonderful experience that we completely forget about hunger. This is officially our favourite National Park in Australia!
We fill up with emotion and slowly burn under the sun. But who cares about things like that when the time is going so well. A perfect day! It is still the early afternoon but we are already exhausted and we overflow with happiness. We stop at one more waterfall but we can’t swim here so we quickly pass it. Though we don’t miss out on observing another “cloud” of an active bushfire in the sky before us. This time it stays behind us so any worries are unnecessary.
We leave. We drive the remaining 80 km on Stuart Highway and arrive in Darwin - the capital of the federal state of Northern Territory. It is about 4:30 pm and we head straight to the AirBnB. It isn’t anything special but there is air-conditioning in the room, a big bed and an empty fridge - we need nothing else.
We are still hungry despite the chickpea salad following the last water hole. Why am I always writing about chickpeas!? I promise we ate other things for lunch on the roads of Australia. We get to the centre of Darwin to walk and find some food. Other than dinner we also find a pint of cold Guinness in a real Irish pub. We put Frangipani flowers behind our ears (a type of tropical tree typical for Hawaii) from the park by the marina. We get back, tired and happy and quickly settle down for relaxation and sleep. Sometimes we are allowed to rest. I think after today, now is the right time.
I have always considered myself a child of the water - you can find out why here. In these three days we had so many wonderful water adventures in our plan and for me, those were the most recharging times. You have now read about our day at the Whitsundays; you’ve lived through Uluru with us too. Well, now you have collected three of the four strongest experiences in the six months. The fourth one you will have to wait for until the very end as it was in the last week before our flight back to England.
Vassya (and Nic)