With the Reynolds Track in the Litchfield National Park our next off-road adventure, we packed up camp and headed on, this time making tracks for the township of Pine Creek further up the road.
As we made our way along the Stuart Highway signs pointing to ‘Umbrawarra Gorge Nature Park’ popped up along the verge inviting us to visit… so turning off the highway onto Umbrawarra Road we followed the signs to the park entry where the last 22-kilometres followed a stretch of unsealed, corrugated road with a few steep dips and a couple of creek crossings thrown in for good measure.
Finally we came to a basic camp area situated close by a lovely creek.
Although small, this area is a great place for adventure seekers with walking tracks, swimming, rock climbing and abseiling accessible.
Parked up, we pulled on our walking boots and set off along a 1- kilometre track that wound its way along the banks of the tranquil creek until we came to a large pool surrounded by a small sandy beach and the beautiful steep red cliffs of the isolated gorge itself.
From this point the track continued upstream but to venture further afield meant we would be wading, swimming and rock hopping to get to the upper levels.
As everyone knows, I love to walk with my camera and attempting to tackle the next water crossings was going be a little difficult…so we turned around and headed back to the Harry Hilux.
Back on the highway and only a short 3-kilometres up the road we came to the tiny settlement of Pine Creek.
This town was once the location of the major gold find in 1871 and before that, stood as the meeting point of three Aboriginal peoples – the Wagiman from the Daly River Region, the Jawoyn from around Katherine and the Waray from the north.
With the find of gold, followed the growth of Darwin with mining still a major industry in this area today.
Pine Creek is an interesting little town to wander round with a few historic buildings still standing, museums, railway memorabillia and a lookout overlooking the mine… all depicting the stories of the past.
Leaving Pine Creek, we pointed our bull bar north towards Hayes Creek where just south of the now closed Wayside Inn Roadhouse, we turned onto Dorat Road.
The Dorat Road was the Stuart Highway in an earlier life and is much more hillier than the current highway and narrower but a more interesting route.
From there we began our journey through scenic country twisty our way along a narrow road, which eventually joined with Oolloo Road. then Daly River Road.
As we neared the Daly River Road we passed several mines. Robin Falls is also in this vacinity and worth the drive in and short walk in to the falls… but unless you have scoured your map and marked some highlights for your trek it can very easily missed.
It is only a short drive in along a sealed road, there is a free camp area by the creek (suitable for caravans), a pristine little fall with a little swimming hole at the bottom, a fairly basic carpark and a not very well marked walking track that becomes less defined the further you near the falls. As a result we had quite a bit of rock scrambling last time we visited and had to negotiate our way along the slippery rock face to get even partial views of the falls… so consequently we didn’t even consider a visit this trip.
From here there was a further 7-kilometre drive into Tjuwaliyn (Douglas) Hot Springs Park.
With a few hot spots in the Douglas River we were looking forward to returning to the hot springs for a relaxing soak in the endless supply of thermal spring water pumping up from underground but after pulling over at the turnoff we were disappointed to find the park, hot springs and the campground all closed.
We were aware this was the sacred land of the local Wagiman people who believe their ancestors are at one with the land, and we knew a section of the park was closed to visitors and used by the women of these people to conduct women’s ceremonies… but the hot springs are usually a tourist hot spot during the peak season!
We later found out they had closed all camping, swimming and day use areas in the area for the whole of the season because of hygiene reasons. Apparently, the bore was unable to service the ablution blocks, this being a result of a poor ‘Wet Season’ when a lower than normal water table caused the water level to fall below the bore’s intake level.
Just to give you a heads up on the area, the camping area at Tjuwaliyn (Douglas) Hot Springs Park is quite dusty and barren but it’s a lovely campground with pit toilets, barbecues, firewood, an honesty box for fees, picnic tables and water… and running alongside the campground a series of small streams with a mixture of water temperatures.
The water here gets dangerously hot in some parts of this river, especially near the source where the water bubbles up at 60 º centigrade.
Warning signs advise ‘Caution Hot Water and Quicksand’ but at multiple points where the hot water emerges and mixes with the cooler river waters it’s an ideal spot for a dip.
Mother Nature’ is at her best here! This river and hot springs create a small oasis in this otherwise harsh environment and it is the ideal place to slip on a cozzie and savour the remoteness of it all as you relax in the warm waters amongst the dry woodlands – just make sure you test the water temperature before entering!
Last visit we laced up our boots and wandered along the riverbanks to see what creatures we could spot and there was plenty of bird life and lots of furry creatures such as bandicoots, quolls and flying foxes out at night. Luckily crocs are supposedly non-existent here, which was a real bonus, although the signage told us differently.
This park is home to reptiles, spiders, cockatoos, wild pigs, feral water buffalo, mangroves, giant bamboos, pandanus and Kapok trees; and saltwater crocodiles even made it onto the list… but I should image, and was hoping, they were further downstream where the water was much cooler.
This park is well worth a visit if you are in the Daly River region… and what’s more, it doesn’t cost a thing to enter- only your camping fees at $3.30 per person!
While you’re in the area, be sure and venture a further 33-kilometres (return drive) to the nearby Butterfly Springs Nature Reserve.
Tucked away at the base of a low sandstone plateau this was another great place for us to explore… but be warned, it is an extremely bumpy, slow 4WD track of bulldust and shallow water crossings to get there, and definitely not suitable for caravans.
There is no camping area or amenities and not a lot of shade for parking either… but there is a good walking track for the adventurous.
From the car park a 5-kilometre return walk follows a path to the main pool and back and thankfully along this track there’s plenty of shade to escape the heat of the day.
Large Leichhardt trees form an enchanting forest along the riverbank and once at the main pool a paperbark forest (some trees as tall as 45-metres), form a lovely canopy around the base of sheer rock faces, which are also edged with dense vegetation and rocky spinifex. It really is beautiful country in this part of the Territory.
A population of Short-eared Rock Wallabies inhabit the surrounding escarpment and native birds of many varieties are abundant in the bush around the gorge. It is, as the name suggests, also home to black and white ‘Common Crow Butterflies’.
Be prepared with good walking shoes and drinking water if you plan on tackling this trail from the carpark to the swimming hole as it is very rocky and at times steep… and once there, the tricky descent to the main pool had us literally hitting the water straight away!
Making the upper pools was a tall (and steep) order for us in the heat of the day so after a quick dip we made tracks back to Harry Hilux… thankfully we discovered a shortcut back via the river, which only involved a couple of shallow water crossings then a short walk to the carpark, which was much better than that steep rock-hopping we had to endured on the way up!
With our visit to Tjuwaliyn (Douglas) Hot Springs Park now off the agenda we continued along the Daly River Road.
The Daly River drive was a very scenic drive through an area famous for its beautiful river. It is also an area of cultural importance to the traditional owners of this area, the Malak Malak Aboriginal people.
Just outside the small township of Daly River is the Nauiyu Community with the Wooliana Community further downstream.
The town of Daly River itself is little more than a pub with a few motel units, a police station, a caravan park and a few mining machinery relics scattered around.
Located on the banks of the Daly River, the river is full of barramundi and big ‘snapper’, which is a popular draw card to the area attracting avid fisherman and birdwatches from all over the world… and just a couple of kilometres downstream at the Daly River Crossing it’s not unusual to see powerful saltwater crocs just lurking beneath the surface of the tranquil waters!
European discovery of Daly River was in 1865 by Boyle Finniss, the first Premier of South Australia. Finniss named the river after Sir Dominick Daly, the Governor of South Australia with the Northern Territory at that time, being part of South Australia.
The region lay untouched by Europeans until 1882 when copper was discovered.
With the arrival of the miners the area soon became the scene of some bloody exchanges between the local Aborigines and the newcomers and when three miners were killed the town soon wreaked vengeance on the indigenous people of this land.
A year later, aware of the tensions in the area, the Roman Catholics established a mission that still stands in the settlement of the Nauiyu Aboriginal Community.
To continue from Daly River, there’s an unsealed road that follows on to Peppimenarti, Palumpa and Port Keats (Wadeye). This road is usually closed in the ‘Wet Season’ and is ‘permit only’ access all year round.
With our sightseeing of the Daly River region over, our 4WD adventure along the Reynolds Track was about to begin.
Heading 21-kilometres back out along the road, we pulled over to drop tyre pressure before hitting the main track. You just can’t drive on these tracks without the tyre pressure down. Not only does it give better traction through the soft, sandy sections and across water crossings, but it also protects the tyres. We usually drop pressure to 24 -26psi to give us a bigger footprint and better corrugation absorbance – and believe me we were going to need it!
Normally the Litchfield National Park is accessed by the bitumen roads from the North of the Territory via Batchelor, but having already completed this track from that direction a couple of years back, we decided to tackle it from the south this time.
Last trip, this southern part of the track provided us with two of the most challenging creek crossings, so we were keen to find out what lay only a couple of kilometres up the road.
As we began our journey into the stunning park (with me at the wheel), the scenery was ever changing from grasslands to lush tropical pandanus and paperbark forests. We passed billabongs full of waterlilies and many birds; and the kangaroos seemed oblivious to our intrusion as they enjoyed the protection of their sanctuary.
It was lovely to see the familiar and impressive sight of the termite mounds standing proud against a brilliant blue sky on wide bands of the empty, dry land and we literally passed hundreds, both the magnetic and cathedral, as we slipped and slid our way through deep bull dust along a narrow, single lane track – at times winding our way in and out of giant mounds.
We were in Kungarakan and Marranunggu peoples country now for whom their ancestral spirits, still considered actively present in the landscape, played a seminal role in forming the landscape, plants and animals of the area we were driving through.
Soon our first crossing was upon us…
It’s always a bit exciting (and a bit scary), when you come to these creeks, especially when you see the croc warning signs… and we knew from our previous experience the next couple of tributaries of the Reynolds River were no exception!
After being told there was a rouge saltie at one of the crossings, which one we had no idea, we knew we would have to take it very easy and there would be no walking these creeks to check the water depth.
… but to our surprise the first was just a drive across to the far bank.
The next section of the Reynolds is probably known as the worst and deepest crossing on the track!
On our last trip this crossing had been made a little longer having been roped off by the Parks and Wildlife guys to keep 4WDs away from the deep section of the crossing.
On further inspections we found they had bogged their vehicle as they tried to manoeuvre their way around a large fallen tree, which although unlucky for them, was lucky for us as they were able to direct us to the other side.
Following their instruction we descend the steep bank into the water and drove downstream for about 40 metres before negotiating a shallow but soft section of the creek and although a bit trickly in places and a bit of a slalom course through obstacles that were only separated by steep, wooded sandy banks with at times only a few millimetres between bark and bodywork… was lots of fun.
We certainly didn’t have to worry this time though as there was no chance of getting bogged in the short stretch of water that barely marked our tyres… our biggest challenge was descending into the crossing and getting up the other side.
At most of these water crossings the river is on you before you know it and usually drops from a relatively steep, eroded bank into the creek before climbing up the other side.
After crossing the wide, sandy creek bed we guided Harry up the other side through the deep corrugations then continued through more termite country with our next crossing a bit down the track at Surprise Creek where again there didn’t seem to be enough water to sustain a croc… but we weren’t taking any chances as we crossed!
Because the Northern Territory has just seen one of its hottest and driest ‘wet seasons’ in 27-years with a total rainfall of just two-thirds of its average it was evident the lack of water had had a significant impact on these water crossings.
Our first camp for the night was here at Surprise Creek in the National Parks camp area.
The National Parks in the Northern Territory go to a lot of trouble with their campgrounds and have drop toilets, well-marked sites – each with a table and fire pit (although there was a fire ban)… and of course it wouldn’t be an Aussie camp without lots of flies and mosquitoes!
Our stay in this campground was free this night. I guess some would say lucky for us, but unfortunately due to vandalism the self-registration box had been destroyed by some low life! Normally it would cost only $3.30 per person, which we consider really good value compared to some of the other states.
Surprise Creek never ceases to surprise us! It is one our favourite camping and swimming spots and after working up a sweat setting up camp we set off on the short walk to the falls for a much-needed swim.
Following a beautiful shaded forest walk we negotiated a well-marked track, which brought us to a shallow, green, stagnant waterhole, obviously the result of the poor ‘Wet Season’.
From here there are 2 ways to get to the waterfalls and the upper 2 cauldrons – one requires scrambling over a steep rock, the other edging your way around a narrow ledge.
Both were quite a daunting experience for me but well worth the effort to relax in the refreshing water… although it was sad to see the normally thundering waterfalls almost non-existent with only a small flow of water into the cauldrons.
Surprisingly our first night in Litchfield National Park was very quiet and we shared the campground with only 4 other campers. A surprise indeed after the last couple of days at busy Edith Falls… but then this was 4WD country, not caravan country!
The next morning as we moved further into the National Park to our next camp, we followed more long stretches of termite mounds, all aligning themselves in a north south direction and resembling one giant earie graveyard.
Litchfield National Park is famous for its termite mounds, of which there are 2 types – the larger, more familiar style known as a cathedral mound and the quite different ‘magnetic mounds’, which align themselves north-south to minimise exposure to the sun during the hottest time of day.
As we continued through ever-changing scenery of grasslands to lush tropical pandanus and paperbark forests we passed more billabongs full of waterlilies and birds. We crossed a few more dry creek beds and ploughed Harry Hilux through deep sections of bull dust.
Arriving at Tjaynera Falls, otherwise known as Sandy Creek, around lunchtime, we set off on a brief walk (only 3.4-kilometres) to the lovely waterfall and waterhole.
The plunge pool was large, deep and crystal clear making for a cool refreshing swim after the walk in.
A tiered waterfall of about 40-metres plunges into this pool and makes for a good workout to swim over and enjoy the water cascading over the rocks. Towering red-brown cliffs on the eastern side surround the pool while the northern cliffs remain moist with green ferns clinging to the ledges.
Signs may suggest that there is a very low risk of crocodiles in this pool but there was no shortage of fish exploring the edges and nibbling our toes.
Due to 4WD drive access only and the long walk to this waterfall and swimming hole it is usually one of the less crowded swimming holes in Litchfield Park but not this visit… and after a quick swim we were hoping we could make it back to the campground in time to secure a campsite.
Set in a lovely bush location, Sandy Creek has only a handful of sites and as we were soon to find out is a very popular campground. Luckily for us we had the choice of a couple of good sites but it it didn’t take long for the spots to fill up… and then the air force rocked into town in their 5 vehicles and 20 people on 2 sites combined with all the other campers soon made for a very crowded amenities block.
The skies were amazing that night as we sat around a blazing fire (the fire ban had been lifted that day), sipping our wine beneath millions of stars. It was only the mosquitoes with their high-pitched droning round our ears that eventually drove us from our beautiful fire into the rooftop tent.
The next stretch of our journey saw the narrow track become quite corrugated, windy and wooded causing us to be very aware and take extra care on the blind bends for oncoming traffic. Being not far from the sealed highway in Litchfield this section sees lots of traffic to and from the Blyth Homestead and obviously Tjaynera Falls/Sandy Creek.
We crossed our longest and deepest water crossing so far on the track into Blyth Homestead … all of about 20-metres long!
The Blyth Homestead was once home to a family whose livelihood depended on tin mining and it is well worth the trip to visit the ruins and read the stories of the family that once lived there.
The tiny hut of cypress pine tied together with heavy wire and covered with corrugated iron was built by the Sargent family in 1928 and was originally erected as an outstation for the main Stapleton Station (some 25-mile away).
With a permanent water supply nearby and good grazing among the paperbarks in this area it was the ideal spot to graze their cattle…
… and it soon became a base for the 11 older children who soon learned to farm their own vegetable and fruit crops, manage 13,500 head of cattle, and mine tin from Mt Tolmer Mine, located at the back of the hut. This is one incredible story of survival and resoursefulness by this selfsufficent family.
All the children – 8 girls and 3 boys (including their father) were all experienced miners having had previous experience ona claim at the ‘Lucy Tin Mine’… and it appeared from all the literature this was one pretty tough family – including the kids!
Backtracking through the water crossing we headed to the northern end of the 4WD track… and not to be disappointed, we came to our last water crossing on the track.
It was long, very long with a firm bottom, not too deep and had crystal clear water flowing very gently with some beautiful trees along its path… and was a lovely end to our Reynolds Track adventure!
The Reynolds Track might be a short track of 44-kilometres, but we spent 3 very enjoyable days on an interesting and sometimes challenging track visiting some beautiful and less frequented waterfalls and camping at some beautiful campgrounds in a relatively unspoilt National Park.
This is one of our favoured destinations on the ‘Top End’ and as for the waterfalls and their swimming holes… well they just get better and better.
Stay tuned for our next blog and we’ll see you in a few days when we explore more waterfall, swimming holes and campgrounds in the Litchfield National Park.