Trekking the Tabletop Track, Northern Territory
IT’S 11AM AND ALREADY sunscreen and sweat form a sticky film across my winter-white skin.
Two days ago I was in Melbourne – heavy traffic, 10 degrees Celsius and drizzling rain.
Now it’s 30 degrees Celsius, and apart from my hiking partner, Yasmin, there’s not another person for miles around.
This is day one of our four-day, 38km circuit of the Tabletop Range, the sandstone plateau that is Litchfield National Park’s most distinctive feature.
Savanna woodland stretches across the plateau like an African landscape, dry stalks of spear grass giving it a coppery hue.
A rainbow bee-eater watches warily from a tree, its elegant tail divided into two long, colourful streamers.
We pass beneath a stand of woollybutt trees, their orange flowers strewn along the path.
It surprises me that this arid country has such a diversity of plants, and that so many of them are flowering.
Camping at Walker Creek, Litchfield NP
We follow the blue trail-markers through recently burnt woodland to our first camp, Walker Creek.
About half of the track was burnt at the end of the wet season, a vegetation-management technique started millennia ago by the local Aboriginal people and now continued by the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Service.
We find a campsite beside the creek. I can’t believe that we have such a beautiful site to ourselves: a crystal-clear swimming hole spilling its water over an orange sandstone ledge in a series of cascades.
We drop our packs and slide into the cool water, disturbing a metre-long Merten’s water monitor slumbering beside the creek. The cool water revives us, as do the small freshwater shrimp nibbling at our toes.
The abundance of water in this dry landscape, including the waterfalls, is from wet season rains being stored in huge underground fissures within the plateau, to be gradually released into springs and creeks during the Dry.
Setting up the tent is a slightly disconcerting experience for a Victorian: there is no chance of rain, so there is no need for a fly. The stars are as bright and sharp as I have ever seen, and the burble of the creek quickly lulls me to sleep.
Tjenya Falls, Litchfield NP
Back at the junction with the Tabletop Track the next morning, we head south-west towards Tjenya Falls. We take a break at a copse of fern-leaf grevilleas, covered with large orange flowers like bristly hairbrushes.
We mimic the lorikeets and suck sweet honey-like nectar from the flowers. The liquid is night-cool and deliciously refreshing, the pollen staining our cheesy grins.
The track crosses grassy woodland before descending along a rocky escarpment to reach a dry creekbed.
The width of the creek gives an indication of the amount of rain that falls here in the wet season (more than 400mm in January, the wettest month), although today is – as every day seems to be in July – low 30s and sunny.
The burnt woodland is dotted with brown termite mounds like tombstones. We reach a viewpoint at the edge of the plateau, the shadows of clouds the only disturbance in the vast forested plain beneath us.
Tjenya Falls campsite is nearby: a table, a fire pit and pit toilet. The falls are 50m from camp, a narrow rivulet dropping down a sandstone cliff into a series of deep rock pools. We share today’s swim with tiny bronze-coloured frogs and electric-blue damselflies.
Eating dinner, seated on rocks at the edge of the plateau, the sunset doesn’t disappoint, throwing neon streamers across the sky before finally extinguishing itself beneath the plain.
Tabletop Track, NT: Wangi Falls
At Wangi Falls two plumes of water tumble down a dark rock cliff, the first narrow and graceful, the second wider, throwing out great arcs of spray.
The swimming hole at its base is the size of an Olympic pool, and so clear that we can see the fish that circle in its depths. Unfortunately the pool is closed due to saltwater crocodiles.
The crocs move into the area during the wet season and depart when the water drops during in the Dry. We climb back to the Tabletop Track, happy to leave the crocs and holiday crowds behind: the escarpment acts as an effective barrier to both.
Back on the Tabletop, the heat and the difficulty finding the route has sapped our energy, and the last kilometre to the campsite seems to take an eternity. But it’s definitely worth the effort.
This nameless campsite is arguably the most beautiful yet: a flat area beside the upper Wangi Creek where a series of rock platforms creates a chain of small waterfalls linked by shallow pools.
On our last day on the track, we follow the creek, with bronze-coloured dragonflies circling ahead and velvety, orange kurrajong flowers dotting the forest.
The morning sun plays on the water where lily pads hold delicate white flowers towards the sun.
It is hard to believe that we have finished the circuit, that this is the same place we set out from only four days ago. Back then, this landscape felt so different it was almost foreign.
But now we have walked through it, slept on it, seen its creatures and been covered in its dust. As we descend from the plateau towards the falls, even the temperature seems just right.