A 39km circuit in Litchfield National Park in the Northern Territory, through an arid and often burnt landscape punctuated by beautiful waterholes and creeks.
I’m glad I managed to do this walk. But I wouldn’t do it again… The Tabletop Track is a “classic” Northern Territory walk that’s been on my to Do List for a while, promising idyllic creeks and waterfalls surrounded by rainforest. The reality is that those moments where I stop for a break or a refreshing swim, or walk along a crystal clear creek, are hard-earned by walking through a very arid and often bleak landscape which is often burnt out by recent fires.
Just getting started proved trickier than I expected: I’d spent hours trying to purchase a detailed topographical map on-line. In the end the best I could do was the 1:250K “Pine Creek” topographical map on my phone, which was virtually useless. Even in Darwin not a single store I tried had stock of the recommended map. Since I was arriving into Darwin very late in the evening and couldn’t take a gas cylinder on the plane, I’d managed after several phone calls to find “Shorty” from Camping World Darwin, who offered to drop one off at the Hertz car hire booth at the airport – he went out of his way to help. By chance I checked whether the park was open a few days before leaving Sydney (why wouldn’t it be?!?), and discovered that in fact the entire Tabletop Track was closed due to bushfires. With a sense of dread I made a few phone calls… it might be possible to get a permit (not normally required in the dry season) to do at least a part of the walk. Tracy from the Permits Office (see contact numbers at the bottom) was super-helpful, and less than 24 hours before my flight departed she’d responded with approval to complete the southern section of the walk.
Being short of time as always, I landed at Darwin at 12:15am, driving to the small town of Batchelor (about 90min away) so I could make an early start the next day. Or, rather, the same day. From Batchelor it’s only about half an hour to Litchfield National Park where four “link tracks” provide access to the Tabletop Track. I had originally planned to start at Wangi Falls and do the track in a clockwise direction. But due to the recent fires and the track being closed, the best option as stipulated by my permit was to start at Florence Falls, walking towards Wangi Falls. I was allowed to walk as far as the campground at Tjenya Falls (5km past Wangi Creek) – but the track was due to re-open on the second day of my walk, meaning I should be able to complete the circuit.
Day 1: Florence Falls to Tjenya Falls
A brief detour before heading down into the valley to the lookout platform over Florence Falls, which has a decent flow of water.
I’m then off down the paved path towards Florence Falls. It’s a bright and clear day (I suspect like every day in the dry season) and there’s not a soul around. It’s only about 10min before the path crosses Florence Creek, and I reach the sign marketing the start of the Link Track.
Florence Falls Link Track to The Steps [14.7km]
Permit in-hand (or rather, in my backpack), I veer off the paved highway. The Link Track is easy to follow as it heads down into a small valley, follows Wangi Creek for a short distance, and then ascends to a plateau. Regularly-spaced markers provide reassurance that you’re on track: orange triangles for Link Tracks and blue for the Tabletop Track. This is one of the shorter Link Tracks – it’s only 1.8km to reach the junction with the Tabletop Track.
Initially the landscape is somewhat varied and not too unpleasant to walk through, especially being still cooler in the morning hours. There’s tall grassland, short grassland and some light forest.
There’s also a few creek crossings that break the otherwise arid landscape with a swath of dense green foliage and some shade. The track ascends constantly over the next 7km, but only 100m in total, so it’s barely noticeable.
The highest point of the southern section – at the grand elevation of 215m asl – is reached about 7.3km along the circuit. A 4WD track is crossed – this would provide an emergency exit point as it eventually reaches the main highway. From here it’s very gradually downhill – and much less enjoyable walking! It’s getting warmer and there’s a long section where I’m walking through bush that’s been recently burnt. Prescribed burns (as well as natural fires) are part of the management of the, undertaken for thousands of years by Aborigines. However, there’s now debate that large-scale, deliberate burning has become excessive and is permanently changing the landscape. Part of the problem is the increase in gamba grass, a perennial grass from Africa that was introduced to Australia as a pasture grass and grows up to four metres tall: it fuels wildfires and burns more intensely than native grasses.
The track has been a bit harder to follow, both through the burnt section and then an area of re-growth. For much of the circuit, the track doesn’t follow a natural feature, such as creek or valley, so you’re always looking for the next arrow. Mostly it’s directly in front of the previous one; sometimes it makes an abrupt turn up a ridge or down into a valley! I’m very glad to reach the next creek, where I’m ready for a swim and to fill-up my water bottle.
The track crosses another couple of creeks, both clear and flowing. It’s often remarkable how a thin green band of semi-tropical plants thrives while metres away the bush is brown and devoid of any life.
I’m glad when I reach “The Steps” cascades on upper Wangi Creek (I’m not 100% sure this is the correct geographic name, but it’s fitting!) – time for another very refreshing swim. There’s also a campsite here, which is arguably the nicest one on the circuit.
The Steps to Tjenya Camp site [9km]
The next part of the walk is one of the nicest, with the track following the creek fairly closely. The trail markers are always a fair distance from the creek – you can see from the debris wrapped around one of the posts how high the water must get in the wet season!
There’s plenty of rock pools that almost compel you to stop and have a quick dip – and the day is getting gradually warmer (temperatures reach around 32 degrees Celsius by mid afternoon).
After two kilometres the trail leaves the creek and goes up over a very small ridge (I lose the track here for a short time) before following another bigger creek downstream. After another 2km the track crosses the flowing creek: this is the only river crossing so far where I need to remove shoes. Just downstream is Wangi Falls, accessible by car and a popular tourist spot.
The next bit is not much fun. I’ve walked exactly 20km since leaving Florence Falls, it’s getting pretty warm… and the track now heads straight up a rocky ridge. And back down. It’s only about 80m (vertical ascent/descent) but feels like more with a heavy pack. For the first time there are views out to the west. Not that there is much to see.
Then it’s back down into another valley – this time crossing a nice creek and small waterfall – before heading back another steep ridge…
On this last ridge I manage to get a weak phone signal (I only noticed as my phone starting pinging as it received a few emails). By standing on a rock and pointing my iPhone skywards I managed to get onto the Litchfield National Park Web site – the status is still that the anticipated opening of the Tabletop Track is the following day.
I’m now almost at my camp site – another descent before I reach Tenja Falls. It’s got some deep pools that make perfect swimming holes at the end of a long day.
A hundred metres or so past the falls is the campsite. Near the edge of the Tabletop escarpment, there’s a large cleared area for tents, a metal container to light a fire in (although this is discouraged) and a metal platform that keeps packs and supplies off the dusty ground. It’s not the most picturesque camping spot, but it’s near the creek. And it’s a nice spot to watch the sun set.
Tjenya Camp site to Walker Creek – Day 2 [10.5km]
I wake up early the next day: I’ve decided to continue the circuit. I’m more than half-way, the track is supposed to re-open today and there’s no sign of smoke or fire in the direction I’m heading…
I’m carrying a bit less water than the previous day (about 1.5L) – a mistake in hindsight, as this next section is pretty dry. The landscape is pretty dry, and the first creek is not really flowing. Compared to the previous day, the track is more distinct here, although I’m still keeping a close eye on those markers…
There’s some sections that have recently been burnt: the blackened ferns look like they’ve seen better days!
The track passes another creek – it’s got plenty of water, but it’s not really flowing.
After 6.3km I cross the firetrail/4WD track that crosses the park – it would be another escape route if the trail was “burnt out” or there was a fire (my fear being not much being caught in a fire, but the markers being destroyed.)
Despite this area having more signs of recent fires than the southern section, there are still a few wildflowers. In general, I’ve seen few flowers and no animals (except for some spiders) so far.
The landscape is still pretty stark and dry – it’s been almost 10km and still no flowing streams. Some sections of the track go through re-growth, probably from fires the last dry season. There’s one smouldering log next to the trail, the only sign of the more recent fires that closed the Tabletop Track.
As the trail approaches the Link Track to Walker Creek, it traverses an even more desolate landscape. Walker Creek is only 1.9km away down the Link Track and is supposed to be a nice camp ground – but no sign of any creek here!
Walker Creek – to Florence Falls [9.5km]
Another 2km past the Link Track, and the trail crosses another creek – this one is shown on my 1:250K map and seems to be of a decent size. But it’s not flowing and the water is pretty stagnant. I could filter it, but I’ve still got some water left and I’m hopeful of a more picturesque babbling brook eventually!
Along this creek is the third campsite – it’s the only one that’s not directly on the track (there’s a short 400m walk to get to it). It seems the least appealing of the three Tabletop Track camping sites from the state of the creek a bit further down. I’d seen a less than flattering description on another blog: “The campsite up on the plateau and 1.8 km from the Walker Creek link track is horrible. There is water from a stagnant creek surrounded by scrub typhus and mosquito infested bush and there is very little shade.” [The Conspiracy Times]
UPDATE: A comment (see bottom of post) by Brad suggests I am mistaken: “Camp site 6 at walker creek (there are 8) is alongside an amazing spring fed flowing creek”. So, if you’re doing the Tabletop Track check it out and let me know how you find it!
Finally I reach a more promising creek about 16.3km from the Tjenya Falls camp site. After following the creek for a few hundred metres, there’s a perfect spot for a quick dip and to re-fill water bottles. While not an approved camping spot, I’d pick this over the Walker Creek camp site if I was doing the walk over three days.
The track follows the creek for about 500, before it crosses near some nice cascades and heads up a small ridge.
Less then a kilometre there’s a another nice creek that the trail crosses.
I’m on the home stretch now – it’s easy walking through some more sections of long grass, before reaching the Florence Falls Link Track to complete the circuit.
There’s one last swim as the Link Track crosses a small creek, before it rejoins the main Florence Falls loop track.
It’s been a tough walk in terms of terrain and route-finding (or rather, making sure you’re following the track markers) – I think I’ll be dreaming about blue triangles for the next few weeks. There’s many long, dry and exposed sections. Conversely, finding a pristine water hole for a dip after hours of walking is its own reward. And it’s been a long time since I’ve walked two days without seeing a soul.
Shady Creek Loop [500m]
I take the long way back to the Florence Falls car park, following the Shady Creek Walk track. It crosses Florence Creek a few times and passes through a rainforest-filled gorge.
Near the end is the pool at the bottom of Florence Falls. It would be a nice spot for a swim – but after having two days of private waterholes and creeks, swimming with 50 people is not really appealing. (I’ve become a Swimming Hole Snob in two days!)
A steep climb up the stairs to the car park – and my walk is completed! I’m glad to take the backpack off, and head back to civilisation.
Rather than taking the sealed road back to Darwin, I’ve got plenty of time (it’s about 2:30pm when I reach the car) to complete a circuit of Litchfield National Park.
First stop is Tolmer Falls, regarded as one of the most spectacular falls in Litchfield National Park. There’s a short walking track to a viewing platform over the falls (and a longer 1.6km return walk that follows Tolmer Creek).
The second stop is Wangi Falls, the best-known and most popular attraction in Litchfield National Park… it’s pretty busy here on a Saturday afternoon. A short walk leads to a lookout over the pool and falls. A longer track goes up over the falls and back to the car park. There’s also a cafe here, and free wifi (so I can book my accommodation back in Darwin for this evening).
There is a Link Track from the Tabletop Track (1.2km) to Wangi Falls and I had considered making this short detour on Day 1. I’m glad I didn’t – after the solitude of the Tabletop Track it would have been disconcerting to suddenly be surrounded by hundreds of people (although I wouldn’t have minded a hamburger from the cafe). Despite the Tabletop Track being so close to Wangi Falls, when you’re on the circuit you can’t see or hear the Falls.
||Litchfield National Park is about 120km (2 hours) south-east from Darwin via Batchelor on a fully-sealed road or through Berry Springs via the partly unsealed Cox Peninsula Road (dry season only; 2WD accessible).
||Official distance is 39km plus the Link Track/s (variable lengths) to access the Tabletop Track. Actual distance as measured by my GPS units (Apple iPhone and Garmin watch was 50km:
- Day 1: Florence Falls – Greenant Creek – Tjenya Falls (campground after Wangi Falls): 22.2km on the map and 26km distance walked
- Day 2: Tjenya Falls – Walker Creek – Florence Falls: 18.4km on the map and 21km distance walked
||Hard. Track is very rough and navigation can be tricky. Temperatures reach 30-32 degrees C in the dry season (winter). Approx 1,080m elevation gain & loss over the entire track – the walk is between about 200m elevation with some drops into valleys and up ridges.
||Dry season – typically May to end of September.
- Australia’s Northern Territory Litchfield National Park –
Edition 7 (topographical map). Bloody hard to find but try the Darwin Museum (they had sold out when I asked), Camping World Darwin (sold out), NT General Store (open weekdays).
- Tabletop Track information sheet and overview map – PDF download
||Routie GPS trail – Day 1 and Day 2.
View route and export to KML format.
- Litchfield National Park phone number – 08 8976 0282
- Check if a park is open web site – worth checking, as I discovered!
- Information on applying for a permit – required in the wet season or if park / track is closed. If unsure you need one, they were very helpful when I phoned – 08 8999 4486
- I didn’t treat water from most of the creeks – but between Tjenya Falls and Walker Creek camp site the only water sources (in mid-July) were pretty stagnant. You’d want some form of purification, especially if hiking after July
- Don’t think about wearing shorts – the sections through forest re-growth (after a fire) or long grass will not be fun
- The camp sites near Greenant Creek and Tjenya Falls were great. The one near Walker Creek I would avoid (continue about 2km further towards Florence Falls)
- Walk from May-July if you can – reports from later in the Dry season suggest many of the creeks/waterholes have started drying up.