Swimming holes the hard way
Driving north out of Australia’s empty interior, the arid desert’s red rocks and low bushes slowly phase into the sparse trees and tall grasses of the savannah woodland. Here in the Northern Territory’s Top End, well above the Tropic of Capricorn, winter is the dry season and temperatures still rise well into the 80s. Litchfield National Park is one of the region’s top attractions, providing locals and tourists alike with deep clear swimming holes and a welcome relief from the heat.
We were there to spend four days and three nights on the Tabletop Track, a 39-kilometer walking track through the park. For better or worse (worse) we didn’t know much about it, other than that it linked up numerous waterfalls along a rocky plateau. Though the parks service deems it mandatory to purchase and carry a detailed topographical map of the area, they are apparently only available in Darwin, which was well out of the way. We came prepared with this:
As you can see, the trail is ringed by a road that accesses nearly all the highlights, so most people simply pile into their car/campervan/tour bus and drive between them. Choosing to ignore this, we packed our bags and began with a refreshing dip at beautiful Florence Falls, which was well visited but not overwhelmingly so.
From there, our first afternoon was an easy 6 kilometers through pleasant landscapes, crossed by the occasional clear stream. Fields of stiff, straw-colored spear grass, taller than us in some places, clacked gently in the breeze and, true to its name, occasionally speared us in the shins.
Every once in a while a cloud of golden dragonflies would rise from the spear grass and surround us, fluttering gracefully. Butterflies, some sky blue and black and others rust-colored, floated in the slight breeze. It was nice. We reached camp around sunset, set up alongside a quiet but friendly Cairns native, and went to bed looking forward to more of the same.
On the second day, though, the Tabletop Track revealed its true, hateful character. Spear grass disappeared as we entered a former burn zone, and we trudged through more than 12 kilometers of flat, scorched terrain, sweltering under an unforgiving sun. Sparse, twisted trees offered nothing in the way of shade, and the ground was strewn with loose rocks, looking half melted from fires or the sun or both. It was a wasteland, much more suited for a landfill, or say, Hell, than a national park.
Without the trampled tall grass, the trail became difficult to find, and we often had to pause and scan the horizon for the next trail marker. By now, we had become acquainted with the fact that “walking track” does not necessarily mean “well-defined trail” in Australia, but that didn’t numb the frustration.
Hordes of tiny, speedy flies had developed a maddening habit of landing on our arms and faces, immediately returning after being brushed aside. We have no idea what they were trying to accomplish, but if it was annoyance then they were very good at it.
By late afternoon, we were starting to think thoughts that all too often cross the mind on an extended backpacking trip of this nature. Why didn’t we just drive around from pool to pool like everyone else? Why am I here at all? Why am I not at home, on the deck, with a glass of lemonade?
But then something magical happened. A picnic table appeared, and a fire ring, and beyond it the sound of rushing water. We dropped our bags and hurried down toward the water, which to our great relief and excitement, was a deep, clear, multi-pooled swimming hole.
We spent the last couple hours of daylight swimming (though Steph was quick to be in and out of the water due to fear of crocs) and cooking dinner on the edge of the plateau. Fires in the valley lit the sunset a deep pink, and the day’s walk seemed a distant memory.
The third day promised less walking and more swimming, and we awoke early and optimistic. By mid-morning we reached a gorgeous swimming hole, which hung right on the edge of the plateau and came complete with a tumbling waterfall and jumping rock. Fantastic.
It seemed the trail itself might even be turning around. The terrain was less scorched and more varied and we crossed the occasional cool stream, each bordered in green with thriving vegetation.
In the afternoon, just as the heat was getting to us, another ideal swimming spot appeared, this one surrounded by flat sandstone and jungle plants. Add a few lounge chairs, a cocktail bar, and some decorative cacti and it could have been the swimming pool at some new luxury Las Vegas theme hotel called “The Oasis.”
A half-hour further down the trail was camp, surrounded by wide cascades, and though not deep enough for swimming was a great place to cook a massive amount of lentil soup.
We rose before dawn on the fourth and final day to get as much of the remaining 12 kilometers done before the temperature rose. To our dismay, it was back to the featureless, charred monotony of days past, this time interspersed with the occasional foot-drenching swamp. Creeks appeared but offered no swimming, and we ploughed forward with motivational visions of our luxurious mattress and cheeseburgers. We couldn’t wait to finish, and when the signpost emerged out of the spear grass, we had walked the 12 km in a fairly impressive five hours.
Back on the walkway to Florence Falls, it was a different world. Retirees in slacks muddled over intersections in the paved footpaths, and other young travelers hopped out of campervans and buses in flip-flops. It was quite amusing, really, and made us feel good about the 40+ kilometers we had just walked. Another swim in Florence Falls was a glorious reward.
So now the question that you always ask yourself at the end of a long walk: was it worth it, and would you do it again? Respectively, yes and definitely not. At least not in the same way. The track itself was almost completely awful. There was little to no scenery along the trail, and really it is just a long, dull route to connect some lovely swimming holes.
However, being Vermonters, we have seen our fair share of great swimming spots and consider ourselves connoisseurs of the genre. The three we encountered along the trail were truly top notch, and we had them all to ourselves. As they can only be accessed from the Tabletop Track, the trail must be given credit.
So, if we were to return we’d cut out the majority of the walking and hike only the southwestern section of the trail. This would avoid two long, boring days yet take in these three amazing swimming holes and two scenic campsites.
Above all else, it did give the accomplished sense that we should take it easy for a bit, perhaps a few days of waddling on some nice, flat, short boardwalks in nearby Kakadu National Park.