After drinking Darwin dry, I struck west for Litchfield National Park, some 150km from the state capital. A lot of people rate Litchfield more highly than Kakadu, and I wasn't disappointed; what a lovely place. It's lusciously green, the rivers and waterfalls are fast-flowing and you can swim in them, the mozzies aren't that bad, and, as with Kakadu, the main roads are all bitumen (there are dirt tracks, but they're all 4WD-only).
My first stop was at the Magnetic Anthills that the area is famous for. These odd-looking things are termite mounds, but they're shaped like really thin, flat fins – unlike most mounds, which are like towers – and they're all aligned in exactly the same way along the north-south axis, making the area look like a cosmic graveyard. The theory is that termites like a constant temperature, and most dig down into the ground to attain it, but magnetic termites build on floodplains, so they can't dig too deep or they'll drown, so they have to have a constant temperature in the mound itself. As the faces of the 'gravestone' face east and west, it catches the early morning and late evening sun full on, but only a little of the burning midday sun, which helps to keep the temperature inside reasonably constant and bearable; the effect of hundreds of these mounds, all facing the same way, is completely bizarre.
After my introduction to the world of magnetic insects, I headed straight for Wangi Falls (pronounced 'Wong-eye') and pitched my tent, followed by a dip in the beautifully cold pool at the foot of the twin falls. The waterfalls in the Northern Territory – including those in Kakadu, to be fair – are spectacular, and generally the swimming is superb; Litchfield has a great collection of them, which is probably why so many people prefer the place to Kakadu.
Again that night I interrupted a conversation, and met Ted and Gill from the north of England, who had driven their van on the same route as me, but had started in Sydney and had seen the east coast, sacrificing Tasmania to do so. They were giving a lift to Ralph, a quiet but very well spoken German, and Lisa, a lively girl from Rickmansworth who had spent most of her life in Tenerife as a hairdresser, and most of her year in Australia on the beach on the east coast. We all got on famously, and spent the next day exploring the sights of Litchfield.
Our first stop was Florence Falls, the most beautiful falls you could possibly hope for. We dived, we swam, we marvelled at the huge water monitor lizard that swam in the pool and climbed the rocks around us, and we jumped off crazy rock walls into deep, cool water. Unfortunately we also scratched our heads at how my daypack had mysteriously become waterlogged while we were swimming, totally ruining my camera in the process; presumably someone knocked it in, noticed and fished it out again, as there were a lot of people clambering around taking photos, and we were swimming for a fair old time. Losing my camera and the photos on the ruined film distressed me no end, but Ted and Gill said they'd send me copies of their pictures from Litchfield (which they very kindly did), and there was no point in getting annoyed at something that couldn't be undone, so I put it out of my mind and we set off for Buley Rockhole.
Buley Rockhole is another delight; it's a series of really deep rock pools, connected by little waterfalls, and the water is clear, cold and just what you need in the tropical jungle that makes up a lot of Litchfield. We spent ages lounging around, diving and jumping, and boy, did I sleep well that night.
The next morning I was up early to head off out of the park, back towards Katherine. I decided to take the tourist route, which runs parallel to the main highway but passes through some lovely countryside, and on the way I stopped off at Robin Falls – a pretty little spot with a dribbling waterfall, miles from anywhere – and Douglas Hot Springs, a little river that's heated by thermal activity. The springs are really relaxing; the hot spring mixes with a cold one, and you have to bathe at the mix, as the hot one is a bit too hot on its own. I bumped into Ted, Gill and their passengers again here, and we arranged to meet in Katherine at one of the caravan parks, seeing as we were enjoying each others' company so much.