Located 42km north of Katherine, NT, and 20km off the Stuart Highway, Edith Falls is a small and deceptively remote pocket on the western boundary of the Nitmiluk National Park (NP). We had stayed at the park’s main attraction Katherine Gorge some weeks earlier and passed by this lesser-known enclave on our Top End trek north to Litchfield. Now we were on our way back south and decided to make camp here for a few days to see how it compared. All roads out of the Top End pass through Katherine, unless one has a permit, and the stamina, to exit through East Arnhem Land.
This section of the park is focused on a series of picturesque waterfalls and large pools created by the Edith River as it cascades off an ancient sandstone escarpment, falling about 175m along its 69km course before merging with the Ferguson River north-west of Katherine. Edith Falls is the last and most impressive in the chain, plunging about 12m into a huge, mirror-smooth pool (more like a small lake) that acts like a reservoir of crystal clear water before the river drains out its western end through a channel lined with pandanus and paperbarks. It is an idyllic place for swimming in the middle of an otherwise parched and rocky plain.
Within a short walk from the lake’s stony shore lies the shady, park-like picnic area and campground, well-appointed with gas barbecues, tables and an ablution block with a laundry, toilets and showers. There is also a kiosk that sells food and drinks and this is where we headed on arrival to pay our camping fees for an unpowered site (there are no powered sites here). Although it doesn’t enjoy quite the same notoriety as Katherine Gorge, Edith Falls is still a popular destination in the Top End, especially during the peak tourist season between June and September. We were not surprised, therefore, when we rolled up at the end of August to find the camp nearly full to capacity.
We had arrived at the camp around midday, under a cloudless sky burnished pale copper by the smoke haze from nearby late-season fires. It was devilishly hot and, as soon as we had set up and had lunch, we headed to the lake beneath the falls for a dip to escape the baking heat. We found the pool wide and deep, with water cascading in sufficient volume over the falls to create a decent spectacle for a Top End landscape in the grip of the dry season. And there was enough breeze to add a chilly edge to the already fresh water in the lagoon.
Next morning, hoping to beat the worst of the day’s heat, we set out early for some bushwalking, an activity that is very popular in this section of the park. Given the oven-like conditions prevailing that early in the day, we opted for the shorter Leliyn Trail, a 2.6km loop of moderate difficulty via the Upper Pool. From its start near the picnic area carpark, the trail climbed steeply for about 500m to the top of the escarpment, then traversed a landscape of grevilleas and spinifex to a stony ridge overlooking the Edith River.
As we stood at the lookout admiring the view through woolybutts and salmon gums, we were joined by a group of hikers who were just completing six gruelling days on the Jatbula Trail and heading for a well-earned dip at the waterhole below us. With that one thought in mind, we all descended the track into the gorge embracing the Upper Pool.
Here, the orange sandstone terraces had been worn smooth and shiny by countless wet season torrents that have coursed through the valley over millennia. The pool was emerald-deep and refreshingly cool after our short, but sweaty, walk from the camp, and we lay around like lizards basking at the river’s edge as it drifted placidly by on the way to the next cascade into the Middle Pool. After this most agreeable aquatic interlude, we pulled our walking gear on over still soggy togs and scrambled up the steep, rocky slope from the gorge to Bemang Lookout.
The track continued along an exposed ridge that looked out across a landscape of jumbled sandstone outcrops interspersed with straw-coloured spinifex that sloped down to gullies where meagre stands of gum trees clung to life along invisible streams that fed the river.
Despite its stark hostility, this rugged terrain above the falls supports an amazing diversity of life. Plants in this environment are adapted to the dry and sandy conditions and, amazingly, are more closely related to the flora of south-western Australia than the plants found in the lowlands only a few hundred metres away. After a kilometre or so, the track emerged once more at the lip of the escarpment to reveal a sweeping view over a sparsely wooded, tinder-brown plain, where the river marked its course with a long green corridor of paperbarks and pandanus as it snaked its way into the distant haze. And we were reminded once again that, even in the most terrible dry, there is always water flowing in the Edith River to feed the falls and pools.
At the river, the trail morphed to stepping-stones that carried us to the other bank. We paused mid-stream to gaze in wonder at the unbelievably clear water and the avenue of verdant vegetation that beckoned us towards the Lower Pool beneath the falls, and yet another relieving swim. It was wonderful to be able to enjoy these watery excursions without having to worry about whether we would become a meal for some reptile lurking unseen beneath the waters. Having said that, I almost stepped on a snake while crossing the open lawn of the campground back to Tikay – a reminder, I suppose, of just how Edenic this paradise the Jawoyn call Leliyn really was.
The turn-off to the Leliyn (Edith Falls) section of the Nitmiluk National Park is 42km north-west of Katherine and 49km south-east of Pine Creek along the Stuart Highway. The camping area and day use area at Leliyn is at the end of a sealed road 20km from the highway junction.
Contact the Nitmiluk Visitor’s Centre (Nitmiluk Tours) Nitmiluk NP on (08) 8971 0877 to book a tour or visit www.nitmiluktours.com.au for more information.
Katherine Visitor Centre is located located at Stuart Hwy, Katherine NT. Phone (08) 8972 2650 or visit www.visitkatherine.com.au for more information.
To contact the Jawoyn Association Aboriginal Corporation, phone (08) 8972 5400 or visit www.jawoyn.org for more information.
Check out the full feature in issue #97 February 2015 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.