Aboriginal people have lived throughout the area for thousands of years. It is important to the Koongurrukun, Marranunggu, Werat and Waray Aboriginal people whose Ancestral Spirits formed the landscape, plants and animals and are still present in the landscape today.
The surveyor and soldier, Boyle Travers Finniss, was chosen by the South Australian government to be their government Resident in the Northern Territory. His decision to choose an area near Escape Cliffs for settlement was disastrous. The settlers suffered from inadequate food rations and infected mosquito bites. Finniss was disliked by the settlers who had accompanied him and argued with his officials.
The area which is now known as Litchfield National Park was first visited by Europeans in September 1856, when Litchfield led a small group to explore the Daly River. His diary of Monday, 25 September describes his travels:
“Monday, 25 – Three horses look as if they were going to knock up; will give them a day’s spell here. There are fine plains here, splendidly grassed and watered; small belts of stunted gum, vaquois, fan palm, and honeysuckle. Most of the timber is small, but plenty of it is adapted for station purposes. The country from here to Manton’s Creek on the Adelaide (River) is as fine a country for stock as I have ever seen, the whole of it being well grassed and well watered at all times of the year.”
The discovery of copper and tin led to the establishment of several small scale subsistence mining operations. Pastoral occupation also began in the 1870’s, with loggers and graziers facing the difficult conditions of torrential rain, mosquitoes and sandflies.
In 1888 Mt Tolmer became the site of the first tin mine and produced a continual supply of tin. Bamboo Creek’s tin mining operation began at Makanbarr, An Aboriginal campsite, in 1906. High quality tin was often found in the ancient riverbeds and on the surface of the hills. All it needed was to be bagged and sold. Small groups operated this way for the next 30 years. By 1941 miners began following the tin-bearing seams into the hills using picks and shovels, and loading the ore into wagons to be pushed or pulled back to the mines’ entrances.
Charles Stead, Thomas Niciloff and Charles Claydon took out the first real lease and set about turning the mine into a commercial venture, with the assistance of local Aboriginal men and women and some Europeans. However, the mine was closed in 1951 after a large flood filled many of the shafts with water. A relic of old tin mine at Bamboo Creek stands as a reminder of the difficult conditions endured by the pioneer miners.
In 1924 a small homestead was built by the Sargent famil on their leased land in the lowlands near Tolmer Falls where there was reliable water and reasonable grazing for their cattle. Their farm proved successful and in 1928 they built Blyth Homestead as an outstation a little further south, so their cattle could take advantage of the good grazing among the paperbarks in this area. Typical of other structures of that time, the homestead is supported with cypress pine tied together with heavy wire and covered with corrugated iron. The family was able to farm their own vegetable and fruit crops, and held up to 13,500 head of cattle, due to the permanent water nearby. After 40 years, the Sargent family sold the lease to the Townsend family who farmed until the early 1960s. The abandoned homestead stands as a stark reminder of the tough conditions graziers faced.
Logging of paperbark, cypress and Leichhardt pines began in 1948 in the north-western section of the park. Again, Aboriginal people assisted and ex-army equipment was utilized to take the timber to the mill where it was prepared for local builders.
Uranium was discovered outside what is now Litchfield’s eastern boundary in August 1949, by a local prospector, Jack White. Australia’s first fully operational uranium mine was opened at Rum Jungle, and underground mining occurred from 1950 to 1953. The name Rum Jungle is derived from an accident that occurred in 1871. A bullock-wagon load of rum, destined for the construction gangs, was said to have been bogged near a patch of jungle on the crocodile inhabited East Finniss River - the bullockies untethered the oxen and set about drinking the rum, having one of histories most glorious binges. Production from the open cut area started in 1953 and proved to be one of the largest economic influences in the development of the Top End, with sales to the United Kingdom for their atomic weapons program. The mine closed in 1971.
The park was originally part of Stapleton Station, Tipperary Station and Cap Creek Station pastoral leases. The pastoral activity persisted until the declaration of the area as a Park when in 1985, the lessees of Stapleton Station negotiated the surrender of the pastoral lease and it was subsequently taken up by the Conservation Land Corporation.
Remnant pockets of monsoon rainforest thrive along the bottom of the escarpment, and in the deep narrow gorges created over thousands of years by the force of the waterfalls cutting into the escarpment walls.
Litchfield is a habitat for hundreds of native bird species. Black kites, and other birds of prey are common during the dry season. The Yellow Oriole, Figbird, Koel, Spangled Drongo, Dollarbird and the Rainbow Bee-eater inhabit the sheltered areas close to waterfalls. A species of marsupial mouse (the Northern Dibbler), the Bush Hen, a frog (the Pealing Chirper) and the Primitive Archer Fish, occur in the Wangi Falls area.
Wangi, Tolmer and Florence falls and Buley Rockhole, are popular with visitors and tour groups. The falls have large pools that attract birds and reptiles such as water monitors. Orange-footed scrub fowl, honeyeaters, fig birds and Torres Strait pigeons share the fruit and berries in the areas with nocturnal mammals like the northern quoll, northern brown bandicoot and northern brushtail possum. Frilled-neck lizards are common throughout the park, but will not be seen as frequently during the cool Dry season months. The Finnis River area also hosts a number of large species of Crocodylus porosus, more commonly known as "salties"
The magnetic termite mounds are a popular tourist attraction. These wedge-shaped mounds are aligned in a north-south direction as a response to the environment. The termites which build them feed on grass roots and other plant debris found in plains which are seasonally flooded. Therefore, the termites are forced to remain above the water, in the mound. The alignment of the mound acts as a temperature regulator, and allows the temperature to remain stable.
The homestead was established in 1928 to function as an outstation on Stapleton Station, then owned by Harry Sargent and his family. It was constructed using bush timber (cypress pine) and iron in the form of a large central room that could be closed up with verandahs around the edges. Blyth Homestead is one of the few existing examples of this type of building which was formerly common on NT pastoral leases. The Homestead site contains tangible and well-preserved remnants of both pastoral and mining activities.
The isolated location necessitated the occupants to be virtually self-sufficient with a fruit and vegetable garden, milking cows and meat. A sawmilling plant was used to cut timber needed. Their income was supplemented by alluvial and reef tin mining to the east of the homestead, the products of which had to be carted by buckboard along a self-made track over the Finiss River.
As described by Max Sargent, the tenth of fourteen children of the Sargent family: “We were possibly the best fed people in Australia right through the depression, with butter, cream and milk, cheese, dried fruits and fresh fruits, fresh vegetables the year round, more than what we could use, but no money!”
The simple bush architecture of the homestead and the opportunistic nature of the mine workings illustrate the harsh conditions under which the Sargent family lived.
At Florence Falls, a double waterfall leads into a swimming hole, set in a tropical rainforest. The lookout and viewing platform provides a panoramic view. A 160-step staircase leads to the swimming hole. A camp ground is available, year-round, with toilet and shower facilities.
Visitors to Buley Rockhole will find a long series of cascading plunge pools. A camp ground is available, with toilet facilities – open all year round.
These termite mounds are built by thousands of termites with a north-south orientation to control the temperature inside the mounds.
This two day walk, part of the Tabletop Track, runs from Wangi Falls through to Walker Creek. This landscape with its rocky outcrops and ridges provides a haven for the local wildlife such as northern quolls, wallabies, frogs and lizards. There is abundant birdlife too – try spotting colourful red-winged parrots, double-bar finches, or kingfishers.
Commercial accommodation options are available outside the park at:
“Litchfield’s Gold. The life of Fred Litchfield” by Janet Dickinson, published by Janet Dickinson, 1988
“Litchfield National Park Plan of Management” published by Conservation Commission of the Northern Territory, 1992
“Blyth Homestead – Tough lives, Tough times” information sheet published by Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory, 2007