Exploring the Lost Cities of Limmen National Park

After sharing photos of a family camping trip to Limmen National Park on social media, I knew I had to share our story with others. “Stunning, where is Limmen?”, “I want to go here but had to look on a map to see where it was!”, “can I come with you next time?” were some of the comments received. And it was no wonder, our photos depicted sparkling rivers and estuaries perfect for hunting that elusive barra, ancient sandstone pillars known as the "lost city", bright orange honey grevilleas dripping with nectar and stunning sunsets on the escarpment backdrop – once part of the Arnhem Land escarpment which runs through Kakadu National Park.

Limmen isn’t a quick trip or even a weekender. At approximately 10,000 square kilometres (that's the size of the Bahamas!) and only unsealed roads, it is important to take your time. Travelling from the township of Katherine in the Northern Territory's Top End, the park boundary is 275 km away. A stop at the Roper Bar store is a must for final fuel and food supplies (note - if you want to partake in a brew by the campfire, you will need to stock up in Katherine before leaving). There is also no phone connectivity or services such as fuel or accommodation in the park so come prepared! There is a ranger station at Limmen’s Nathan River for emergencies if needed.

Although folks have been enjoying Limmen’s natural wonders for years, it only became a national park in 2012, managed by the NT Government’s Parks and Wildlife Commission. Before this, the park was a pastoral area – remnants of this history can be seen at the Nathan River Ranger Station, old air strip and although Parks and Wildlife actively control feral animals, there is still the occasional wild buffalo roaming the park (drive with caution). Limmen is also culturally significant, with the Aboriginal custodians, park staff and archaeologists recently undertaking a project documenting and learning about ancient cultural sites.

Limmen National Park, Munbalilla Campground Anzac memorial

“Is this Limmen? Now what do we do?” asks one of my kids. It’s been a long day driving including an obligatory stop at the Roper Bar crossing for a picnic lunch, followed by a final refuel and last ice-creams at the Roper Bar store. We don't enter the park until mid-afternoon, with our first challenge being to find ourselves a camp for the night. We are pretty quiet campers and much prefer isolated bush camping - fortunately Limmen has a great range of campgrounds. We pull into Munbililla (Tomato Island) first for a peek and are greeted with green grass, picnic facilities, toilets and showers, phone coverage and caravans which look like they have been set up for weeks enjoying the river front views, and why wouldn't you for the bargain price of $6.60 pp per night? In the centre of the campground stands an impressive Anzac memorial made by one of the rangers. Although a very flash campground by our standards, we decide to find something a bit more remote so continue motoring up the road. From here on, we have bush camps, which are still very comfortable, all with designated camp spots, fire pits, clean and new drop toilets and picnic benches. We settle on a lovely shady and isolated camp at Towns River – even cheaper for the bargain price of $7.70 per night for the entire family! After setting up camp, we stroll down to watch the sunset over the river before cooking up our roo burgers for dinner.

The following morning is bliss as we are woken by the most magnificent bird calls. We’ve camped a lot throughout our lives (even for a living at one stage) and never have we been treated to such delightful morning bird calls. We decide today we’ll make the trek to the Western Lost City which is by locked gate 4WD access – to do this, we’ll need to visit the Nathan River Ranger Station for the gate code. The ranger station is a great set-up, with a newly refurbished interpretive display inside the old Nathan River Station homestead. Here we learn about the local Aboriginal culture, European settlement and the park’s unique natural features. Fresh drinking water is also available so we top up our jerries, boil the billy and have a good look over the park notes we’ve just picked up. The park’s Senior Ranger Chris, even on his day off pops over to say g’day and provides us with some good recommendations to explore the Western Lost City. There are some rock art sites close to the car park, but we are warned to be careful as currently there aren’t any defined walking tracks in the Western Lost City (“so don’t get lost!” comes the advice). Chris suggests we camp the night at the Butterfly Springs campground which is his favourite in the park.

“Make sure you stop at the old airstrip up the road – kids will love the mailbox” Ranger Chris winks as we say our goodbyes. We note down the code for the Western Lost City gates, air down the tyres and start the journey.

The quirky mailbox near Nathan River Homestead, Limmen National Park

As recommended, we see the airstrip up the road with a strange sculpture which seems to be a corrugated iron buffalo.

“Is that the mailbox?” my son asks “Where does the mail go?” We hop out of the car for a closer inspection – the kids are delighted once they work out which “end” the mail is deposited in! Funny photos taken, we then start our adventure to find the Lost City. It takes around an hour and a half to slowly drive in on the Western Lost City track, although the track is only 28 km, there are many points of interest along the drive – be sure to either download the park note or pick it up from the Nathan River Ranger station. Along the way we stop in an ancient river bed boasting 1.6 billion year old Stromatolites! The drive truly is picturesque as you follow a chain of billabongs full of lilies and bird life as well as the odd buffalo or two. “Look mum, it’s a family of buffaloes with a baby buffalo!” never thought I’d hear myself calling a buffalo “cute”!

As we arrive, both my husband and I are wide eyed like kids in a candy shop – both suckers for geology and amazing views, the camera can’t keep up! Not all of us are that excited though, both kids are fast asleep - they’ve grown up 4WDing so it’s no wonder the rocky motion lulls them both to sleep! Once at the car park, hubby and I prepare a picnic lunch ready for once the kids awake. Both of us take it in turns and do quick recces of the area – so used to having to stick to walking tracks in national parks, we are delighted we have a chance to choose our own adventure and even better – we have the entire place to ourselves. We are treated to rock art figures and observe shimmering emeralds on a small shrub which reveal themselves to be jewel beetles.

“They are so beautiful!” my daughter squeals…goodness, “cute” buffalos and “beautiful beetles”, Limmen really is a hidden treasure! We easily spend two hours exploring the site and know we haven’t even touched the surface of the hidden secrets within the Western Lost City. The kids are hot and fatigued after we’ve ordered them up rocky outcrops and through crevices – all the while trying not to get lost (which I managed to do once or twice...). We have resolved to come back here again with more time and maybe a GPS.

By the time we drive out, it is nearing 6.00 pm and we need to find a campground fast before sunset hits. Fortunately Butterfly Springs is only six kilometres from the Western Lost City turn-off, we hope Chris is right and the campground isn’t too busy. On arrival, surprisingly although the campground does have quite a lot of campers, it is big enough for everyone to spread out. The sites are also designated so you can still have your bit of space and privacy without camping on top of each other.

On this trip, the kids learn the acronym KISS method (Keep It Simple Stupid which they find hilarious), which we apply to our camping style. Within 15 minutes, camp is set up, wood collected, fire started and lamp chops on the skillet sizzling away. The simplicity is in our Black Stump pop up mosquito domes which are like putting up an umbrella and takes all of ten seconds to do. Swags get thrown in next while kids are on stick collection duty. We sit down to cheers the great but full day as we watch a magnificent sunset light up the gorge which has made Butterfly Springs, remnants of the Arnhem Land escarpment

Once again, we awake to a symphony of bird song. We take a morning stroll down to the springs but like true Territorians, decide it’s too chilly to take a dip. The springs do become pretty stagnant over the season, but it must look incredible just after the wet season when they are still flowing. We pull out the map and decide today we will explore the Southern Lost City. This area is 2WD accessible on unsealed roads and has a formed walking track. The Southern Lost City is a popular site due to its accessibility, unlike the ruggedness of the Western Lost City, we are greeted with a formed car park, bollards, signs and toilet facilities. Nonetheless, the place is still spectacular and the landscape is enough to thrill. The kids start making shapes out of the domes (“that one looks like a robot head”, “that one looks like Darth Vadar”…). You can camp here too – although not as shady, the domes are your backdrop and would make for stunning camping sunsets or sunrises. We decide the day is still young and choose to slowly potter back north through the park to further enjoy some of the river-scapes.

Lovely Limmen has something to thrill all senses and interests – fishing and boating, bird watching, flora and unique fauna, geology, Aboriginal culture, 4WDing and bushwalking. Give yourself at least four days to truly experience this magical and remote part of the Territory and enjoy getting lost.

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