When planning our recent trip to Australia, we wanted to include a few days exploring the country’s amazing “outback.” Confronted with endless options, we decided on the Northern Territory, but rather than the usual Uluru/Alice Springs outing, we opted for the area surrounding the town of Katherine, with emphasis on Nitmiluk National Park and Katherine Gorge.
It turns out that our trip was taking place during/slightly after the rainy season, which means that many of the surrounding attractions were closed, and the activities that could be undertaken were extremely limited. On the bright side, the campground was nearly empty (maybe that should have been a hint!) We had been promised by camp staff that if the rains prevented access to the park, we’d be given a refund, but fortunately it never came to that. Off we went on a 300 km drive from Darwin, in the north.
Katherine gorge is a huge, winding gorge that has been carved by the Katherine River in age-old sandstone. Apparently seen from the sky, there are a lot of criss-cross fissures as well – when the (formerly undersea) land was lifted up, it broke much in the way a mango breaks into criss-cross cracks. It is divided into 13 separate gorges by rapids or waterfalls. During the non-rainy season, you can take boat rides from the lower gorge up through the next half dozen or so, stopping at each gorge to walk to the next successive boat. And you can swim in the waters. During the rainy season, the rising water not only causes hazards to the boats, it allows (extremely dangerous) saltwater crocodiles to join the (harmless) freshwater crocodiles in the upper gorges. The running joke among the park staff was, “how do you tell the freshwater crocodiles from the saltwater crocodiles? The freshies swim away from you, the salties towards you.” The fellow below is a “freshie” spotted near the campground.
The campground itself is a no-frills affair – but highly recommended over any of the small simple hotels in Katherine, 26 km away. They have spots for tents, a nice pool, and single and double cabins, which are quite comfortable, and you can stock up the fridge from “Wooly’s” (Woolworth) in Katherine and prepare meals on the stove with plentiful pots, pans and dishes. There was supposed to be internet, but it wasn’t working. Which was OK too. And the bonus is that you get to see animals hanging around the campground – right from your window! – like these guys:
So what can you do at Nitmiluk campground when most of the nearby attractions are closed, there’s no swimming, and the boats aren’t running up the gorges? Hiking! Even for the most inexperienced hikers, there are gorgeous views to be seen near the campground, within 1-2 km. You will need to climb stairs, however!
Bring water bottles – there are rainwater caches scattered around the grounds – and enjoy this amazing landscape which is a place of great ceremonial significance to the native Jawoyn people – so much so that they were able to convince the government of Australia to give the land back to them, after which they leased it back for 99 years to allow people like us to enjoy the amazing sights. One downside, however: flies! You’ll notice in the photo above I’m carrying a red shirt – as we walked we had to constantly flick these by our faces or the flies would drive you crazy. Some people had hats with nets attached, which you can apparently by in the camp store.
No swimming allowed? This was a tiny pool with its own waterfall that we encountered in our 8-10 km hike which took the better part of a day. A perfect place to take a break.
On that particular hike, the landscape changed so many times as we descended toward a bend in the river, where you can sort of make out the criss-cross pattern. The video is a bit shaky – the water was so calm and we were standing right next to it – and I kept having visions of saltwater crocodiles jumping out of the water…
We did manage to take one day trip – Edith Falls, also technically part of the park, is about 50 km to the north. The walk was pretty short, and in this case, we were permitted to swim in the upper pool. Because, as you can see from the photo below, it’d be pretty hard for a croc to make it up the lower falls.
One thing we did sort of miss was wildlife. We had this idea that we would see kangaroos and wallabies and koalas on our hike. Instead, most of the wildlife was just tiny creatures – lizards water monitors and frogs and flies…still all in all a great trip, even in the rainy season!
All photos in this post were taken by Anne.