24th September Katherine
We finally leave Darwin and drive the 350kms south to Katherine along fast and barren highways arriving four hours later.
The temperature hits 39C. The road trains that share the highways are humongous, each time they come past, the car is sucked towards them.
We see one ahead of us snaking dangerously on the road, so much so it looks like it could topple over, deciding to keep back until the road is clear to overtake (which takes a while as they’re so long). As we drive by we notice he has a flat tyre….
The drive is long and repetitive.
Suddenly after miles and miles of endless road, we arrive in the small town of Katherine, passing the industrial estate, and a court house.
Filling up on fuel and a quick stop at Woolworths (not the bankrupt chain but a widespread supermarket here!) we carry on 30km where we set up camp in Nitmiluk National Park.
Within 5 minutes of being there we see our first wallabies! They are similar to a kangaroo but much smaller and not shy creatures, coming right up to our camp to investigate!
The camp is pretty noisy as we have arrived on a weekend, hoards of school kids on an excursion are in the pool and most are sleeping in tent village, tipi-looking permanent tents set up in an area just behind the kitchen and dining area.
Later we set up our new tent for the first time and try out our camp beds. The tent takes less than a minute to erect and the beds are comfy enough. At $20 each they were quite a bargain, and beats inflating the mattress.
Hunger strikes so we make like the Aussies and cook up some sizzling sausages with onions, in toasted buns. They go down well with some rum, however the food also attracts the attention of a couple of wallabies. They stand on their hind legs and literally lift their heads to the sky and sniff the air, as if trying to detect the direction of the food, one even tries to eat our empty cardboard box!
The camp information states you are not allowed to feed them as they will be healthier if they find their own sources of food, but they still manage to find the leftover onion and happily munch on them, guess it would be a lot nicer then eating cardboard!
By the time we have finished, darkness is upon us, but it is still 30C and we are sweltering. A shower is needed, Martin has no problems but of course I’m stuck waiting in a queue!
We really didn’t need to set our alarm clock as the strange and exotic bird calls coming from the trees above our camp wake us up at 6am! The night was warm, even with two fans going in the tent to try and keep us cool. An early morning coffee is needed to help us wake up, and then it’s a 5 minute walk down to the visitor centre to buy our tickets. At $77 each for a four hour cruise, it’s by no means cheap but then nothing we have seen so far here is! The girl at the ticket desk asks how old I am, could have possibly got away with a student ticket!
Lining up at the dock, there is a huge queue of people behind us, both for the 2 hour cruise and for the canoes. We did think about taking a canoe, but taking into consideration the heat and the amount of effort involved, we decide to go for the easier option!
Katherine was named after the daughter of one of the explorers passing through the area in 1862, on arrival at another large creek. Since a ruling for ownership was passed in 1989, the land was handed back to the local Jawoyn aboriginal people and renamed Nitmiluk, meaning cicada country.
Heading down spectacular Katherine Gorge which was formed 23 million years ago, on tranquil waters, we are surrounded by stunning scenery of steep sandstone sheer rock faces up to 70m high, which almost look like they could have been chiselled by hand. The aboriginal guide provides some history behind each of the three gorges the boat takes us through.
Thirteen gorges have been carved from the ancient sandstone by the Katherine River through the Arnhem Land plateau and our cruise takes in three of them.
First up is the 17 mile gorge. There are quite a few freshwater crocodiles in the river, which eat small animals like rats, snakes and lizards but are considered to be harmless to humans unless provoked. However, they have also caught six large saltwater crocodiles which can grow up to 6m in length and over, which will eat anything that moves! The guide stops by one of the crocodile traps. A buffalo leg is put into the trap, and when the crocodile takes the bait, the trapdoor is closed behind them. Six saltwater crocs have been caught in the traps in the last few years, which only enter the river in the wet season, when water levels rise.
Next is the dramatic scenery of Katherine gorge where we stop in a deep green pool; tradition says this is home to Bolung, the rainbow serpent, who must not be disturbed.
Then finally we arrive at the Golden gorge, where the rock face glows a bright golden in the sun.
We stop at Pine Alley, a narrow sandy walkway between the cliff faces with a line of trees through the middle. Between each gorge are large boulders and rocks so we take the walkways on the edge of the river to get from one to the other.
The local Jawoyn people knew when it was time for the crocodiles to lay their eggs by when the trees would bear fruit; this is when they would then hunt for the eggs. They survived by living completely off the land.
The maze of waterways has been sculpted from the landscape over thousands of millennia by the Katherine River, flowing from Arnhem Land to the Timor Sea. Our guide tells us that from the air the 13 separate gorges look like squares cut into a mango pushed up.
Aboriginal wall art found along the gorge tell stories; circles which represent the humble potato tell us this particular place was once used as a bush camping ground. Human figures tell of elders and ancient spirits who have passed through this region. The wall paintings are all quite high up the rock face, for which there are two theories. Our guide explains that water flowing over the top of the gorge had over time, eroded the rocks which they stood on to get to the wall. The second theory is people had really long legs back then! Aboriginal tradition says that everything is interconnected, the environment, people, animals and spirits….
As we have arrived in the dry season, the weather is scorching hot and there is hardly a cloud in the sky. In the wet, the river level rises but are surprised to learn that tours are still taken through. We imagine it to be a completely different experience with rapids and waterfalls flowing, and the river a raging torrent rather than the serene calm mirror-like waters we see today.
The river can rise by up to 12m in the wet season, so the boats go straight over the walkways. In the 1998 floods, the town of Katherine was inundated with 4m high floodwaters. Our guide points out a tree with debris still high up in its branches.
On the way back we pull in at a swimming spot where we have the chance for a dip and to cool off from the intense heat in the refreshing waters of the Katherine River. We are given refreshments including fruit cake and apples; a cake is stolen from a kid by a rogue crow, flying away with cake in mouth ready to eat his spoils!
When we get back to camp, we put the awning up to shield us from the sun and get the fans going, in an attempt to stay cool, although it’s virtually impossible to escape the unyielding heat.
That evening we meet a couple from the Netherlands who had been travelling around the Australian coast in a cruiser and recommend the Lions Pub 20 miles outside of Cooktown, which they say is the best they had been to in Australia. Hopefully we will get a chance to try it out when we are up that way!
Next on our adventure is an exciting drive on the epic Savannah Way towards Cairns.
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Martin & Nicole