We are greeted by the sound of bats squawking as we arrive in Nitmiluk National Park to see the breathtakingly impressive Katherine Gorge. Booked in for an early morning sunrise cruise with Nitmiluk, a locally owned and operated tour company, we make our way to the boat ramp and board the boat.
As the sun rises, the colouring of the rocks change. The deep ochres and coppery red are bathed in morning glow, a sharp contrast to the glaring orange and dusty golden colours once the day goes on. We begin to see the local wildlife and the imposing rockface emerge on either side.
Our guide explains to us how the gorge was formed and tells us stories of some of the practices of the first Australians, the local Jawoyn people; methods they used to live in the gorge through different seasons, where they considered sacred places, as well as how they fought for their land to be returned to them – being able to prove a continued connection to the land through their stories about places and landmarks, and their cultural practices.
I was surprised by the changes in the gorge’s water levels. The water level is much higher now in May than it was on my last visit in July last year.
Last time I came we were able to canoe through the gorge – a more fun and energetic exercise than taking a boat cruise – but this time the water level was too high to canoe and the rangers hadn’t checked whether any salt water crocs were trapped in the gorge as yet (as this can sometimes happen as the water levels go down).
You can see in the pictures the difference in water level over just a few months. It really shows you how you can visit the same place several times and never see exactly the same scenery.
The water markings on the rock show how high the water rises in the peak of the wet season. I stood there imagining the gorge walls withstanding raging torrents of water as the relentless rain of the wet season pummeled the land.
Best time to visit
Between May and August. If you want to canoe probably better to wait until June or July and check park conditions before you go.
Things to do
Experience a River cruise or canoe
Cruising is great, but canoeing is much more laid back. You’re closer to the water and the gorge rock face looms up on either side. You have the time to appreciate its beauty and magnificence as you drift or paddle by.
There are some day walks and longer hikes for those interested in going past the main attraction of the gorge itself. I hiked out to Southern Rockhole about 7km return walk from the car park area. The walk is not too strenuous in terms of terrain until you reach the rockhole where you must scramble down a steep section and hop over rocks. Here is the Buruwei walks Information sheet & map.
The waters were a little murky when we went there and we also saw a small snake in the water swimming with us when we went for a quick dip, so I recommend checking out for wildlife before you swim!
Watch the Sunset
Sunset over the gorge from the lookout on top of the gorge is spectacular. An activity perfectly complemented with a search for geckos on your way back down.
If you’re feeling very adventurous, in the dry season it’s possible to canoe through the gorge and carry your canoe across the second to the third gorge and beyond to camp overnight.
Take the Jatbula trail to Edith Falls
Edith falls is north of Katherine about an hour and a half drive from Nitmiluk gorge and a beautiful place to swim and hike. There is a 5-6 day hike called the Jatbula trail that ends here. Campsites are limited to 15 people per night, so booking your place on the trail is essential.
To book your place on the Jatbula trail click here. I’ll be returning to the gorge to hike the Jatbula trial at the end of August so stay connected and I’ll tell you all about it soon. Here is the Jatbula Information sheet & map.
Attend the Katherine Show
Every year they have the Katherine Show at Katherine showgrounds and it is a Public Holiday for those living in the Northern Territory region. Next year it will be held on July 17th & 18th 2016. I went in 2015 and it’s a great day full of your staples of a country show. My favourites were the motorbike vs horse race, the ride-on mower races and the boot-throwing competition.
Things to consider:
Double canoe vs Single canoe: I came here with two friends one time and they decided to canoe together in a double canoe while I was left to my own devices in a single canoe. This proved very entertaining for me and very frustrating for them as they zigzagged their way through the gorge, expending a lot of thought and energy into synchronising and getting their strokes right. They found that they’d been paddling too hard and too deep. So if you’re with a partner folks, paddle gently and close to the surface.
There be crocs in these waters!!: I did swim here, only to find upon my second visit that where they place the swimming float in the dry season (once they’ve checked there aren’t any salties – saltwater crocodiles – trapped as the water levels recede) is right where they place the croc trap in the wet season! So… I would recommend swimming further down in the second gorge. You can canoe or cruise to it and it has freshwater crocs, which you’re unlikely to see during the day and tend to only be aggressive if you are near their nesting areas.
Be sunsmart: Remember that the heat here is intense and will hit you harder than more temperate climates. Carry a lot of water and avoid hiking in the middle of the day.