The Katherine area of the Northern Territory is a highlight of just about every grey nomad trip around Australia. For non-Territorians, of course, there is the sheer adventure of a journey into the vast and unfamiliar region. The endless drive along the Stuart Highway takes in magnificent scenery and is rich in historical, spiritual and cultural interest. Nature has been kind here and Katherine Gorge, the Cutta Cutta Caves and the spectacular Edith Falls are very, very special places. It’s not to be missed.
The town of Katherine itself, located 320 kilometres southeast of Darwin, began life as an outpost helping to establish the Australian Overland Telegraph Line. Its recent growth has been significantly helped by the development of mining in the area, particularly gold mining. It’s an interesting enough town and offers weary (and non-weary) travellers a wide range of services, and a chance to check out museums, art galleries, character-filled pubs and historic sites. The town is set on the banks of the Katherine River and was named by explorer John McDouall Stuart in the late 1800s after the daughter of one of his expedition sponsors.
IN THE AREA
Despite the town’s attractions, there is no disguising that the top drawcard of the area is Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge). Renamed ‘Nitmiluk’ – meaning ‘cicada place’ – in 1989 when traditional owners, the Jawoyn Aboriginal people, gained title to the land, the park is certainly among the ‘mustest’ must-see of the Big Lap. About 32 kilometres from the town centre, the park’s spectacular gorge system has been carved out of the rock by torrential summer rains.
The Katherine River flows through 13 separate gorges, three of which are readily accessible by organised tours and boat cruises. Alternatively energetic grey nomads can hire a canoe, or take a trek to view the series of sheer cliffs and sandy freshwater beaches themselves. As well as waterfalls and rock pools, visitors may also see freshwater crocodiles in the crystal clear water. Aboriginal paintings are also visible high on the rock faces.
The famed Edith Falls are located on the western boundary of the park and the natural pool at the base is safe for swimming most of the year. If you’re serious about your bushwalking, the 58-kilometre Jatbula Trail, which starts at Katherine Gorge and ends at Edith Falls, will take you through everything from hot sandstone escarpments to wet paperbark forests, and features waterfalls, cultural sites and deep sandstone gorges. It’s not for the unfit or the unprepared though, and the full track will take approximately five day to complete. If budget allows, less energetic travellers may prefer to take a scenic flight over the vast ancient landscape.
This area was the cultural and spiritual foundation for the Jawoyn and Dagomen people and there are many fine examples of Aboriginal rock paintings throughout the park. For grey nomads seeking something special and perhaps something life-changing, the Katherine area is an absolute lock-in. In today’s jargon, it has definitely got the grey nomad X-Factor.
MAKE SURE YOU …
Take a cruise or canoe through Katherine Gorge or, if you’re feeling flush, perhaps take to the sky on a scenic flight to see all 13 gorges. While you’re here, you should at least try part of the 50-kilometre Jatbula Walking Trail and marvel at the varied landscapes, sandstone gorges and spectacular waterfalls. Look out also for the ancient Aboriginal rock paintings. Do not leave the area without visiting Cutta Cutta Cave, a series of limestone caverns dating back 500 million years. And then there’s Katherine Hot Springs. Just five minutes from town, the natural thermal springs remain at a constant temperature of 32ºC. Relax.
WHERE TO CAMP
There are a number of good commercial caravan parks in Katherine itself. Out at Nitmiluk National Park is the Nitmiluk Caravan Park offering powered and unpowered campsites. Depending on what sort of adventure you are heading off into – and whether you’ve got a tent with you – there are also designated campsites at Biddlecombe Falls, Crystal Falls, 17 Mile Falls, Edith River Crossing, Sandy Camp Pool and Sweetwater Pool. All fantastic spots.