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36. Australia Road Trip: The Northern Territory's Katherine Gorge - Up Nitmiluk without a paddle
Katherine, important little town in the middle of nowhere on roads that lead to everywhere.
Cross roads at Katherine
The town of Katherine (pop. 6000) sits at an important crossroads. To the south, Tennant Creek, Alice Springs and eventually Adelaide. North leads directly to the Northern Territory’s capital city, Darwin (about 300kms). To the east is the challenging Savannah Way which leads to Normonton and Cairns on the east coast. To the West lies the vast wilderness that is the state of Western Australia; the Savannah Way traverses the north of the state, across the region known as the Kimberley, its terminus is the exotic and fabled outpost of Broome on the shores of the Indian Ocean. In short, to go anywhere in the Northern Territory you gotta pass through Katherine.
For us it’s a bit of a disaster, what with the leaking oil seal on our rear wheel. We desperately need to find a mechanic before we can do anything; I suppose the good thing is - at least we are in a substantial town with all the necessary facilities for solving the problem.
Here is how we achieve this goal:
We go to the Tourist Information Centre and ask the nice lady at the desk for the name of a reputable mechanic. While there we also enquire about the possibility of hiring canoes at the famous Katherine Gorge which is about 30kms east of town. The answer to that is "No", the river is currently running too high due to excessive rainfall. However, she does direct us to a mechanic based just around the corner.
He says he can’t get to our job till next Wednesday, but kindly directs us to another grease monkey down the road. He can’t touch it for seven weeks, but suggests we try RJ’s across the river. RJ is booked solid for two weeks but reckons the Cadillac Truck Service, a couple of klicks down a nearby bush road might fix the seal for us. We drive into their wreck-strewn yard only to learn that they are in the process of moving shop. The bloke tells us to go back along the road to a white fence and turn in at a gate, drive past a donga and look for a big shed and a guy called Mark. Lucky I know what a donga is as this knowledge helps us locate the building amongst similar looking industrial structures. We eventually find Mark in a big new workshop full of Kenworth and Freightliner tractors and he says he can do the job on Tuesday. We really have no choice and so book the Winnebago in for surgery. So now we have a few days to kill and as the truck is still driveable for a short distances we decide to at least enjoy the enforced stopover.
We head back to town, stock up on groceries and beer, then drive out to the fabulous Katherine Gorge located in the Nitmiluk National Park. Our plan is to spend the next two days camped here, before heading back into town to find a motel or a cabin where we can wait while the mechanical medicine man performs his magic on our weary Winnebago. It is a good plan.
On to the Gorge
From the air, Nitmiluk Gorge is a geological wonder - a narrow canyon snaking through a rocky wilderness, gouged by raging torrents of top-end water.
A Gorgeous Gorge
The best time to visit the Gorge is in the Dry Season. Then the river is reduced to a trickle which feeds into a series of still pools up which you can paddle hired canoes. The Gorge is a deep and narrow, ancient watercourse, that zigzags along natural fissures in the primordial sandstone for many limes. You can swim in the crystal clear pools and camp on pristine little beaches beneath towering cliffs. But that is in the Dry – this is the Wet and our only option to explore the Gorge is on a one hour boat trip on the flooded river. This isn’t as boring as it sounds. The boat is a large aluminium tinny, equipped with powerful outboards and seating for about 20 people. The river swirls and eddies around submerged trees and rocks, and at high speed we are soon transported several kilometres up stream. At the junction of the first and second gorges we run a huge series of rapids, the boat leaps through the air and crashes down, soaking the white-knuckled passengers with cool water. In the calmer sections the guides stop the boat and we drift in sweltering heat while we learn about the formation and structure of this amazing geological feature. The trip back down stream is just as much fun only faster.
Later in the afternoon we laze about the pretty wooded campsite where a colony of fruit bats live, squawking, screeching and snoozing, until 7pm each night when they take off en masse in their search for evening entertainment. As dusk falls the grassy fields around the camp become grazing land for Agile Wallabies, while Blue Faced Honey Eaters and noisy butcher birds compete for air space with both Sulphur Crested and Black cockatoos.
Nitmiluk Boat Ride
A Plethora of Wildlife
As seasoned campers we often find ourselves comparing the washroom facilities of various campgrounds. Unfortunately, Nitmiluk Campground ranks very low on Sheila’s list of all time best loos. The toilets and showers themselves are basically ok – clean, roomy, everything works. But after dark the facility takes on a sci-fi appearance as every six-legged denizen of the Top End drops in for a bit of artificial light. The walls are furry with mozzies and small flies; there are countless grasshoppers – green ones, red and black ones, and ones that are six inches long and fly. There are strange, black, hard-shelled things called jumping jacks that hop like grasshoppers but look like spiders. There are at least two green frogs in every toilet bowl, and of course lots and lots of large, fat cane toads skulking around the entrances. Thousands of big ants make standing in one spot for any length of time almost impossible and in the early morning, wallaby shit on the floor makes for a rather smelly slipping hazard. Still, we are in the Top End of the Outback so what can we expect?
A must have book...
A walk in the Never Never
Salty goes bush
The next afternoon I go on a bushwalk on my own. I learn the route from an information board and set off in the extreme heat, following the little yellow marker arrows that appear periodically on posts along the way. The trail follows the river for a bit then ascends an escarpment. At one point I have to climb a chain embedded in the rock to reach the top. There is a dramatic panorama unfolded below me with the swollen river, sandstone cliffs and the vast wilderness, the ‘Never Never’ , stretching away into the distance. Threads of smoke rise up from spots in the bush and a thin blue haze softens the entire scene. It is hot and peaceful and there is no other soul about. Armed with a stick, shaded by my hat and refreshed via a water bottle I walk for a few kilometres along a trail that leads down into a valley and eventually back to the campground, feeling tired but exhilarated and at peace with myself and the magical Aussie bush.
The time comes for us to head back into Katherine. We pack up and I turn the key. Nothing happens, except for the dreaded click that means we still have an electrical fault and once again we find ourselves pushing this old Winnebago so we can muster enough momentum to pop the clutch and start the engine – God I hate automobiles.
In the next Hub...
Upon returning to Katherine, Salty Mick and Sheila take lodgings while their motorhome is being repaired. However, the Elements conspire once again to thwart their mission - this time in the form of the biggest flood to hit the Katherine region in almost 10 years. From high and dry to up to their armpits in Nitmiluk river water overnight... you gotta laugh.