WHILE MANY visitors to the Territory’s Top End focus their travels on the well-known Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks with both a short drive from Darwin, just 320km south along the Stuart Highway the city of Katherine has a few parks also worth your time.
Gregory and Nitmiluk National Parks are close to Katherine and each has its attractions to make your time there worth the effort. Nitmiluk NP borders on the southern edge of Kakadu NP and we chose to spend a couple of days there to extend our fly-in fly-out (FIFO) Top End visit.
If you’re coming from the southern end of Kakadu, Katherine is just 90km south of Pine Creek once you’ve hit the highway. If you’re lucky enough to be driving north on a bigger adventure, Katherine is 1200km north of Alice Springs or 685km from Tennant Creek.
TRAVEL: The Victoria Highway, NT
Katherine is a large regional town with all the facilities to restock your vehicle for the next leg of your journey, including supermarkets, bottle shops and camping supplies. Gregory NP is 160km south-west of town, while Nitmiluk is accessible right from the edge of town making it perfect for our short visit.
IF 4X4 tracks are what you’re looking for, Gregory NP is where you’ll want to head as there are no off-road tracks in Nitmiluk.
As mentioned, Nitmiluk covers the area from the southern border of Kakadu down to Katherine and takes in the escarpments and gorges created by the Katherine River. The main NP office and visitor centre is just 30km from Katherine at the southern end of Katherine (Nitmiluk) Gorge, the natural feature that the park is best known for. The visitor centre has a kiosk, information booth and is the kick-off point for activities such as boat, helicopter and walking trips in the gorge.
There are many walking tracks (including extended overnight hikes), campsites and other facilities in the park; the river and its gorge systems also popular for fishing, including for the prized barramundi.
The park is on the land of the Jawoyn traditional owners and uniquely, all the park rangers are indigenous folk, most of them from the Jawoyn people. We joined a boat tour heading up the gorge where the ranger was able to point out many points of interest, traditional art sites, and wildlife, including crocodiles which are plentiful in the lower sections of the gorge.
During the dry season, the gorge is broken up in to sections by natural rock fords which allow the rangers to search out and remove crocs from the upper reaches making them safer for visitors. This also allows park visitors to canoe or kayak in the gorge.
We hired kayaks from the visitor centre and the boat tour dropped us at the first ford from where we could paddle up the second section of the gorge. This is a truly unique experience as you slide through the waters below towering sandstone cliffs, passing beaches, inlets, and waterfalls dropping down from high above. Some of the beaches have signs on them warning visitors not to come ashore as these are known nesting places for crocodiles.
We paddled the 2.5km length of the second section of the gorge over a few hours before reaching the next ford. From here you can portage over the rocks to the third gorge and there are nine sections of gorge to explore in total traversing more than five kilometres with a few campsites along the way. But time was against us and we paddled back to the first ford to meet with the boat and return to the visitor centre.
PLAN: A top-end escape
Guided kayak tours are also available as are overnight camping trips up beyond the third and fourth sections.
From easing along the waters below the majestic gorge walls we took to the skies for a totally different look at the river system and its surrounds. Nitmiluk Scenic Flights fly from a base close to the visitor centre and offer flights of varying length and price to suit any visitor’s budget and schedule.
We did the Eight Gorge flight which took us over the reaches we had recently paddled and farther up the gorge over around 20 minutes. Again the pilot was super informative and pointed out points of interest along the way before putting us down on the gorge rim for a short leg stretch.
ONE OF the more interesting jobs the Nitmiluk chopper pilots do when not taking passengers on scenic flights, is scouting the gorge with park rangers after each wet season to find and isolate any crocodiles that may have entered and become trapped in between the rock fords while the water level was high. This involves flying low within the gorge walls to get the best view on the terrain below. The ranger can then trap and remove the crocs from these areas making them relatively safe for paddling and swimming.
Like anywhere in these parts no matter the season, you need to be croc safe and obey any warning signs or directives of the park rangers.
Viewing the gorge from above gives you a very different perspective of the area and the enormity of the river system. It also makes you think about how wild the river must be when millions of litres of water are surging through the gorge during the wet season.
All the exploring and paddling on the river sure builds up a hunger and we chose to checkout a spot for dinner that we spotted alongside the road from Katherine to the park.
Marksie’s Stockman’s Camp Tucker takes visitors back to a time and place where the cattlemen worked the massive station properties of the Territory and the camp cook was the most popular bloke around.
OPINION: Should crocs be culled?
Properties such as Victoria River Downs Station and Wave Hill Station covered thousands of square kilometres of land producing some of the world’s best beef cattle and employing hundreds of men. The stockmen’s camp cooks kept them fed and Marksie emulates these camps with his unique experience set under the stars just outside Katherine.
Using his massive collection of camp ovens, Marksie cooks up a mean stew using a selection of bush herbs which he explains in an entertaining talk before dinner. Served with fresh camp-oven cooked damper, the meal is tasty and filling but will have you going back for second and third helpings. Marksie’s stockman’s camp dinner is a great night out and a change from the usual pub fare in town.
A popular walking track with multiple swimming holes can be found in Nitmiluk at Edith Falls (Leliyn). This is 42km north of Katherine and 20km down a road to take you back in to the park. Once again there are multiple walking tracks here at Edith Falls, but for the less energetic the massive plunge pool at the bottom of the falls has easy access close to the carpark and campground.
We chose to take the 2.5km Leliyn Trail which starts with a steep climb from the carpark and then loops down to the Middle and Upper pools, both of which have great swimming. For the more adventurous there’s a 4.5km walk (one way) to the Sweetwater Pool where there is the option of overnight camping.
The swimming holes were busy on the warm August day of our visit but there’s plenty of space to enjoy the cool waters beneath the rocky falls, before completing the loop track back down to the plunge pool and carpark.
There are unpowered campsites at Leliyn and a kiosk that serves a pretty good range of food. The campgounds can get busy during the peak season of May through to September so it’s best to book ahead to avoid disappointment on arrival.
DARWIN ESCAPES: Kakadu National Park South
If you’re on the road up the Stuart Highway and don’t have time to stop in Katherine or visit the gorge section of Nitmiluk NP, then a few hours spent resting in the pools at Leliyn would make a refreshing break from travel with just a short detour. For us it meant the end of our Top End Winter Escape and a 3½-hour drive back to Darwin for return flights to the freezing southern states.
For many travellers, Katherine might be just a fuel stop on the Stuart Highway but take the time to explore its parks and surrounds and you’ll find that Katherine can be a destination in itself. At the very least it’s worth a few days to experience what Nitmiluk has to offer.
At the time of writing both Nitmiluk NP and Marksie’s Stockman’s Camp Tucker were closed due to COVID-19 restrictions so best check the websites for more information on when they will be open to visitors and start planning your 2021 travels.
Nitmiluk NP is 320km south of Darwin and 30km east of Katherine.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
The park is open all year with the dry season from April through to October the best time to see most of the park and surrounds. During the wet season (usually around December to April) flooding can restrict access and activities to the park
It’s best to have a 4x4 vehicle when exploring the Northern Territory although it is not essential to visit Nitmiluk as there is two-wheel drive access to both the main Katherine Gorge and Edith Falls areas.
Scenic flights, kayak and boat tours: Nitmiluk Tours www.nitmiluktours.com.au
Phone: (08) 8971 0877
Marksie’s Stockman’s Camp Tucker:
Phone: 0427 112 806