Crocodiles scare the bejesus out of me. Sure, sharks are a bit worrying, ill-tempered sea bass are no fun and the possibility that science might one day build a real rat-boy is straight freaky.
But nothing sends a sharp piercing scare up my spine like a crocodile’s gnarly teeth and wicked tail. So why did I go swimming in crocodile infested waters? Stoopid twat.
Well not exactly stupid, I mean these are the risks one must take in order to experience some of this country’s most beautiful landscapes. And that, my friends, is Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park – just south of Darwin. And I decided to cover every nook and cranny, from the water, in the air and walking around it.
The gorge is the central attraction of the park and one of the key tourist sites in the Top End. Its beauty is only topped by its history – a site to the Jawoyn, the local Aborigines for thousands of years, their occupation and use of the land for hunting, gathering and ceremonial purposes are evident by the rock art.
That said, on arrival at the canoe shed to begin my sojourn up the gorge, neither the beauty nor the history was the first thing to hit me. It was the over-bearing pungent odour of bat shit, as the bats squawked above us in the eucalypts.
Wrapped in their wings, they looked like large black seedpods dangling from the branches. They’re big, but harmless fruit-eaters. Bats are cool, I’m down with bats. thought it best to move on.
Water boy: Kayaking Katherine
Crocodiles, on the other hand, are not cool. I asked if there were any saltwater crocs in the waters. I was assured there “shouldn’t be”. Really assured.
There were, however, freshwater crocs. More timid, smaller, less hungry than the “salties,” “freshies” might have a go at ya, but they’ll just give you a nibble, I was told. Nibble! I’m not frickin’ cheese ‘n’ crackers here. I’m flesh and bone, a little more flesh than I’d like, but that’s probably to their taste.
Nevertheless, I boarded the canoe with Jeremy, my French companion, and we went at it. This is by far the best way to experience the gorge. You are right in it, able to paddle where you like, under waterfalls from the high red and orange walls, or scoop a hat full of water to cool down.
You don’t want to rush Katherine Gorge. The high walls add a quiet serenity with just the sound of your paddle splashing
in the water and the occasional echoes from your group off the walls. We packed a lunch and pulled up on the shore at a bend in the river for ham and cheese sarnies, and while banked,
we checked out a hidden waterfall that had all but dried up.
There is no strong current in the deep waters, but there are a few faster parts to manoeuvre around between gorges (of which there are 13, but you’ll generally just paddle the first three).
On the way up we had paddled casually around, but coming back we shot the rapids. They were actually tame, but we felt pretty adventurous. We pulled up at a sandy bank and our guide jumped in for a swim. We were all quite hesitant to follow. The nibbling freshies popped back into my head and I wondered, to misquote The Office’s Gareth Keenan, “will there ever be a boy born that can swim faster than a croc?”
Screw it. We all jumped in and the water was crystal clean and refreshing, yet still warm. The perfect temperature. Needless to say though, our senses were running overtime. None of us travellers had seen a croc in the wild. Now was certainly not the time. Five minutes later it was.
As we paddled by a low branch overhanging the water, Jeremy spotted an adolescent freshwater croc. He was perched on the branch, camouflaged by leaves and as I quickly scrambled for my camera, the little fella skittled away into the water and directly under our canoe. We thought it best to move on.
Not content with looking up at Katherine Gorge’s high walls and the wedge-tailed eagles gliding in the calm sky, I decided
to join them.
I jumped in to a helicopter and took to the air to experience the gorge from a high. I felt like I was in M.A.S.H, in a chopper with no door, and just a seatbelt stopping me from falling out. We rose quickly over the low-lying shrubs and eucalypts, and were on our way, chasing the serpentine river. I could see all the way to the enchanted Arnhem Land.
We swooped down to see the finer cracks, crevasses and wildlife and then up again to take in its infinite age and expanse. In all my excitement I was shooting digital film like a machine gun, with careless regard. As a result I have a hundred photos, none of which captured the overall beauty of the park. Mmm,
I love the smell of Kodak in the morning!
But it was a fantastic experience and a unique way of seeing the gorge and its walls that earlier had been bearing over us in the canoe. Firmly back on solid ground there was just one more way to experience Nitmiluk National Park – and that’s not by purchasing a snowdome or t-shirt from the gift shop. At the Nitmiluk Centre I found some information on the walking trails around the gorge and throughout the park.
Strapping on my hiking shoes (thongs are not advised), I slapped on sunscreen and hit the trail. The temperature on the escarpment can be 10 degrees hotter than near the river, so be prepared to sweat an ocean. Take plenty of water.
I made my way into the big scrub and walked to Barrawei Lookout, high on the cliff wall via a step climb up rock steps. There are a couple of campsites if you’re interested in doing a two-day hike. To do this you need to get a camping permit and register at the centre in the morning and de-register upon return,
so park officials know you haven’t been eaten by a killer croc or savage wallaby (it’s true, they’re bloody evil with their perky ears and lil’ pouches).
In the wet season (roughly December-March) many of these places have restricted access – so be mindful of that when you’re planning your trip. Other than that, get out and explore. Take in the alive and ever-changing scents (like bat shit) and try to count the many shades of green. I only counted two…