The parched labyrinthine plateau that spreads out around this Northern Territory town is filled with a stunning abundance of life, ancient culture and, surprisingly, water.
The Arnhem Land plateau rises long and broad above the plains of the Northern Territory, a prehistoric tableland imprinted with the indissoluble marks of old age: wrinkles and furrows and crenulations etched like latticework upon it. Gorges have been gouged from this sandstone bedrock and forests have sunk their roots into the alluvial valley floors. They stretch their long necks skywards in search of the sun.
So mammoth is this plateau that the rivers sloshing through it appear, from above, to be nothing more than dribbling creeks. But from below they are extraordinary works of nature, sculpting the landscape as they surge seawards, teeming with one of Australia’s most feared creatures, the crocodile.
It’s the dry season and the dreaded man-eating saltwater crocs have left Nitmiluk Gorge, a 16-kilometre-long channel bound by towering walls and buoyed by the Katherine River. The water level has fallen so that the single raging river of the wet season has been transformed into a network of 13 gorges, each one separated by a bridge of exposed rock. When the rain begins to fall again and the river rises, the salties will return, swimming all the way in from the Timor Sea.
For now it’s just the freshwater crocs – the ones that don’t eat people, says guide Jamie Brookes – that lurk in the shallows as guests cruise the river with Nitmiluk Tours. The gorge cuts through Nitmiluk National Park, owned by the Jawoyn people and located on the south-western edge of the plateau near the township of Katherine. For millennia it was the Jawoyns’ food bowl, a veritable buffet of turtles, mussels, 46 fish species, goannas and kangaroos. “They’d camp along here in the dry,” says Brookes, “and move further up the escarpment in the wet.”
From up there on the escarpment, water seeps earthwards, filtering through the rocks and quenching the ferns that sprout like frilly collars from the crevices. The sinking sun gilds the sandstone so that it assumes an ethereal quality. Crocodiles rest on the beaches, absorbing the last rays. Birds return to their nests. The glowing sandstone reflects, mirror-still, off the water and Brookes conjures this chalky landscape from above. “When it’s compacted, it cracks on sharp angles,” he says. “Like a mango chopped in crisscrosses and turned out on its skin.”
At sunset the fruit bats arise, a thousand pinpricks darkening the peachy sky. They perform a stunning symphonic chorus near the Indigenous-owned Cicada Lodge, where guests are having sundowners. A short walk from the open-air lounge delivers up-close views of the shrieking bats as they emerge from the canopy and set off in search of their nightly feast of fruit, sap and nectar.
The last of the bats have gone by the time patrons sit down to a contemporary dinner featuring native Australian fare. The gentle sounds of night-time settle on the lodge: the indeterminate rustles and creaks and croaks of after-dark. But the bats return at first light, drenching the hushed bushland with clamorous chatter and the fruity scent of guano.
Others are up early today, too. Brogan Hanrahan sets up her doll-size caravan, The Black Russian Caravan Bar, outside the Katherine Visitor Information Centre. She scatters Afghan rugs on the ground and creates whimsical seating arrangements with crates and stools, where you can have gourmet toasties, baked treats and city-quality coffee.
The sun is now high in the sky and on the road just outside of Katherine, Manuel Pamkal of Top Didj Cultural Experience & Art Gallery sings a long, joyous song about community and togetherness. His voice washes over the surrounding bush and falls upon the ears of a wallaby named Annabelle. She stops grazing and hops into the compound where Pamkal sits. Wallabies are good bush tucker, he says, but he can’t eat Annabelle. He rescued her from her dead mother’s pouch and whenever he sings, she comes to him.
“I was born not far from Katherine [Nitmiluk] Gorge, in the valley,” says Pamkal. “I was five when I saw my first whitefella. I was scared.” Today, he sees whitefellas in their multitudes; tourists that he teaches how to play the didjeridu, make fire with sticks, throw spears and paint raark (crosshatching) lines with billabong reeds in the colours of nature – yellow ochre, white clay, black charcoal and red oxide.
These are the colours that stain the land on the way to the Aboriginal community of Beswick (Wugularr), 110 kilometres east of Katherine. From this primordial landscape springs an unexpectedly contemporary structure, the Djilpin Arts Aboriginal Corporation’s Ghunmarn Culture Centre, where you can spend time engaging with the residents of Beswick and experiencing their age-old traditions.
A rutted, dusty track leads from the community to Malkgulumbu, a tannin-red waterhole filled with freshwater crocs, accessible only by guided tour. On the way there, Beswick community member Garry Urban points out stringybark sap glittering like rubies in the sun and flocks of cockatoos dancing on the currents. When Indigenous people find a dead cocky, he says, they pluck its yellow crest and stick it in their cap.
The beach is empty but for the remnants of a coal fire – built to roast freshly dug turtle eggs – and buffalo pats. When you light them, says Urban, the smoke’s scent drives away insects “so the mosquitoes don’t humbug you”.
There’s no humbugging here at all now: no mozzies, no salties, no other people. The sandstone buttes and eucalypt thickets spread out, jagged and lush, beyond the waterhole and its white crescent beach. Silence engulfs like a blanket. It’s a landscape so empty, so vast that if you looked at it from above you’d see nothing but an endlessly crumpled plateau, with Malkgulumbu a mere droplet of water at its centre. ￼
Tips for a quick getaway to Katherine from Darwin
By Sam McCue
The town of Katherine is the gateway to Nitmiluk National Park, an area rich in breathtaking gorges, raging waterfalls and thermal springs.
DO Explore the world-famous Nitmiluk National Park by foot, canoe, boat or helicopter. Nitmiluk Tours (+61 8 8971 0877) run a variety of different excursions from a spectacular dawn cruise to a scenic helicopter flight above the 13 gorges. In the town of Katherine be sure to drop into Godinymayin Yijard Rivers Arts and Culture Centre (Stuart Highway; +61 8 8972 3751), which plays host to art exhibitions, dance, music and theatrical performances and celebrations that reflect Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures.
STAY Cicada Lodge is an eco-friendly retreat overlooking the unique sandstone country above the gorge. Each of the 18 rooms blends Indigenous and contemporary features and facilities include a private balcony, complimentary wi-fi and outdoor pool.
EAT AND DRINK At Cicada Lodge, the food is simple but delicious. The Chef’s Menu allows guests to sample native dishes from the region, showcasing Northern Territory produce such as seared kangaroo, saltbush lamb or freshwater prawns. In the town of Katherine, enjoy excellent breakfast and coffee at The Finch Café.
GET THERE Katherine is a 300-kilometre drive south of Darwin. There are regular Greyhound buses between Darwin and Katherine.