The ‘Top End’ beckons… come with us as we explore Katherine, Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge, Edith Falls and Pine Creek.

To swim in the beautiful hot springs around Mataranka was a fantastic experience and a ‘Top End’ adventure not to be missed.

The Northern Territory is ‘Adventure Territory’ and even though we would have loved to linger a bit longer at the hot springs, it was now time to move on and see what awaited us further up the road!

This is another spectacular part of our country and we were so looking forward to seeing the unforgettable wetland landscapes, the stunning waterfalls, exploring the deep gorges in Nitmiluk and Litchfield National Parks and visiting Darwin once again.

Our Aussie road trips are usually an adventure of epic proportions, but the city of Katherine, next on our map, was only a short drive of just over 107kilometres from Mataranka along a route well traversed over the years having once been the track for the Overland Telegraph line.

Built to connect Australia with London back in 1870 – 1872 the Stuart Highway now connects travellers from the north, south, east and west of our country and is the fastest road in the Southern Hemisphere where the speed limit is the highest in the country at 130-kilometres per hour.

With the wind in our hair, tunes pumping out of the stereo and nothing but the long open road ahead we set off on another humble road trip… and there’s nothing quite like a humble road trip to get you excited about your next destination.

As the scenery flew past we soon realised that kangaroos and emus weren’t the only distraction we needed to contend with on this road and we were soon dragged from the comfort of our monotony by the sight and sound of road trains hurtling towards us. Some of these monster mechanical beasts hauling multiple trailers.

We passed evidence of old cable lines and repeater stations on the side of the road and the occasional remnant of an aircraft or military base that had been established to help prevent Australia from being invaded by Japan during World War II… then just 27-kilometres south of the city of Katherine we came to the turnoff to the ‘Cutta Cutta Nature Park’.

This park covers 1499-hectares of limestone landscape with tropical limestone caves full of native wildlife, Aboriginal culture, European history and breathtaking scenery.

There is nothing quite like pulling over in the middle of nowhere to admire a world filled with the beauty of nature to make you aware of the vastness you are travelling through… and the Cutta Cutta Nature Park is well worth a visit.

On the outskirts of Katherine, we passed the RAAF Tindal Air Force Base and at that point we entered the Northern Territories 3rd largest city, where the outback meets the tropics.

This lovely little city is often referred to as the ‘crossroads’ being a very popular ‘pit stop’ for travellers heading north, south, and to and from the west.

It is the central service base for the nearby airfield, surrounding remote communities and pastoral properties, home to more beautiful thermal springs and hosts the world’s largest school room – ‘The Katherine School of the Air’.

Our mandatory first stop, as always, was the Visitor Information Centre, a very busy rest stop where at any one time throughout the day there are easily 30-40 vans parked up in the carpark… many of them Aussie ‘senagers’ flocking to the Northern Territory and beyond from the southern parts of Australia in search of warmth and sunshine!

Katherine gets its name from the Katherine River, which was so named by explorer John McDouall Stuart and first began as a lonely outpost on the Overland Telegraph Line in 1872.  

Thereafter, the population increased with the gold rush in the late 1800’s and today it has a population of just over 24,000 of which, 60 percent identify as Dagoman, Jawoyn and Wardaman Aboriginal people, this being their traditional land and important meeting place for thousands of years.

Most people visiting Katherine head into it’s largest and most popular playground, Nitmiluk National Park, which is just a 30-minute drive or 28-kilometres up Gorge Road.

This beautiful park covers a vast area, which includes 13 very impressive gorges carved from the ancient sandstone that stretches as far as the eye can see.

In total, the Katherine Region covers an area of 400,000 square kilometres, double the size of Victoria. 292,008 hectares of this area is this rugged escarpment country that winds its way along the Katherine River.

Over 30-years ago, this park was handed back to the Jawoyn traditional owners in recognition of their spiritual connection to the land and is now jointly managed with the Northern Territory National Parks.

There are many different ‘Dreamtime’ stories among different Aboriginal groups who believe the ‘Spirit Beings’ created all the features of this land and the Jawoyn people believe the creator of their land is the mythical figure of ‘Bula’ who came from the saltwater country to the north.

With his two wives known as the Ngallenjilenji, he hunted across the land and in doing so transformed the landscape. Paintings seen in the rock shelters today are said to be that of ‘Bula’s’ image.

Nitmiluk, pronounced ‘Nit-me-look’ is the Jawoyn people’s name for Katherine Gorge, which means Cicada Place and was named by a dragon-like figure by the name of Nabilil who came from the west near Wadeye, a small town in the Northern Territory (pronounced wod-air-yer or ‘wad-ayer’) that was formerly known, and still referred to as Port Keats.

Nabilil is an important figure of the ‘Creation Time’ and he came carrying water and firesticks in a dilly bag.

He passed through Garrakla, the limestone formation either side of the Stuart Highway north of Katherine, travelled on to the Wurliwurliyn-jang, a mosquito dreaming place near the site of Kalano (near the Katherine Council offices) then passed through the Blue Tongue Lizard dreaming places at Yerreljlrriyn and Wun-gurri where all the birds tried to catch him for the water he carried… but Nabilil was too clever for them. It was at the entrance to the Katherine Gorge where he camped that he heard the song of the cicada ‘Nit! Nit! Nitit’, thus the name Nitmiluk.

Another of their mythical creatures is that of ‘Bolung’ who is believed to inhabit the deep green pools found in the Second Gorge. As well as an important life-giving form, Bolung is also known to act as a destroyer in the form of lightening bringing monsoonal floods if upset.

To avoid upsetting Bolung the Jawoyn people, even today, do not fish in the pools where he sits, and pregnant women and new initiates are forbidden to drink or swim in the deep pools of the Katherine River.

Having stayed at this gorge a few years back we were drawn to this spectacular sandstone country of Nitmiluk National Park and the majestic Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge.

Tourism is something that has benefited this region giving visitors the opportunity to learn more about this remote landscape with most people taking a popular boat cruise along 2 of the 13 gorges, a helicopter ride to see the harder to reach gorges, or for those more adventurous, a canoeing or hiking tours.

A self-guided hike was much more appealing to us and with plenty of walking trails to choose from and in this National Park we could easily occupy ourselves over the next couple of days.

Our first trek began under cloudless skies along the main walking track to ‘Baruwei Lookout’, which provided a bird’s eye view of the Katherine River.

It was only a short one hour walk with a few steep steps to the top but once there, the reward was incredible and well worth the effort.

Next morning following the main track over ground we had previously traversed we branched off and followed rocky terrain to a small corner of the Katherine River called the ‘ Southern Rockhole’.

When flowing this waterhole is usually a popular swimming spot but for us there was only a trickle of water flowing over the cliff face into a green, stagnant pool below and signs had been erected advising of ‘no swimming’ at various places!

The Northern Territory had just seen one of its hottest and driest ‘wet seasons’ in 27-years with a total rainfall of just two-thirds of its average and as a result the lack of flowing water has had a significant impact on the waterholes in this area.

Returning back over the rocky trail to the main track we continued a little further to ‘Jedda’s Rock Lookout’ where we were again privy to beautiful views, this time over the steep escarpment of the second gorge where below, river traffic made its way up and down the waterway.

Sweating in the early morning sun we persistent at a steady pace up and down and along sandy, rocky tracks where for much of the time we seemed to be the only ones exploring these awe-inspiring gorges.  

‘Butterfly Gorge’ was home to a monsoonal rainforest, which supported a huge number of black butterflies, hence its name.

This beautiful spot was again closed for swimming… but did provide a lovely shady retreat from the fierce midday sun and spectacular scenery as we gazed up at the gorge walls.

Campward bound, we followed a long but relatively easy track compared to what we had just traipsed and by the time we arrived back at camp we were exhausted, covered in sweat, sunscreen and red dust and eager to cool off in the pool and sip a nice cold beer – not necessarily in that order!

For hiking enthusiasts there are well over 100-kilometres of walking trails in this park with some extremely challenging, namely the famous ‘Jatbula Trail’ (permit required). This trail is an ancient ‘Song Line’ used by the Jawoyn people and is a 62-kilometre trek that begins at Katherine Gorge and ends at Leliyn/Edith Falls. It takes 4-6 days but we were happy to stick to exploring just the 2 gorges – a 14-kilometre hike for the day!

After a couple of nights at Nitmiluk/Katherine Gorge we set off with Leliyn/Edith Falls in our sights making our way back to Katherine once again to refill a gas bottles and stock up on groceries.

Leliyn/Edith Falls is the second section of Nitmiluk National Park located 40-kilometre up the road from Katherine. It’s then a quick detour of around 20-kilometres from the Stuart Highway to access the beautiful waterhole, picnic area and campground.

Once there, it is only a short walk away along a well-trodden path from the parking area to a beautiful waterhole… and there’s plenty of room to splash around.

We love camping at Leliyn/Edith Falls as it’s not as commercialised as Katherine Gorge and quite a bit cheaper… but be prepared if you are thinking of camping there during peak season, it is usually heaving with campers and due to the limited number of campsites available, it’s a little more difficult to secure a spot. 

Vans and campers usually park up overnight at the roadside stop just off the Stuart Highway where a large sign informs them when there’s a vacancy.

For day visitors it is worth the short drive just for a swim and to do the walks. A picnic on the lovely grassed day use area and a coffee and bite to eat at the small kiosk is well worth considering too.

For us, having a rooftop tent, it was so much easier to fit into a small slot and in no time at all we had secured a site and set up camp on a well-marked, grassy campsite in the beautiful bush setting.

Leliyn/Edith Falls is so much more organised than Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge and at only $12 a night per person or $10 for seniors it is much more affordable with Katherine Gorge $22 a night per person on a crowded, unmarked lot of land.

By the time we had set up camp in our little lot the temperature had risen considerably so a swim across the paperbark and pandanus fringed natural pool to the beautiful waterfall on the other side was first on our agenda… much to the distress of a little old lady on the bank who refused to move until we resurfaced!

This area is a favourite of ours and great for bushwalking with a 2.6-kilometre trail called the ‘Leliyn Trail’ offering a challenging walk along a steep, rocky loop to the refreshing and beautiful ‘Upper Pool’

Over the next couple of days, we explored the walking paths in this remote and untamed region and swam at the many waterholes while soaking up the timeless scenery.

We completed the 9-kilometre challenging hike to Sweetwater Pool and back. The finishing point of the 62- kilometre ‘Jatbula Trail’ and a beautiful waterhole where a small waterfall flowed over a rock wall into the flowing Edith River.

The Edith River is a spring-fed river and flows all year around. Over millions of years it has cut a gorge through the escarpment, forming the magical plunge pools under a series of small waterfalls.

At night, when the sun disappeared and wrapped us in a blanket of darkness we tucked ourselves into our rooftop tent and drifted off to sleep far away from the bright city lights.

After a couple of very relaxing day at Leliyn/Edith Falls our drive north took us through scenery of saltbush and spinifex before gradually giving way to more substantial shrubs and trees.

A little over 67-kilometres on we left the Stuart Highway and turned into Pine Creek, one of oldest towns in the Northern Territory.

This little town is steeped in history and was an important transport hub during the 1870s’ mining boom when gold was discovered nearby in 1871.

Pine Creek was also a prominent town during World War II, being one of the few towns not bombed by the Japanese. Consequently, a hospital camp was set up nearby and an airfield constructed as an emergency landing ground to serve the military units based in town.

Having just read the story ‘No Place for a Woman’ by Mayse Young & Gabrielle Dalton, I was really keen to visit this little town again.  

Mayse Young was the Pine Creek publican and apparently a legendary beauty and outback identity. Her hotel was the best drinking hole and meeting place on the track as well as the unofficial bank, the library, the surgery and sometimes even doubled as a makeshift home for the entire community.  

The book outlines the ups and downs during her life including how she raised seven children, survived the heat, dust and floods of the Top End, Japanese bombs and later, the devastation inflicted by Cyclone Tracy. For anyone travelling through the Northern Territory, this is one book well worth a read.

The Miners Park in town has historical mining equipment and there’s a great small museum well worth the gold coin donation to look around.

South of the railway station is the historic ‘Walk through Time’ footpath with tiles painted by local artists commemorating people who’ve contributed to this small town from the Aboriginals to miners to the pastoralists. 

On the outskirts of town ‘Lookout Point’ is a very steep and twisting climb but once you reach the top and manage to unlock your grip from the steering wheel, the view overlooks the Enterprise Pit and some of the old mining shafts.

Further inland our next off-road challenge awaited.

The Reynolds Track in the Litchfield National Park, although only a 43-kilometres track, we knew would be full of surprises going by our last trip – bulldust, water crossings, beautiful swimming holes, waterfalls, termite graveyards, places of history and great campgrounds so we were looking forward to another exciting adventure.

We have found some wonderful places on our travels that we continue to return to, and many more that continue to surprise us… but that’s what this country does best – it continues to surprise!

Come with us on our next adventure as we head into the heart of Litchfield National Park!

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