It’s easy to see why the expeditions to the North were so challenging before the road and rail advances that exist now. It’s a long journey with harsh terrain and mountain passes. One of the highlights of the Ghan was the stopover at Nitmiluk National Park, one of several mountainous areas in Australia, its magnificent gorges have been carved out by the Katherine river over millions of years. We stopped here on the way to Darwin to explore the wonders of this breathtaking landscape by boat.
We disembarked the Ghan train at Katherine where a coach drove us a 30 kilometre journey into the Nitmiluk Park. Joining our fellow travellers from the Ghan from other carriages we waited in line to join the open sided boat that was to take us deep into the gorge. The trip included a 30 minute walk into the gorge to see the variety of rock art ancient Jawoyn people had created but overnight rain had flooded the path and disappointingly that was no longer available to us. Nevertheless our boat trip promised us some breathtaking scenery.
The native people of Nitmiluk- the Jawoyn’s- have a Dreamtime story which suggests the area was created by a river serpent, carrying water in a bag which it would not share with thirsty birds along its journey. So while it slept, the birds pecked the bag for a drink and it burst, flooding the mountains with this great river. The explorer John McDouall Stuart named it the Katherine river and gorge after one of his benefactor’s daughters disrespecting the aboriginal people who knew it as Nitmiluk. Today the Jawoyn people own the National Park reclaimed, as with other areas of aboriginal land, from the state who failed to realise its significance as ceremonial land to the indigenous people when the first explorers claimed it as their own. Having gained it back the Jawoyn people now work in partnership with the government to ensure that it remains protected. The area around Katherine bore slogans and businesses mentioning the Jawoyn people, indicative of their visibility and engagement in this small rural community.
Our crewman, the Puffin, was knowledgable in all matters pertaining to the gorge, so he narrated its historic and environmental aspects as he also steered the boat. It was a wide craft with three seats either side covered by a canopy to provide you with shade. Some people hungry to capture the essence of the gorge from pole position poured into the front seats where unfortunately the canopy did not extend any cover from the sun. They soon realised it was not the best seat in the house after all and all but one vacated their seats for the shadier rear of the boat. We sat smugly in the midway section shaded from the intense heat but more than able to see the view. Aside from the heat the humidity is fierce, at its worst in October-November this aspect of the climate can drain you of energy. Water was provided continually on our trip by our hosts and we were constantly reminded to hydrate.
The big draw, aside from the scenery was the prospect of seeing a crocodile, we knew they occupied the site and were eager to see one. Of course this interest would only be piqued from a safe distance and after it had eaten. The puffin prepared us for this probability with information about the creature but interestingly no safety briefing suggesting a sighting or encounter was highly unlikely. In the unlikely circumstances that we might see one, the puffin informed us there were 2 types of crocodile in these waters. The saltwater crocodile was a large, hostile and dangerous predator that entered the river during the wet season whereas the freshwater crocodile was a smaller more timid animal, both living off dingo, foxes or other creatures that ventured near the water. The saltwater Crocodiles were captured and returned to their own domain and the freshwater Crocodiles left in situ. Laying their eggs on small inlets of beach along the banks of the Kathrine these had protected status and where eggs were buried if disturbed by walkers venturing onto the site to have a look, might earn them a fine of 2000 AUD per egg.
The cliffs rose up intimidatingly out of the water towering some 200 feet above us, the tropical climate encouraging the sounds of birds and cicadas as we meandered along the still murky waters of the Katherine River. Cabbage Palms intermittently dotted the clifftop landscape like long fingers reaching for the sky. The chalky apple tree lining the route of the river bank does bear a fruit which is best eaten days after its been in the water. The Pandanus tree, palm like in appearance with attractive leaves, are of huge value to aboriginal people providing medicine, fruit and weapons. River red gum trees produce a resin self healing cracks or holes caused by weather, fires or animals. This is primarily to prevent a little grub gaining access called the borer which infests and damages the inner trunk. Cycads; the oldest living plant in the world has been around for 250 million years and has adapted to its surroundings over that period. Looking much like a Palm tree but not a Palm it produces poisonous fruit that looks appealing but is best left out of the salad.
Nitmiluk translates as the place of many Cicadas an insect common throughout the world that uses song to attract a mate, sounding much like a single tone scream to the human ear. This sound filled the air as we sailed toward the gorge. Cane toads added depth to the sounds of the river, they were introduced to Australia from South America to counter the cane beetle which destroyed the sugar cane growing in the east of the country. Sadly nobody sent them the memo that the cane toad was out to get them so they climbed higher into the cane and the toads found easier prey closer to the ground. Despite not completing the job they were introduced to do they went forth and multiplied pretty vigorously making their way across to the west of the country and now a pest themselves in the Northern Territories. The toads are poisonous animals, carrying venom on their backs to protect them from predators. However as we know nature has its own way of adapting to such circumstances and the Corvus, a large crow arguably the most intelligent of the bird species, has discovered that flipping the toad over onto its back reveals the unprotected juicy belly. Cane toads are considered a pest and found in plentiful numbers in the Nitmiluk.
The Nitmiluk has 13 gorges in total the ancient sandstone rock follows the Katherine River all the way to Kakadu in the north and has rapids and falls throughout the route. Most of the falls we observed along the route were minor in nature, the remnants of overnight rain gushing in some areas, trickling in others. The real falls would be visible from our gorge walk but it had been cancelled, as it was we snapped every trickle or gush of water along the way. The sandstone coloured with yellow and red and occasionally blackened by an algae changed colours in the sunlight. Although steep and flat there were gully’s and caverns giving the landscape interest as it wound its way along the river bank. We could see the rapids in the distance and I did hope the little flat tourist type boat gave them a body swerve as we would have been tossed, turned and considerably wet if that was the case. Thankfully the little boat came to rest ahead of where these gorges converged and the currents competed in a rapid fury for prominence.
Our little boat, shy of the rapids made its way back along the river to see more of the gigantic cliff tops, before heading back on the bus to the Ghan where a light refreshment or two might be needed. No question Australia has some beautiful sights to see……