Review: Meander through a timeless landscape on a Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge Cruise
A set of deep gorges fashioned by the flow of water through ancient sandstone attracts thousands of visitors to the Northern Territory’s Nitmiluk National Park every year. There are numerous ways to experience the beauty of the landscape, including this fabulous cruise with Nitmiluk Tours.
As if on cue, the agile wallaby looks up at our vehicle, stares briefly, then bounds casually into the camouflage of the bush.
He’s our welcoming committee at famous Katherine Gorge — now known as Nitmiluk Gorge — in Nitmiluk National Park. Located at the southern tip of Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, Nitmiluk (meaning cicada place) is 224 kilometres south-east of Darwin and 29 kilometres north-east of the town of Katherine.
I’m about to board a cruise through Nitmiluk Gorge. Arguably Nitmiluk National Park’s main attraction, Nitmiluk Gorge is a series of 13 steep-walled sandstone chasms carved over time by the Katherine River — some with depths up to 100 metres. During the wet season (November to April) the entire waterway floods. It flows for 12 kilometres before opening out further upstream. During the dry season (May to October) the water level drops by up to two metres and the gorges become almost separate entities, divided by exposed rocks.
The Jawoyn Aboriginal people are the traditional landowners of the region and they jointly manage Nitmiluk National Park with Parks and Wildlife Northern Territory. Indigenous-owned and operated Nitmiluk Tours offers a variety of tours and cruises in the park, including our 9am Nit Nit Dreaming Two Gorge Tour.
Welcome to The Big Bus tour and travel guide’s YouTube channel. In this video, we head to Nitmiluk National Park in the Northern Territory to join Nitmiluk T…
It’s mid-May — the beginning of the dry season. The temperature hovers at around 33 degrees. It feels warm, but thankfully not too hot. Our boat seats 60 people in ten rows beneath a shade canopy. Each row has six seats across with an aisle in the centre.
Our tour guide Sam — originally from the town of Port Augusta in South Australia — begins her commentary with a safety spiel, before giving us an overview of Jawoyn culture. We slowly meander through the first gorge, past pillars of sandstone pushing upwards from the depths of the murky water. Framed by a blue-tinged sky, the kaleidoscope of colours on either side of us — orange, ochre, red, black and grey — is mesmerising.
Sam points to a large aluminium cage on a sandy embankment. ‘That’s a salt-water crocodile trap’, she says. Salties are very territorial and more aggressive than their smaller freshwater cousins. Consequently, they’re not wanted in the gorge system. ‘The rangers use feral animals as bait to catch salties, which are then relocated to a croc farm in Darwin for breeding and research purposes’, Sam explains.
It’s a misconception that saltwater crocodiles are not found in freshwater. They can inhabit any lowland area of the Top End that’s prone to flooding. They’re less likely to be found in Nitmiluk Gorge, but the changing water levels do make it possible for large saltwater crocs to move into the gorge system from downstream. When the water level drops at the end of each wet season, park rangers spend a month surveying the gorges for whatever wildlife has found its way into the system. This year, it’s estimated that around 40 freshwater crocodiles inhabit the first gorge, with around 100 in total across the thirteen chasms.
‘Unlike the saltie, which has a large wide jaw structure, the snout of a freshie is long and narrow’, Sam explains. ‘They have skinny, brittle teeth that are not really designed for gripping and holding things, or for tearing and ripping. They only eat what they can swallow whole — and the good news is that takes us off the menu’.
A passenger points excitedly to a shape in the water — the outline of a freshie’s snout. Its body is submerged, and only two golden eyes show above the water’s surface. ‘Because they can’t physically eat us and they’re quite shy in nature, freshies will keep away from us as much as possible,’ Sam says confidently. ‘If you stay away from them, they will stay away from you’. That’s my plan!
There’s a short walk of about 400 metres between gorges one and two. There are a few stone stairs, all easily navigated, with handrails for those that are less steady on their feet. Before we disembark, Sam asks if there is anyone who doesn’t feel like walking to the next gorge. They have the option of settling into the comfy chairs next to the jetty. ‘We’ll pick you up on the way back’, says Sam. No one wants to miss the second gorge, including 81-year old Charlie — a retired farmer from Blackall. ‘Come on, let’s go’, he calls out to the group.
There’s no rush to complete the walk between the two gorges. While Sam attends to tying off the first boat and readying the next one, we take photos, observe some rock art and attempt to spot fish in the clear waters.
We board the next boat and slowly glide through the second gorge. The scenery here, if it’s possible, is even more stunning than gorge one. I’m taking photos like a possessed Instagrammer, before suddenly realising that this is not being in the moment. With that thought, I stow my camera away and simply savour the magnificent stone escarpments.
I think about the Jawoyn people, who believe Bolung — the rainbow serpent — inhabits the deep water of this gorge. We’re told that visitors must be careful not to disturb him. We drift for a few more minutes in quiet reflection before heading back up the river.
Cover image: Jennifer Johnston. Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Jennifer Johnston is a Brisbane-based freelance writer and blogger inspired by travel, health and wellbeing. She juggles pursuing her passion for writing with raising three rowdy young men, a dog and a couple of goldfish. Jennifer has explored much of the United Kingdom, Europe, the United States (including Hawaii), Canada, New Zealand, Egypt, Israel, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Japan and Fiji. When she’s not writing, you may find Jennifer hiking in some distant part of the world.