Expedition Report by Stuart Butler Katherine Gorge and the Jatbula Trail Nitmiluk National Park Northern Territory 8 – 18 July 2018
Brookvale Curl Curl Scouts and Ventures Party: Stuart Butler, Neville Kew (aka Ducky), Glenn Satchell (aka Skipper), David Brown, Jeremy Butler, Nathan Butler, Jonah Sherry, Jamie Swane, Jasper Van Elst
Over recent years, I have helped organised some great expeditions around Australia for our Scout Group, including the Overland Track and the South Coast Track in Tasmania, plus the mammoth 130km, 11-day hike from Kiandra to Kosciusko in the NSW Snowy Mountains.
Last August I stumbled across an article about the Jatbula Trail in the Northern Territory, which inspired me to explore a different part of the country.
The Jatbula trail is a 62km, 5 or 6-day hike, from Katherine Gorge to Edith River Falls in the Nitmiluk National Park. It is administered by the NT National Parks via a booking system and only 15 people per day are permitted to do the hike, with bookings opening on the 1st of November each year. Typically, these pre-booked trails fill up very quickly by commercial operators, so I set up a diary reminder and was online as soon as the bookings opened. As such I managed to secure my time slot and locked in our team to do the trip.
Quickly enough, July came around and we were all at the airport, eager and ready to start our journey. Our flight left Sydney at 8pm and arrived in Darwin just after midnight. I have to give Clare from 1st Darwin Sea Scouts a huge thanks for not only making their hall available for us to stay at, but also for picking us up from the airport (after midnight), laying out sleeping inner sheets for everyone, plus blowing up air mattresses, then coming back in the morning to shuttle our group into the centre of town. What fantastic hospitality!!!
After Clare dropped us in town, we had a very brief look around Darwin (it is only small) and then headed to the waterfront region to grab some breakfast and wait until 11:30 am when our bus was departing for Katherine.
We arrived at Katherine mid-afternoon and had a half hour break before being shuttled up to Katherine Gorge, which is 30km out of town. Whilst waiting, some of us decided to do a quick sight-seeing walk around Katherine town itself i.e. up and down the main street that constitutes Katherine.
On our way back down from the far end of town we were waiting to cross a side street at a set of lights, when Dave Brown says “hey Stu – get a load of that”; and there, stopped at the lights right in front of us, was a National Parks ute towing a trailer with a live 4.7m saltwater croc tied to it – the largest Saltie ever taken out of the Katherine River.
It turns out that the capture of this croc made national news headlines and it was pure coincidence that we were walking through town at the exact time it was being driven through. So much for my pre-trip safety brief that there are no Saltwater Crocs to worry about where we were going!!!
We finally arrived at Katherine Gorge in the early evening and set about making camp and enjoying dinner from the poolside restaurant. The following day we would be completing a 2-day canoeing trip up Katherine Gorge, camping overnight in the gorge itself, before returning to do the Jatbula Hike.
Whilst we were sorting the gear that we would take up the gorges, (our full packs wouldn’t fit in the canoes so we needed to break them down to essentials and leave the rest at the visitors centre), it was realised that we still hadn’t purchased the gas for the stoves, which would be needed to cook the dinners for the next week.
Surely National Parks or the visitors centre would sell this, wouldn’t they? After all, they have 15 people every day hiking the trail. I guess we would find out in the morning when both the visitors centre and NP’s opened again.
The following morning, we awoke early and whilst collecting our camping permit to stay up in the gorge, enquired about the gas. As it turned out they don’t sell the canisters (or Shellite), and the only place to get it was back in Katherine.
A quick discussion ensued, and it was decided that Ducky would lead the group up the gorge kayaking, whilst I organised to get back into town to buy the gas cannisters. I would then catch them up during the day or at the camp site in gorge 6.
With no car and no public transport between the Gorge and Katherine, I decided to hitch a ride into town, and within 20 minutes I was enjoying the hospitality of a lovely family from the Sunshine Coast, who were on a road trip during the school holidays, and had amassed a very impressive tally of roadkill they had seen on their trip so far (about 690 kangaroos, 30 cows, 11 emus, 7 Wedge tailed eagles, 2 echidnas, and some others). I told them to keep an eye out for the dead buffalo on the side of the road between Katherine and Darwin as they didn’t have any of them yet.
They dropped me off at the camping store in Katherine where I quickly purchased the required gas and started the return journey back up to the Gorge. I found my first lift about 15 minutes later with a father and son who live about halfway out to the Gorge. I took this lift as I reckoned that by being 10km’s out of town, anyone passing me would definitely be going up to the gorge.
They dropped me off at their gate and I continued hitching towards the Gorge. A small incident with a local pig dog had the potential to cause some concern but he turned out to be friendly and I was soon picked up by some foreign tourists, bundled into the back of their camper, and driven the rest of the way.
The ranger on duty was fantastic, he offered to motor me up through gorge 1 to where the canoes are stored at the start of gorge 2. Katherine Gorge consists of 13 sections, with each section or gorge being separated by a series of cascades. Gorge 1 has no natural barriers downstream and salties are still able to get into this section of the river. From Gorge 2 upwards the natural cliff walls and cascades mean that they can “cleanse” the gorge system of salties after each wet season, and then monitor and maintain the habitat so that it is safe to swim.
As things turned out, I was only about 45 minutes behind our group. They had experienced some delays in being ferried up to gorge 2 as they didn’t have the camping permit on them (I had inadvertently kept this on me), and subsequently they needed to organise another one.
My progress up the gorges was quicker than the rest of our group as I was in a single kayak and they were in doubles. This allowed me to portage my canoe up the cascades a bit easier. After all the earlier kerfuffle I caught up with the group by the end of Gorge 4.
Whilst the cliff walls of Katherine Gorge were not as high as I had imagined, it is truly a unique and special place, with Gorges 2 and 5 being the prettiest (longer, narrower and deeper).
The paddling was not difficult and provided the opportunity to enjoy the serenity and atmosphere of the gorges, particularly once you get past Gorge 3 and there are no more tourist boats. Some of the portages between the gorges can be reasonably strenuous, however no-one in our group had any difficulty with the two youngest of the group showing true resilience and portaging a lot better than just about everyone else.
We made it to Gorge 6 and our campsite by early afternoon and enjoyed the rest of the day relaxing and exploring. The campsite is on a beach where another ravine enters the gorge and due to the great weather, clear skies with 30-degree days and 13-degree nights, we decided to go “sans” tents and simply sleep under the stars, a theme that would recur for most of the rest of the trip.
During our afternoon exploration, a very near miss for Glenn occurred whilst scrambling up a ravine to the cliff tops. He pulled a boulder the size of his backpack down on top of himself, but luckily, it only glanced off his side, leaving him with some rather nasty bruising and possibly a popped rib.
That night, the kids put of a fantastic pantomime show by shining a torch onto the ravine wall and then using depth to increase and decrease the size of the shadows they cast onto the wall. When you have a cliff wall that is 50m high you can use this to dramatic effect, which they did.
A beautiful night under the stars and a very easy cruise back down the gorges the next day (tail wind behind us) enabled Jamie and Jonah to set sail down the Gorges using their tent fly as the sail. Sometimes there is no limit to their ingenuity. We only saw a few fresh water crocs over the couple of days we were canoeing, but the ones we did see were of a decent size
We were back at the campground at Nitmiluk Visitors centre by early afternoon and again enjoyed dinner from the poolside café and surprisingly bumped into another family from our Scout Troop who were on a family vacation.
The next day, we commenced our hike by catching the 9am ferry across to the other side of the Katherine River and setting out on a very lazy 8.3km stroll. The hike contained the only “hill” of the journey as we made our way to Biddlecombe Cascades. I use “hill” quite loosely here as it only has a height gain of about 100m.
The morning’s hike went via the Northern Rockhole, which is about 45 minutes from the start. Most of this was through burnt-off land and, for this reason, was not too spectacular for scenery. The park does significant land management with most of the escarpment area of the park being burnt back in a 5-yearly cycle.
The Northern Rockhole is quite spectacular when the falls are flowing (from December to May) but during the dry season, the falls dry up and it simply becomes a pond beneath the cliffs, which afforded a nice spot to enjoy morning tea. After leaving the waterhole, the track soon comes out onto a fire trail which continues through to Biddlecombe Cascades.
Having arrived at camp before lunchtime we were able to enjoy the rest of the day cooling off under the spectacular waterfalls and jumping off some spectacularly high cliffs into the pools below.
It is hard to fathom, in the middle of the dry season, where so much water is coming from as it hasn’t rained properly in close to 3 months, but the uplands of the escarpment are filled with swamps and bogs that soak up all the water during the rainy season like a great big sponge and then slowly and continuously release the water back into the streams throughout the dry season.
The second day’s hike goes from Biddlecombe Cascades to Crystal Falls and thankfully leaves the fire trail behind. It is an easily managed day being only 11 km and is truly lovely hiking as you start to feel the “presence” and age of the land. It is a fantastic realisation to know that virtually nothing has changed in hundreds of thousands of years, and that you are traversing the same land and seeing the same sights that the aborigines did thousands of years before.
Aboriginal rock art adorns some of the cliffs along the track and you can imagine that there are many more sites that the track doesn’t pass, which would also be the home of these ancient drawings. We reached Crystal Falls before lunch time, and again got to enjoy the whole afternoon swimming in the waterholes/cascades and jumping from ledges into the pools.
Day 3 of the hike goes from Crystal Falls Cascades through to 17 Mile Falls, a 10km hike and passes “the Amphitheatre” in its meandering. The morning’s hike was like the previous day and continued to parallel the eastern cliff line that abounds the 17 Mile Creek valley, and at times presented some great views out over the valley.
The Amphitheatre is a horseshoe shaped cliff line below the trail that has fantastic artwork gracing its walls. The best artwork is on the far side of the amphitheatre and appeared not to be as well visited as the paintings nearer to the entrance. In the wet season, a waterfall would flow from above and run through the forest that is housed within the small gorge, however as it was the dry season, the waterfall was dry but the creek in the Amphitheatre was still running, presumably coming from underground somewhere. This would have given the aboriginals year round access to water in a very well protected environment.
After leaving the Amphitheatre, the track soon connects with another fire trail and continues along this for a couple of kilometres before reaching 17 Mile Creek Falls. Somewhere below the falls is a heritage protected aboriginal art site, which we had been asked not to try and visit, so instead we spent the afternoon exploring a bit upstream and again relaxing in the creek and cascades.
Day 4 was our biggest day being 16.7km as we travelled from 17 Mile Falls to Sandy Camp. To avoid the main heat of the day we arose a bit earlier so that we could complete the extra kilometres in the cooler morning, rather than extending out into the heat of the afternoon.
The hike left the 17 Mile Creek escarpment and headed west, cross country, to the Edith River catchment. The first part of the day was truly delightful hiking as we headed through lovely forested sections that abounded with bird life that were chirping and chattering all morning.
Very little other fauna had been sighted along the trail, aside from one buffalo near Biddlecombe Cascades; no kangaroos or wallabies, wombats or echidnas and no freshwater crocs, so the cacophony of birds was a welcome interlude.
Upon reaching Edith River, the track turned South and continued downstream to Edith River Crossing. We had a small break here for morning tea before proceeding to our next camp at Sandy Camp, which was the most delightful swimming hole of the journey. The stillness and colours of the reflections on the pond were simply majestic as evening set in, and again when morning awoke.
The next day we continued travelling down the Edith River towards Sweetwater Pools where we would make our camp. Many groups choose to combine this section and the next together, and walk out to Edith River Falls campground, approx. 16.5km away. We had broken this last section into two, to help with the logistics of returning to Sydney. The bus from Katherine to Darwin leaves at 12:30pm, so it would have meant a very early start to complete the hike by 11:30 am to meet our shuttle back to Katherine. Instead, it was easier to break the hike and stay at Sweetwater Pools so that our hike out the next morning was nice and relaxed.
Whilst following the river downstream the track traversed more burnt countryside, so it was not too spectacular, but Sweetwater Pools was a delightful set of cascades with a lovely pond at the bottom in which to swim.
A bit of a sleep-in the following morning and we were again underway with only 5.5km to travel. The track passed some lovely spots along the river like Long Hole Pool before arriving at Edith River Falls.
With only 350m to go, the track split with the main trail going direct to the campground and the alternate route taking in the Edith Falls loop. Most of us took the scenic route to enjoy some of the lookouts as well as the upper falls. We all met up at the end and enjoyed a fantastic Buffalo Burger, coke and a shower at the Edith River Falls Campground.
Our transport back to Katherine arrived on time and the bus driver, who had lived in the area her whole life, gave us some great history of the local gold mines and other aspects of the geography as she drove.
An hour later and we were again on the Greyhound bus, returning to Darwin that evening, before catching our flight back to Sydney at 1 am. As we had several hours to kill in Darwin, we found a small restaurant in the city to enjoy dinner and while away the time.
The feel and presence of the Jatbula Trail and Nitmiluk Country is something that I haven’t experienced before, and it presents with some unique geography and landscapes that the eastern and southern states of Australia don’t offer. I can highly recommend this hike to anyone. It is quite easily managed with short days and few hills.
Below is a one-line summary of each person’s thoughts or favourite part of the expedition:
Stuart - the overall presence and feel to the land & the trail. A truly special place Ducky - the continual changing aspects of the landscape that we walked through Skipper - Sleeping under the stars for a week without any tent Jasper - Seeing the 4.7m Saltie in the main street of Katherine just before we started the hike Jeremy - Jumping from the rock outcrops and swimming at the end of each day’s hike. David - The Pantomime show by the boys in Gorge 6 of Katherine Gorge Nathan - History surrounding the aboriginal paintings particularly in the Amphitheatre Jonah - being free to do whatever I want all afternoon when we arrived at camp. Jamie - Scariness of knowing you were swimming with crocs and not knowing if one would attack
As always, the planning for the next hike is already underway, but alas not back to the NT; most likely we will be returning to Tasmania to explore the Jerusalem Walls region
Stuart Butler Venturer Leader Brookvale Curl Curl Group
Some other links for anyone interested in completing the hike