Exploring Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge)
Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge) is one of the jewels of the Northern Territory. Carved by the mighty Katherine River, the series of 13 spectacular steep-walled gorges are the park's main attraction. The gorges plunge up to 100 m deep along the southern Arnhem Land plateau, stretching for 12 km before opening out further upstream. The park lies at the southern tip of Kakadu National Park, 244 km southeast of Darwin.
In contrast to the dry, stony soil of the Arnhem Land plateau, the perennial flow of the Katherine River nourishes lush plant growth. River pandanus, fishnet vines, and native figs fringe the river. During the wet season, the water gushes through the narrow gorges, and waterfalls cascade down the rugged cliffs. During the dry months, the water level can drop more than ten meters, leaving a series of beautiful boulder-flanked pools.
Wildlife is abundant. The park is home to more than 206 species of birds; 44 species of native mammals such as bats, possums and macropods; and large numbers of reptiles and freshwater crocodiles. These shy creatures are best seen in the early morning and are not as dangerous as their saltwater cousins.
Under Aboriginal land rights legislation, the land in Nitmiluk National Park was returned to its traditional owners, the Jawoyn Aboriginal people, who then leased it back to the government. Today, the Jawoyn people and the Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory jointly manage this awe-inspiring wilderness area. Visitors can view Jawoyn rock art at the base of the sandstone escarpment along the Katherine River and at other sites throughout the park. Some of the rock paintings are thousands of years old.
Nature lovers will find plenty of things to see and do in Nitmiluk National Park. Recreational activities range from swimming in the cool waterholes and camping along the river to fishing for barramundi and hiking the many trails.
Hiking trails radiate out from the visitor center and cater to all abilities. Trails range from a 4.5 km walk to the viewpoint above the first gorge to the popular five-day Jatbula Trail, a seasonal hike from the visitor center at Nitmiluk to Leliyn (Edith Falls). The Jatbula Trail stretches for 58 km and the scenery ranges from savannah grasslands and waterfalls to rocky escarpments and rainforest. Along the way, look for Jawoyn Rock Art at the Amphitheatre. Once at Leliyn (Edith Falls), at the western end of the park, visitors can take a refreshing dip. From the foot of the falls, a 2 km track leads up to a viewpoint.
Another popular trail and home to a host of colorful butterflies is the Butterfly Gorge Walk, a 4 hour hike up a side valley in the Katherine Gorge. The Windolf Walk weaves along the Katherine River and up to Pat's Lookout. Here, visitors can enjoy panoramic views of the gorge. Follow the trail to the Southern Rockhole. After rain, waterfalls tumble down the rocks.
Aboriginal guides lead excellent tours that provide valuable insight into the ecology of the park and its many sacred aboriginal sites. To really appreciate the sheer size of the canyons, book a boat trip through the gorge. Tours range from 2 hour cruises to half-day trips. Kayaks are also available for rent, providing a fun paddling adventure along the rapids of the Katherine River. For a bird's eye view, visitors can also hop aboard a scenic helicopter flight.
Tips and Tactics
The following Tips and Tactics will help maximize the potential for fun when visiting Nitmiluk National Park:
- The Aussie sun can be strong. When heading out into the wilderness, wear sunscreen and a hat. Hikers should also seek shelter in the scorching heat of day and wear sunglasses to protect their eyes.
- Bring at least 3 liters of water per person, wear sturdy walking shoes, and consider bringing a topographic map and compass, or a GPS.
- Take binoculars for a close-up view of birds and other wildlife.
- When packing for long hikes, take basic first aid equipment, register the planned route, and advise friends and family of an estimated return time.
- The most popular months to visit the park are from May to September when the weather is cooler and drier. The wet season can cause flooding along the Katherine River, and recreational activities may be restricted. In addition, the access road may be cut off for short periods during peak flooding times.
Nitmiluk National Park is located in the Top End of Australia's Northern Territory. The Park has two main points of visitor access:
- The main entrance lies 30 km northeast of the town of Katherine via a sealed road. Katherine is located 310 km south of Darwin along the Stuart Highway.
- Leliyn (Edith Falls), on the western side of the park, is accessed by turning off the Stuart Highway, 42 km north of Katherine then following a sealed road for 19 km.