Exploring Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge)
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Nitmiluk National Park (previously known as 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 tourist attraction. The gorges plunge up to 100 meters deep along the southern Arnhem Land plateau, stretching for 12 kilometers before opening out farther upstream. The park lies at the southern tip of Kakadu National Park, 244 kilometers southeast of Darwin.
Nature lovers will find plenty of things to do in Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge). Recreational activities range from swimming in the cool waterholes and camping along the river to fishing for barramundi, kayaking or canoeing down the Katherine River, cruising through the gorges on a boat tour, bird-watching, and hiking the many trails.
The scenery is stunning. 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 10 meters, revealing a series of beautiful boulder-flanked pools.
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. You can view Aboriginal 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.
Nitmiluk National Park is also a popular stopover place if you're traveling from Uluru or Alice Springs in the Red Centre to the city of Darwin or Top End attractions like Kakadu National Park.
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Wildlife in Nitmiluk National Park
Wildlife in Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge) is abundant. The park is home to more than 206 species of birds, including spectacular red-tailed black cockatoos, white-gaped honeyeaters, ospreys, red-winged parrots, and great bowerbirds. You might even spot endangered Gouldian finches.
Other animals in Nitmiluk National Park include around 44 species of native mammals. Keep an eye out for flying foxes, possums, wallabies, and dingoes.
Reptiles also thrive in the park, including many species of snakes and both freshwater and saltwater crocodiles. You're likely to see freshwater crocodiles sunning on the river banks. These shy creatures are best seen in the early morning and are not as dangerous as their saltwater cousins.
Katherine Gorge Tours
Aboriginal guides lead excellent Katherine Gorge 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.
The Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge Cruise is a great option. You can choose from a two- or four-hour cruise that takes you through the chain of waterways, where you can gaze up at the sheer sandstone walls around you and see some of the area's wildlife, including crocodiles and many species of birds. This popular Katherine Gorge tour includes stops to walk through sections of the park along the way, and you'll also learn about its aboriginal heritage. Select the dawn tour if you want to see Katherine Gorge at sunrise, bathed in the soft glow of early morning light.
If you're based in the Northern Territory's capital, the Katherine Day Tour from Darwin is a great way to explore the top things to see and do in the park. This full-day sightseeing tour includes a Katherine Gorge cruise, a refreshing swim in a natural pool at the base of Edith Falls, and lunch. You can also soak up some cowboy culture in the town of Katherine, and you'll travel through the old mining town of Pine Creek.
Another way to explore Katherine Gorge is by kayak or canoe. Both are available for rent in the gorge, providing a fun paddling adventure along the rapids of the Katherine River. For a bird's-eye view, you can hop aboard a scenic helicopter flight.
Hiking Trails in Nitmiluk National Park
Hiking trails radiate from the Nitmiluk Visitor Center and cater to all abilities. Trails range from a 4.5-kilometer 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 kilometers, and the scenery ranges from savannah grasslands and waterfalls to rocky escarpments and rain forest. Along the way, look for Jawoyn Rock Art at the Amphitheatre. Once at Leliyn (Edith Falls), at the western end of the park, cool off with a refreshing dip. From the foot of the falls, a two-kilometer track leads up to a viewpoint.
Another popular trail and home to a host of colorful butterflies is the Butterfly Gorge Walk, a four-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, you can enjoy panoramic views of the gorge. Follow the trail to the Southern Rockhole. After rain, waterfalls tumble down the rocks.
Where to Stay near Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge) for Sightseeing
Many park visitors choose the nearby cattle-farming town of Katherine as a base for their sightseeing trips, but the most convenient option is to stay in the national park, although accommodation here is pricier. Nitmiluk National Park accommodation ranges from campgrounds to basic chalets and even an upscale lodge.
- Luxury Hotel: By far the best place to stay in Nitmiluk National Park is the 4.5-star, 18-room Cicada lodge, with sleek, low-slung buildings in natural bushland. From this excellent location, you can access all the things to do in Katherine Gorge right from the hotel. When you're not exploring the park, you can cool off in the small pool or dine on the lodge's delicious food. Wood floors, aboriginal art, and private balconies are standout features in the rooms.
- Budget & Mid-Range Accommodation: For the most convenient budget accommodation, Nitmiluk Chalets & Campground in the national park is the best option. You are minutes from Katherine Gorge here. Choose from non-powered and powered campsites, permanent tents, or basic chalets. Amenities include an outdoor pool set amid tropical landscaping, a restaurant, self-service laundry, and barbecue facilities. If you'd rather stay in the town of Katherine, the Pine Tree Motel is a good-value option, with air-conditioned rooms ranging in style and price (deluxe rooms are best). All are equipped with mini-fridges, as well as tea and coffee-making facilities. Guests can also use the barbecue area and outdoor pool.
Getting to Nitmiluk National Park
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 kilometers northeast of the town of Katherine via a sealed road. Katherine is located 310 kilometers south of Darwin along the Stuart Highway.
- You can access Leliyn (Edith Falls), on the western side of the park, by turning off the Stuart Highway, 42 kilometers north of Katherine then following a sealed road for 19 kilometers.
Tips and Tactics
The following Tips and Tactics will help maximize the potential for fun when visiting Nitmiluk National Park:
- If you're planning on hiking in Katherine Gorge, bring at least three 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.
- 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.
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Exploring the Northern Territory: Rugged and sparsely populated, the Northern Territory packs in plenty of exciting attractions and things to do. For a city fix, explore the highlights of Darwin, the territory's capital, from multicultural markets and museums to family-friendly attractions. The Northern Territory is also home to some of Australia's top hikes and its best fishing destinations.
More Wilderness Adventures: About a 90-minute drive from Nitmiluk National Park, you can explore the spectacular waterfalls, mighty rivers, monsoon forests, and wildlife-rich wetlands of UNESCO-listed Kakadu National Park, one of the planet's great wilderness areas. For more nature-inspired experiences, head to Watarrka National Park (Kings Canyon) in the state's south. Here, you'll find the deepest gorge in the Red Centre, as well as striking rock formations and abundant wildlife.