Nearly 330 kilometres long, the Katherine River winds through the rugged and isolated gorges of the Arnhem Land Plateau. Dave Cauldwell embarks on a seven-day hiking and kayaking trip to immerse himself in the landscape shaped by the mighty river.
A vast wetland expands before me, its waters capturing the azure reflection of a sky that seems bluer than any sky I’ve ever seen before. Wild pigs rummage in the mud. Four dead trees jut out of the water immediately before me. Their silvery branches poke toward the sky as if they’re striking a pose from Saturday Night Fever.
Staying alive is tough out here, but luckily my guide Matt knows a few tricks. He’s been camping with Indigenous people many times and has learnt numerous survival tips. He tells me that during the wet season Aboriginal women come foraging for turtles that have burrowed into the mud beneath our feet. The turtles are easy to spot because of the digging marks they leave behind. Getting them out requires a little excavation and then a swift blow with a spear.
I’ve left my spear at home because, over the next week, Matt and the guys at Gecko Canoeing and Trekking have got me covered. Our journey begins in Nitmiluk National Park in the north-east of the Northern Territory, where we’ll hike for four days along the Dreaming Place Trail: the lesser-known sister of the popular Jatbula trail. To get here we’ve driven 70 kilometres from the town of Katherine along two major highways, and 20 kilometres down a dirt road before bumping and scraping past trees for 16 kilometres down a 4WD track.
“Jatbula is a destination walk,” says Matt. “The Dreaming Place Trail is all about the journey.”
Over the past two years, Matt has guided fewer than 40 people along this trail. Hiking along such a non-frequented and isolated track makes the journey more personal. We’re swallowed in expansive scenery and I’m in awe of the majesty of the twisting gorges. We walk along the banks of the Katherine River, on top of escarpments that overlook the gorges, and across vast plateaus filled with swaying spear grass.
Caves adorned with Aboriginal rock paintings offer artistic punctuations to our hike. There are pictures of long-necked turtles, crocodiles, kangaroos, fish and a menagerie of other animals. Some paintings depict hunters and spirits. One of the most striking images is of a white spirit with an elongated body drawn on a charcoaled background. She has long fingers and huge breasts and looks like a being from another dimension. Some paintings hint at what the site was used for. Matt points out a frill-necked lizard in one cave, a symbol associated with male initiation ceremonies.
The quietude along the Dreaming Place Trail allows ample opportunities to spot wildlife. Chestnut-quilled rock pigeons – rare birds endemic to Kakadu and Nitmiluk national parks – resemble punks with their mohawks. I nearly step on a spinifex dragon (a small lizard) sunbaking on a rock. Hooded parrots, common within 100 kilometres of Katherine, dart between trees like blue arrows. I watch one as it swoops in front of me and flies inside a two-metre-high termite mound, where it has bored out a nest. The termites don’t mind having tenants and seal off the hole made by the parrots.
We camp beside waterholes and on sandy beaches. The nights make way for storytelling under the moonlight. Our walk ends with a steep descent to Lily Pond Falls. Matt tells me this is a sacred women’s place, where Indigenous women may have come to give birth and educate their daughters about the birds and the bees. A boat is waiting to pick us up and we cruise down the Katherine Gorge, past crocodile nesting areas, all the while flanked by sheer rock faces. "]
It’s time to swap our walking boots for kayaks. We put in on the outskirts of Katherine and embark on a 35 kilometres, three-day paddle downriver. It’s dry season and the river is gentle; all the rapids are Grade I. The river is spring-fed and its water is filtered through sandstone, which means it is refreshingly drinkable.
We glide past prehistoric-looking pandanus, their fronds draping over the water. Up ahead I hear a crackling sound, and then realise what I thought was lowlying cloud is actually smoke. A bushfire burns beside the river. White-bellied sea eagles swoop into the haze and there are more than a dozen black and whistling kites circling overhead, their eyes trained on prey scurrying away from the blaze. These kites are one of the few birds that deliberately pick up smouldering sticks and drop them elsewhere to create more fires. They are also one of the only birds that can eat and fly at the same time.
Eventually the smoke clears and we continue our passage downriver. Matt dangles his fishing line over the side of his canoe and catches a fair-sized barramundi. A freshwater crocodile suns itself on the bank with its mouth wide open. It’s unfazed by our presence and almost poses for photos. The dry season is when freshwater crocodiles inhabit the Katherine River. Humans are too cumbersome to chew so they’re not going to bother us, and besides, they’re not territorial like their saltwater cousins. In the wet season the water level can rise 15 metres, and this is when salties make their way into the inland waterways. We pass a crocodile trap with a pig’s hoof inside to entice hungry snappers, but the traps don’t see much action; on average, rangers catch just three saltwater crocs each dry season.
We awake each morning to swirling river mist. The days are sunny and peaceful, and at night we camp on sandy banks covered with wispy goanna tracks. Matt prepares a roast on our last night and we sit by candlelight, a glass of wine in one hand and a fork of beef in the other. With the candles reduced to waxy pulps, I retire to bed under a sparkling canopy. I hear one of my fellow kayakers say that it won’t be long before we’ll be back in the real world. To me, being tucked up in a swag miles from anywhere and gazing up to the geometric twinkle of stars is about as real as it gets.
Flights to Darwin leave from all major Australian cities. jetstar.com
Gecko Canoeing and Trekking offer a variety of trips in remote destinations in the Northern Territory. Their packages have an emphasis on educating their guests about the cultural, historical and geological aspects of the environments being explored. All packages include transfers to and from Darwin airport. The Katherine River 3 Day Respite costs about US$785 per person. Tours depart May to October. geckocanoeing.com.au