Sometimes I think that life is simply a series of startling images indelibly imprinted like permanent watermarks onto our consciousness. Lying under the stars on a sand beach at the bottom of Katherine Gorge listening to the hiss of the rapids upstream dazzled by bright stars in the dark of a moonless night with the hulking bluff of Smitts Rock rising above. Diving into the olive green waters of the Katherine River from smooth sun-heated river rocks at sunset and swimming in the warm river as the colour changes from olive green to inky black. Watching the sun rise from a vertiginous perch over the eighth gorge as the rocks warm to flaming red and the night-time creatures scuttle back into dark crevices away from the heat of the day. Smelling the dank, musky scent of a thousand fruit bats as they leave their daytime perches in riverside trees and stream across the darkening sky. Doug and I lay stretched out on the cooling sand at the bottom of Katherine Gorge, damp from swimming in the river, bedazzled by swirling stars and I wonder if this is how the indigenous people felt in this dream-time place before the coming of white man and the wholesale destruction of their culture.
Sun down at Smitts Rock
On a more prosaic level, to truly experience Nitmiluk National Park you must get off the tour boat, the short track to the lookout, away from the groaning buffet at the Visitor Centre, the bistro at the pool and either walk or canoe into the upper reaches of this deep wandering river country.
The Katherine River rises to the northeast in Arnhem Land and traverses stone country heading west to join with the Daly River eventually running out into the Timor Sea. At the heart of the National Park, the river has carved a series of deep gorges through the surrounding sandstone plateau. Above the river it is hot and arid, woolly butts grow among long dry spear grasses. There is no water, and precious little shade. Side gorges with seasonal creeks run from the surrounding high country over water blackened cliffs down into the main gorge where tall palms grow in the damper ground and sand beaches appear intermittently between narrow gorge walls.
Looking upstream at Nitmiluk
Launching the kayaks from the boat ramp we paddled first downstream to shallow rocky rapids scaring up a freshwater crocodile from the sand banks who bounced, kangaroo like, into the water at our approach. Turning upstream, we kayaked under steep sandstone walls, into the narrower confines of gorge one. Portaging from gorge one to gorge two is easy if you ignore the sign directing you the long way and simply float your kayak up a series of shallow rocky rapids. The second gorge zig-zags up between towering cliffs, past darkened dry waterfalls, and caves and fissures in the rock harbouring tiny dusky bats. Another easy portage gives access to the third gorge which ends abruptly where large boulders block the flow. We swam and scrambled over the rocks to look into fourth gorge but turned back with the canoes from this point.
Doug under Nitmiluk cliffs
A day later, we packed two days of food and walked up onto the escarpment and followed the track east through stone country to the eighth gorge. An indistinct track leads down into the base of the gorge and a small sandy flood strewn beach where we spent the hottest hours of the day swimming back and forth across the river only hiking back up at sunset to camp by a small waterhole. A few minutes along the outflow stream you could perch high on the edge of the gorge and watch as the sun rose and the black cliffs washed out under the white hot sun.
Above the gorge
Walking back, we circled through the Jawoyn Valley following a marked track over sandstone platforms by caves and pagodas. Aboriginal art, estimated at 7,000 years old, adorns the walls and roofs of small caves revealing a more nomadic way of life - a hunter with spear and crocodile, a long necked turtle.
Long necked turtle
Further west we took another side track out to Smitt Rock from Dunlop Swamp. A small waterhole on the plateau top offers good swimming but the real beauty lies down a short steep track over talus slopes to the base of the gorge and along a rock platform that abuts sheer cliffs to a broad sandy spit under paperbark trees. Smitt Rock looms out of the river, a steep rock island between sheer gorge walls. We ate dinner by the water, listening to the hiss of rapids and the slap of fish. "Is there any place you'd rather be?" I asked Doug, who shook his head, lay back and watched a shooting star flash across the sky.
Sunrise Gorge Eight