Exploring Katherine is like trawling your hand through a lucky dip with many vastly different things on offer. The Top End town, 317km south-east of Darwin, is often described as where the Australian outback meets the tropics. It's a very apt description: its wildly gorge-ous side Nitmiluk National Park is an explorer's playground. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and lures visitors to numerous falls, soaring cliffs, treks and the almighty Nitmiluk Gorge (also known as Katherine).
Then there's the blissful side: Katherine's attractions that soothe not just with good looks. The region has plenty of spring pools providing relief in palm and paperbark tree surroundings. Combined with caving adventures and cultural experiences at opposite ends of the spectrum — horse training, working dog demonstrations, and insight into the Indigenous culture — Katherine has plenty of things to see and do. Hardly an average outback town, there's a need to accessorise, so pack your pool noodle.
The best time of year to visit the Katherine region (and the Top End in general) is between May and September, during the dry season, although visiting in the wet season means you might miss the crowds and get to see the waterfalls in full swing.
Dining under bats
What a way to start an adventure — running on adrenaline, running on an empty stomach.
After driving for three hours, my sister and I almost missed the boat at Nitmiluk National Park, literally and figuratively. The Nabilil Dreaming Sunset Dinner cruise along Nitmiluk Gorge starts at 4:30pm, and we arrived in time to choose our main course — locally caught barramundi or steak.
Nitmiluk National Park is owned by the Jawoyn people, who also run and manage tours within the park. The cruise is considered one of the region's must-dos, a plush way to take in the spectacle of the 1.65-billion-year-old gorge. The ancient sandstone gorge consists of a whopping 13 gorges carved on a 12km stretch along the Katherine River. The river is nearly 330km, flowing downstream to become the Daly River.
More than just a boat ride along a snippet of the Katherine River, the tour encapsulates many things: cruising through time and admiring the red gorge's wrinkled lines beaming rock at golden hour, Dreamtime stories, and being treated to the best of the territory's regional produce that many would find novel.
Nitmiluk Gorge rock art (Image Tourism NT)
Unlike many cruises touring through wilderness environments, we could step off the open-air boat and short walk (roughly 500m) under the shadows of the cliffs, admiring the gorge's grandeur on two feet. The stroll through time includes viewing ancient Aboriginal rock art of human figures and a kangaroo painted high on the ruddy precipice.
Upon returning, our ride had been transformed into an intimate floating restaurant. Upscale dining in unparalleled scenery with black tablecloths, candle lights and three-course cutlery arrangements. Heaped mounds of char-grilled kangaroo, paperbark smoked chicken, and crocodile served alongside native-infused condiments was served as entrée on a giant platter. The croc — looking like pulled chicken — paired with warm bread and addictive native thyme butter was a winning combination.
Save the stomach space, we were told, with the choice of mains up next — locally caught barramundi with lemon myrtle or pink peppercorn beef eye fillet with red wine jus — served with salads.
By this time, the sunset's colours had almost faded, with an animated spectacle taking over the sky. Loud screeches filled the air with a bat colony flying over the boat. Appearing as moving black carpet, the bats in their hundreds — if not thousands — continuously soared and shirked above us as they travelled the river. It was an addictive watch that added to the extraordinary, delicious sundowner experience for under $200.
Making a splash
For a territory that lacks swimmable beaches, there isn't a shortage of places to cool off, particularly in and around Katherine. Splashes in springs are a way of life for the region, with nearby Elsey National Park and Mataranka boasting sandy-bottomed clear thermal pools.
The best way to enjoy the thermal springs? With a pool noodle in tow.
A local advised us to take a colourful foam finger to the springs, with a few places in town stocking them. Who knew these pool toys would almost become a prerequisite with every water body we visited? I question if Katherine has the country's highest ownership rates of pool noodles. It was more common to see flashes of fluoro in tropical woodlands with people carrying pool noodles to happily bop in water than not.
That advice would be the best tip we had received on the trip, with a pool noodle almost essential at Bitter Springs, 110km south-east of Katherine. The winding waterway appears like a contrived theme park lazy pool, except au naturel with tall palms and broadleaf paperbark trees fringing its aqua-blue clear waters.
Bitter Springs (Image Tourism NT)
It takes roughly 10–15 minutes to complete the one-way concourse with the gentle current, making it a tranquil jaunt under the lush green canopy. A bridge cuts off the stream, with steps onto the left to make your way back to the start and repeat.
Bitter Springs (Image Tourism NT)
I was in my happy place, with comfortable water temperatures, romantic scenery, and my new favourite toy. I attempt to try sans pool noodle, but the struggle is real. Some spots in the springs require rapid egg-beating to stay afloat, and it is the opposite of the relaxed pace and pleasure state life on a pool noodle in Bitter Springs can give.
Another regional favourite is Mataranka Thermal Pool and Rainbow Springs, 12km from Bitter Springs. Unlike going with the flow at Bitter Springs, the blissfully blue spring-fed sandy-bottomed pool has plenty of room for everyone seeking respite.
Another recommended pitstop is visiting the Cutta Cutta Caves Nature Park, 28km south-east of Katherine. It is only possible to visit the cave on a one-hour tour operated by Nitmiluk Tours, running on the hour from 9am–3pm from April until October. The one-hour tour goes 15m deep into the underground, eyeing twisty glittering limestone formations along a 250m boardwalk with a section dubbed a 'whale's belly' due to its wide interior.
Cutta Cutta Caves Nature Park (Image Tourism NT)
But Katherine's 9000-plus residents also can opt not to drive far for relaxation, with Katherine Hot Springs located 4.5km from the town centre along the banks of Katherine River. There's little room for mass gatherings, so it can feel a lot more crowded compared to Bitter Springs. Still, it's a one of the best places for a spontaneous dip under the pandanus and paperbark trees moments from town.
Atop the springs is Pop Rocket Cafe. The brightly painted red shipping container lures crowds from Thursday to Sunday for its extensive brunch favourites and drinks menu. It was midday, and most tables were filled with locals making the most of a balmy afternoon, sitting at tables under the shade with gleeful chatter filling the air. A lovely ambience.
Cultural immersion in two ways
The Discovery Parks Katherine caravan park is a convenient base to explore Katherine's centre.
Moments from the campground is Katherine's renowned Top Didj Cultural Experience & Art Gallery. It offers two-hour interactive workshops to better understand local Indigenous culture led by proud Dalabon man and Aboriginal artist Manuel Pamkal. The unique experience weaves Mr Pamkal's experience of growing up on Country with Dreamtime stories, didgeridoo performances, and demonstrations with traditional painting, fire lighting, and spear throwing.
By then, Mr Pamkal took us to outside test our aim at a kangaroo cut out. My survival skills were rendered useless, my spear barely taking flight. On the other hand, my sister outplayed the classroom with her throw thrusting the spear into the air, successfully piercing the kangaroo in the neck, swivelling it from its base still attached. She surprised me — and herself — and received a certificate that applauded her efforts to feed her family by successfully spearing a kangaroo target. Her 'secret' skillset won't be forgotten anytime soon.
Top Didj is also a great place to stock up on Indigenous art, with the gallery showcasing local Jawoyn, Warlpiri, and Dalabon people artworks, including those done by Mr Pamkal.
Another unique cultural immersion is learning about life on a working farm at Katherine Outback Experience, 6km east of Katherine. Led by musician and horseman Tim Curtain, the award-winning show offers a glimpse into horse training and work demonstrations with weaving live music performances and tales of the outback.
Katherine Outback Experience (Image Tourism NT)
The half-moon, three-row grandstand is packed with captivated patrons. We get introduced to horses Aari, Siesta and Rhapsody, with Mr Curtain telling the crowd, "We make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy", as we watch these young horses yield to Mr Curtain's horse pre-school commands.
The hoof-trotters were soon joined by other four-leggers entering the arena. Working dogs jumped onto the horses' backs, an amusing 4x4. Gimmickier is seeing goats hopping from tyres to do the same. Talk about unusual sightings. The unpolished show is a perfect watch, witnessing the different personalities of horses and dogs and how that can translate to us humans: learning, trying, failing, and pulling yourself back up to do it all over again.
Falling for Leliyn
A detour was necessary en route to Darwin. Leilyn Falls, also known as Edith Falls, is 60km north of Katherine. An enormous natural pool is at the bottom of the falls, an effortless way to enjoy a refreshingly cool dip and appreciate the natural beauty of the area. A cafe fringes the car park just 100m from the pool, making spending a lazy day here even more enticing.
But for a strenuous workout, we opt to do part of the 2.6km-loop Leliyn Trail that meanders through the escarpment, pools, and waterfalls. It is less cumbersome to start and return to the car park instead of completing the entire loop, with the upper falls taking less than 30 minutes by foot.
The trail involves climbing stairs and following the walking track across rocky terrain in quick succession. Uncomfortable sweat is hardly tolerated with soon arriving at the pool absent of crowds. This isn't the first time we get to have an oasis in the rough all to ourselves. What an easy reward. And that's the thing about Katherine; it's always a lucky dip wherever you go.
Nitmiluk National Park requires a park pass to enter. A Park Pass permits you to visit parks and reserves managed by the NT Government.
Day pass: $10 per adult, $25 per family
Two week pass: $30 per adult, $75 per family
P: 08 8971 0491
P: 1300 818 612
Nitmiluk Gorge Campground (Including Nabilil Dreaming Sunset Dinner Tour and Cutta Cutta Caves)
P: 08 8971 0064
P: 0414 888 786
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