RV travel: Katherine, NT
There is plenty to see and do in and around Katherine, NT, but you need to know where to look.
ONE OF THE things you notice when you visit many Australian towns is that it’s usually easy to find the main tourist attractions, often scattered along the main street. But the NT town of Katherine, about 300km south of Darwin, isn’t like that at all. The ‘main’ street that runs through the centre of the town is actually the Stuart Highway.
The street is nice enough, with wide lanes and a leafy pedestrian island down the middle. It looks lusher than you might expect for an outback town, but there is hardly a tourist attraction or historic building in sight. You could be tempted to just drive straight through.
But that would be a big mistake. There are some spectacular sights in and around Katherine – you just have to look for them.
If you are approaching Katherine from the south, don’t miss stopping off at Cutta Cutta Caves Nature Park. This 1500ha park is located about 30km south-east of Katherine on the Stuart Highway. It has a visitor information centre and an easy 625m tropical woodland walk, with signs giving information about the local flora and fauna.
The park is scattered with many tall, dark grey stones which stick up eerily from the ground, giving it the appearance of a lunar landscape. These examples of Tindal limestone are amazingly old. They were formed during the Cambrian era, more than 500-million years ago, when most of Australia was under the sea.
But the park’s real claim to fame is its caves. At ‘only’ 20 million years of age, the caves are much younger than the Tindal limestone and are the only sub-tropical limestone caves open to the public in Australia. You can only see Cutta Cutta Cave on a guided tour, but they are well worth a visit. The walk to the cave entrance goes past more of the Tindal limestone pillars, and the guide imparts a lot of interesting information.
‘Cutta’ is the Aboriginal word for star, and Cutta Cutta means ‘many stars’. The name comes from the way light reflects off the rock formations inside the cave, glistening like stars. The formations are similar to those in southern caves, with beautiful stalagmites, stalactites and flowstones. But unlike in southern caves, it’s surprisingly warm and humid inside Cutta Cutta Cave. A thermal pool at the back of the cave provides a unique environment for a rare 4mm-long species of blind shrimp.
There is a very different natural wonder about 30km north-east of Katherine at Nitmiluk National Park. The park is named after the Rainbow Serpent (Nitmiluk) because the Katherine River winds its way through the park in the shape of a serpent. The river has carved out Nitmiluk Gorge (also known as Katherine Gorge), with sheer rock faces rising to 70m above the river level.
The park is owned and operated by the Jawoyn people, who have done a spectacular job of providing informative boat tours along the gorge. There are 13 separate gorges and you can take tours of different lengths, depending on your interests (and budget). We took the two-gorge tour and can thoroughly recommend it. The scenery is spectacular and the commentary by the indigenous guide was entertaining and memorable.
There are also some interesting walk trails from the information centre. We did the short Baruwei walk, which goes up the side of the gorge to a scenic lookout. The walk is only 1km, but is fairly tough going on the steeper section. But the effort is worthwhile when you see the expansive views across the river and surrounding landscape.
Katherine isn’t just a place to enjoy natural wonders; the town also has an interesting past. Katherine Museum is the best place to learn more about the town’s history and some of the colourful characters who have been associated with the area. The museum is located about 3km out of town in the old airport, which was closed in 1975.
The old terminal building now houses historical displays, and you can still see a stretch of the original runway which was bombed by the Japanese in WWII. There are also several old galvanised iron buildings full of interesting historical memorabilia. One contains telecommunications equipment and has displays about the construction of the Overland Telegraph, which was completed in 1872, linking Adelaide to Darwin, more than 3000km away.
Another shed contains a vintage Gypsy Moth biplane which was flown in the ’30s by Clyde Fenton, the original flying doctor. Another shed is home to an old pioneering era kitchen, a Furphy water cart and even a homemade planetarium on wheels, largely made out of sardine tins. There are also displays featuring early explorers such as Sabu Peter Sing, the local Chinese-Aboriginal stockman who became a legend in his own lifetime.
This is one of the great little museums of Australia, so don’t hurry over it. There is enough interesting material to keep you busy for hours.
When you have looked at everything scattered around the outside of Katherine, it is time to explore the town itself. The long main street has a variety of shops, supermarkets and cafés. At the southern end of the street sits a statue of Sabu Peter Sing riding his horse. It is a memorial dedicated to the men and women of the outback. The tourist information office is nearby.
There are also some historical plaques set in the footpath along the main street, and one street away you can see the old railway station and a steam locomotive painted with Aboriginal designs.
The town is located on the southern bank of the Katherine River, though you don’t immediately notice it since the river runs along a deep gorge. There are two bridges; the main one is the High Level Bridge, which you drive across as you head north-west for Darwin. This bridge takes its name from the fact the roadway is about 20m above the normal water level.
The older Low Level Bridge, which sits just a few metres above the water level, is about 4km south.
People swim in the river near this bridge, seemingly unconcerned by the crocodile warning signs. Another popular swimming spot is Katherine Thermal Springs on Riverbank Drive, between the two bridges.
Somewhat appropriately in a town where most things are well away from the centre, we stayed about 5km north of Katherine at the Shady Lane Tourist Park. This Top Tourist Park member is located on Gorge Road, so you can easily head north to Nitmiluk National Park or south to Katherine Museum and the town centre.
The park is set back off the road away from traffic noise, making it a very quiet place in which to stay. There are plenty of shady palm trees, giving the park a lush tropical appearance. We liked the fact that there were plenty of birds and marsupials in and around the campground, including timid little wallaroos and unusual blue-winged kookaburras.
The park has powered sites and a range of cabins. There are all the facilities that you would expect, including clean shower blocks, camp kitchen, free gas barbecues and a swimming pool. The resident owners, Philip and Marianne Bates, are very friendly and provide invaluable help with booking Nitmiluk Gorge tours.
Katherine is about 300km south-east of Darwin on the Stuart Highway. Shady Lane Tourist Park is a member of Top Tourist Parks and is rated at four stars. It is located at 257 Gorge Road, about 5km north of Katherine. For more information, phone (08) 8971 0491 or visit the website www.shadylanetouristpark.com.au
Cutta Cutta Caves Nature Park is 30km south-east of the town. There is a sealed 1km road from the Stuart Highway to the car park and visitor centre. The park is open daily from 8.30am – 4.30pm, though the caves may be closed in the Wet. Park entry is free, but there is a fee for cave tours. For more information, phone (08) 8972 2650 or visit www.nretas.nt.gov.au/national-parks-and-reserves/parks/find/cuttacuttacaves
Nitmiluk National Park is on Gorge Road, about 30km north-east of Katherine on a sealed road. The visitor centre is open daily from 7am – 6pm between April and November. Park entry is free, but there are fees for tours. For more information call 1300 146 743 or visit www.nitmiluktours.com.au
Katherine Museum is about 3km north of Katherine on Gorge Road and is open daily from 9am – 4pm, except Christmas Day. Fees apply. For more information call (08) 8972 3945 or visit www.katherinemuseum.com
WORDS AND PICS Susan and Keith Hall
Source: Caravan World May 2012