Keep River National Park, NT

By: Ali Millar, Photography by: Glenn Wardle


Keep River may fly under the radar, but it’s a gem of a national park that has no trouble catching you in its spell and keeping you there

Parched landscape on the short walk back from Gingers Hill.jpg

Keep River is one of my favourite Northern Territory national parks. There’s just something special about this place — it could be the peaceful bush campgrounds, the awe-inspiring views across the parched landscape towards the Kimberley, or the fantastic variety of walking tracks that meander across the ever-changing stone country. Or perhaps it’s the combination of all this, along with the feeling of being miles from anywhere that makes Keep River so appealing?

Located off the Victoria Highway, just a few kilometres east of the Western Australia border, Keep River is the perfect stop-off for 'vanners en route for offroad adventures in the Kimberley.

The hot tip? This place deserves more than just an overnighter — it’s worthy of taking the time to explore properly.

Creek bed and Temple - Temple Gorge.jpg

THE DUSTY DRY

It was late August — past the peak of touring season for this region and appropriately hot, dry and dusty. Having heard whispers from fellow travellers about the stunning Purnululu-esque landscapes of this area, we’d decided to postpone our trip along the Gibb River Road and spend a few days exploring Keep River first. We ended up staying a week.

Keep River is on the traditional lands of the Miriwoong and Garjirrabeng people, and evidence of their long occupation can be seen at a couple of sites in the park, including a curious stone structure on the hill near the entry. Upon arrival, stop at the visitor centre and check out the range of Indigenous artwork and interpretive displays that provide insight into the history of the land and the current day park.

Just behind the visitor centre is the unlikely Cockatoo Lagoon. I say unlikely only because at this point in the dry season the region closely resembled a dustbowl, so to find a lagoon, complete with birds wading and water lilies blooming, was an unexpected delight. While the water levels of the lagoon apparently vary dramatically throughout the seasons, this waterhole rarely dries completely so is a magnet for a huge variety of birds — from parrots and finches to brolgas and black-necked storks. If bird watching is your thing, this is a very good place to bring out the binoculars.

Campfire cooking at Jarnem Camp.jpg

KEEPING CAMP

There are two campgrounds at Keep River and both make good bases for exploring, with excellent walking tracks right on their doorsteps.

Before arriving, we decided the Jarnem Campground would be our destination of choice, for the simple fact it has tank water on site (although we weren’t relying on this to be flowing) and generators are not allowed. Two big pluses in my book! Despite it being quiet on the roads, we were expecting a few people to be about, but arrived to find a totally empty campground at the end of the 32km of corrugated dirt road from the Park’s main entrance.

The second is the Goorrandalng Campground, 18km from the highway and accessed via a sandy creek crossing. Both campgrounds offer basic facilities for a very reasonable $3.30 per adult, per night — including well-maintained drop toilets, picnic tables and fire pits.
We set up camp among the shady trees as the late afternoon sun lit up the surrounding hills. Once you’ve found your groove here it’s very easy to wile away the hours in this peaceful setting, reading under the awning or watching the blue-winged kookaburras go about their business as the landscape changes in the shifting light.

The start of the Goorrandalng walk - and the views just keep getting better.jpg

WALK ON THE WILD SIDE

After you’ve adjusted to the slow pace of life that’s required of you here, Keep River’s beauty is best explored on foot. It’s worth checking out each of the tracks, as they’re all very different. Walking is best done in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the heat in the middle of the day.

A 7km loop track leaves from the Jarnem Campground, with the option of doing it as two shorter walks to the key sites if the full loop isn’t for you. The track takes a sandy path along the base of the hills before winding around behind them and up to the lookout. From here, you get a great vantage across the scrubby plains to the east and the sandstone massifs of the Kimberley to the west. It’s also a great spot to view the impressive striped sandstone beehive domes ­— the ones I’d heard likened to that of Purnululu. No questions, this is a view that doesn’t disappoint.

The colours of this vast landscape are even more magnificent at sunrise and sunset, although walking back to camp in the dark wasn’t so enjoyable and sadly involved dodging huge numbers of cane toads. If you think you might get caught up watching the dying rays of light, just don’t forget to take your head torch.

From the lookout, you can return on the same path to camp or continue on the loop track down off the hill, through groves of pandanus to the Miriwoong art sites at Nigli Gap, following the line of tall sandstone that juts abruptly out of the soil.

Shady cave offering vast views on the Goorrandalng circuit.jpg

At Goorrandalng Campground, a 2km loop takes you through a different but no less dramatic landscape of towering conglomerate sandstone domes. You feel dwarfed beside these monoliths as you amble among the sandstone and spinifex, and while it may only be a short walk, it certainly packs a lot of punch.

If you’ve still got energy to burn, the Jenemoom Walk provides a fascinating insight into the history of this area. This 3km track takes you among the bulging boabs and yellow kapok flowers, and follows the bed of the Keep River — just a few shallow pools at this time of year — to a site once used as a wet season shelter by the Miriwoong people. Standing under this shelter on a midden built up over thousands of years of use, you really do feel a world away.

Returning to camp after a day of exploring in the heat, you’ll relish an ice-cold drink from the fridge and a front row seat to the display of colour – the rock faces glowing orange and red in the afternoon light – as you discuss whether you might just stay one more day…

FAST FACTS

  • Access to Keep River National Park is just 3km east of the NT/WA border on the Victoria Highway.
  • Keep River National Park may close during the wet season (November to April) as roads are subject to flooding. All roads are unsealed and can be dusty and corrugated, although conditions will vary throughout the season. Check conditions at https://nt.gov.au/leisure/parks-reserves/check-park-open-katherine
  • Saltwater crocodiles are present in waterways throughout the park, so be crocwise and steer clear – swimming is not an option.
  • Keep River has limited facilities for campers, including basic campgrounds, toilets, picnic tables, fire pits and some drinking water. All rubbish must be taken with you when you leave.

The full feature appeared in Caravan World #579. Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month!