Where the Outback meets the Tropics

Some 320 kilometres southeast of Darwin, the town of Katherine is the fourth largest in the Northern Territory, and it draws more than its fair share of visitors. There are plenty of reasons to explore – here are just a few.

WORDS Giselle Whiteaker

Katherine has a long and complex history, but it has always been a place of convergence, both socially and geographically. It was, and still is, an important meeting place for the Indigenous Australians who were the first inhabitants of the area. Traditional lands here include the Wardaman, Jawoyn and Dagoman Aboriginal land trusts, with the township being a convergence zone of these traditional lands.

Katherine is also often referred to as the “Crossroads of the Outback”, given its location as a connector between Darwin, Kakadu National Park, the Barkley region, the Gulf of Carpentaria, and the Kimberley in Western Australia. It sits at the intersection of the Savannah Way, which runs along the Victoria Highway east-west from Cairns to Broome, and the Explorer’s Way, running north-south along the Stuart Highway from Darwin to Adelaide. In folklore, a crossroad is a place where a decision needs to be made. In Katherine, the decision is what to do first.

The best-known attraction in the area is Nitmiluk Gorge, set within the 292,008-hectare Nitmiluk National Park, around 23 kilometers northeast of Katherine. For thousands of years, Nitmiluk has been the foundation of the Jawoyn people, providing an abundance of water and food and a gallery of art and artefacts. The significance of this place is clearly visible, striking a chord as you gaze upon the ancient sandstone escarpment of Nitmiluk Gorge under the glow of the afternoon sun. This geological wonder carved through ancient sandstone by the Katherine River is actually a chain of 13 gorges that snakes along for some 12 kilometres. At times, the craggy rock walls rise up more than 70 metres, providing quite the spectacle for visitors, whether on a gorge cruise, paddling, hiking or flying overhead.

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Nitmiluk is not the only awe-inspiring natural site in the area. The Cutta Cutta Caves Nature Park, 30 kilometres south of Katherine, covers 1,499 hectares of limestone landscape, featuring towering Karst formations and boulders and complex cave networks. Then there’s Low Level Nature Park, a scenic spot on the Katherine River with a swimming hole and thermal pools, Kintore Caves Nature Park, home to more caves and endangered species of cycads, and a little further afield, Elsey National Park, named after the cattle station that was the setting for Jeannie Gunn’s iconic Australian novel, We of the Never Never. It’s not only literary types that make their way here – boating and fishing enthusiasts find peace on the Rope River running through the park.

Avid hikers also catered for, heading to Katherine to tackle the five-day, 58-kilometre Jatbula Trail that winds past waterfalls, monsoon rainforest, stone country and Aboriginal rock art. The trail starts at the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre and ends at Edith Falls, where weary walkers’ efforts are rewarded with a refreshing dip in the palm-fringed plunge pool at the base of the falls. If hiking is not your thing but relaxing dips are, Katherine Hot Springs is situated on the banks of the Katherine River within the township. The bubbling natural thermal springs have an average temperature of 25-30 °C, the clear pools framed by ghost gums and lush vegetation.

It’s not all about nature, either, although that’s a huge part of the appeal. The Katherine Art Gallery has an impressive Indigenous art collection; the charming Katherine Museum, housed in a World War II air terminal, gives fascinating insight into the history of the area; and Springvale Homestead, built in 1879, is the oldest original homestead in the Northern Territory.

That’s just the beginning. Come to Katherine for the Gorge; stay for the gorgeous.

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