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Home > Travelogues > 2009 Travelogues Index > Nitmiluk: Katherine Gorge
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On first entering the cave, it was cool, but became much warmer as we descending into the warm and steamy air.  We were descending down into hot springs, part of the same underground system that comes to the surface in Katherine. 

Twenty seven kilometres south of Katherine, Cutta Cutta is the only cave currently open to the general public in the 1,499 hectare Cutta Cutta Caves Nature Park and other karsts in this Tindal limestone belt. 

The Cutta Cutta caves were probably formed about twenty million years ago when the climate was much wetter.  The limestone layer found throughout the Katherine district was laid down under a shallow sea in the Cambrian period (590 – 505 million years ago) and marine fossils can be found in the local rocks.  

A large visitor centre taking bookings for accommodation, helicopter and boats rides and canoe hire was packed with bus loads of tourists. The big commercial caravan park was very different from the campgrounds we were used to finding in National Parks but it was still a peaceful out of town environment and an ideal situation for talking walks. 

Katherine, being the fourth largest town in the Northern Territory, offers all services and a good range of shops.  It is the gateway to the Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park; one of the must-see destinations in north of the Northern Territory.  For those heading to the Kimberley in Western Australia via the Victoria Highway, Katherine is the departure point.  Katherine was named by explorer John McDouall Stuart after the daughter of James Chambers; one of his expedition sponsors. 

 

Within the townsite, hot springs which come out of the ground at a comfortably warm 32º F and these have been made easy to access with steps, boardwalks and concrete sides to the stream.   

 

The Katherine River is subject to flooding, with the highest recorded being in January 1998 when tropical cyclone Les dumped water in the river catchment area causing the river to swell and peak at 20.4 metres, inundating the town and a surrounding area of 1,000 square kilometres.  In April 2006 there was very little warning for the flood which peaked at around 19 metres.  Again the entire town was flooded.  

 

Reluctantly leaving Mataranka, we resumed our northward journey.  Twelve kilometres north of Mataranka we were again reminded of the War effort that took place in the Northern Territory with the Sterling Mill site. 

The guided one hour tour of the cave takes visitors through 250 metres of its 750 metre length.  It may be closed during the wet season due to flooding. 

Being seasonally wet and dry, this cave is different to the wet caves we have visited in other states.  Stalactites are not as fine and delicate as in the southern latitudes.  There are very few stalagmites as the rocks are smooth and hard to the deposits to start a stalagmite.  Fig tree roots dangle from the stalactites.  Limestone caves are not common in tropical areas ofAustralia. 

To Katherine and the Nitmiluk National Park

As the late afternoon air cooled a little, we took the steep climb to the lookout over the Gorge as the boats returned down the River. We took the Baruwei woodlands walk along the escarpment as it widens away from the river.  The trail then looped back to the campground as we completed our walk in fading daylight. 

This walk also forms the first part the 39 kilometre southern walks trail, which has spur walks to reach different features along the Gorge heading upstream.  Some of the walks are quite challenging.  Taking these adds a considerable distance to the overall walk.  Overnight camping is permitted only at designated places, and walkers must register before leaving and ensure they deregister on return.  Registering for day walks is optional.  We had chosen a much easier way.   

For the more adventurous, the 58 kilometre Jatbula Trail, which links Katherine Gorge and Leliyn (Edith Falls) and can be completed over four or five days.  Bookings must be made as numbers are limited.  Book on line.

Next morning we took the boat tour through the first two gorges.  There are a total of thirteen gorges, each separated by rock barriers during the dry season.  Gorges become progressively smaller heading upstream.  Boat tours can be taken through three gorges, and each entrance involves a short walk to moored smaller boats for the next section. 

The evening boat tour with dinner served on board is a very popular cruise of the first two gorges, during which the gorge walls are lit up.  The breakfast cruise was also highly recommended.  We had neighbouring caravanners who took these tours and both parties were very enthusiastic about the range and quality of meals served.   

Canoes can be hired, or if using own canoes, registration and a small fee is required.  Power boats can only be used in the gorge outside of the months of June, July and August, and again registration is necessary.   Fishing may be undertaken by lure only – no bait. 

The first gorge is 3.2 kilometres long and eight metres deep, to thirteen metres deep during a normal wet season. 

The second gorge is 2.4 kilometres long.  During the floods of 1998, water was only fifteen metres from the tops of the cliffs in this gorge, and almost as high again in 2006. 

Jedda’s Leap rises 63 metres above the water and was used for the final seen in the movie Jedda when the lovers leap to their deaths. However this scene was not the one in the final movie as a plane crash resulted in the loss of the films taken, and in haste, the scene was reconstructed in the Blue Mountains. 

 

 

Sandstone was laid down 1,650 million years ago then 250 million years ago it was uplifted and a rift formed which now forms the river system through the gorge. 

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Every sandy beach showed evidence of Freshwater Crocodile tracks.  These are the nesting sites, with around thirteen eggs being laid per nest between July and September.  The kapok flowers indicate the time of the breeding year, with nesting time nearing when the kapok comes into bloom.  Eggs are laid as the kapok trees pod and when the pods burst to distribute their seeds, the crocodile eggs are hatching. 

The power of the river in full flow can be seen from the angle of the trees by the water’s edge.

Knotts Crossing is a former river crossing which forms a small dam on the Katherine River.  This is the site of the original township of Katherine when it was little more than an Overland Telegraph Line Repeater Station and a Hotel in the early 1970s. The crossing was named after the Knott family who were the first people to farm on the north side of the river.
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We headed around thirty kilometres north east along the Katherine River valley past Mango orchards to the Nitmiluk National Park at Katherine Gorge.  Nitmiluk means Place of the Cicada.  Nitmiluk Park encompasses 292,800 hectares, and adjoins Kakadu National Park to the north.  Nitmiluk was acquired by the Jawoyn people in 1989 under land rights and is leased to Parks NT. 

We see the sights around Katherine, including Cutta Cutta caves and take a boat ride through Katherine Gorge.  We visit Leliyn (Edith Falls) and travel on to Pine Creek and nearby Umbrawarra Gorge.

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See Where to camp along the Stuart Highway between Alice Springs and Darwin 
 
and Distances between fuel outlets on the Stuart Highway