Katherine is one of the key stop-offs on the long, long road journey down Australia’s Stuart Highway – and it gives plenty of good reasons not to rush through
The few Australian towns to be christened after women rather than men – the likes of Margaret River and Alice Springs – are rarely very feminine when you actually get there.
Katherine sits as a prime example: named after the daughter of a mid-1800s pastoralist and sitting some three hours south of Darwin, it’s a largely unvarnished, true-blue Northern Territory town, not especially big but heavily endowed with Aussie character. Those making the road trip between Darwin and the Red Centre tend to pit-stop here, and there’s a surprising amount to enjoy, not least in the form of the supremely beautiful Nitmiluk Gorge.
Around 20 minutes’ drive from Katherine's town centre brings you to Nitmiluk National Park, best known for the magnificent eight-mile gorge which slices through its heart. Most visitors come during the Northern Territory’s bearably warm dry season (May-October), a time when lowered water levels mean the gorge splits into 13 separate sections, all seemingly vying to outdo each other in the aesthetic stakes.
In a canoe, even exploring the first two sub-gorges makes for a glorious adventure: you’ll be utterly dwarfed by the sandstone cliffs rearing up around you, while the sight of freshwater crocodiles (aka the non-traveller-eating kind) basking on the banks adds an only-in-Oz frisson.
Do it Down Under: Nitmiluk Tours rent single canoes for $51 (four hours) or $64 (eight hours) and double canoes for $36.50pp (four hours) or $47pp (eight hours). During Dec-March canoe hiring is not available. Overnight trips are also on offer.
The five-day, 36-mile Jatbula Trail is more than just a long-distance walk. Taking hikers along Nitmiluk National Park’s most scenic cliff-tops and chasms, it follows a path that the local Jawoyn (pronounced Jar-wen) people have been using for thousands of years.
There are ancient rock art sites en route, as well as a wildlife roster that includes wallabies, dingoes and fruit bats. It’s a pretty serious undertaking – you’ll need to carry plenty of camping equipment, not to mention water – but as a way of experiencing the park’s less-visited corners and learning more about the region’s traditional land-owners, it takes some beating.
Do it Down Under: Each day brings a walk of around 10-17km. The Jatbula Trail is a medium to hard walk, suitable for those with a reasonable level of fitness only. Further information at jatbulatrail.com.au.
Katherine itself has a handful of decent visitor attractions, among them the recently spruced-up museum, which gives insight into the area’s pioneering history. Top billing, however, goes to the Godinymayin Yijard Rivers Arts & Cultural Centre, open since 2012.
Unlike many such centres across Australia, it takes as its central tenet the celebration of “both indigenous and non-indigenous cultural expression”, making it a window onto the region as a whole rather than a spotlight on one particular social group. Exhibitions generally focus on art or photography, and the end results are impressive.
Do it Down Under: Open from Tuesday to Friday 10am to 5pm; Saturday 10am – 3pm;
Gallery opens at 10am. Further information at www.gyracc.org.au.
Given the extreme temperatures the region can experience, there are times when the idea of jumping into a hot spring might sound about as tempting as a splash in a deep-fryer. Happily, however, the pandanus-shaded thermal pools on the southern outskirts of town provide refreshing refuge year-round (or at least when water levels allow), as evidenced by the mix of locals and travellers routinely to be found in various states of undress.
The council has made the springs a pretty smart attraction these days, with seating, wooden walkways and a gravel bed to keep the waters clear. And best of all? It’s free.
Do it Down Under: Located 2km southwest of town along the Victoria Highway.
Its location along the Stuart Highway means the Katherine region has a fairly hefty supply of accommodation options, whether you’re after a caravan park or a motel room. The two most colourful options are effectively attractions in their own right, between them catering for both ends of the budget spectrum. The first is the spanking new Cicada Lodge, a Jawoyn-owned retreat causing a stir in the luxury market (and boasting its own firepit for cooking crocodile tails, no less); the second is the near-legendary Coco’s House Backpackers, a slow-paced, chooks-in-the-yard hostel with one of the NT’s best didgeridoo shops.
Do it Down Under: You can find more info about either lodge, and their quirks, here Cicada Lodge and by calling Coco’s on +618 8971 2889.
Ben Lerwill is currently exploring the Northern Territory while researching a guidebook. He travelled the area with Britz, who offer campervan hire from 11 locations across Australia with a choice of nine different vehicle types, ranging from two- to six-berths and including three types of 4WD. Prices start from A$54/day for a two-berth based on a seven-day hire.
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