Unfortunately, there is always one person in every holiday group who seems determined to annoy as many people as possible, and at breakfast today she decided to join me at my table. This lady - we'll call her Betty - must be in her late 50s and seems to think that she's done pretty well for herself over the years and should share all her knowledge with everyone, whether they want to know or not. So over my cereal this morning I found myself being subjected to a lecture on the art of filling in tax returns, and she would've got much further in her attempt to tell me how she'd gone to England as a young woman and made her fortune if I hadn't suddenly remembered something important I had to be doing elsewhere.
According to the literature at the hotel, Katharine Gorge boasts facilities for hiking, boating, canoeing and scenic flights along the Katherine River. As our time in the area was limited, AAT Kings had arranged a boat cruise for us which would allow us to see the gorge and also get to do some limited hiking within Nitmiluk National Park, home to the indigenous Jawoyn Aborigines (1) to whom it is a major cultural site. At the moment, the Katherine River is pretty tranquil and the cruise was relaxing, but it isn't always that way - much of the "top end" of Australia is prone to flooding from Cyclones and rising river levels, and in the wet season it really is pretty much touch and go whether any of the attractions and parks will be able to open from one day to the next. The last major flood in Katherine was in 1998 when the Katherine River rose twenty-three meters and flooded the town and surrounding areas, causing mass evacuations and the region to be designated as a national disaster zone (2)
The cruise turned out to be about thirty of us crammed into what didn't amount to much more than a large raft with seats, but we didn't mind because Katherine Gorge can't be described as anything less than incredible. In fact I honestly don't think I could come up with a word to describe the intensity of the scenery as you sail along the river between towering rock walls seventy metres high, the silence only broken by the clicking of camera shutters and the screeches of birds. It's difficult in Europe to go anywhere where there is no sound of traffic to distract you - but here in Katherine Gorge, you really can forget that such things exist. Surrounded by rock faces, banks of grass and with birds wheeling overhead, it doesn't seem such a stretch to imagine that you've travelled millions of years back in time and that up ahead there'll be a brontosaurus wading across the river.
Although the gorge is around twelve kilometres long, there are areas of the river which are full of rapids and dangerous to pass unless you're in a canoe. The boatman tethered us to the shore just before we disappeared over the edge of a mini waterfall and those of us who felt up to it got out for a leisurely scramble across loose sandstone and through narrow gaps in the rock walls. Striding off ahead as though expecting us all to be Olympic athletes, our guide obviously took his job very seriously and seemed very excited to have us following him around - occasionally he would seem to vanish altogether, and just when some of us were starting to wonder how to get back without him his head would pop out of a hole in the rock face and he'd call out excitedly "Come on, come on, this way. Nearly there" as though somehow whatever we were going to see would run away if we didn't get a move on.
Eventually, we reached a point at the base of the gorge, obviously inaccessible by boat, where the rock face was literally covered in Aboriginal paintings - clearly, this area has been a significant place to the Jawoyn for a long time, because it seems that these works of art run the entire length of the gorge and tell numerous stories of Aboriginal history in the area. I had not been expecting to see so many paintings in one place, and to be able to make them out so clearly - in some places, the rocks are so well protected from the elements that the paintings look almost untouched since they were originally created.
Back on the boat, we headed back downstream for a bit before being ushered off again for another walk, this time with a stern warning that this one was a bit more strenuous and that some of the older members of the group may wish to remain on the boat. The rest of us happily scrambled through tree-lined walkways, dangled precariously over the rapids on narrow rope-bridges and generally cut ourselves to shreds until we finally emerged into a clearing in which a quite spectacular waterfall cascaded into a crystal clear lake. Miss know-it-all from breakfast this morning was so surprised that she tripped over a rock and we got to watch her expensive new camera arc through the air in slow motion and land with a satisfying plop in the middle of the pool, which would've been much more pleasing if we hadn't been distracted by the guide plonking a big blue box down on the floor and cracking it open to reveal drinks and sandwiches. Mind you, she did manage to lock herself in the toilet on the way back to the dock on the boat, so we all had a good laugh then instead. Those of us who had come prepared stripped down to our trunks and dived in (to the pool, not the toilet!). Oh, it was bliss - I couldn't wait to see the faces on the people back at the boat when we told them that we'd been swimming under a waterfall and sitting by the pool eating sandwiches while they sat and waited for us to return.
My only regret about today has been that we have to stay in a hotel tonight. Nitmiluk provides perfectly good camping facilities, and I would've been quite happy to sleep under the stars surrounded by Aboriginal paintings and the sound of the river. Maybe next time.
(1) In the Jawoyn language, Nitmiluk means "the place of Cicada dreaming"
(2) In April 2006, the Katharine River once again rose to around twenty meters and flooded the town with very little warning. Homes were once again filled with water and millions of dollars worth of damage was done. A state of emergency was declared in the area, but this time little damage was done to the structure of the houses themselves and the town quickly got back to normal. Needless to say, Home Insurance is at a premium in this part of the world.
About Simon and Burfords Travels:
Simon Burford is a UK based travel writer. He will be re-publishing his travel blogs, chapters from his books and other miscellaneous rantings on these pages over the coming weeks and months, and the entry on this page may not necessarily reflect todays date.