Katherine Heritage, Nature and Outdoors
Last updated 22/04/2013
Gorge Road, opposite the hospital
The Katherine Museum is located at the original Katherine aerodrome and provides heaps of information about the history of Katherine and the region, especially about early exploration, the cattle industry, the railway, the telegraph line, WW2, the early days of the air transport in Australia and peanut farming. A few famous explorers have been through the Katherine region – Alfred Giles, Augustus Gregory, John McDouall Stuart and Ludwig Leichhardt are the most known.
Clyde Fenton is a famous doctor and pilot who flew around the top end of the Australia in the 1930′s providing health services to those in the outback. His first aircraft is on display at the museum – a De Havilland Gypsy Moth.
There’s some information and a video to be watched about the 1998 floods that devastated Katherine. The water level was a meter or two above where I am sitting right now writing this article in our house. Really catastrophic floods, the worst on record, so substantial that the locals talk about it in a similar vein to your grandad’s “back in WW2” type story. There’s also a video about John McDouall Stuart’s expeditions attempting to cross Australia from south to north and the associated construction of the telegraph line over the route that Stuart forged.
Drinks can be purchased from the museum. Entry is $7.50 per person, open every day except some public holidays.
Top Didj Cultural Experience and Art Gallery
Corner of Gorge Road and Jaensch Road
Providing Aboriginal cultural experiences and an Aboriginal art gallery. We never got a chance to go, as by the time we tried to book during the build up to the wet season numbers were already too low to proceed with a tour.
There’s paintballing in Katherine! I’ve never done it in Katherine but I have been paintballing elsewhere – be prepared for some serious fun, and serious bruises. Check out their website:
Gecko Canoeing and Tecking
If you want a first class canoeing or trecking expedition where someone else does all the hard work, then give these guys a go. They’re doing something unique compared to the standard Katherine Gorge boat and canoe cruise. I haven’t been on one of their tours myself but have heard good things. Of course getting someone else to do all the hard work comes at a cost. Check out their website:
Originally built as an officer’s mess during WW2 in 1942, O’Keeffe house is a typical example of a bush home constructed from timber and iron, with glassless flywire windows. It is named after Olive O’Keeffe, a popular resident of Katherine and nurse who served in the region and flew with Clive Fenton in the 1930s on the first flying doctor service. It’s open to the public and there’s heaps of information on display about the history of the area, so if you’re into that sort of thing then allocate an hour or two. The house is surrounded by lush gardens and lawn areas where you can relax and enjoy the peaceful setting. Tea and scones are available for purchase and entry is a gold coin donation. Open for dry season only, Monday to Friday.
Katherine Gorge, Nitmiluk National Park
End of Gorge Road, 29km from Katherine
This is Katherine’s main tourist attraction, and a little beauty it is. Katherine Gorge is a series of spectacular gorges carved into the sandstone rock by the Katherine River. A well developed tourist attraction, the facilities are good and the activity options are numerous. There’s canoeing, fishing, walking, picnicing, organized tours, boat cruises, helicopter rides, a modern well appointed visitor centre, a café and a caravan park with accommodation ranging from camping to self contained chalets. The only place to camp is the caravan park, apart from the small bush camping area for overnight canoers a few gorges up from the main gorge (access only by canoe).
Only 4 hours away from Darwin by car, Katherine Gorge is an easy day’s drive from the territory capital. Bus services are also available. From Katherine it’s under 30km drive up Gorge Road.
The gorge is beautiful. Deep, clear, fresh water running through an impressive series of gorges. Aboriginal rock art can be seen on some parts of the gorge. The water upstream of the main access area is checked for crocodiles and is safe for swimming when opened by the park rangers, which is during most of the dry season.
Canoeing is the best way to experience the gorge. It’s such a tranquil, peaceful, silent way to travel up the beautiful Katherine River and through the impressive series of gorges. You can hire canoes for a half day, full day or overnight if you want to camp by the river. A full day is a good option if you want to see most of the gorges. It gives you time to take it in and see it all. You can also stop off at any point along the river, relax on your own little private beach and go for a swim. Some areas are signposted off limits due to them being crocodile breeding areas (I’m assuming fresh water crocodiles?). You can also bring your own canoe for a small access fee.
If canoeing isn’t your thing then a boat tour is the way to go. Plenty of options available. A guide will explain various features of the gorges as you float through.
If you’re a visitor to the Northern Territory, make sure you experience Katherine Gorge. And if you’re a local, make sure you do the same!
Edith Falls, Nitmiluk National Park
Off Stuart Hwy, 40km north of Katherine on eastern side
Edith Falls are brilliant. The Edith River flows strong even at the end of the dry season and empties into a beautiful, picturesque, cool, deep pool that’s perfect for swimming. The falls and camping area are not directly accessible from Katherine Gorge, unless you complete the 60km Jatbula Walking Trail. They are accessed from Stuart Hwy 40km north of Katherine. The camp grounds are one of the best, with good access on a bitumen road off Stuart Hwy, green grassed areas, kiosk selling food and drink, laundry, gas bbqs, hot showers, flushing toilets, drinking water, lighting, picnic tables, and are situated right near the lower pool of Edith Falls. Bit pricey for national park standards at $9 per person per night, but you get good facilities for the money, better than some caravan parks. Only let down is that there are no fires allowed.
Obviously the main thing to do is experience the natural beauty of the falls and swim in the main pool at the base. Even at the height of the build up to the wet season when the weather is unbearably hot, the pool at Edith Falls stays deep and cool and is an ideal spot to escape the heat. The falls cascade over a series of levels that aren’t visible from the lower level. A series of beautiful pools exist on the other levels which can be accessed by walking trails running up the escarpment from the main camping area. A variety of options are available for walking. The upper pools are reached via the 2.6km Leliyn Loop Trail. You can complete the loop or go up and back down the shorter segment of the loop which is about 2km return. The track is well formed and pretty easy, apart from the initial steep section up the escarpment. A longer walk to Sweetwater Pool is also available. It’s 8.6km return and follows the Edith River along the high country above the falls. Similarly most of the walk is pretty easy, but there are a couple of spots where you’re scrambling over some boulders. This walk is the final segment of the Jatbula Trail, a 60km long distance walking trail running from Katherine Gorge to Edith Falls. Sweetwater Pool is the final campsite on the Jatbula Trail, with some cleared areas for setting up camp and a long drop toilet. Of course you’re right on a beautiful rock pool of the Edith River, good for swimming and replenishing your water supplies.
Like Katherine Gorge, Edith Falls are a “must see” of the Katherine region. Make sure you check it out when travelling through the area.
Katherine Hot Springs
Towards the southern end of Riverbank drive are the Katherine Hot Springs, located behind Riverview Tourist Village on Victoria Highway. A series of connected pools fed continuously with pure spring water at around 30 degrees C make it a perfect spot for a dip. There are concrete stairs and hand rails that make entry into the pool easy, as well as a ramp designed for the disabled. It’s a really beautiful spot that shouldn’t be missed when you pass through Katherine. The best time to go is in the mornings when the water hasn’t been stirred up by lots of swimmers. It gets a bit murky when it’s busy. When it’s not busy the water is perfectly clear. At the top on Riverbank drive there’s a small lawn area with picnic tables, gas bbqs and toilets. Camping is not permitted, but I always see vans parked up at night. Must be doing some night swimming. Sometimes they are asked to move on by the ranger. During the wet season the springs can be closed due to flooding.
Lower Level Recreation Area
The lower level recreation area is adjacent to the lower level bridge – the original road bridge for crossing the Katherine River on the Stuart Hwy. There are public toilets, picnic tables, gas barbeques and grassed areas. Good spot for a picnic or to read a book and enjoy the natural environment around the river. There are stairs and ramps that descend from the car park to the sandy bank on the shores of the river. A little beach 300km inland where you can relax and enjoy the outdoors. During the dry season when the water is clear and shallow, locals swim just downstream of the bridge. Crocodile risk is low at that time, but I’m not game enough to take the plunge myself. The current can be strong so take care, I’ve heard that there have been drownings in the area. Also good for fishing (see Katherine fishing page).
Katherine River Bike Ride
There’s a good bike ride on a well formed sealed bike path around the Katherine River. It follows Riverbank Drive on the southern side, crosses the Katherine River at the lower level crossing, then heads back up the other side of the river and then across the old railway bridge and back into town. A nice loop through some pleasant natural surroundings and interesting bridge crossings over the Katherine River. There’s an old grave along the track with an information plaque. When you hit the road to the lower level bridge it isn’t clear where to go. Head down hill, cross the low level bridge, then look for the bike track on the same side of the road that you entered from. On the northern side it’s hard to see the bike track – it’s hidden in a small dirt parking area opposite the main low level parking area. The loop is roughly 10km in total and took me about 50 mins to ride, including a couple of short stops on the way. Go early in the morning and you’ll see heaps of wallabies jumping around. A shorter alternative is to ride from the hot springs down to the lower level, then back the same way to the hot springs.
Katherine Railway Station Museum
Built between 1924 nand 1926 and positioned behind the main street of Katherine, near the Shell service station, is the old railway station building which is now the Katherine Railway Station Museum. There’s some information and artefacts related to the railway and WW2, and there’s an old tractor on the premises and some information about it. Entry is $2. There’s also a second hand book exchange in the building.
Katherine Markets and Ryan Park
Corner of Stuart Highway and Victoria Highway
The Katherine Markets are open every Saturday Morning. Buy some local produce and enjoy a relaxing morning walking around the beautiful green lawns at Ryan Park. Stalls are selling items including arts and crafts, icecream, frozen mango puree, fruit, vegetables, seedlings, Asian food, western food, fresh coffee, local honey, and home made cakes. From December to March the markets close up shop.
The markets are held at Ryan Park, which is a pleasant spot with or without the markets. The park has public toilets, picnic tables and gas bbqs and is within walking distance of an old locomotive on display and the old railway bridge which is open to pedestrians and cycling. From the railway bridge you get good views down Katherine River.
Off Stuart Hwy, 115km North of Katherine on western side
Umbrawarra Gorge is a beautiful little spot North of Katherine. Access is via a 22km dirt track that is not recommended for caravans. The track isn’t too rough, depending on how recently it’s been graded, but there are several descents and ascents through dry creek beds. The campsite has pit toilets, picnic tables and wood bbqs / fireplaces. Swimming is available in rock pools, and walking trails follow through the gorge. Aboriginal art can be seen at certain places along the walls of the gorge. The rock pools become pretty shallow by the end of the dry, so the best time to visit is early dry season. In the build up when it’s really hot and the water levels are at their lowest, it’s not so good because the water can be too shallow or stagnant looking to enjoy a swim. Edith falls are better at that time of year.
Douglas Hot Springs (Tjuwaliyn)
Douglas / Daly Region, 130km North of Katherine
The Douglas Hot Springs feed hot water into the Douglas River, a tributary of the well known Daly River. The springs are super hot at their source, around 50 to 60 degrees celsius. This is unusual for springs in the top end of the Northern Territory, which are usually around 30 degrees. Located around 130km north of Katherine, they can be accessed by the Douglas / Daly road scenic route on the western side of Stuart Highway. Turn into Dorat Road off Stuart Highway then onto Oolloo road. Dorat Road loops across two points on Stuart Highway – near Adelaide River and near Hayes Creek. There’s 7km of gravel road to negotiate, but it’s well maintained and ok for caravans. Butterfly Gorge is also accessed from the same gravel road, but is closed during the wet season and into the early dry season. It was still closed when we visited in June 2012.
The hot springs are pretty hot. It’s possible to overheat if you stay in the hot water too long, so take care. Head downstream from the source and find a spot that’s at a comfortable temperature. Most of the hot springs are quite shallow, but there is a deeper pool near the source where you can fully submerge in the hot water if you can tolerate the very high temperature. The hot water mixes randomly with the cold water coming from the Douglas River. You can literally have one foot cooking in hot water and the other freezing in cold water as the different temperature waters swirl together. There’s potential to explore the Douglas river both downstream and upstream of the springs. The water is shallow and easy to navigate, apart from the fallen logs and debris that need to be overcome.
The camping area is right near the hot springs and offers plenty of roomy sites and some facilities. There’s wood fired barbeques and pit toilets.
Douglas / Daly Region, 160km north of Katherine
Robin falls is a beautiful waterfall and camping area in the Douglas / Daly region north of Katherine. It’s accessed off Dorat Road, on the northern end near Adelaide River. The access road is reasonable and suitable for 2WD vehicles. It has a small camping area set right on the banks of a small clear running creek. Literally right on the bank, you risk getting your feet wet taking one step from the camp sites. No facilities except bins, and a rough walking trail with a sign made out of a polystyrene meat tray saying “Falls 300m”.
The walking track is rough, following the creek along a steep sided valley, with many big boulders in the way along the loose, rocky ground. I think the distance to the falls is more like 900m. The falls are worth the walk. They are beautiful, cascading down a few platforms, with small rock pools and crystal clear water. Nice little hidden gem.
Flora River Nature Park
Off Victoria Hwy, turnoff 90km west of Katherine
Flora River Nature Park is around 130km by road west of Katherine. The turn off is about 90km down Victoria Hwy, after which the park is accessed via around 40km of reasonable gravel road, a little rough with some creek crossings, but suitable for two wheel drives and caravans in the dry season. Facilities at the park include flushing toilets, showers and wood fired bbqs. There’s a boat ramp and winch for launching small tinnies from. The Flora river is beautiful – fringed with tropical forest and teaming with wildlife. The rumble from the Flora falls can be heard from the campsite and there’s a couple of walking trails to the falls and along the river. Barramundi fishing is popular, especially from tinnies. Land based fishing is difficult due to the dense forest. The track to the boat ramp continues for a few kms along the river to an old unmaintained camp site. The track becomes rough and overgrown towards the end. Camping fees apply – the usual few dollars per person per night. Flora River Nature Park is a great spot with good facilities, beautiful environment and good access from Katherine.
Katherine Gorge to Edith Falls
The Jatbula Trail is a long distance walking trail running from the visitor center at Katherine Falls to the Edith Falls camping area. It is only marked in one direction. Typically, 4-5 days are allowed to complete the 58km trail. The trail is not groomed, and requires pushing through some rough undulating terrain. There are 6 campsites along the trail, all with permanent water that can be used to replenish drinking water supplies and for a cooling dip. The novelty of a refreshing swim after each day’s walk makes for a unique and enjoyable long distance walking experience. Some camp sites have long drop toilets and emergency phones. Unfortunately we never got to walk the trail. The first opportunity we had was September school holidays, but by that time it’s already too hot and the track is closed due to extreme risk of heat exhaustion. There are no access points part way along the trail, so it’s not possible to do smaller segments and get picked up in a vehicle part way down. Would be good if you could do half of it, we could have done it over a long weekend. The current setup is all or nothing, unless you have access to a helicopter.
We did do the Sweetwater Pool walk from Edith Falls – it’s the final segment of the Jatbula Trail. The swim at the end of the hot, long walk was extremely satisfying. The camping area at Sweetwater Pool is simply a few clearings and a long drop toilet, similar I presume to the other camping areas on the trail. There are some flat rocks arranged for sitting.
Cutta Cutta Caves
Situated 30km south of Katherine, the Cutta Cutta caves are a limestone cave formation. There’s a short walk through the bush with some information on the local geology, wildlife and vegetation, but it needs a bit of a tidy up. Doesn’t look like any maintenance has been done in a while. The 45 minute tour of the caves is informative and interesting and the tour guide was enthusiastic and did a good job, but we thought the $17 per person was a little rough. Still it’s an interesting and beautiful cave. The cave has a gridmesh walkway for most of the way and is pretty easy to travel through. There’s a rock that looks like Mr Burns from The Simpsons emerging from the ceiling of the cave. The reception sells cool drinks. Cash only. Tours run every day except Christmas day.
Mataranka and Elsey National Park
Around 100km south of Katherine on the Stuart Highway is the small town of Mataranka, situated on the edge of Elsey National Park. The park is most famous for the thermal pools in the area. There are two accessible thermal pools – Rainbow Spring, off Homestead Road a few km south of Mataranka, and Bitter Springs, on Martin Road on the northern edge of town. Both springs feed the Roper River and maintain a constant temperature of around 32 degrees celsius. Also within the national park are relics and information from the pastoral industry that the area once supported. All roads within the park are sealed.
Rainbow Spring (the main Mataranka Thermal Springs) is accessed from Mataranka Homestead Tourist Resort, located on Homestead Road. This spring is the main attraction of Elsey National Park. A short walk through a tropical palm tree forest takes you from the parking area to the thermal springs, which have been built up with retaining walls to give it a swimming pool appearance. The pool is beautiful. Warm, clear, clean, and set among the palm trees and flying fox bats which habitat the area. The Tourist Resort offers a range of accommodation options. The facilities were pretty dirty and in a poor state when we visited. There’s a good outdoor pub at the resort. Also near the tourist resort is the Mataranka Elsey Homestead replica, which is open for inspection. The homestead was constructed for the film “We of the Never Never.”
Accessed off Martin Road on the northern edge of Mataranka, Bitter Springs are superb. Similar to Rainbow Spring, but left in a more natural state and offers a short flowing section of stream where you can float down and observe the plant and animal life. There are toilets at Bitter Springs, but no other facilities and no camping.
The Jalmurark Campgrounds in Elsey National Park are excellent. One of the best camping areas we’ve camped at. Hot showers, flushing toilets, green grassed areas, plenty of roomy sites, gas bqqs, wood bbqs, picnic tables and free fire wood. Better than some caravan parks we’ve stayed at, and at a fraction of the price. Access the camping area from John Hauser Drive, which comes off Homestead Road (the road to Rainbow Spring). Along John Hauser Drive on the way to the camping area are several day use picnic areas on the banks of the Roper River. The day use areas offer picnic tables, toilets, walking trails, swimming and access for fishing the Roper River, including a boat ramp. There’s also a boat ramp at the main camping area. Swimming in these upper levels of the Roper River is opened only late in the dry season. With the wet season comes the risk of salt water crocodiles. An 8km return walking trail runs along the banks of the Roper River from the camping area east to Mataranka Falls – a small waterfall or rapids.
The town of Mataranka itself has a few attractions. A museum, pub, and a park with some statue-like figures to look at. The pub is worth a quick drink or some food. It’s an iron clad bush style pub with an outdoor area and and airconditioned area with a few tables and pokies. Don’t get a steak sandwich though. We never went to the museum, it’s open only Monday – Friday so was closed on our visits.
Springvale Homestead is one of the oldest intact buildings in the Northern Territory, established in 1879 by Alfred Giles. Initially I thought he was the famous explorer who undertook expeditions in central Australia. No, that was Ernest Giles. Still Alfred was an important part of the early cattle industry in Australia, traversing the country several times south to north droving cattle and sheep, before settling at Springvale Homestead to work on the cattle station. He also did some of his own exploring.
The homestead is open only on weekdays, but can still be viewed from the outside on weekends. It operates as a café and reception for the adjacent caravan park. There are information plaques on display illustrating the history of the building and the area. Set on the banks of the Katherine River, it was flooded to its ceiling during the 1998 Katherine floods.
There’s a big lone Boab tree near the homestead. If you’ve never seen Boab trees it’s worth a look.
Judbarra / Gregory National Park
Gregory National Park is a huge park with heaps of 4WD tracks to explore. Being so large and a fair trek from Katherine means it’s probably a long weekend job, otherwise you’ll be driving the whole time. The eastern section of the park is around 160km from Katherine down Victoria Hwy. The western portion is a further 80km or 240km from Katherine.
As you approach Gregory National Park, you’ll notice a couple of things. One is the flat terrain and subtropical plant life changes to rugged rocky hills, bluffs, gorges and more arid flora. The other is the presence of the iconic Boab Tree. Of course you are approaching the Western Australia border and the Kimberly region, where Boabs are ubiquitous.
The eastern portion of the park has just a couple of spots to visit, all close to the Victoria highway and easily accessed in a 2WD vehicle. This is the smaller section of the park. There’s one camp ground, a picnic area and a couple of walking tracks. The campground and picnic area has long drop toilets and picnic tables.
The western portion of Gregory National Park is where the action is. Many camp sites typically situated along the banks of a river, many 4WD tracks and various historic sites, relics and information plaques related to the pastoral industry and aboriginal culture. You could spend over a week in this area if you wanted to really explore every corner and soak in the natural beauty and history.
One of the main attractions of Gregory Nataional Park is the Bullita Homestead – an old cattle station homestead in the western portion of the park displaying the history of the area’s pastoral past. The road to Bullita is a well maintained gravel road, suitable for 2WD vehicles in my opinion. It is smooth and not corrugated, and although it does traverse a few creek crossings they are not steep and most of them have concrete causeways to drive over. The Bullita homestead is well presented and has good quality information boards on display. Makes you appreciate the tough conditions experienced in such remote and isolated areas. Next to the Bullita homestead is the main camping area in this section of the park. There’s long drop toilets, picnic tables and wood fired bbqs / fire places. The camp ground is along the East Baines River where you can have a go at some barra fishing. There vegetation is pretty thick so it’s difficult to cast from the banks. A few hundred metres downstream from the campsite is the Bullita Stock Route crossing, from where it’s easy to cast, although the water level is a bit shallow during the dry.
There’s a maze of 4WD tracks and camp grounds running through the western section of Gregory National Park. The tracks are mostly pretty easy, except for steep rocky creek crossings which can be difficult and treacherous. The steep creek crossings means that although most of the time the trails are easy, a good high ground clearance 4WD is required. Many rocky sections, with sharp jagged rocks, means the tracks are fairly hard on tyres. Take care, drive slowly and make sure you have a few options in case you get a flat tyre. Take note of the suggested travel times provided by Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife. The tracks are long and slow going. Adhere to the suggested travel times if you want to look after your vehicle. There’s camping areas distributed along the 4WD tracks, usually with no facilities or just a fireplace. The camping areas are pretty dusty so be prepared. You’ll get dirty and the dust will penetrate anything that isn’t perfectly sealed. I did the Bullita Stock Route, check out the blog entry here.
There’s access to many creeks and rivers throughout Gregory National Park, which means you can go fishing. Many of the camp sites are on the banks of a river. Don’t go swimming, unless you want to be crocodile bait. Being a fair way inland, the fishing is difficult in the middle and end of the dry. The waters are generally shallow and the barra are difficult to entice. Straight after the wet would probably be a productive time. If you want to go fishing in the dry, then north of Victoria Highway is a better option.
There’s a couple of commercial accommodation options available in the Gregory National Park area at Timber Creek and Victoria River Roadhouse. Both have pretty good caravan parks. Timber Creek is a slightly larger town, with a shop, police station, a pub and a tourist information office.