“The best way to experience Katherine Gorge? Canoe and camp overnight!” I heard that many times before planning my trip to the Northern Territories that I could not imagine exploring the gorges another way. But you don’t often hear about the details of the expedition. Canoeing Katherine Gorge is fun. But if you’re thinking of hiring a canoe at Katherine Gorge for an overnight trip, be prepared.
In this article, you will learn about our experience to give you a taste and help you judge if you are up for the overnight canoe adventure in Katherine Gorge. I also added tips to help you during your expedition.
Canoeing Katherine Gorge is indeed an amazing adventure, but the overnight trip will not seduce everybody.
You may want to consider the different options to explore the gorge before booking your canoe for two days.
Depending on your expectations, the overnight canoe in Katherine Gorge can go from a bucket list item to a nightmare. If you are fit, and you like efforts, challenges and remoteness as part of your holidays, then go for it. You will love the overnight canoeing at Katherine Gorge. But if you are not the most adventurous person, you want to think about it before making a decision. I hope our experience will help you make the right choice.
Katherine Gorge: canoeing in the first two sections (day trip)
As you start your trip on the river, you will share the water with many other canoes and some motorboats. The further you go, the lesser people you will meet. None of the daily visitors will follow you to the fourth gorge, where the hard part of the adventure starts!
Canoeing the first and second gorge is easy.
Every gorge section is separated from the next one by rock bars. The good news is you can leave your canoe at the end of the first gorge and grab a new one at the start of the second one. You won’t need to carry your canoe over the rocks when you do a day trip.
Make sure you chose your canoe carefully if you’re going for an overnight Katherine Gorge canoeing trip.
We did not notice that we picked one without a handle at the front. It makes the portage impossible. Luckily, a lovely couple saw our difficulties when we had to carry the canoe between the second and the third gorge. It is supposed to be a very easy portage compared to all the others, and we were stuck there. As they were only canoeing Katherine Gorge as a day trip and didn’t need to carry their vessel, they kindly offered us to take their canoe so we could carry on our overnight expedition.
The third section of Katherine Gorge: Lili Pond and a close encounter with a crocodile
We stopped for lunch at Lili Pond and took some time to say hello to a crocodile enjoying the sun on its log before heading to the fourth section of the gorge. There are crocodiles in the river, and we are likely to meet them during a trip to Katherine Gorge.
Still, canoeing in Katherine Gorge is safe if you respect the rules not to approach them and the areas where they nest. They are freshwater crocodiles: much smaller and less dangerous than saltwater crocodiles. Indeed, they only eat fish and would not attack humans unless they feel threatened.
I believe Australia is a “safety first” country, and I know they would not put tourists at risk. Still, the feeling to see a crocodile from a canoe – even a freshy as they call them – is special as we do feel in danger. I was happy we spotted it from far away and decided to get a closer look. It would have been quite scary to realise suddenly, while happily paddling, that the log just next to us had teeth! I felt lucky to see another iconic Australian animal in the wild.
Saltwater crocodiles can also be found in the river. They carefully monitor their presence to be able to close some sections if they have doubts about one being around. The salties are a real threat as they eat humans, so it was reassuring to hear they had safety measures in place before we started our Katherine Gorge canoeing adventure!
The fourth section of Katherine Gorge (and onwards): where the struggles begin
The trip until then had been pleasant and comfortable, but it was finally time for struggles to start with the portage. It took us almost 1 hour of effort to reach the fourth gorge.
But we could taste the rewards of our achievement, and that kept us motivated all the way. Indeed, we had left all the daily visitors behind and had the gorge for ourselves.
The further we were going, the more beautiful and scenic it became.
It was rewarding to make all these efforts. Our technique to decrease the risk of injuries (and arguments!) was to take our time. We booked a campsite at the sixth gorge and had to reach it before dusk. No need to rush. It would have been more pressure if we initially chose to go to the last gorge. Anyway, if we had to speed up, we would have done that while paddling and not during the portage parts.
Our second trick was to empty the canoe and carry our equipment and food to the other side. It allowed us to identify the most strategic way to pass the rock bar when porting the canoe. During the portage, not only is the canoe heavy, but it is also bulky and unbalanced. It required excellent coordination and communication to carry it safely.
I found it quite hard to navigate Katherine Gorge in the canoe.
There is only one way so you cannot get lost making a wrong turn. But after the fourth gorge, we were not very confident about how far we were going. All our guesses were correct so we were fine but the feeling of having to guess was slightly uncomfortable. The Nitmiluk Visitor Centre only gave us a hiking map for our canoe trip.
We had to navigate from our memory of the Katherine Gorge canoe map we saw on the Internet during our trip planning. I wish we brought a copy of it! Maps are not scaled, and the description of the rock bars on the hiking map had no details. Well, hiking is at the top of the cliff so they would not need it! It makes natural navigation challenging as there can be several rock bars within the same gorge. Plus, campsites are not obvious at all – which is actually great not to pollute the views of the natural landscape.
So two pieces of advice here. 1/ Print your map. 2/ To find Smitt’s Rock: look behind you, it will be obvious!
If you stop at the first campsite at Smitt’s Rock, you can hike to the top of the cliff to get stunning views over the gorge.
Our own secluded beach at campsite 6
We finally reached our secluded beach at the sixth gorge just in time to set the camp and have dinner before the night. The campsite was empty: it was just the two of us for the night in one of the most remote places ever. We believe the other couple who was supposed to be at the campsite with us underestimated the difficulty of canoeing Katherine Gorge and turned around at the end of the third gorge.
I love remoteness, so I could not ask for something better than camping on this secluded beach in Katherine Gorge.
The sky was pure, and the moon did not even show up to reduce the brightness and abundance of stars. Although I thought it could keep me awake all night, I quickly fell asleep. All the efforts during the day wore me out!
The next day back to the start of the gorge was easier: the wind (and current maybe?) was pushing us, we remembered the best ways to pass the rock bars from the day before, and we were lighter with less food and water.
Did you go canoeing in Katherine Gorge? Share your experience in the comments below!
Where to stay in Katherine Gorge?
We camped in Katherine before our canoeing adventure. If you don’t want to camp, there are other accommodation options available. Click here to view*.
Where is Katherine Gorge?
Katherine Gorge is part of the Nitmiluk National Park, located about 3.5 hours by car from Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory.
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