I like to ask Australian friends what their favourite place in Australia is. It often brings up uncommon names to grow the to-do list ideas. Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park was mentioned a few times. This was more than enough to be added to my bucket list. We organised a new trip to Darwin to go back to the Top End of Australia to check out this scenic area.
You’ll need at least two days to explore Nitmiluk National Park.
As it takes 3 and a half hours to drive there from Darwin, it can be done over a weekend. But with Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks nearby, you may want to spend more time in the region. There are tours from Darwin organising a visit in only one day for those who don’t have time (click here for more info*). If you don’t have more time, it’s worth doing. But if you can spend more than one day, don’t hesitate.
We spent three days in Nitmiluk National Park:
- 1/2 day to drive down there
- 1/2 day at Edith Falls
- Two days at Katherine Gorge (overnight canoeing trip)
The dry and wet seasons in Nitmiluk National Park
When planning your trip, keep in mind there is a wet season and a dry season in the Top End of Australia. The season will highly affect your itinerary and activities.
Travelling to Nitmiluk National Park during the wet season is great to avoid the crowd and to get the most spectacular waterfalls. But it has significant drawbacks. First, you will face road closures because of the flood. Second, the temperature and humidity are hard to support. You’ll have to pass on some activities restricted in summer (swimming, hiking). Others (canoeing, boating) depend on the weather, which is unpredictable at that season. Travel planning is difficult!
My two trips to the Top End were during the dry season. The sky is blue every day, and the temperatures are cooler. Now that I have seen it during the dry season, I would happily go back during the wet season. I’d love to take a scenic flight: the crazy power of the falls is something I’d like to see!
Edith Falls / Leliyn
Edith Falls was our first stop in Nitmiluk National Park.
The pool at the bottom of the falls is only a few minutes away from the car park. We had lunch there, and it was surprisingly calm. It was a nice break, but I was far from being overwhelmed. The best was coming: the hike to the upper pools. We passed through a stunning lookout to reach one of the most beautiful cascades I have swum into. It would be a big miss not to walk up there and only to stay at the bottom. Although there were quite a few people already enjoying the reward of the fresh cascades after the hike, it is big enough for everyone. The experience was much better than in Litchfield National Park major attractions.
We had a fantastic time up there, before reaching Katherine Gorge at the end of the day.
With only three days in the National Park, we obviously drove to Katherine from Edith Falls. But Leliyn / Edith Falls can also be reached at the end of the Jatbula Trail walking track – a 58km hike starting at Katherine Gorge. It seems to be a great hike. Overnight walking spots are limited, rewarding the hikers with access to unspoilt wild areas during their 4 to 5 days expedition.
We went at the peak of the season, and I was surprised to see how much tourism is developed there despite the remoteness. The gorge can be enjoyed by anyone, no matter the level of fitness, as a large panel of activities is available during the dry season:
Hiking options are diverse to please almost anyone too. You can pick a short half an hour hike up to a great lookout, longer day walks, overnight hikes or the longer 5-day hike to Edith Falls I mentioned earlier.
I read canoeing was the best way to see the gorge and that the overnight adventure was hard but rewarding. With our taste for efforts and adventure, we picked the overnight canoe option. I believe both statements are true. There are nine gorges to explore in total in Katherine Gorge, and the furthest you go, the more unspoilt and scenic it gets. But the more you have to carry your canoe between the sections of the gorge.
Boats are limited to the first two gorges.
Canoeing in Katherine Gorge
Crocodiles in Katherine Gorge
Crocodiles inhabit Katherine Gorge but still, they consider canoeing is safe if we follow the rules and are crocwise. They do look for salt-water crocodiles and can close some areas for swimming in case they have doubt that one might be around. Salt-water crocodiles don’t go up to far in the river, but it is likely to meet a fresh-water crocodile during a visit to Katherine Gorge.
These are much smaller and only eat fish – not humans nor big animals. The access to most of the sandbanks was restricted on the first two gorges during our visit as the crocodiles were nesting there. We asked for advice to react well if we spotted a crocodile (which we did!) and the rules were not as hard as we expected: enjoy, take photos but don’t go too close.
As we both see Australia as a “safety first” destination, we trusted this advice and were excited to have an attentive look at every log breaching out of the water with the hope to spot a crocodile.
Options to hire a canoe
There are three options to explore Katherine Gorge on a canoe; booking is highly recommended:
- Half a day: I would not recommend this option as you would only have time to see the start of the gorge and miss their real beauty. If you don’t have more time to spend there, maybe opt for a boat tour and a scenic flight.
- Full day: this is the best option for most people. You will be able to go up to the end of the 3rd gorge, enjoying fantastic views of the canyon. If you paddle fast enough, you should have time to stop for lunch at Lili Ponds in the third section of the gorge. It is only a short hike from the river to a small fall in a pond. You can also have a look at the Aboriginal Arts between the first and the second gorge.
- Overnight: I loved the experience, but this is not for everyone. You will need to be very fit and up for a lot of efforts.
Indeed, the gorges are separated by rock bars. This is not an issue at all when you rent the canoe for one day: you can leave your canoe at the end of the first gorge and grab another one at the start of the second gorge. The rock bar is small to reach the third gorge, so you would only need to carry the canoes on a few metres.
Overnight canoeing trip
From the end of the third section of the gorge, it gets A LOT harder. Paddling has never been hard during our journey; the challenge was always the portage. The canoe itself is heavy – about 40 kg – to which we added drinking water, food and camping equipment for the two days. It is easy to imagine that carrying all this through slippery rocks in the heat is challenging! You really have to like challenges and efforts to enjoy this kind of holidays. We do, and we had a blast!
What about you, how have you explored Nitmiluk National Park? Leave a comment below!
Where is Nitmiluk National Park?
It takes about 3.5 hours to drive to Nitmiluk National Park from Darwin, in the Top End (North of Northern Territory) of Australia.
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