Exploring Katherine Gorge (Nitmiluk National Park)
Cruising the gorge in an open-sided boat is the most popular way to appreciate its beauty. Katherine Gorge is actually a series of 13 gorges, but most cruises ply only the first two, because the second gorge is the most photogenic.
Nitmiluk Tours (tel. 1300/146 743 in Australia or 08/8972 1253; www.nitmiluktours.com.au) operates all cruises. Most people take a 2-hour cultural cruise, available four times a day at 9 and 11am and 1 and 3pm. The cost is A$58 for adults and A$35 for children 5 to 15. There is also a 4-hour cruise at least once daily, although you will probably be satisfied with 2 hours. They also run breakfast, lunch, and sunset cruises. Wear sturdy shoes; because each gorge is cut off from the next by rapids, all cruises involve some walking along the bank.
Cruising is nice, but in a canoe you can discover sandy banks and waterfalls and get up close to the gorge walls, the birds, and those crocs. (Don't worry -- they're the freshwater kind and not typically regarded as dangerous to humans.) Rocks separate the gorges, so be prepared to carry your canoe quite often. You may even want to camp out on the banks overnight. A half-day canoe rental is A$44 for a single and A$66 double, with a A$20 cash deposit. Canoeing the gorge is popular, so book canoes ahead, especially in the Dry season. Canoe hire doesn't operate from December to March.
Guided paddles are a good idea, because you will learn and see more. The most knowledgeable company is Gecko Canoeing (tel. 1800/634 319 in Australia, or 08/8972 2224; www.geckocanoeing.com.au), whose tours are known for their ecotourism content. Gecko's guides have Australia's elite Savannah Guide status. They offer 3- to 6-day canoeing-camping safaris on the Katherine River. The 3-day trip costs A$780 per person and leaves on Wednesdays and Sundays. The company also runs canoeing and camping safaris (with any other activities you like, such as mountain biking, rock climbing, wildlife photography, hiking, or fishing) of up to 10 days in little-explored wildernesses and river systems across the Top End. Tours run between April and November, with departures on request, and can be tailored to your needs.
Some 100km (62 miles) of hiking trails crisscross Nitmiluk National Park, ranging in duration from 1 hour to the lookout to 5 days to Leliyn (Edith Falls). Trails -- through rocky terrain and forests, past water holes, and along the gorge -- start from the Nitmiluk National Park ranger station, in the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre, where you can pick up trail maps. Overnight walks require a refundable deposit of A$50 per person, and a A$3.30 per-person camping permit, payable at the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre.
One of the nicest spots in the park is 42km (26 miles) north of Katherine, 20km (13 miles) off the Stuart Highway: Leliyn (also known as Edith Falls) is an Eden of natural (croc-free) swimming holes bordered by red cliffs, monsoonal forest, and pandanus palms. Among the bushwalks leading from Edith Falls is a 2.6km (1.5-mile) round-trip trail, which takes about 2 hours and incorporates a dip at the upper pool en route.
More than the gorge itself, the aerial views of the ravine-ridden Arnhem Plateau, which stretches uninhabited to the horizon, are arresting. Airborne Solutions (www.airbornesolutions.com.au) has the only helipad near the Nitmiluk Gorge Visitor Centre and runs a range of scenic flights, starting from A$85 per person for an 8-minute flight over the first three gorges. Book through Nitmiluk Tours (tel. 1300/146 743)
Aboriginal Culture Tours, Hot Springs & More
On a 1-day visit to the Manyallaluk Aboriginal community (called "The Dreaming Place"), a 90-minute drive southeast from Katherine, you chat with Aborigines about how they balance traditional ways with modern living; take a short bushwalk to look for native medicines and bush tucker such as green ants; and try lighting a fire with two sticks, weaving baskets, throwing spears, painting on bark, and playing a didgeridoo. You can buy locally made Aboriginal art and artifacts at better prices than you may find elsewhere. Lunch is a barbecue featuring kangaroo tail cooked on hot coals. Don't expect this to be some kind of Aboriginal theme park; it's an unstructured experience (this is the community's home), and taking part, rather than just watching, will make it a better one.
A 1-day tour costs A$165 for adults and A$90 for children 5 to 15, A$60 per adult extra if you need transfers from Katherine. The last 35km (22 miles) of road is unsealed (unpaved), and rental cars will be insured only if they are four-wheel-drive. The tour runs Monday through Saturday from April to November, but hours may be reduced, or the place may close, in the Wet. The Manyallaluk community also has a basic camping ground with powered and unpowered sites if you want to stay longer. The cost is A$12 for adults and A$6 for children 5 to 15. Bookings are essential no matter what the time of year, because sometimes the community may be closed for cultural reasons. You can book through Nitmiluk Tours.
Mike Keighley of Far Out Adventures (tel. 0427/152 288; www.farout.com.au) runs upmarket tailor-made tours that include Manyallaluk and areas around Katherine. Meet children of the Mangarrayi Aborigines, sample bush tucker, learn a little bush medicine, and swim in a vine-clad natural "spa-pool" in the Roper River. Mike has been accepted as an honorary family member of the Mangarrayi people and is a mine of information about Aboriginal culture and the bush.
About 110km (68 miles) south of Katherine, you can soak your aches away at the Mataranka Thermal Pools. The man-made pools are fed by 93°F (34°C) spring water, which bubbles up from the earth at a rate of 16,495 liters (4,124 gal.) per minute! It's a little paradise, surrounded by palms, pandanus, and a colony of flying foxes. The pools are open 24 hours and admission is free. They are 7km (4 1/3 miles) along Homestead Road, off the Stuart Highway 1.5km (1 mile) south of Mataranka township. They make a welcome stop on the long drive from Alice Springs.
If you can't be bothered to drive to Mataranka, you can soak in the pleasantly warm Katherine Hot Springs, under shady trees 3km (2 miles) from town on Riverbank Drive. Entry is free.
At the School of the Air, Giles Street (tel. 08/8972 1833), you can sit in on an 800,000-sq.-km (312,000-sq.-mile) "classroom" as children from the Outback do their lessons by radio. Forty-five-minute tours begin on the hour at 9, 10, and 11am from mid-March to mid-November. Tours also run during school holidays and public holidays, minus the on-air classes. Admission is A$5 for adults and A$2 for school-age kids.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.