Nitmiluk, meaning Cicada Place in the local Jawoyn tongue, is a place of predators and peace, grounded in an ancient country full of life and secrets. On this three-day itinerary into the Northern Territory’s heart, Nitmiluk will get under your skin – so much so that you may not wish to leave.
Day 1 – The Road to Nitmiluk
The Stuart Highway takes you south from Darwin, past the occasional tiny wildfire and enormous, rumbling road trains, through a red and green landscape en route to Katherine (3.5 hours). Break up the trip with a swim at Leliyn (Edith Falls) or tackle the Leliyn Trail.
In Katherine, browse the art galleries showcasing locally produced art that reflects the styles and influences of the Jawoyn, Warlpiri and Dagoman Aboriginal people. You can also meet artists, and see arts and crafts being produced, from boomerangs to dilly bags.
Next, take another dip in the bubbling Katherine Hot Springs (25-30C), on the banks of the Katherine River, just outside town. It’s a good spot to have a yarn to the weird and wonderful folk who pass through (or decided to stay) in Katherine, a town where everyone has a tale to tell.
Treat yourself to an Outback luxe stay at Cicada Lodge in the stunning Nitmiluk National Park, home to Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge, a 30-kilometre drive from Katherine. This eco-friendly lodge owned by the Jawoyn people has an outdoor pool, restaurant that incorporates Australian native foods, airconditioning (a plus in these parts) and room service.
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Day 2 – The Awakening
And here you are, awakening in Nitmiluk National Park to explore its 13 gorges carved from the ancient sandstone by the Katherine River. Book at the visitor centre for a range of cruises operated by Nitmiluk Tours, a wholly indigenous-owned business.
Try the four-hour, three-gorge cruise with a chance to swim in a croc-free waterhole; or the Nit Nit Dreaming cruise to visit rock art and other sites of cultural significance with an indigenous guide; or simply settle for a single-gorge breakfast or dinner cruise. From the vessel, the walls of the gorge look down on you, spinifex grass hanging like beards. You might pass a colony of fruit bats being eyed off by hungry freshwater crocodiles. Or be mesmerised by the play of light on water on rock.
Depending on the time of year, you can paddle your own canoe, provided all the aggressive saltwater crocs that have entered the river system during the wet season have been found and relocated. Or follow your feet along the walking trails over the sandstone plateau.
But to really get a sense of the majesty and the energy of the land, take a helicopter flight to view the Top End’s vast landscapes, above the gorges and billabongs and wild buffaloes. Descend into a red-rock gorge and swim in a secluded rock pool, or be deposited high on a sandstone bluff to measure your own insignificance and steep your soul.
At night, head back in to Katherine – being careful to avoid any stray wallabies on the road – to Marksie’s Stockmans Camp Tucker Night, for many tall tales and true, served up with a feast of gourmet camp tucker. Sample barramundi (it tastes best in the Northern Territory), buffalo, camel sausages, or crocodile cooked over the fire and flavoured with bush herbs and spices, followed by a cup of gum leaf billy tea that has been spun over host Geoff Mark’s head three times.
Day 3 – The Return Leg
To postpone your inevitable return, head south a little way to the Cutta Cutta caves, and delve 15 metres underground to explore a limestone system formed millions of years ago. And it’s still growing. Look out for wildlife including the rare orange horseshoe bat.
And if you must tear yourself away from this timeless and majestic landscape, hit the road back to Darwin, stopping at the Adelaide River Inn on the way. The inn is home to the now-stuffed Charlie the Buffalo, who in a former life had a cameo in Crocodile Dundee. He now stands on the bar, where you can have a beer and enjoy a typical Outback pub experience.
Military buffs can visit the Adelaide River War Cemetery, a reminder of the impact of World War II on the Territory. Then say your farewells to this ancient place, and make your plans to come back.