Visitors to Katherine are passing through to someplace else, whether it be on an epic Ghan train trip or wilderness-embracing roadie, across the Top End’s far-reaching horizons. But this eye-catching town warrants being considered a singular destination in its own right. As it was, my stay in Katherine was one of many unmistakable highlights on an AAT Kings’ Wonders of the Kimberley tour. Over the course of 10 days, our group traversed 2989km, immersing ourselves in the natural and cultural riches between Broome and Darwin.
After being goggled-eyed at the remarkable expanse of the Kimberley Region, Katherine heralded our arrival into the Northern Territory. This sun-baked ancient land exudes a spiritual pull with its burnished earth tones set against a canvas of endless blue skies, interspersed with a smattering of ghost-white tree trunks, rugged ranges and spinifex grass. As we neared the town, Salmon Gums started to stamp their mark on the landscape – beautiful in the dry season, as the salmon-hued bark strips away from the trunk.
The terrain change is one of Katherine’s most distinctive attributes, as it marks the junction between the ochre-hued earth of the Outback and the lush broad-leaf furnishings of the tropical North. Straddling the red of the Outback and the green of the Top End, Katherine is vividly blessed with natural beauty, but even if you’re short on time, the most unmissable experience of all is take a jaunt into Nitmiluk National Park.
Just 20 minutes from the heart of town, Nitmiluk is the Aboriginal name for Katherine Gorge, flanked by soaring red sandstone walls stretching up to 70 metres high. The gorge was carved over millions of years by raging torrents of water swept down from Arnhemland, during monsoon rains. May to September is the dry season, and definitely the best time to visit, because the wet season routinely lead to monster flooding and restricted access in the park.
Surrendering to the tranquillity of a cruise along Nitmiluk’s waterways is truly awe-inspiring . After being greeted by tens of thousands of docile fruit-bats, squawking and flapping their vampire-like wings, in the riverside trees, we boarded our first boat, at the Nitmiluk Boat Jetty. Bookended on both sides by the mighty Katherine River, the 12 km-long gorge experience actually incorporates three distinct gorges, inter-linked by fabulous boardwalks, strung around the base of those imperious vertical rock faces, as you switch from one cruise to the next.
Our gorge jaunt was expertly led by a delightfully engaging indigenous guide, from the Jawoyn people, Nitmiluk’s traditional owners. Tom’s personal stories and insights accentuated the deep sense of reverence this sandstone and watery world projects. On the boardwalk between the first and second gorge, we gazed in awe of the majestic rock art, painted on the sides of the sandstone cliff. Throughout the cruise, with laser-like eyesight, he adeptly pointed out a passing parade of wildlife, that we would have hopelessly failed to notice, without our trusty tracker.
Cockatoos, eagles, wallabies and freshwater crocs are quite at home in these parts. Unlike the benign nature of freshwater crocodiles, the wet season allows big nasty saltwater crocs to enter the gorge. Rangers survey the gorges and trap any saltwater crocs, before the start of the dry season.. Spinifex grass, pandanus, lofty paperbark trees and hardy shrubs like grevilleas, implausibly manage to grow in the smallest of cracks, along the rockface, seemingly clinging on for dear life. The scenery is hauntingly beautiful, as we moved deeper into this pristine walled wilderness.
This hauntingly tranquil place is steeped in Aboriginal mythology. The Jawoyn people, who have co-managed the national park since 1989, will not journey through the third gorge, as they believe it is the domain of a revered serpent. A Non-Aboriginal guide skippered us through that section, with its brooding waters and extra intense shadows. The rising sun played wonders with the sandstone walls, spanning a wide palette of hues, from dark mud brown to butter yellow.
On the return leg of the gorge cruise, I gazed up in awe at a mighty fortress-like sandstone cliff which is called Barumei Lookout. (It takes about an hour to scale it on foot, but the elevated perspectives are wondrous.) Tom remarked that another lofty cliff, nicknamed Jedda’s Leap, is steeped in Australian film history. It featured in the 1955 movie, Jedda. The production was the first full length Australian movie shot in colour and it was also the first movie to feature Aboriginal actors. Many Aussies consider Jedda as their version of Romeo & Juliet, as it climaxes with two young lovers, hurling themselves off Barumei Lookout to their deaths, because the elders won’t let them marry.
Horse breaking in the Northern Territory is hard yakka and even though Tom Curtain is more a horse whisperer than a breaker, it’s still brutally tough on the body. Tom is the owner and headline act in the Katherine Outback Experience Tour at Riverboyne Horsebreaking and Training. The captivating show receives rave reviews, underpinned not just by Tom’s masterful affinity with horses, but also by the fact he’s had several chart-topping hits on the country music scene. He’s a Tamworth legend and he’ll have you, not just the horses, eating out of his hand.
He first started to help break in horses for Janet Holmes a Court’s mammoth cattle empire, before working with a horse whisperer from the USA. The Katherine Outback Experience is the most enchanting fusion of his horse breaking finesse and entertainment flair. Tom’s wife Annabel is an integral part of the engaging demonstration, which is proudly unscripted, free-form and spontaneous, given they’re working with animals. Anything can happen!
The 90 minute demonstration is utterly engrossing as Tom sets about breaking in horses, performing a multitude of tricks, and revealing the tell-tale signs of when the horse is making progress or about to bite him! Sun bronzed and dressed in blue jeans, a blue cowboy shirt, boots, spurs and a hat, Tom acclimatises the horse to a range of movements and noises it will experience on a cattle station. There are many features to the show including Tim singing his hit songs,while standing on horseback or performing the Mataranka Swag Roll. The farm dogs are equally thrilling, as they interact with Tom and the horses. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Begin with a spectacular Cable Beach sunset then enter the rugged Kimberley to cruise down rich waterways teeming with wildlife on AAT Kings’ 11-day Wonders of the Kimberley guided holiday. Visit a remote Aboriginal community and tour through Argyle Diamond Mine. Experience the Ord Valley's gourmet produce at a unique private dinner and top off your trip in tropical Darwin. Departure dates from May to September. Priced from $6,375 per person twin share. Includes accommodation, transport, sightseeing, many meals and the services of an experienced Travel Director. Aatkings.com, 0800 456 100 or see your travel agent.
Mike Yardley is our Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.