Katherine is a small-town in the northern part of the Northern Territory, strategically located next to the river with the same name, a river that meanders through an otherwise dry landscape. It is deserted, hot and grandiose, with a thick layer of ochre-red sand that lands everywhere. If you drive along the Stuart Highway between Alice Springs and Darwin, you should make a stop in Katherine. The town may look quiet, but here await great adventures in the nearby Nitmiluk National Park, which borders Kakadu National Park in the north. If you are in this part of the world, you are presumed to be nurturing a love for nature, for this is precisely the area’s greatest asset.
In Nitmiluk you can go canoeing pass nine of the thirteen majestic gorges that tower between the blue-green waters of Katherine River, its streams and waterfalls. Some rock walls are as high as 70 m. Put up your tent as the sun sets and spend a few days walking on foot along one of the many hiking trails. If you rather take it a bit slower but don’t want to compromise on the scenic experience, instead, try a boat trip with a local guide who will show you around and tell you more about the area’s history. But the very best way to get an overview of Katherine is by sitting in a helicopter, soaring high above the ground.
Enjoy the ancient landscape in Katherine’s surroundings. Water has for over millions of years eroded the sandstone and shaped the high gorges. Westerners came to the area only in the middle of the 1800s, but the area around the river has been home to the Aboriginal Jawoyn people for many thousands of years. Today, the national park is once again in the hands of the indigenous people who looks after the land in collaboration with the Northern Territory’s Parks and Wildlife Commission. With its rich cultural history, Katherine is an excellent place to learn more about Aboriginal culture. There are no less than five art galleries within walking distance of the town centre, all specializing in Aboriginal art. After wandering around the town centre and the adjacent national park, you can cool off in Katherine Hot Springs on the edge of the town, where the water is rather lukewarm than hot. If you have some extra time, take the car south for a bit over an hour’s drive until you get to Bitter Springs crystal clear waters, surrounded by swaying palm trees and a tropical forest. And don’t forget to enjoy a meal under the starry skies.
Sights and experiences
Discover and explore
Thirty kilometres outside the town lies Katherine’s main drawcard Nitmiluk National Park. This is where you will find the majestic Katherine Gorge. Choose how you want to discover the area. It is popular to rent a canoe with Nitmiluk Tours (nitmiluktours.com.au/book-a-tour/canoeing-trips) or go on a boat trip with a tour operator (wotif.com/things-to-do/katherine-gorge-day-tour.a180451.activity-details). The longest tours will take you to the more distant gorges. It is possible to bring your own canoe, but this requires permission from the Nitmiluk National Park Visitor Centre. For more information on what you can and cannot do, have a look at the Northern Territory Government’s website (nt.gov.au/leisure/parks-reserves/find-a-park-to-visit/nitmiluk-national-park). Through Nitmiluk Tours you can also book various helicopter tours (nitmiluktours.com.au/book-a-tour/helicopter-flight).
Further west in the National Park is Leliyn (Edith Falls) which can be reached by car from the Stuart Highway. Drive 40 km north of town and from the highway make a turn onto the gravel road George Road and drive for another 20 km. The journey takes 45 minutes from Katherine. Pack a picnic so you can spend a whole day hiking and swimming in the area. The waterfall is beautiful all year round. There is also a campsite nearby with shady grass areas, but without access to electricity. You pay for camping in a kiosk where they also sell snacks and sweets. The option to travel with a tour operator to see Edith Falls is available to those who prefer (wotif.com/things-to-do/katherine-gorge-cruise-edith-falls-day-tour.a180455.activity-details).
About 27 km south of Katherine is Cutta Cutta Caves Nature Park (nt.gov.au/leisure/parks-reserves/find-a-park-to-visit/cutta-cutta-caves-nature-park) with its limestone formations that are concealed 15 m below the surface. Just outside is a Visitor Information Centre. Book a guided tour to get the most out of your stay and let the guide point out both snakes and bats that live in the cave system. They are open between 08:30 and 16:30.
At Riverbank Drive lies Katherine Hot Springs (northernterritory.com/katherine-and-surrounds/things-to-do/katherine-hot-springs), a perfect place to cool off after a day in the sunshine. The temperature is more lukewarm than hot. Immerse yourself in the clear waters, the entrance is free of charge. Bitter Springs is a tad more beautiful, but to get there you need to drive one hour south towards Mataranka.
Art and culture
For the art lover there is a chance to visit several places in Katherine. One of them is MiMi Aboriginal Art (mimiarts.com). This art gallery is owned and operated by people with Aboriginal roots and most of the exhibitors have the same background. Here you can find everything from didgeridoos to baskets and paintings. The price tag on the items varies greatly.
Godinymayin Yijard Rivers Arts & Cultural Centre is a cultural meeting place where visitors are invited to learn about the area’s culture in different ways. Various art exhibitions, workshops and theatrical performances are a few of the elements shifting over time. Look at their website to see if something happens while you’re in town (gyracc.org.au).
Along Gorge Road lies the Katherine Museum (katherinemuseum.com). The museum has informative exhibitions about how the town was founded and how it has evolved since, and it also tells the story about the Northern Territory’s multicultural population.
You can participate in a traditional Aboriginal culture experience for two and a half hours at the Top Didj Cultural Experience (topdidj.com/). The famous artist Manuel Pamkal talks about different painting techniques and teaches you how to throw boomerang and spears, and you can try to paint Aboriginal art under Manuel’s tutoring. You can take your own artwork with you as a nice memory from the trip. Manuel is talkative and happily shares his own experiences of how it is to grow up in the bush and how he copes with cultural clashes.
The Black Russian Caravan Bar (facebook.com/theblackrussiancaravanbar) has quickly become a favourite among many locals. Two young girls parked their caravan under the trees, a caravan that was remodelled into a food truck and then became the best coffee place in town. Relaxed and simple. Fine pastries and first-class barista coffee. You can find this place next to the post office. At Stuart Hotel you’ll find Mahogany Bar and Grill restaurant (facebook.com/mahoganybag) serving classic pub food. Filling portions where the meat gets to play the lead role. Very affordable food and good drinks. The address is 23 Katherine Terrace.
Good to know
On the website Visit Katherine (visitkatherine.com.au) is plenty of information about what you should do and see in the area. When you are in Katherine, you can also visit the Visitor Information Centre at the corner of Lindsay Street and Katherine Terrace. They have brochures and maps as well as knowledgeable staff who can help you with most things. You can also visit the Nitmiluk National Park Visitor Centre on Gorge Rd in Nitmiluk National Park.
Warnings and preparations
The northern tropical part of the Northern Territory has two distinct seasons, The rainy season and the dry season. The rainy season runs from November to April and during this period the humidity increases to over 80 per cent, followed by monsoon like rain and tropical storms. The temperature is usually between 25 and 35 degrees Celsius.
The dry season starts in May and continues until October. During this period the weather is more stable. The days are sunny, and the nights are cool. The temperature is around 20 and 30 degrees Celsius and the humidity is much lower. Although the dry season is peak season, it may be worth considering a trip during the rainy season if conditions allow. The high volumes of rainwater make the waterfalls even more impressive and the vegetation thrives. During the rainy season it is also common to see the lightning dance over the skies.
Keep in mind that there are crocodiles in the area. Freshwater crocodiles move around through the river system and they usually lie along the shoreline for a sleep. They are said to be harmless to people but avoid getting too close to the water during the rainy season as the much more dangerous saltwater crocodile get in here at that season. Therefore, avoid swimming during the rainy season.
Katherine is located around 320 km south of Darwin and you can get here by bus, car (wotif.com/Car-Hire), train and flights (wotif.com/Flights). It is possible to continue the trip in all four directions with one of Greyhound’s buses (greyhound.com.au). The bus stop in Katherine on the way between Darwin and Alice Springs, but there are also buses eastwards towards Mount Isa in Queensland and west towards Kununurra in Western Australia. The bus station is located at 6 Katherine Terrace. Expect long journeys. The Ghan train (greatsouthernrail.com.au/trains/the-ghan) runs between Adelaide and Darwin twice a week and stop in Katherine. The train is a more expensive option but also more comfortable. The station is located a few kilometres south of the town. The airline Airnorth (airnorth.com.au) flies to Katherine from Darwin, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs.
You can book campsites within Nitmiluk National Park through Nitmiluk Tours (nitmiluktours.com.au/book-accommodation) and thus have the adventure close at hand. You can rent a cottage, put up your own tent or choose to stay at the luxurious Cicada Lodge (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Cicada_Lodge.htm) with large windows and a private balcony. Otherwise, there are a number of accommodation options nearby (hotelscombined.com/Place/Nitmiluk_National_Park.htm).
Another option is the Palm Court backpackers (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Palm_Court_Backpackers.htm) at the corner of Third and Giles Street. A bed in a dormitory for eight people costs 27 dollars per night. For a bed in a room for four, you pay 30 dollars. They also rent out motel rooms from 95 dollar a night. This includes air conditioning, a small fridge, kettle and microwave. No matter how you choose to stay at this accommodation, you have access to the outdoor pool and the barbecue area.
At the Beagle Motor Inn (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Beagle_Motor_Inn.htm) at 2 Fourth Street are 39 different rooms for rent with both single, double and larger family rooms. On-site facilities include a swimming pool, laundry facilities and a bar. Rooms are equipped with a TV and a fridge. Wi-Fi is included. The restaurant serves an affordable breakfast. Parking spaces are available on site and staff are happy to help with bookings of activities. Another good option in Katherine is Pine Tree Motel (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Pine_Tree_Motel.htm) at 3 Third Street. They have rooms in three price ranges, including access to the pool and a good selection served at the breakfast buffet.
A Saturday in and around Katherine
08:00 – Filling breakfast
Start the day in the centre of Katherine. Sit at the tables in the shade or snuggle up indoors with air conditioning on at The Finch Café at Katherine Terrace. It is a relatively new café serving good coffee, breakfast and lunch for affordable prices.
10:00 – Nitmiluk from above
Drive straight to Nitmiluk National Park and get into a helicopter along with a pilot from Nitmiluk Tours (nitmiluktours.com.au/book-a-tour/helicopter-flight) and another passenger. Fly high above the ground and get a different perspective of the gorges and the river. When you’re back on solid ground, take a wander around the national park before heading back to Katherine.
13:00 – Lunch bath
Enjoy a light lunch at the Pop Rocket Café. You will find the café in the far south on Riverbank Drive. Here you can, for example, order a fruit juice and a toast. Then try the lukewarm water in Katherine Hot Springs which is just next to the café. Let your legs rest after the hike in the national park.
14:30 – Cultural experience
The day is not over yet. Head to the Top Didjs premises to explore the local Aboriginal art in all its forms. Stroll through the gallery to see if you find something that you want to buy. If you want to learn more, skip the lunch bath and come here at 13:30 when the Top Didj Cultural Experience kicks off under the guidance of the artistic guide Manuel Pamkal.
18:00 – Meal under the stars
You have already pre-book dinner. Smart move! You head to Gorge Road within Top Didj’s borders. At Marksie’s Stockman’s Camp Tucker Night (marksiescamptucker.com.au), gourmet meals are served under simple conditions. Three dishes are prepared at the camping kitchen with a taste of local herbs and flavours as well as Western ingredients. Expect nice food with no frills. Among other things, kangaroo, camel and crocodile are on the menu.
20:00 – Finish with an event
Find out if there is any event at the Godinymayin Yijard Rivers Arts & Cultural Centre (gyracc.org.au/events-calendar) during the evening. If that is the case, quickly get there to get a seat. Or, you can always drive past the Savannah Bar & Restaurant at the Knotts Crossing Resort (knottscrossing.com.au) at Giles Street to order a refreshing beverage.