Nearly 330 kilometres long, the Katherine River snakes through the Northern Territory’s Nitmiluk National Park.
At every bend and gorge, the Katherine River unveils another aspect of the Top End‘s ever changing landscape. We were lucky enough to canoe and camp our way along it.
Canoeing down the Katherine River
It’s taken a three day trip down the glorious Katherine River for me to catch on (after more than four decades) that canoeing and swagging is a blast. Now, paddling towards a small waterfall with a quickening heartbeat – reptilian eyes could be watching – I’m finally making up for lost time. “Helmets on. The fall is just ahead. Turn sharp left at that branch, or you may lose balance!” yells Mick Jerram, our Northern Territorian guide. I feel a little nervous, but excited, as my partner Pete and I steer our double canoe onwards.
We’re on a journey organised by Katherine-based company Gecko Canoeing and Trekking, and this is Day One. No going back now! Soon: whoosh! We’ve whizzed round the bend and down the waterfall without catastrophe. And we’re back gliding along another peaceful stretch of river, surrounded by a cathedral of trees, peppered with water birds. There’s no noise other than the splash of our oars and the occasional instruction from Mick.
Bordering the Katherine’s banks are pandanus plants, paperbarks and mangroves. From time to time we see a wallaby hop past or a monitor lizard basking on the riverbank. Yes, there’s even the occasional croc lurking – this is the Northern Territory, after all. But the canoe trip we’ve signed up for is not only for daredevils.
If you only have one day to explore Katherine and its beautiful surroundings, you can opt for a full day tour such as this one.
Gecko Canoeing & Trekking in Katherine NT
Rather, it’s an opportunity to be surrounded by nature in tranquil surrounds, paddling gently downstream. Mick, a former army guy with finely honed bush skills – he can tie every knot there is within seconds and get a billy boiling without matches – has been hosting canoe trips like this for more than two decades.
He’s nailed it. With a great love and knowledge of native flora and fauna, he’s the perfect outdoor guide. And importantly, he knows how to cook very tasty meals on campfires.
Also on our three-day journey is a young German family of four, and a 40-something Dutch woman from New Zealand. Just before our adventure, we all met up at Gecko headquarters in outer Katherine and nodded shyly at one another. But the group that sleeps under the stars together bonds pretty quickly.
“We’re starting here, about 20 kilometres south of Katherine,” says Mick. “And this is where we’ll end up.” Mick shows us our route on a map before we got in the mini-bus, and 30 minutes later, we’re bouncing down a steep, dusty track, and alighting beside a quiet riverbend.
“This is my favourite river in Australia – and I’ve canoed most of them, ” Mick enthuses, handing us each a water bottle: “Fill it often, straight from the river. The water is pure and unspoiled. Drink as much as you can.”
After a quick demonstration on how best to manage our canoes, we’re sailing away. “We do have tents, don’t we?” Aletta, the Dutch traveller, nervously asks Mick a few hours later, as he points to a sandy area by a riverbank, proclaiming that’s our campsite for the night.
“No, we’re just in our swags, that’s it!” he replies, proceeding to tell us how to inflate our mattresses. “I’m not sure I like that idea,” Aletta responds. “No Australian animals are going to get us?” “You’ll be fine,” Mick responds, stoking the campfire.
Soon he’s serving up a delicious barramundi feast, washed down with the wine we’ve all brought along, which has been cooling in the river.
Camping by the river
Though we’d brought jumpers in case the nights are cool, we are lucky. The weather is the perfect temperature. When I wake once or twice that night, it’s a joy to look up at the giant constellations above, unmarred by city lights. By the time I roll out of my swag the next morning, Mick’s fire is ablaze, breakfast nearly ready and the billy boiled. “Melaleuca tea?” He asks, handing us mugs. I’m happy to see Aletta is looking much more relaxed; not even a mosquito has paid her a visit. An hour or two later, we’re back in our canoes, gliding downstream.
If glamping is more your style, check out this 4-day trip through Kakadu, Katherine and Litchfield.
“I keep waiting to spot other tourists on this trip. How can we be the only ones on this fantastic river?” Sven, the German businessman, marvels. “This would never happen in Europe!” His hitherto-quiet sons have now opened up and are merrily chatting to us in a combination of German and English as we spot bright water birds, and glide past a multitude of fish.
And every so often, the adrenaline flows as Mick mentions out that we may spot a croc or two in the river – or that we’re about to whiz around a hairpin bend.
Spotting saltwater crocodiles on the Katherine River
“There’s a young saltwater croc that’s been living near here for the past eight years,” Mick calmly announces on Day Two. “You may spot it on the left as we go past – yep, there it is!” We turn our heads and spot its reptilian head on the far left beside the bank. Pete manages to whip out his camera and click, before we’ve swiftly glided on.
“Even though most places we’re going through are safe to swim in, we’re not taking any silly risks. I’ll show you the really shallow places where it’s fine to take a dip,” Mick tells us. We’re all too happy to heed his recommendations!
Mick’s made it clear from the outset that we’re to treat our environment with great respect, and take all our junk with us, even apple cores. We’ve been told how to dig a hole when answering nature’s call, with the lavatory paper later placed in a paper bag and discreetly burned in the evening campfire. To my surprise, I find I soon take to this routine. I hadn’t camped for decades – let alone slept on a swag without a tent. I find myself quite at home wandering into the trees to do nature’s bid, alone with the roos.
The three days fly past and by the end of our 40-kilometre journey, none of us is ready to end our beautiful Katherine River trip.
How to get to there
Katherine is 317 kilometres south-east of Darwin. The easiest way to get there is to hire a car in Darwin and drive to Katherine along the Stuart Highway.
You can find plenty of other ways to explore Katherine here.