Route: Baruwei Loop with detour to Pat’s Lookout (return)
Approximate distance: 10km
Start / Finish: Nitmiluk National Park Visitor Centre, near Katherine, NT, Australia
Highlights: Gorgeous gorges, rocky lookouts and a semi-arid, semi-tropical timeless landscape
Nitmiluk was formerly (and perhaps more widely) known as Katherine Gorge but like many places in Australia has rightfully reverted to its traditional name and is now under the ownership of the local Jawoyn people. There is something more evocative about these place names, telling of an ancient landscape but one which is intrinsically and spiritually connected to its people. Centred around the life-giving waters of the Katherine River, today it is not hard to picture this as a meeting place, a prime spot for hunting, fishing, washing, laughing and splashing around avoiding crocs for thousands of years.
Completing the 4 hour drive down from Darwin in the morning and checking in to a basic but vitally airconditioned motel in Katherine, I ended up setting out on a walk here in the late afternoon. This was one of those fortuitous masterstrokes, avoiding the worst heat of the day (though it still had a sting) and experiencing a landscape bathed in an increasingly radiant light.
Setting off from the visitor centre on the Baruwei Loop, it was hard to miss the bats roosting alongside the path as it led gently down towards and past the wharf from where all the tour boats depart. The noise was at times deafening and you begin to wonder what gifts may drop from the trees if you linger too long! Soon after, it was a case of climbing up a series of slopes and steps which lead to an overlook. This was probably the most arduous bit in the glare of the afternoon sun; however, it was fairly short and from memory there were handrails and ample opportunities to stop for a photo breather. The overlook offered a fine perspective on the river and the start of the gorge. If time is short, you could happily soak it up and turn around here.
Striding on from this point, it was a case of following the well-marked track through a gently undulating world of rocky clusters and lush green vegetation. It’s a special landscape, one that seems a product of the annual weather patterns of wet and dry seasons which Katherine fringes. A bedrock of desert that has been garnished by tropical rains. Verdant and arid in one breath, and all the more beautiful for it.
About 3km into the loop walk, a turn off on the left led to a whole network of trails, several of which entail overnight camping and essential self-sufficiency. I could quite contentedly carry on this Baruwei Loop, however, with just about enough time on my side I opted to extend the walk by taking a detour to a spot called Pat’s Lookout and back. Following the longer Waleka track it was about 2km to the lookout, meandering along a mostly flat route through more desert-like rocky mounds, hardy shrubs and tropical palms.
The lookout was worth the extension, for here the reward was a striking view of the river, snaking its way through the gorge, carving out the banks and cliffs and sandy beaches, all embellished with vivid green vegetation. In the golden light of a breathless early evening, the precious tranquillity was worth a linger.
There were options to carry on further along this trail, but wariness of time and isolation and the prospect of an early start for a river cruise curtailed further adventure. It was merely a case of retracing my steps as the sun slunk lower in the sky, a process which progressively burnished the landscape in the kind of oranges and reds one comes to associate with and adore in outback Australia.
Re-joining the Baruwei Loop as the sun set, it was an easy and pleasurable walk back down towards the roadside and visitor centre, where the bats seemed to call out in celebration at a mighty fine day accomplished.
- A guided cruise on the Katherine River through the gorge is a must. I’d highly recommend a dawn cruise or one later in the day as this will avoid most of the day trippers and people on excursion from The Ghan railway. Apart from the early start, dawn was perfect thanks to the calm water and vividly colouring world, and, at that time of day, only a handful of people on the boat.
- There are nice-looking accommodation options in Nitmiluk National Park, though these are generally more expensive than in the township of Katherine, which is about a 40 minute drive away and has a supermarket and a few places to eat. I stayed at the Pine Tree Motel and resorted to Red Rooster for dinner!
- The drive from Darwin is long and fairly uneventful, though very cruisy on good roads. If you have the time, you can take a detour to Litchfield National Park for waterfalls and pools. Turn off the Stuart Highway for Batchelor and head to Florence Falls. Return back the same way (Detour approx 100km return).
- Nitmiluk National Park Visitor Centre includes a café and ice cream potential. The exhibition in the Centre is also worth a look and provides an overview of the geology and history of the area and how it became the park it is today, owned and co-managed by the Jawoin people.
Nitmiluk National Park: https://nt.gov.au/leisure/parks-reserves/find-a-park-to-visit/nitmiluk-national-park
Southern Walks Guide, Nitmiluk National Park: https://nt.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/413848/nitmiluk-national-park-southern-walks-guide.pdf