21st – 28th July, 2019
Situated amongst the stunning ancient landscape of Nitmiluk National Park, the 62 km Jatbula Trail follows the route travelled by generations of Jawoyn people, from Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) to Leliyn (Edith Falls) – a traditional song line. The local indigenous people, the Jawoyn, named the area of the gorge Nitmiluk (pronounced Nit-mi-look) meaning ‘place of cicadas’.
The trail was named after Jawoyn Traditional Owner Peter Jatbula who was instrumental in securing land rights for his people and who walked the route of the trail with his family.
The Jatbula is walked as a one-way trail with walkers limited to no more than 15 leaving per day, the trail to be completed over 5 or 6 days. Walkers must be fully self-sufficient as there is no access to the trail other than at the beginning and the end. It’s booked out almost as soon as the places are released online, hence Trish has organised our little group of 4 to be doing it through a trekking company, Gecko Trekking and Canoeing.
Yesterday Steve and Nigel left on their epic drive to Darwin via Birdsville. I’ll see them in Darwin on the 28th. Today I flew to a very warm Darwin and met up with my walking buddies, Trish, Sarah and Wendy. We’re staying at the Hotel On Mitchell – self-contained apartments – well located and appointed.
After packing and repacking our backpacks and discussing at length what we should leave behind, ie rain jacket, rain cover for backpack, puff jacket – “it will not rain” the tour company lady assured us – we went down to Cullen Beach to watch the sunset and partake of a seafood smorgasbord.
Bob the driver for Gecko Trekking and Canoeing company picked us up at 7am and we joined David, Belinda and Emma who’ll be sharing our exciting adventure for the next 6 days. (ie 7 walkers plus our guide, Travis).
Firstly though a drive from Darwin to Katherine, stopping at Adelaide River for a coffee and to view Jock the Croc, a 5 metre stuffed crocodile, and the buffalo from the Crocodile Dundee movie.
A cultural experience awaited us a local Jawoyn man played the didgeridoo for us …
then guided us on spear throwing using a woomera, lighting a fire using two sticks and traditional painting using a reed. It was a lot of fun, but I wasn’t a success at any of them.
In Katherine a relaxing 2-hour cruise between the majestic towering cliffs and crystal clear waters of Katherine Gorge gave us a taste of the adventure to come.
Back to Mick’s property (owner of Gecko) to set up our first camp. Hmm took a bit to remember how to blow up the mattress, etc, but I got there. I’d mentioned I was eating predominantly Paleo and they’d bought in a whole box of Paleo dehydrated food for me. Wow! That was pretty decent of them. However dinner tonight was the tenderest steaks and salad. Delicious.
The temperature dropped rapidly as the sun set and we turned in early to get warm. Several of us, including me, decided to sleep without a tent or insect screen. Lying in bed watching the stars is amazing. Earlier Travis, our tour guide, pointed out the Dark Emu, some constellations and planets and set up a telescope for us. As for being warm though – not so much. I put on my thermals and was still cold. A very restless night ensued.
23rd – 27th July
Walk Day 1: Nitmiluk to Biddlecombe Cascades – 10km
An early start and a lesson on how to pack my backpack quickly and efficiently from Mick himself was useful. All the food and cooking equipment for the 5 days was divvied up between us. My backpack weighed in at about 14kg, including 3 litres of water. I was very pleased with the fit of my new backpack, tolerating the weight well, and continued to for the duration of the walk.
Excitedly we began the trail with a boat ride over the Katherine River before we began walking in earnest.
Walk Day 2: Biddlecombe Cascades to Crystal Falls 12km
While the trail is not noted for its hilliness nevertheless there are still some reasonable hills to climb. Here we got a good view of the surrounding countryside. Not many trees in this section.
Today we see the first of the rock art along this trail. These art works are protected under an overhanging rock.
Another view of the trail and countryside we walked through. The disparity in walking speed was beginning to become a problem to me as I was frequently dropped and walked alone. Being at the back of the group I was concerned I’d be injured or bitten by a snake and no one would notice until it was too late. (Note that I was more than 10 years older than the next oldest on this walk!)
Our drinking water (we began every day with 3 litres each) was sourced from the creeks and pools where we camped. We didn’t treat it and no one had tummy troubles from it. And it did taste really good!
Walk Day 3: Crystal Falls to 17 Mile Falls – 10km
We leave our packs behind on the path and scramble down into the Amphitheatre where the flora becomes more tropical and lush and there’s a long wall of indigenous rock art.
Walk Day 4: 17 Mile Rocks to Sandy Billabong 16km
A longer walk today so we set off early with view to arriving at the campsite before the temperatures get too hot this afternoon. I don’t know what the temperature was, but I’d guess it was never less than 30°C once the sun got up. Evenings were cool to chilly.
My issues with being dropped by the others continued. However the group seemed to stop every 20 mins or so for a rest and a drink, which is when I’d catch them. Not needing to stop to rest so often I continued walking expecting to be passed, but they never did – too much stopping for me! This did mean that I walked the majority of the last 3 days on my own, which was disappointing as I’d wanted to share the walk with my friends, but it was safer for me than being behind on my own.
The upside was that the trail felt a lot more spiritual now with just the sounds of the birds and the wind in the trees as I walked. Beautiful!
As I was walking alone by now interestingly I found this section of the walk a little creepy – like I was being watched. I’m sure a Jawoyn elder would tell me that I was, by one of their spirits.
Walk Day 5: Sandy Billabong to Leliyn (Edith Falls) 15 km
Our last walking day took us through long grass, a few creeks including Edith River South and a swamp to negotiate before stopping at Sweetwater Pool for a break.
Sweetwater provides another campsite, but campers not doing the full walk can also access it from the Leliyn. Hence there were day trippers here and a few people camped.
It’s only 4.5 km to Leliyn which, after a lovely cooling swim here, we walked on to – finishing the trail. Funnily enough, while most tourists consider Leliyn to be a fabulous pool, we walkers had experienced so much better that we didn’t even bother having a swim here.
The 3-hr drive back to Darwin in the minibus seemed to take forever for our exhausted little troupe. We spent tonight at the same motel before Wendy, Sarah and Trish flew home and I continued my travels to Arnhem Land with Steve.