Info: www.nt.gov.au/parks When to go: June-September Grade: Moderate-challenging (distance dependent)
AFANTASTIC MULTIDAY (between three and five) Top End canoeing experience, paddling through eight of the nine gorges that comprise Katherine Gorge, in Nitmiluk National Park, should be on every paddler’s Aussie bucket list. This water-borne journey has many highlights throughout, including the obvious escape from ‘civilisation’ (in the form of tourist boats and crowds), the steep, red cliffs of the gorge walls, plus the chance to spot some of the area’s famous native wildlife, including turtles, water monitors and freshwater crocodiles.
The paddling itself is not too strenuous – it will be the portages between gorges that require the most effort – and if you do get too hot, tired or otherwise, you can simply pull in at one of the many sandy beaches along the gorge(s) and take a dip in the refreshing water. The NT Parks recommends the fifth gorge as the limit if you’re just up for a day-paddle, but we’d highly recommend packing your camping gear and pushing further into the more remote parts of the system – all the way to gorge nine if you can, but at least to the sixth gorge (Gorges 6 and 7 have numerous rock bars to portage).
You will need to be self-sufficient if you opt for an overnight or longer journey (and source the appropriate canoe camping permits). The rewards for the extra effort (packing additional gear and having to negotiate the sometimes challenging portages over rock bars and rapids) are, most often, having these more remote sections entirely to yourself. Highlights along the way include Butterfly Gorge in Gorge 2, with its short walk, and the hanging gardens the result of water seeping from the escarpment down the cliff face, resulting in plants growing out of the bare rock walls not much further on. Gorge 3 includes pretty Lily Ponds, a short walk to a swimming hole below a waterfall (still usually running in June) and a sublime beachside campsite – one of many throughout the gorge system. The fourth gorge campsite even has a loo (as does the campsite at Gorge 6), but is also at the end of some tough portaging. Still, if you’ve allowed yourself around three to four days, there’s no rush to get to the end, plus you can always turn back and take even longer on the return journey, stopping off at every beach you see along the way for a cooling swim.
Things to remember? Take plenty of water, food and loads of sun protection; during the day you will be mostly paddling under clear blue skies as it will be the Dry Season. If you’re a keen angler, pack a fishing rod (lures only in the gorges; bag limit is five fish) but please practice catchand-release unless you plan to cook your catch that night at camp.
Hiring a canoe (or bringing your own) means you get to really experience the magic of Nitmiluk.