ROM up here, the Katherine River resembles a gigantic green serpent as it sashays through the magnificent sandstone escarpment of the Northern Territory’s Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) National Park. The rocky plateaus, red-brown ridges and sparse eucalypt forests of this indigenous-owned park seem so immense, so unending, the far-off horizon could be a mirage. I’m sitting in a helicopter way above the gorge, just a thin membrane of glass between me and those imperious cliffs. (Although the gorge is commonly thought of as a single body of water, it comprises 13 waterways carved by the Katherine River.)
Before long, we are flying into a narrow gully and two rock faces rear up on either side of the helicopter. A half-twist, a deft turn and the chopper is descending towards a handkerchief of a helipad; it measures just 3.5m by 4.5m and is perched on a nest of boulders set back from the edge of a shallow cliff.
The phrase ‘‘ precision flying’’ does not quite capture the skill involved in this manoeuvre. Still, the pilot, Shane Gustas, seems unfazed as he lowers the fourseater Robertson 44 on to the helipad as gently as a mother settling a newborn into his cot.
I’m on a two-stop flight to a remote art site and swimming hole with Airborne Solutions, the only helicopter company with a permit to operate in the national park. We have come to this landing spot, which cannot be reached by road or foot, to see ancient indigenous rock art. The rock paintings overlook a tranquil, tree-shrouded waterhole with a two-tiered waterfall. These red and yellow ochre images, which have withstood centuries of wind, rain and fierce sun, are irrefutable evidence that Aboriginal tribes lived here long before the Great Wall of China or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were built.
‘‘ The paintings haven’t been carbon dated but they are recognised [by experts] as being between 5000 and 20,000 years old,’’ says Gustas. The images depict a 4m-long rainbow serpent, kangaroos, catfish and female spirit figures whose crazy, vertical hair suggests they may have been struck or energised by lightning. Nearby is a strangely poignant, leaping figure with outstretched, pleading hands and a pair of perfectly formed human feet.
Few tourists see these gems, partly because of their remote location, partly because the national park’s traditional owners, the Jawoyn people, allow only a maximum of three tourists a trip to view them.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the handback of this intimidatingly vast national park to the Jawoyn, who fought a bruising 11-year battle for ownership of their ancestral lands. At anniversary celebrations held at the park in September, prominent indigenous and non-indigenous leaders recalled how the land claim bitterly divided the nearby town of Katherine. Back then, it was said that if the Jawoyn won back the 290,000ha park, they would cut off the town’s water supply and close the gorge to tourists, threatening the town’s livelihood.
Federal Indigenous Health Minister Warren Snowdown described how opposition to the land claim turned ‘‘ very ugly’’, with some demonstrators demanding the restoration of ‘‘ white rights’’. In a moving and deeply felt speech, Jawoyn Association acting chairman Ryan Burawei said that 20 years ago, ‘‘ No one wanted anything to do with the Jawoyn people . . . [But] the Jawoyn people became a force to be reckoned with. A large number of businesses now deal with the Jawoyn on a daily basis . . . We have opened the door for others [other indigenous communities] to follow.’’
As federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin pointed out, today Nitmiluk is considered a model for how Aboriginal land ownership and cultural tourism can benefit indigenous and non-indigenous stakeholders. Sporting an Akubra and sitting near a tree heaving with bats, Macklin said the Jawoyn’s management of Nitmiluk ‘‘ set the benchmark for the return of country to traditional owners’’. She also said the park’s success underlined ‘‘ how land and culture can work together to fuel economic development and economic independence. The Jawoyn people have demonstrated how that can be done.’’
As Burawei observed, the Jawoyn people still suffer from the same social and economic problems (poor health and housing, low educational levels) that afflict other Aboriginal communities. However, rents and income from tourist ventures mean they are well on their way to achieving financial independence.
After the handback, this park of iconic gorges, significant art sites, picturesque swimming holes and savanna grasslands was leased back to the federal government. It’s now run by the Jawoyn in conjunction
Straight and narrow: An Airborne Solutions helicopter follows Katherine Gorge with the Northern Territory’s Parks & Wildlife Commission and governed by a board with an indigenous majority.
About 250,000 people a year visit the park, but far from succumbing to complacency the indigenous owners are continuing to upgrade the tourist facilities clustered around the gorge.
Plans are in progress to tap the luxury market and build a five-star eco resort close to the Katherine River. Last year, a pool that could grace any up-market resort was added to the caravan and camping ground, along with a shady lawn area that looked over a sandy grove of trees. I swam there during the evocatively named build-up — the hot, humid period that precedes the wet season — and the water was already as warm as a bath.
The latest addition to Nitmiluk’s caravan and camping ground are airconditioned cabins known as the Nitmiluk Chalets. These chalets allow travellers who don’t want to camp or don’t have a caravan in tow to explore the park at their leisure, rather than having to stay overnight in Katherine, about 30km away.
The cabins are miniature homes away from home — they come with cable television, verandas, self-catering kitchens and furnishings in earthy colours — all a 500m walk from one of Australia’s most remarkable natural attractions. For those who like to eat out, there is a cafe and licensed restaurant at the park’s visitor centre, which has a huge, covered veranda extending into the bush that borders the river.
The indigenous-run Nitmiluk Tours operates cruises, canoeing trips and guided walks within the park. On a still Sunday morning, I set off with an indigenous guide, Tyrone Idai, on the first leg of the 58km Jatbula Trail.
This is a five-day, one-way trek and, as Idai explains, ‘‘ It’s one of the most popular walks in the Territory.’’ It’s best undertaken in the dry season (May to October) and follows traditional walking paths once used by indigenous people. The trail takes trekkers — who after setting out, may not spot another human for days — through creeks, waterfalls, grasslands, woodlands and dry, rocky terrain that, bizarrely, reminds me of the shootout scenes in the John Wayne westerns I watched as a child.
We start the trip with a quick zip across the Katherine River in a small shuttle boat. As we walk away from the river, we find ourselves in a surprisingly open valley, filled with tall yellow grass and doused with yellow light.
Every so often, Idai darts into the bush in his thongs and returns with a handful of seeds, buds or leaves: bush tucker. He finds bush ‘‘ chewing gum’’ (it really is chewy), and native figs and grapes that have yet to ripen. He identifies a plant that can create a soapy lather and coarse-textured leaves that were traditionally used as sandpaper. Idai clearly has an intimate knowledge of a landscape that can seem unyielding to the Western eye, but to a trained indigenous eye is a natural larder.
Eventually we clamber over a dry creek bed and reach Northern Rockhole, a cool, green enclave and swimming pond tucked beneath the escarpment. As I float on my back, a dense silence is broken only by crows involved in a cliff-top scuffle.
Idai provides an energy-boosting morning tea of crocodile sausage, kangaroo meat strips, homemade chutney and crackers. He doesn’t eat the roo meat, feeling it would be ‘‘ too much like eating a pet’’, but tucks into the farmed croc sausage. I prefer the smoked kangaroo strips, which are as lean and tender as stirfried beef. Fortified, we complete the return leg of the walk before the humidity rises to sauna levels.
Back in the shuttle boat, we speed towards the sandy end of the first gorge to view another important rock art site. On the way, thrillingly, I spot a freshwater crocodile — the kind that is usually uninterested in people — just two or three metres from the boat. About 1.5m long, the croc takes a long, appraising look at us before disappearing into the cool green of the Katherine River. Crocs are a protected species in the Territory, and this bold specimen is clearly confident it will not end up as gourmet bush tucker. Rosemary Neill was a guest of Tourism NT.
Nitmiluk Tours operates helicopter, canoeing and walking tours within Nitmiluk. More: 1300 146 743; www.nitmiluktours.com.au.