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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.nit­miluk­

Pic­tures: Nit­miluk Tours

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