A man and his kayak
The luxury of winter warmth and a measured pace along the Katherine River
AS a rule, I rarely camp unless the tents are on designer platforms with functioning ensuites and an evening turndown service. But a man will go to extraordinary lengths to escape a Melbourne winter.
The thought of crocodiles is a worry, it’s true, but I figure we wouldn’t be kayaking the Katherine River if there’s a chance we’ll encounter a prehistoric man-eater (I am wrong, as it transpires).
Tents prove not to be a big issue because there are none — we sleep under the stars. And ensuites? Well, aside from the occasional swim, we don’t even wash.
But none of the above detracts from the natural pleasures of paddling part-way down a 328kmlong river with an escort of rainbow bee-eaters and an honour guard of freshwater crocs, thawing themselves on pandanus boughs.
Our 60-hour Northern Territory odyssey begins in a hangar at the East Katherine industrial park, headquarters of Gecko Canoeing and Trekking. The burly Mike Searle — our guide, cook, camp leader and chief dishwasher for the next few days — hands two waterproof bags each to me and New Zealand couple Roger and Fay Walsh. The smaller bag is for any items — such as camera, sunscreen and last will and testament — that we want to keep with us on the kayak. The larger one is for clothes and (largely superfluous) toiletries. Relieved of luxuries, we clamber aboard a LandCruiser for the ride to the river.
Slanted rays of sun ricochet off the mirrored water as we gather canoes and camping gear on the sandy bank. Before embarking on our 50km quest, Searle delivers the safety briefing. The river is unpredictable so we should wear our PFDs (safety vests) at all times on the water. We are issued with helmets to be worn when tackling rapids, and are reassured that he has a satellite phone in case of emergency.
As for crocs, the spots where we camp and stop for lunch are fine for swimming, Searle says, because the water will be shallow. Elsewhere we will need to be vigilant. ‘ ‘ This is a class-one river, which means that if there are saltwater crocodiles, they will be caught and relocated,’’ he explains.
But there can be no guarantees; a large saltie was spotted recently at the waterhole where we will exit the river in three days’ time. That knowledge adds a certain frisson to proceedings.
The river is relatively tame in July but souvenirs of its wild, wetseason peaks are everywhere. It can rise a staggering 20m at the height of the wet and our journey is constantly signposted by tree trunks wedged in the crooks of massive river red gums, like Noah’s Arks shipwrecked halfway up Mount Ararat.
They make a striking contrast with the placid pace of life on the water. A chilli-red dragonfly hitches a ride on my kayak, the first of many to do so. A sea eagle lifts off from its eyrie and traces arcs in the sky. Azure and bluewinged kingfishers add flashes of colour to the green-brown palette of the river and forest. Searle identifies the creatures we encounter and relates stories of how the Katherine has been the lifeblood of pastoralists in this corner of the territory.
Seven hours after setting off we pull into a tranquil arm of the river and disembark at the sandy shore of Millsy’s Lower Camp, our home for the night.
It is a camp in name only; there are no conveniences other than what we have brought with us, but these prove to be ample.
Searle’s hulking blue canoe turns out to be a floating Tardis. He conjures a dining table — laden with olives, camembert and sweet chilli cream cheese — and a kitchen bench, grill, pantry, utensils, fridge, even a kitchen sink of sorts (it’s a plastic bucket).
We slake hard-earned thirsts with lime cordial before moving on to the hard stuff, our BYO wines and spirits.
By dinner time the table is set with cloth and candles, and we sit down to barramundi and steak, roasted vegetables and salads. Next night it is roasted beef with all the trimmings, including gravy. The man is a magician.
Inside the cosy cocoon of my swag, clad head-to-toe in thermals against single-digit temperatures, I lie back and admire the gaudy festival of lights overhead, eventually falling asleep with stars in my eyes.
I am not a morning person. Even the smell of bacon sizzling on the grill can’t lure me from bed to loiter in near-zero temperatures until breakfast is served. The only thing that stirs me is a mug of tea delivered to my outstretched hand by Searle. It’s the sort of service you won’t find even in the finest five-star hotels, and an extremely promising start to the day.
After we’ve packed up ( and done our tour of duty with the shovel and ‘‘toilet’’ bag), we’re on the river by 9am, the low sun on our backs and the last wisps of mist unfurling on the surface. We drift in silence, keeping eyes peeled for wildlife. Agile wallabies are common and every few hundred metres we spot a freshwater crocodile defrosting on a bough. Great crested egrets take flight from trees ahead and, at a pretty junction of tinkling rapids, like horizontal waterfalls, a red-stockinged jabiru lifts off into the sky.
Most of our journey is defined by this gentle pace, with ample time and space for reflection. We get plenty of warning about upcoming hazards and handle most with hitherto undiscovered aplomb. At the more challenging rapids or snags, Searle secures his canoe and physically guides our kayaks downriver.
However, he can’t be everywhere all the time, and Fay and I tip out at different spots. But no bones broken and no harm done.
Searle has forewarned us about a ‘‘juxtaposition’’ on the river that turns out to be a saltwater crocodile trap beside a rope swing, presumably used by children from a nearby cattle station. It’s less a juxtaposition than a chilling irony, but no more chilling than the realisation we’re paddling right beside the trap. He asks me to check if there’s anything inside; sometimes turtles get caught, he says.
I spy a breastplate-sized slab of cow secured to the rear but no croc, thankfully. Gecko owner Mick Jerram later puts the croc threat into perspective. There have only been two small salt- water females caught and relocated since trapping began in 1994, he says, and helicopter patrols also keep the river safe. ‘‘The likelihood of encountering one is very, very low, but what it comes down to is having a very healthy respect for them.’’ Reassuringly, he has never lost a kayaker to a croc.
The landscape feels familiar now but never predictable. We drift by pebbly banks crowned with golden blooming acacias, great dunes of sand, ochre-tinged cliffs topped with eucalypts and forests of she-oak that whisper in the breeze.
By the time we exit the river for Kendall Hill was a guest of Gecko Canoeing and Trekking.
The Katherine River is tame during the dry season and home to wildlife ranging from freshwater crocs to dragonflies and a variety of birds
The kayak journey is conducted at a gentle pace
Al fresco dining at ‘camp’