A man and his kayak

The lux­ury of win­ter warmth and a mea­sured pace along the Katherine River

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - KEN­DALL HILL

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’

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