The Jatbula Trail, Nitmiluk National Park

Trip Start Jul 18, 2012
Trip End Jul 23, 2012

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Flag of Australia  , Northern Territory,
Wednesday, July 25, 2012


In the beginning....
We'd booked our transfers from Darwin to Katherine thru Australis Tours as they were 30% cheaper than booking direct with Greyhound, so paid $96 each instead of $137 each way.
While waiting for the bus, we met a female backpacker from Reunion Island near Mauritius... never met anyone from that French owned island before.
It was an uneventful 4 hour trip to Katherine, had lunch of mountain bread and melting parmesan cheese, courtesy of Ursula, then hopped on the bus to Katherine Gorge - Nitmiluk National Park ($18 pp thru Nitmiluk Tours).

After forking out $18 each to pitch our tiny tents at the campground, I hit the pool to cool down, then lazed the afternoon away in the shade while the others did a quick hike up to the lookout in very warm conditions, probably about 30 degrees. 
We enjoyed meeting a Japanese backpacker who was doing the 8 gorges walk along the top of the escarpment of the Gorge. She was so excited when she saw a wallaby grazing in the wild, and she had a joey in her pouch.
Overnight, wallabies were grazing outside my tent - I could hear the chomping and looked up to see them just a foot away... one dragged Dallas’ backpack away during the night and managed to get inside the top zipped compartment. Clever buggers!
We laughed over some stories we told over our bbq dinner… I'd brought sausages and stir fry vegies in foil parcels from Darwin ….yum... but back to the funniest story... Gunther and Ursula finally decided to join the 21st century and so they bought a computer with an extra large monitor (great for watching DVD's as they don't own a TV) anyway, the monitor wouldn’t fit in their car - so they had to go out and buy a bigger car to fit it in….. we laughed ourselves silly on that one!

Day 1
In the morning we had to purchase our camping permits for the trail ($3.30 pp pn) plus a $200 security deposit to ensure we deregistered at the completion of the trek, and finally $7 each for the ferry across the Katherine River to the start of the walk.
We squeezed in the luxury of a coffee at the visitor’s centre and finally got the 9am ferry.
(Confusion reigns here as to the actual distances between campsites, one brochure published by NT Conservation Commission, a map by National Parks & Wildlife and an information leaflet published by NP&WS all quote different mileages; eg to Biddlecombe Cascades the distances quoted are 14.5km, 11.5km and 8km respectively.
I'm quoting in this blog the distances quoted in the latter publication, as this was the one we used on the track). 

The Jatbula Trail is a 60klm walk, named after Peter Jatbula, a Jawoyn tribesman of the traditional owners of the country now known as Nitmiluk.
It was only a 4km walk to the Northern Rockpools, where a 50 metre fall dropped into a deep pool. It was a fairly warm day so we had a wonderful swim and a long long lunch, lazing on the sandy beach. Met a young Jawoyn ranger who seemed an   inspirational descendant of the traditional owners of this country... such a good looking young man! Ursula found the skeleton of what we thought was a very small snake...

 A hot, dry and slight uphill hike for another 4kms thru some delightful scenery - with signs of buffalo scat and wallows. Lots of Sun Dew insect-eating plants glistening in the sunlight.
Arriving at Biddlecombe Cascades, we had flattened long grass for tent sites - not much shade but enough for 8 tents... we were sharing the walk with seven girls from the  Hunter Valley.  It was a 5 minute walk to the cascades, with a good deep swimming hole. I dashed in wearing my sweaty clothes for a swim.... stripped down to my bathers and spread out like a lizard on a rock. The next couple of hours flew past in a blur of unsurpassed contentment.

 I'd been concerned about my back injuries and was really stretching my luck by carrying 18 kgs, so I'd trimmed my equipment list down to the minimum... which unfortunately meant no book to read and no scotch to help the cool fresh waters of the stream slip down a little easier. The latter restriction really smarted when I discovered the seven nymphs  skinny dipping with a drink in their hands... 

It's always interesting at dinner time; comparing meals, tasting eachother's concoctions .... what reconstitutes better... who owns what type of dehydrator etc. but NZ's Backcountry meals and Settler's Mince were popular, although I can't go past my own dehydrated vegie curries with cous cous.
Because it gets dark so early, and campfires aren't allowed, we decided to crash early.
It was a starry starry night under mesh… didn’t take the tent fly (had been advised not to take a tent at all, but I'm so glad I ignored that)... and the glories of snuggling up in a warm sleeping bag while enjoying the myriad lights was blissful.

Day 2
The average age of our group of 4 was 70... and as I’m only 63 I considered myself in some esteemed company... and they pushed me to keep up the pace... at this point I'm merely talking about packing up camp .... I really enjoy the ritual of a cup of coffee or two in the mornings before I begin my day, but this was a luxury that was going to be sorely tested. And here I was thinking I was the leader.... foolish!!
Walking thru such varied vegetation, such as pandanus, sedge, flowering gums, grevilleas,  and masses of tiny orchids in the moisture of the recently dried-up creek beds.... there was lots of interest. 

  We had to take our boots off at 2 crossings, just that little bit too deep and no rocks for hopping across.
 We arrived at a rocky outcrop that screamed art site - and we weren't disappointed:
We scrambled up and over these craggy outcrops, the unexpressed tom boy in me coming out, and found many small examples of aboriginal art.


 After a decent break we set off, thinking we’d been walking at a decent speed when we reached the 4.5km sign on a 10km stretch after 2 hours; we adopted a slightly peeved demeanour after this disappointment.... there was nowhere picturesque or even comfortable to stop for lunch, so plopped on a fallen tree for a quickie lunch and then took off up the hot, dusty and longest 6km track -  thank goodness for the cooling breezes. We trundled  thru open forest, rooi grass, masses of young grevilleas with flocks of colourful parrots , ant hills,  and plenty of uphill stretches.






  Finally arrived at Crystal Falls - and plonked straight into the river. Lots of rock slabs to stretch out upon and a good flow creating spa pools. 
We set up camp, did some washing… shorts, shirt and sox were all so grubby… had a well-deserved coffee then discovered the track actually went across the river. Shit... we have to negotiate this stretch of water with our backpacks on... 
fast flowing, deep in places, and wide. 
 OK...time to test the river crossing…    I was fairly tired as my shaky legs and bare feet tested the water on 2 optional routes but Dallas and I were keen to find the best way for the very wary Gunther and Ursula, who both went across in their boots, looking very wobbly as they tested their mettle. 
Meanwhile, the seven girls  were celebrating a 50th birthday with a party on a massive boulder... Sambuccas all round …when they saw how wobbly Gunther & Ursula looked, they offered to carry their packs across in the morning…. what a generous offer… all high quality people in every regard. 
With just a hint of trepidation for the morning's trials, we went to bed ... it was only 8 o’clock… I was buggered.

Day 3 

Great speculation on the river crossing as we crawled out of our tents. I'd christened the girls "The Hunter Valley Harem"  and they were up early for the crossing too, and that was probably due to their volunteering to help with the crossing. All went well, nobody slipped and fell and there was great merriment when we were all safely across. It wasn’t that difficult… it just looked tricky. Eventually we moseyed along, checking out the huge gorge and the Crystal Falls.
We were all tightening our girth straps now… we all seemed to have lost a bit of lard already ("we" being us two girls, of course).  

Going thru sparsely treed country, lots of it burnt off in the typical mosaic method to control bushfires, small rounded or slender spired anthills, lots of rough rocky path in places and basically following the edge of the escarpment for 4kms, then we passed thru flat savannah grassland areas... what diversity! 

 Birds: more colourful parrots and red-tailed black cockatoos also more buffalo hoof prints that kept us on the lookout for dark rounded shapes amongst the trees.
The maximum elevation was attained at this point, about 180 metres above the Katherine River crossing.

Reaching the horseshoe-shaped
 Amphitheatre, we descended to a thick monsoonal rainforest pocket with some water pools and the very spiritual art site of the Jawoyn.   

  We had lunch beside the mirrored pools, bathed our feet in the cool waters,
I bandaged my little toes that'd been rubbing in my boots from rolling between all the stones on the rocky path, which is a really good workout for the ankles.Then the climb back out and the hot dusty 3km walk to the campsite. 


 Reaching the 17 Mile waterway, there were large pools and a small sandy beach, but the campsite was further down and across the stream. Had to trudge thru sludge - still an amazing amount of surface water from such a big wet season.
 Set up camp in the bare ground and blackened site that was 17 Mile Falls... the Harem had found a lovely spot on the other side of the river which was lucky, else it would’ve been impossible for all 8 tents in the limited space.

   I slunk off to the sandy beach to do my washing, make a coffee and spend some time in contemplation. Had a long lazy restful time on the beach. 

Day 4

 Not allowed to have campfires anymore, probably too many “accidents”… there were plenty of burnt out places along the way, and especially at 17 Mile campground… black sooty rocks and stumps.

 10 plus kms to Edith River Crossing thru varied vegetation, some rocky path, mostly flat, some fen, and closer to the river, melaleucas. We set a cracking pace, we’d finally hit our stride as we wanted to make Edith Crossing for lunch. Arrived 12 noon, after a couple of stops over the last half kilometre - Dallas was not well. He'd had some heart problems 3 years ago and was worried that some symptoms he had may be related, so he reluctantly decided to call it quits. Luckily he had his own EPIRB, so he set it off  and we waited, wondering just how long it takes to be rescued in the outback... there was a helipad at this checkpoint, where there'd previously been an emergency radio.
We were surprised to see a scout plane arrive and buzz the site before the Chopper arrived at 2.30pm; it was piloted by a young cowboy straight from Katherine Show - lucky if he was 25. Tricky landing, not much room for error; he probably musters cattle in his chopper. It was sad to see Dallas go, he must’ve been very worried to have pulled the pin.
 There're old ammunition boxes at the checkpoints 
along the way that are used as registers to make notes in as you pass...  there are lots of entries for groups such as World Expo and Gecko.

 We left Edith River Crossing at 2.45pm, the first hour was so hot - we passed the Channel Waterholes which were beckoning us for a swim, but we only had 2 hours to reach our next campsite, and we had no idea what the terrain would be like... some places along the way we were only averaging 2klms an hour. 

  More marshland, one boots-off river crossing and ONE SNAKE…. It shot out across the path between Ursula and me - about 1 metre long , not really thick, yellow with small dark head, probably a tree snake. Beautiful! It turned out to be the only wildlife we saw on the whole trail - apart from birdlife.   
We arrived at Sandy Camp Pool in good time and the girls were there to help us across the narrow but slippery crossing. Beautiful sandy campsite, right on the huge pool and under the shade of the many paperbarks. Had a swim, did my washing (pants and shirt so grubby again) then boiled the billy to wash down my last muesli bar…. then scored a couple more from one of the girls. Wow, my lucky day!
 The Harem invited me for a drink at Happy Hour - Baileys and Crème de Cacao... they even supplied the shot glass.... have they no idea on weight limits???
They each hosted a happy hour with their respective bottles of booze, and each one of them prepared the group meal…. all backcountry meals…. And that night it was Babootie. Wow!. They even gave me a taste, it was delicious. Had a delightful time, a very happy group of girls.

 By lamplight, I saw a large crayfish in the pool when I went to get some water… claws weren’t exceptionally fat but almost a foot long and huge eyes that glowed in my torch light. Oh! for my yabbie net!!

Day 5 

Woke to the gentle breezes ruffling my tent - the stars during the night were brilliant - I even saw a shooting star. It was a bit cool, time for the merino top, but never really needed the thermals ( so lucky I didn’t bother taking them). Luckily the night temperatures didn’t drop below 10 degrees.
It was going to be a short walk today, so I rewarded myself with a coffee beside the pool as the day brightened, watching the birdlife and the morning light play across the still waters - but all was not well... I only had one spoonful of coffee left - definitely under-catered there. (Never skimp on coffee or toilet paper... something I've now learnt).
Reluctantly left this beautiful campsite at 9am - it was expected to be under 2 hours to Edith River South Checkpoint. The track was a mixture of sandy creek bed, rocky path, marshy and boggy patches, long grass with possible lurking reptiles, & many varied trees and wonderful bird calls.
It was hot though, and I was tiring... and there was a shortage of inviting places to halt for a rest.... had to settle for a rock slab in dappled shade for a well-earned break.
It was only about 4kms to Sweetwater Pool so we pressed on, and for the first time we noticed how unusually bright blue the sky was... mostly it'd been hazy skies due to the amount of burning off.

We reached yet another boggy creek crossing, and Gunther, sick of being mamby-pambied, elbowed me out of the way and struck out, log hopping across with guarded alacrity, while Ursula opted for another boots-off crossing. 
Sweetwater: arriving in time for lunch, a quick swim, and a lazy afternoon - put the tent up and had a snooze, then another swim and laze in the sun. This wasn't a particularly inspiring campsite, and the day-trippers from Edith Falls were hiking up to this area to escape the crowds down below.... our wilderness experience had now ended!

Late afternoon, and we watched a sulpur-crested cockatoo feeding on the grevillea flowers while we fended off marauding crows who were keen to feed on our food supplies. Discovered later on that they'd managed to snaffle my rubbish bag and my supply of dried apple... very sneaky and so fast!
Over our last rations for dinner, we had a yarn about early lives; I learnt all about Gunther and Ursula's early life in Alice Springs back in the early 70's, and I told them about my travels thru Africa during the same era.
Was interesting to learn of Gunther's repartee to the Greenies: if they were really serious about pollution, then they wouldn't have kids - kids' needs over a lifetime are what really puts pressure on the earth's resources - and usually greenies have lots of kids.... think about it!!

Day 6  

Awoke to the usual cascading of waters and birdsong.
Poked my nose out of the tent for my ritual cup of coffee - down to my last  spoonful - 
was devastated when I realised I put staminade in the cup instead of milk -  - but Gunther said it gave me a good laugh and that was probably better for me than the caffeine. Can't argue with that and so had to settle for one of their tea bags.
One thing I learnt is never underestimate your requirements of coffee or toilet paper!
We wrapped up our last camp with a 5 minute sit in the sun on a rock slab, watching an egret fishing and some peaceful doves come down to drink.

We only had a 5km walk out this morning, and it was all back to reality...
the tourists were starting to get a bit thick on the ground now.  Stopped for a swim and morning tea at Long Waterhole, with lovely sandy patches, cascades, dappled shade.  
It was interesting to see the height of the flood debris in the trees, 6-7 metres above the current creek level.

  Our last stop was The Upper Falls of Leliyn ( Edith Falls)  where all the trees and sand had been washed away during last year's flood. We were just settling in under the one remaining tree half way up the rocks when a pack of 100 breeders descended upon the scene. One hundred 15 year old screaming school girls - what a disaster!!

 We ate a quick lunch and headed down to the campground and kiosk, where we had to deregister for our $200 security deposit.

 The devastation here from last December's flood was most evident. Apparently they had 350 mls of rain in 2 hours.

  It had washed away all the trees and sand from above, including the walk bridge, and thundered it all down into the pool below. the powerful force of that water pushed all the sand up from under the falls into a huge sand pile near shore, creating an island  and making the edges of the pool shallow enough in which to stand. All the small trees and shrubs had been washed away; last year you couldn't see the pool for the trees. 
It also washed away the kiosk, so no coffee or ice cream reward at the end of the trek.
Had a lovely swim and relax on the lawn (that was still there) before the guy from Gecko arrived to whizz us back to Katherine ($40 each).
Arriving back in civilisation, I turned the phone on and discovered Dallas was already back in Darwin and would meet us later that night at the bus terminal. When we arrived, he was there looking
 fresh and healthy.
Apparently the hospital tests in Katherine were inconclusive and the doctor suggested his "condition" was probably due to a "lack of condition"... Hot weather, heavy pack, no training!! At least he was OK .

Everybody takes something on a backpacking trip that you don't have - and  Dallas had taken his folding bucket for toting water. and this proved valuable; but two things I wished I'd taken were my aqua camera and a book to read during the relaxing afternoons riverside.

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Margaret on

A great read thanks, Dee. It certainly brought back memories of our Jatbula Adventure. We didn't see the colour of the flowers. Glad you enjoyed the walk and to read that Dallas is happy and well.

Carol on

Oh my God I am exhausted just reading. GLAD you had happy time.

A Hunter Valley Harem member!! on write fantastic was so lovely to have met you and shared this beautiful walk / campsites with you. (Sweetwater wasn't a good camp because we weren't there) :) Glad all is good with you Dallas. And an inspiration is Gunther and Ursula!! Keep healthy....keep walking.....and don't forget Happy Hours are a must!! :):)

Warren on

Really enjoyed the tale of your adventure ! Brought back a lot of memories of past treks, sound very different to the tracks that i have done ! Good onyer Dee!
Taking off this weekend to Central Australia for a month

Colleen on

Another delightful adventure Dee. Loved reading your blog. Just wish it was it book form so I could read it again at leisure. Your descriptions are so vivid felt as if I lived everything with you.

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