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Katherine: A lovely town with gorges, gallery, and museum

Published
October 28, 2023
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Map data ©2023 Google. North at top.

KATHERINE, a sizable town of more than six thousand, with lots of cafés and street art, was a good place to relax for a few days after my actually rather adventurous times in Kakadu National Park.

Street art in Katherine


An image of a local identity

It’s clearly a good place to shop for outback gear as well!

The Katherine Visitor Information Centre was more than happy to help me with things to do.

It turns out that Katherine is right next door to Nitmiluk National Park, another of the many national parks and nature reserves in the Northern Territory. Nitmiluk National Park used to be known as Katherine Gorge National Park, because the Katherine River cuts across an incredibly ancient rocky plateau (1.7 billion years old) through an impressive string of eight gorges.

So, naturally, I went there to have a look! You can see a sizable gorge cruise boat in the water in the next photo, which gives an idea of scale. The sign describes the mythical rainbow serpent, known among the local Jawoyn people as the Bolung.

One of the Nitmiluk Gorges, with a cruise boat for scale


Looking out into the plains

The rainbow serpent is an important creator being for several Northern Territory nations. It is said to have created the gorges at Nitmiluk and to sleep in a deep pool in the second gorge upstream from Katherine, which was traditionally, therefore, not used for fishing or other mundane purposes by the Jawoyn.

More detail from the Bolung sign at the gorge

Here is a video that I made, panning back and forth over the gorge.

The Katherine River has long been a vital source of life for the Jawoyn, creating an oasis-like environment in the low-lying areas close to the river. Higher up on the plateau, in the so-called stone country, the environment is that of a desert.

The terrifying estuarine, or saltwater, crocodile is not usually encountered this far inland, though the river still contains freshwater crocodiles: a smaller species that can be dangerous but normally leaves people alone.

I saw orangey-yellow floats in the river which were apparently baited and put there to be bitten by crocodiles. As long as the bites were small it was situation normal, but if a big chunk was taken out then this implied that a rogue saltie had come all the way up the river and it was time to be extra careful.  

I decided to go for a short hike on one of the many local trails. In the national park headquarters, known as the Nitmiluk Centre, I discovered that the stone country trails were closed because of a heat wave. But trails in the forest were still open.

Trail information at the Nitmiluk Centre


Another trail information sign

The forest was pretty spindly by New Zealand standards. But bearing in mind that this was outback Australia, it was better than no forest at all.



The author on the trail

Here’s a view from the trail on a higher level.


And mysterious rounded rocks on a cliff.

With all these red rocks, so much of Australia is really what Mars would be like if it had some shrubs.

There is a variety of accommodation in Katherine, including the Nitmiluk Centre, where I opted to stay for only $20 a night on an unpowered campsite.

Information panel at the Katherine Visitor Information Centre

Accommodation at Nitmiluk National Park

The Nitmiluk Centre was amazing. Although I stayed in the campground, you could get cabins and organise tours from here. It was a huge facility, open from 7:30 am to 7 pm, and you could get all meals. The Ghan train offers off-train excursions here, and they have luxurious dining facilities: for more, see nitmiluktours.com.au.

Back in town, I was surprised to learn that Katherine was bombed in World War II. Indeed, it is the most inland town that Japanese aviators managed to reach.

Commemorative stone for the 53rd anniversary of the bombing of Katherine

Here’s a short news item that was made in 2012, on the 70th anniversary of the bombing.

The website of the Katherine Town Council has a page on the town’s history, which you can delve into for more background.

I really enjoyed Katherine, where you could get a chicken meal for A$6. And I can also recommend the Finch Café, decorated with an image of the spectacular Gouldian Finch and other birdlife.

Funnily enough, I ended up having coffee with the local cops, who hold a get-together with the community once a month where people can come along and discuss issues, with free coffee. It’s called ‘Coffee with a Cop’, and they have these monthly meetings in quite a few places in the Northern Territory.

Coffee with the Cops

It seemed like a caring community. But there has been a lot of crime and home invasions. It sounded like there was a real social breakdown, with kids completely out of control and tensions between the whites and the aboriginals.

Australia’s history of relations between the white settlers and the aboriginals, who currently number about one million out of a total national population of just under 26 million, is really disastrous, to the point that an interactive map of ‘Colonial Frontier Massacres, 1788–1930’ has lately been put together online, with a yellow dot for each massacre, overwhelmingly of the aboriginals by the settlers who often don’t seem to have regarded the aboriginals as quite human, and with details if you click on the dot.

Suffice it to say that even though Australia is a big place, you have to zoom in quite a bit before the yellow dots stop overlapping. And while I was aware that a lot of that sort of thing did go on in the early days, I was surprised to learn that the map ended in 1930, not 1830.

It is true that the aboriginals have many social problems, such as widespread alcoholism. One person interviewed on the massacre website said that this was a consequence of constantly going in fear of getting killed by the local whites.

The average white Australian doesn’t know anything about this, partly because most white Australians live in big cities while the massacres mostly took place in out-of-the-way places. And because this side of Australia’s history is somewhat hushed up as well.

But in any case, this history is a lot closer to the surface in places like the Northern Territory, where the site of some notorious massacre is never too far away.

At the time, the Voice vote was ongoing: the proposal to establish a constitutionally protected aboriginal advisory body for the Australian Government, which sounded like a worthy, harmless, and generally long-overdue idea but was unfortunately turned down by the overwhelmingly white electorate.

Most aboriginal communities voted heavily for Voice, but they are only a small minority overall, and some aborigines also had doubts as to whether it would even be effective.

Having said that, things haven’t been so murderous since 1930, at least, and aboriginal culture is becoming less marginalised. the way into Katherine, there was an excellent gallery of Aboriginal art, one of several in the region.


Aboriginal artwork in the gallery

I also visited the Katherine Museum, which had really excellent information panels on the history of the region and its peoples.

The Katherine Museum



There were displays about early explorers, including one who was a woman.

And there was a display about Jeannie Gunn, author of the classic 1908 Outback novel We of the Never Never, set at Mataranka, a locality I was going to visit once I left Katherine on the way to Alice Springs.

All in all, I could hardly think of a place more useful for schoolkids to visit. The museum also had lots of physical exhibits, and a gallery dedicated to Clyde Fenton, the Northern Territory’s first flying doctor.

According to the entry on Wikipedia, “Fenton was a self-taught pilot, and flew without the aid of any navigation equipment, air charts, and often proper landing strips.”

Officialdom didn’t approve of the doctor also being the pilot of a government plane, so Fenton acquired his own. Here is a photo of the man himself: he does look a bit like the sort of Northern Territory character who wouldn’t have worried too much about red tape. In the photo, Fenton has a plaster on his nose, a consequence of having recently been attacked by a cow.

Dr Clyde Fenton, detail from a photograph taken by Peter Donegan in 1937. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons, photo cropped a little further for this post.

There were a couple of places that I regretted not making it to. These were Leliyn or Edith Falls, toward the northern end of the Nitmiluk National Park, which is a good place to stay and also has the advantage of crocodile-managed pools to swim in (meaning that if a crocodile shows up, typically at the end of the wet season when rivers are high and overflowing, they are closed); and the Katherine Hot Springs, which I didn’t visit because I thought they would be too hot in the hot weather, but which actually have a cool part as well.

Because of my stay in Katherine for three nights, Joshua had to push on. It was a pit about that for it is really nice travelling with someone else, there is no doubt about it. And also safer on these roads too, as a buddy system with two cars. But then I met a guy called Kevin who had a physiotherapy dog. I met him at Katherine and we decided to be road buddies for the next leg to Tennant Creek.

Levin and his dog

By the way, there is a maps app with lots of Northern Territory maps on it: Avenza. For more, see nt.gov.au/parks/safety-rules/get-park-maps-on-your-mobile-phone.

Here’s a sign I saw on my travels, a bit further south, with a Northern Territory Government link that takes you to the one just above.


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