Australia’s Northern Territory is one of the most rugged and imposing regions in the country. Desolate deserts contrast with flooded deltas, while millennia-old gorges carve their way across the land.
The territory is a tough place, teeming with saltwater crocodiles, deadly snakes, scorching temperatures and intense wet seasons. But blanketing the danger is an undeniable beauty, a striking rawness that attracts travellers from around the world.
We enjoyed our first foray into the Northern Territory shrouded in absolute comfort onboard The Ghan, the iconic train that charges through the heart of Australia from Adelaide and Darwin. Gazing out the window watching the terrain transform from lush farmland in the south to barren red dirt in the centre was simply majestic, but we knew the real magic was to be found in the wilderness outside the carriages.
Great Southern Rail run a series of interesting off-train excursions during their expeditions, and we had already enjoyed a sunrise breafkast in Marla, and made the most of the opportunity to wander the spectacular Simpsons Gap near Alice Springs. On the third and final day we were only few hours from Darwin when the last activity, and the one we were most excited about, arrived – exploring Katherine.
320km southeast of Darwin, Katherine is a small outback town with a population of just over 6000. The establishment of Katherine was based on the original Australian Overland Telegraph Line that connected communications between the south and north. Gold mining soon developed, as did an air force base, with tourism eventually becoming an important industry.
The highlight of Katherine lies in the nearby Nitmiluk National Park. This 3000km² reserve is home to ancient aboriginal rock paintings, stunning gorges and striking waterfalls. The most famous section is Katherine Gorge, and this is where we found ourselves once we had jumped off The Ghan.
Disembarking the train around lunchtime the passengers split up into groups and headed off for their various excursions. Opting for the Nitmiluk Gorge Cruise, we arrived inside the national park in short time and moved down towards the boat dock.
The boats were motor-powered vessels with a tarpaulin shade roof and open sides providing excellent views. As we started making our way up the Katherine River the surrounding terrain went from tree-lined banks and sandy beaches to jagged, precipitous rock cliffs.
Our captain-cum-tour-guide pointed out various landmarks and kept an eye open for any crocs that may be cruising along the river as well. We were unlucky not to see one, but that didn’t remove much from the experience. The deeper we moved into the gorge the more dramatic the scenery became.
Soon we reached a set of rapids and docked on the adjacent rocks. We jumped out of the boat and started making our way along the hiking trail and boardwalk. We passed between small cascades and overhanging cliffs, occasionally stepping under weeping trees lining the river.
About 5 minutes in we reached a captivating piece of ancient rock art, left behind by the traditional landowners, the Jawoyn aboriginal people. Katherine Gorge has many historic rock art sites, and this was one of the most easily accessed. Some passengers of The Ghan had decided to break away here and do a dedicated Aboriginal Art Tour, while we continued on towards the second half of our river cruise.
We motored along the ravine, twisting and turning to follow the contours of the river. Other boats passed us by, and we eventually reached a large eddy in the river. Our guide talked about the wonders of the park that lay further ahead, but which could only be seen with more time.
Staring up the tranquil Katherine River we could only imagine how this beautiful it would be to wander for days on end, working our way into the heart of this natural wonder. Suddenly a helicopter flew overhead, offering paying guests a birds-eye view of this epic world.
We returned the same way we had came, dropping us at the intermediary dock. We followed the boardwalk back past the rock art and onto our original boat. Everyone kept their eyes peeled, on the visual hunt for any crocodiles that may be lounging in the sun. Unfortunately we found none.
The buses were waiting when we left the boats behind, and we relaxed on the way back to the train station. Passing through quaint Katherine was more picturesque than one would expect for a town that was located in such a harsh environment. When we got back to the station The Ghan and its superb staff were waiting for us.
Like our previous experiences on the Indian Pacific, life back on the train was unhurried and enjoyable. We made the most of the buzzing lounge, sipping on the last of our boutique wines before our arrival in Darwin.
It’s always bittersweet when a journey of such quality as The Ghan comes to an end, but the joy of looking back on the moments both on and off the train helped secure it as one of the most wondrous ways to traverse Australia.
Leaving The Ghan in Darwin had us reflecting on where we had come from and what we had seen. The Katherine Gorge Cruise in Nitmiluk National Park was nothing short of incredible, and coupled with life on the train had us longing for more. We made a pact to return one day, perhaps to soak up the rail journey in reverse.
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