If you browse through travel forums you’ll see that, when enquiring how long to stay in Katherine while driving that wild and remote triangle beyond Darwin, most advice will be to allow for 2 days maximum.
I know this because I spent considerable time pouring through Trip Advisor and travel blogs looking for the perfect 3 week Top End journey.
When we worked out that we’d have 4 nights in Katherine we hoped it wouldn’t be too long to stay there, although looking at the map it looked like there was enough for us to get out and see within an easy 100klm drive from town.
In fact there was so much spectacular natural beauty around Katherine that we easily filled our days, in our typical relaxed and laid back fashion. Typical of the outback, there are also plenty of unusual bits and pieces around the outskirts of town
The major attraction is, of course, Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge. The gorge and surrounding regions hold spiritual significance for the Jawoyn people, who have called this place home for thousands of years, with some still living here under traditional laws and customs.
With plenty of tour options on offer from indigenous-owned Nitmiluk Tours we decided on a 4 hour boat trip that took us through 3 of the gorges, combining cultural history lessons with bird and wildlife spotting.
Of course we didn’t read the tour information thoroughly, and when we saw other travellers turning up for the tour with swimming gear and pool noodles, we realised we must have missed an important detail. Bugger…. a swim would’ve topped off the tour nicely.
What else is there to do in Katherine I hear you ask….
Well, let me tell you there are the most amazing thermal springs, right in town! Yes, that’s true and it was all a bit of a surprise because we weren’t expecting it to be very much at all. In fact we left it until our last day to visit and I’m so glad we didn’t let it pass us by.
The areas surrounding Katherine are teeming with waterways, thermal springs and swimming holes, most of them easily accessible as day trips from Katherine or with camping sites nearby for the adventurous types. Considering it was the dry season at the time of our visit, there was plenty of water around. We would love to return at the end of the wet season when the rivers and creeks run wild.
Now, I can hear some of you saying: “why on Earth would anyone want to swim in thermal springs when the weather is so hot there?”, and I can understand why you’d be thinking that way, because Katherine is actually regarded by locals as “where the outback meets the tropics”.
So, yes it does get hot there, but the weather was a gorgeous wintery 25C in July when we visited, and the hot water is strangely refreshing and thoroughly invigorating.
Mataranka and nearby Bitter Springs is a wonderland of thermal and spring water pools, and because we had plenty of time we swam and hiked each day for as long as we wanted.
We did manage to take on some pretty challenging walks that pushed me almost to my limits.
I love it when struggling up a super steep climb and pass others on their way down, and they encourage us along by saying we are almost at the top, then 20 minutes later another group tells us the same thing.
Anyway, we were always well rewarded with either magnificent views or magical swimming, and quite often we had both.
What else is there in Katherine? Well there is the quirky Katherine Museum with lots of eclectic artefacts housed at a former World War II air terminal. We always try to visit a local museum because it helps us to make sense of a place, to understand its history and local culture.
Katherine has an incredible history of hardship and survival, and just about everything that ever happened in this region is displayed at the museum site. As just one example, we didn’t really know much about the devastating flood that virtually wiped out Katherine on Australia Day 1998.
The museum showed a brilliant video from an old ABC “Country Hour” program with footage of the entire town covered with a brown 2 meter deep lake, after days of torrential rain thanks to the remains of Tropical Cyclone Les. By January 27, the river had peaked at 20.4 metres.
I’m so glad we took the extra time to explore around Katherine and not just pass through.
I think the biggest surprise for us was finding how lush and green it is there, just like a true oasis in the middle of barren desert.
I had no idea what to expect at Katherine so any expectations I did have were well and truly exceeded.
Next up, a short drive north to spend a long weekend with Dave’s cousins and their friends, camping (!) at Litchfield National Park.