Top time in the Top End: Katherine Gorge and Darwin

At the end of our week in Central Australia, we re-boarded the Ghan late in the afternoon for the overnight journey from Alice Springs to Darwin. Next morning, we pulled in to the town of Katherine, at the southern edge of what Australian’s call ‘the Top End’, being the part of the Northern Territory which has a tropical climate.

Katherine is best known for the nearby Nitmiluk National Park. This is the home of the Katherine Gorge, which comprises thirteen distinct sections that make their way through a series of right-angled splits in the 1600 million-year-old Arnhem Plateau. This massive sandstone plateau is so old that it contains no fossils!

   

At the level of the river that flows through the gorge, the view is attractive enough but the scenery is not especially stunning. From the air, however, it is quite spectacular. I have seen this view in photos and television shows but, as an experience, it remains an unrequited wish on my bucket list. If you click here, you will get an idea of what it’s like.

One way to add value to a visit to the gorge is to take a boat tour with Nitmiluk Tours, the tour company owned by the local Jawoyn people. (Nitmiluk is a Jawoyn word meaning ‘place of cicadas.) Most of the commentary is provided by Jamie, who began working in the park 25 years ago in his late teens. He has a vast knowledge of the park’s geology, ecosystems, flora and fauna, as well as the area’s significance to the Jawoyn.

Cruising through Katherine Gorge with James and Jamie from Nitmiluk Tours

Many of the local animals are nocturnal, in order to avoid the intense heat of the day. However, we did get to see a few crocodiles. Relax! These are freshwater crocs, smaller than the fearsome saltwater ones, and will only attack a human if they feel threatened. I have swum in a river where some lived and I’m here to tell you the tale.

If you click on this photo, you should be able to spot a crocodile lying along the water’s edge on the left-hand side. Great camouflaging!


The park is also renowned for its vast ‘collection’ of rock art, paintings which adorn the exposed faces of the plateau. Some of the works by the Jawoyn’s ancestors were painted more than 5,000 years ago. James, who is an initiated Jawoyn man, showed us a small sample. In this photo, you might see an image of a kangaroo on the right-hand side.

In the next two photos, you can see into the second of the thirteen gorges, and one of the many small, sandy beaches that form as the soft sandstone of the plateau erodes and washes down to the gorge. So, we learned a lot that was valuable but I’m still hankering for a visit by helicopter!

   

After we returned to the Ghan, we began the last leg of our journey by rail through the centre of Australia, arriving in Darwin just as the sun was setting. It had been a great journey, very comfortable, excellent meals and consistently good-quality service.

Two more national park adventures awaited us. Before those, we spent a day exploring the heart of Darwin, beginning with its hop-on, hop-off bus. It wasn’t the most glamorous of vehicles – not recommended for the summer months – but it took us to the popular sights, with a good recorded commentary, supplemented by the informative, good-natured driver.

Our first ‘hop-off’ location was the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT). Our priority here was the permanent exhibition about Cyclone Tracy, a small but intensely powerful cyclone which struck Darwin in the early hours of Christmas Day, 1974. 71 persons were killed and many more injured, 70% of houses were destroyed and all services were severed.

It was a traumatic event, felt keenly by most Australians, and it took many years to rebuild Australia’s northern-most capital city. So, it meant a lot to Maggie and I to learn more about the details of what occurred during and after the cyclone hit.

As were leaving MAGNT, we came across an unusual sculpture display in the building’s forecourt. Here is a sample.

What was this all about? You can read the answer in the next image, followed by another two of the pieces. They’re colourful and quirky, playing to the special place of ‘bush mechanics’ in the communities and culture of outback Australia.

   

We hopped on the next bus that came along and, on the advice of the driver, hopped off at a relatively new waterfront precinct to have a light lunch at an oyster bar. Here we are, glasses of prosecco in hand and about to share a dozen oysters, with trios of the molluscs prepared in four different ways. The oysters had been flown in from the southern coast of the country, more than 2,500 kilometres away, and they were as fresh as if they had just been harvested before we sat down. Thank you Mr Bus Driver!

Later that day, we went on a ‘sunset cruise’, one of the most popular activities with visitors to Darwin. We had dinner on the boat’s bow-end terrace, enjoying the balmy conditions and taking in the view.

   

Our lunch of oysters was one of four excellent meals we enjoyed while we were in Darwin. I mention this, because Darwin is a small, knock-about city, more famous for its beer-can-boat regatta than its food culture. And when it comes to food, expectations would be that most dining options would be either a variation on seafood, chips & salad, or a cuisine that reflects Darwin’s proximity to South East Asia.

Our other meals of note were at two bistros that specialised in tapas, one with a Moroccan bent, the other Spanish. Here is one example, featuring char-grilled kangaroo, served at Moorish, a renowned Darwin establishment. It was very more-ish indeed!

We had booked to travel all the way to Darwin on the Ghan mainly so we could travel out of the city to visit the Top End’s renowned national parks. So, our experiences in Darwin itself came as a bonus and we would recommend to anyone heading that way to spend a couple of days there.

As for the parks, I will share those stories in my next two posts.

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

About rmgtravelsandfood

Maggie and I are both in our mid-60s and live in Melbourne, Australia. This blog is devoted to our shared passions for travel and fine dining at home. As cooks, we are skilful and adventurous within a framework of mainly traditional ingredients and techniques, and we aim to prepare nutritious food that looks good and tastes delicious. Our evolving repertoire is influenced by both our travels and Melbourne's vibrant food culture. While we are young enough, our priority travel destinations are overseas, although we do spend a few long weekends each year exploring parts of south-eastern Australia. As travellers, we are most comfortable with a combination of organised and independent touring. Our first overseas journey together was to Italy in the northern autumn of 2008. We later travelled in France (2009), Spain (2011), Singapore and Cambodia (2012/13). All trips from 2014 to 2016 are documented in this blog. When time allows, we will publish posts about our journeys - eight and counting - in 2017, 2018 and 2019
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