For a country the size of Australia, with it’s vast network of National Parks, you’d think that there would be countless opportunities for hikers looking for 4-7 day adventures out on the track.
Compared to our Kiwi tramping buddies across the Tasman, with their exceptional hut and trail system, the Aussie hiking landscape (at least up until fairly recently) has been quite different. For ages it felt like the key short multi-day walks were The Overland Track (Tasmania) or The Six Foot Track (NSW) and unless you were a local or walked with a bushwalking club knowing all the other (often off-track options), there didn’t appear to be much else.
The great news is that over the last few years there’s been a lot of work done in the various state National Park offices on developing sustainable overnight and short multi-day (4-7 day) trips. Specifically, adventures that are suitable for people who’ve done a few full day and overnight walks and are ready to step-up to try a true bushwalking holiday – a multi-day adventure.
The Jatbula Trail, within the Nitmiluk National Park of the Northern Territory, falls within this style of trek, as it is 65kms and traditionally done over 5 nights and 6 days.
I had the opportunity to come along with Trek Tours Australia on a trip during the 1st week of August, which is bang in the middle of prime walking season there. Being Northern Australia, where the two seasons of ‘wet’ (Nov-Apr) and ‘dry’ (May-Oct) rule, you really want to choose carefully and wisely when you want to go. There’s also the season that the NT (Northern Territory) locals call, ‘the Build Up’ which is Oct-Dec. Where if you ever wanted to know what it feels like to hike in a sauna (temps up to 45c/113F), you’re sure to find out!
Because the Jatbula Trail seasonal sweet spot is relatively short, National Parks have instigated an easy, online booking system to ensure that the campsites (which are AMAZING) don’t get over-booked and you can be assured of a remote wilderness experience with only 15 walkers allowed each day. As you can imagine, this books up very quickly each year when the bookings open in November for the following year. This is one of the massive benefits of deciding to walk with a commercial guide as you don’t have to make your mind up 10 months in advance. For instance, I only decided to join my August trip a few months earlier.
Day 1 – Darwin to Biddlecombe Falls
We were picked up at our hotel at 6am for the 3 hour drive to Katherine. Thankfully, we snuck in a coffee stop (from a machine… heck, we’re in the outback now!) at a roadhouse on the way. Arriving at the Nitmiluk Visitors Centre, (aka Katherine Gorge) we had a full briefing with our guides as they not only added our share of the group’s food to our packs (around 5kgs), but were able to loan packs, walking poles, sleeping bags or mozzie domes (no tents needed) to anyone who needed them.
I was pretty surprised by the total weight of my pack, which must have been up around 17kgs and after only just returning from an independent trip to the Kimberley region of WA, this was a real-life example of the weight of fresh food (Jatbula) versus dehydrated (Kimberleys). Not that I was going to complain, certainly after the exceptional quality of the meals that the guides prepared for us started to appear. Seriously, the best food I’ve ever had in the wilderness. Hands done.*
Pack weight up in Jatbula is also due to the amount of water you’ve got to carry. The most we ever carried was 3-4 litres on the longest day of 17kms, when the track leaves one creek system and you walk over the plateau and drop into another.
After a solid briefing and equally solid tasty lunch, we headed down to what has got to be the most expensive boat trip in Australia. Now, I know that the good folk at SeaLink Kangaroo Island reckon that theirs is the tops, but I reckon that the 90 second boat trip across the Katherine River for $7 probably takes the cake. But considering the number of man-eating saltwater crocs in this river, it’s $7 well spent!
Stepping out of the boat, you find yourself at the official start of the Jatbula Trail, the first opportunity for our guide, Jakob, to give us what would prove the first of many, interpretative chats. Again, a benefit of a guide instead of carrying a guide book.
This first day wasn’t going to be particularly long, but unlike the other days, it would see us starting to walk at 1pm, instead of at 7am, well before the heat of the sun starts to penetrate through your shirt. As a result, the heat got up to around 34c, which wasn’t too bad and was quickly satiated when we came to the first of what we were promised, were some of the best swimming holes in the Territory. I’d say, possibly Australia.
That is the key point about the Jatbula, the entire trail follows the ancient songline pathway of the Jaowyn aboriginal people, who would walk from waterhole to waterhole to move between Katherine Gorge (Nitmiluk) and Edith Falls.
As a result of much work between the Jaowyn and the Park Managers, we now have the privilege to walk this same line, swimming in those same pools and camping in what I believe to be the some of the best sites in Australia.
Speaking of campsites, before we knew it, we came to the first night’s spot at Biddlecombe Falls. I have to admit that it’s open, dry area didn’t impress me at first, however it’s when you walk the 80m towards the sound of tumbling water, that everything changes.
A beautiful cascade series of pools, about 20m wide to choose as your personal bath and pounding back massage, before the water tumbles endlessly over the final 10m drop to continue downstream. There’s even a spot you can swim in behind the waterfall – it felt like a door into Narnia.
Is this paradise? Is this heaven?
What does paradise look like? Well, arriving into camp at 4.30pm, paradise is returning to the campsite after your freshwater swim to find the billy has not only boiled, but your choice of Twinings tea, Staminade powder, hot chocolate or Moccona was waiting. Now, before the coffee freaks like, freakout, you’ll be pleased to know that the morning’s breakfast coffee was made with Vittoria grounds, made bush style in a large pot and the ‘tap technique’ to allow the grains to settle, then served with a ladle. It was amazing. Paradise continued as the sun set as we got stuck into the first of our tasty dinners – a spicy chilli con carne.
Day 2 – Biddlecombe to Crystal Falls
Nothing like an early start, waking up before the sun to get a crack on with the day. This was the start of us changing our clocks to not only a slower pace of life, a pace dictated by walking, but being more attuned to the times of the sun and its movement across our skies. Here in the Top End and all across Australia, the aboriginals have known for centuries that it’s just plain stupid to try and travel distances in the hottest part of the day.
This new rhythm set us up for the other huge benefit of it… arriving into your next camp around lunch time and having a whole afternoon to relax, sleep, read, chat, explore or swim. This was a rhythm I could certainly get used to… and we did.
After a wet feet creek crossing to start the day, the terrain varied from lush Pandanus groves around the waterholes, to open tall grassed areas, with the evidence of the seasonal burning in patches along the way.
The highlight of the day was morning tea, which was our first aboriginal art site for the trip. If you’ve spent anytime in the Top End before, such as in Kakadu, you get this sense of where there might be art. This cluster of rocks, standing up to 20m high, are a standout on the skyline as you approach them. I thought, “Aha… surely there must be art there!” We weren’t disappointed.
Jakob shared what he knew about the ancient rock paintings, with suggestions that one of the main figures represented Bula or Pula, one of the most significant figures in the creation stories of the Jaowyn people.
Further rock scrambles revealed a few more of these incredible pieces of art.
For me, yes … I am interested aboriginal art sites, but what I love more, is not just looking at the art itself, but looking at the ground and area around it, trying to picture the people, families, groups or those trusted to paint and share the stories through images, sitting there, mixing the ochres, chatting amongst themselves, fire burning somewhere in the background, and at the places where there are many small hand stencils on the walls, imagining the children who made those hands running around, laughing and giggling.
When living in the big cities of Australia and any built up area, the signs and stories of our oldest people (the oldest living people on earth) are usually pretty hard to find. You really have to dig, not just physically, but mentally to find a sign, let alone a connection to the incredible resilient nations that lived here long before the English invaded when Captain Cook stepped ashore in 1788.
Yes, this is my home, my country, but I say this with the acknowledgement of the history behind that. Taken by force and without recognition of those who truly call it country.
When I spend time in the bush, the visual cues, not just the obvious art, engraving, sharpening or other tool sites, but the not so obvious ways of route and hidden cliff passes that were a part of travelling through country, because they were passed along songline, become the lines and routes that I follow today… not because I’ve been taught the song, but because I read maps and the ground which say that they’re the easiest route through. These signs and journeys make me pause to consider those, who for 40,000 years have lived, loved, worked and fought in and for this country… country I now call home.
The campsite at Crystal Falls could not be more different than the night before. This was a great example of why there’s only 15 walkers allowed on each section of the track each day. A delightful grass ringed site, spitting distance from the most lovely wide, open river cascades.
In part 2, we discover the Amphitheatre and my favourite campsite of all!
*Apart from the time a friend turned up in Summer to a 3 day walk, with a hidden foam box with dry ice in it… with Magnums and **Gaytime ice-creams.
**Yes, in Australia, we have an ice-cream called a Gaytime. http://www.streetsicecream.com.au/Brand/Golden_Gaytime.aspx