Canoeing the Katherine

Canoeing the Katherine

One of the problems with living in Darwin is that tourism is in your face every day. So it can be a little daunting planning a weekend away with family or friends when you know you will be bumping elbows with the travelling hordes. To avoid all that, head to Katherine and flee to the Nitmiluk Gorge for a two-day canoeing escapade that is not just budget-priced, but a reward in itself.

Getting there

The worst part of the 300km drive to Katherine is the hour or so it takes to get out of the Darwin hinterland. Nitmiluk Gorge is only a 30-minute trip from the township. Plan to leave Darwin around 3pm, which should place you at tonight's accommodation no later than 6pm.

When you get there

The All Seasons Katherine Hotel is centrally located in the Katherine township. The rooms are comfortable motel-style and the tariff includes a continental breakfast and 15 minute of free Internet access. On arrival grab a beer at Rusty's Bar then a steak at the restaurant. True, this is no epicurean delight but the meals are hearty and the service good. Don't stay up too late because the gorge anticipates an early arrival.


Canoes are available for pickup after 8am at the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre. The canoe hire includes splash-proof containers for storage but you will have to bring everything you need for the two days, including food, drinks, sleeping bag, tent, hat, towel, sunglasses, clothing, cooking equipment and, of course, sunscreen. Pack light is the hot tip.

Once you have dealt with this bit of housekeeping, you will have the freedom to intimately discover the Katherine River from where it falls naturally from the Arnhem Land escarpment having steadfastly, over millions of years, meticulously carved out a 13-gorge system known as Nitmiluk National Park.

From the first minute your canoe glides across the serene waters glinting under the slanting rays of early morning light bouncing off the surrounding terracotta stone overhangs, you will engage a spiritual connection with this place.

Characterised by crags and ridges, folds and creases like a wise and ancient face, for the next 28 hours the paddle scoops the surface guiding you through the fifth, sixth and seventh gorges. It will soon be obvious that this river truly is accessible to anyone.

Take the time to enjoy the experience but be aware that a certain level of fitness it required because canoes need to be carried between the gorges. However, the canoeing, swimming and walking up banks to view the ancient Aboriginal art lurking in rocky crevices will enhance your day.

The first of the designated campsites is at the fifth gorge, approximately 9km from the Visitor Centre. If this is not remote enough, there is also a campsite in the sixth gorge. Plan your day to arrive around 4pm so there is plenty of time to prepare the camp before the light fades.

Wood fires are not permitted but many a gourmand has been thrilled with the meal prepared on a gas burner, and absolutely nothing compares to sleeping on a sandy beach alongside the Katherine.


A Sunday breakfast of pancakes and maple syrup, fruit and coffee feeds both the body and soul. Back on the river, even through the long dry season there is plenty of water on which to glide close to rocky banks, drift amidst paperbark forests, race down small rapids and paddle through pandanus channels.

Ducks, egrets, herons, parrots, cockatoos and even the elusive brolga call this waterway home, along with wallabies, wallaroos, goannas, freshwater crocodiles and plenty of fish.

There are a limited number of permits available for access to Nitmiluk so greeting your fellow canoeists along the river is an adventure in itself. And since the journey requires paddling back to the Visitor Centre starting point by 4.30pm, schedule lunch for the sandy shores of the sixth gorge so there is no rush in the paddle home.

The last bit of housekeeping is to ensure you take all your litter with you and deposit it in the bins provided at the landing. Then you can leave knowing you have immersed yourself in a relaxing, stress-free environment, and learned a little about the natural features, environment and ecosystems of this remarkable area.

What to bring home

Be sure to have pictures taken of you canoeing the gorges, 'cos no one will believe you without proof.

Where to stay

Rooms at the All Seasons Katherine Hotel start at $165 per night.

For the Nitmiluk Tours, a refundable deposit of $60 is required per canoe at the time of booking. This will be refunded in cash at the end of your tour. Double canoes are $59 per person and single canoes cost $104 per person.

Note: Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Commission requires canoeists obtain a permit at a cost of $3.30 per person. Permits are limited so pre-book.

What to leave behind

End-of-week stress.

What to splurge on

Something nice from the Visitor Centre because all the profits go back to the Aboriginal community.

Got any other suggestions? Share your insight below.

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