Cruising the spirit world

Tops end ... the Nitmiluk Gorge.
Tops end ... the Nitmiluk Gorge. 

Christina Pfeiffer is struck by the power of nature and indigenous legend on a trip through Nitmiluk Gorge.

We float past rocky sandstone cliffs that soar above our heads, some 70 metres high. All around us, the sun is shining on an earthy palette of ochre, brick red and burnt honey. Growing in crevices are hanging gardens of palms and maidenhair ferns. A couple paddling towards us in a yellow canoe is a slow-moving dot in the stunning cinematographic landscape of Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge.

The traditional landowners call it Nitmiluk Gorge, which means "cicada place" in the Jawoyn language. Our Jawoyn guide, Don McGregor, tells us that Nitmiluk was named by a dragon-like creation figure called Nabilil, who travelled across the land, arriving at the entrance to Nitmiluk when the cicadas were in full song.

In Nitmiluk National Park, 13 gorges have been carved out of sandstone by the Katherine River, forming a chain of long, calm pools. In the dry season these pools are separated by rapids but during the wet season, when the water level rises (sometimes by as much as 18 metres), the tranquil river turns into a raging torrent.

Trees and shrubs in the lower section of the gorge all grow in the same direction, shaped by the seasonal floods.

Nitmiluk National Park belongs to the Jawoyn people and is managed by the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Commission. But all the park's activities and tours are run by Jawoyn Association-owned Nitmiluk Tours.

As McGregor rattles off the names of the local birdlife little pied cormorant, black cormorant, king pied cormorant, white-faced heron, rainbow lorikeet and Australian darter I peer at the striking sandstone cliffs, occasionally catching a glimpse of fluttering wings.

McGregor tells us Jawoyn Dreaming stories about the time when their world was made by beings that travelled the land creating, naming and bringing life to country.

Even today, the Jawoyn continue to follow laws laid down by these creation beings. Foremost among them is Bula, who travelled far and wide across the land, magically transforming the landscape.

Bula left his image as paintings in rock shelters before disappearing under the ground in an area north of Katherine known to the Jawoyn as Sickness Country. According to Jawoyn beliefs, Sickness Country must not be disturbed for fear that Bula might unleash earthquakes and fires that will destroy the world.

Dreaming stories are not the only creation stories in the park. According to scientists, 1650 million years ago the area was the mouth of a huge river delta. Sand and rocks tumbled down the river, creating layers of sediment (rocks, pebbles, sand and silt). Old layers were compressed under new layers to form the hard sandstone and conglomerate of the Kombolgie Formation.

Twenty-five million years ago, rivers began to cut deep paths through the sandstone, weathering and eroding the gorges. The result is the dramatic work of nature that thousands of visitors come here to enjoy.

At the end of the first gorge, we climb out of the boat and walk towards the base of a cliff. Here we look up and before us, carved in the rocks, is a gallery of human and spirit figures, flanked by kangaroos and other wildlife.

The paintings, etched high on the cliff face, radiate a spiritual aura. Staring up at them, I'm inclined to believe the Jawoyn Dreaming tale about Bula leaving his image across the land.

We climb into a smaller boat to navigate the second gorge, where we float above a calm, deep green pool. The Dreamtime Rainbow Serpent, Bolung, lives in this gorge. Although Bolung is revered as a life-giving figure, the Jawoyn also fear him as he can cause havoc and destruction by commanding lightning strikes and floods.

The Jawoyn are cautious about fishing or drinking from Bolung's pools. Only a small portion of the fish caught is taken, the rest are thrown back; pregnant women are not allowed to swim in the Katherine River for fear of disturbing Bolung. Unlike other Jawoyn Dreaming characters, such as Barrava, who may be addressed for help in hunting and foraging matters, speaking directly to Bolung is just not done.

But someone must have upset Bolung recently. In March, a 3.5-metre saltwater crocodile was spotted on the loose in the second gorge. Saltwater crocodiles are usually found further down the Katherine River system but occasionally some make their way into the popular tourist gorges when the water levels are high.

McGregor picks up a didgeridoo lying in the front of the boat and blows a song. The music swells from deep within the gorge, its haunting acoustics combined with stunning visuals stirring our emotions.

Later in the evening, we're seated for dinner at a table that runs the length of the boat, tucking into roast lamb and steamed vegetables. We stop at a small sandy beach and sink into large, comfortable beach cushions. We lie back in silence staring at the blanket of stars twinkling overhead, speechless at the power of nature.

The writer was a guest of NT Tourism.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Blue fly to Darwin. Katherine is 310 kilometres from Darwin. By car, there are three main roadside stops with cafes, fuel and bathroom amenities. The Ghan train service (phone 132 147, see gsr.com.au) also stops in Katherine and offers a Nitmiluk Gorge cruise.

CRUISING AROUND

A Nabilil Dreaming Sunset Cruise costs $116 (adult) and $101 (child). It includes a three-course meal and a glass of champagne. Nitmiluk Tours is an indigenous tourism operator owned by the Jawoyn Association, phone 1300 146 743, see nitmiluktours.com.au. Tours depart from the Nitmiluk National Park boat jetty, located about 32 kilometres from the Katherine township.

WHEN TO VISIT

The best months are May to September.

MORE INFORMATION

Tourism NT, phone 136 110 or see travelnt.com.

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