Rocks or crocs?

Cruising up the spectacular Katherine Gorge in the Nitmiluk National Park. Picture supplied
The Ghan Expedition from Darwin to Adelaide travels through the ‘Red Centre’ of Australia.
Jay shouts ‘boh-boh’ to us.
Aboriginal rock art in the gorge.
As we near a deep pool in the upper reaches of the second gorge, Sam tells us a Dreamtime story of the Jawoyn people.

Justine Tyerman sees ‘crocs’ everywhere as she cruises up the Katherine River in Australia’s Northern Territory . . .

I came face-to-face with a ‘rockodile’ on day one of my train journey from Darwin through the ‘Red Centre’ of Australia to Adelaide on the famous transcontinental Ghan Expedition.

Having left Darwin mid-morning, The Ghan pulled into the Northern Territory town of Katherine early in the afternoon to be met by a fleet of coaches waiting to take us on a variety of excursions. After much consultation with Aaron, my hospitality attendant, I chose a cruise through two of the 13 gorges on the Katherine River in the magnificent 292,000-hectare Nitmiluk National Park.

The cruise also involved a hike, a token attempt at justifying the consumption of alarming quantities of delicious food and beverages served to passengers on the four-day, three-night Ghan Expedition.

We boarded barges and cruised slowly up the first of the spectacular steep-sided sandstone gorges, carved by the Katherine River over millions and millions of years. The commentary of our skipper-guide Sam added wonderful layers of meaning and history to the experience.

“Nitmiluk means ‘cicada country’ to the indigenous Jawoyn people,” she said. “Listen and you’ll hear the buzzing sound. It’s especially loud in the evenings.”

The white sandy beaches alongside the river looked like idyllic spots for picnics and swims until Sam drew our attention to the signs: ‘Crocodile nesting area — do not enter.’

They’re mainly freshwater crocs here not the monster ‘salties’ I’d seen in Darwin but you still wouldn’t want to get in their way. Thereafter I imagined I saw many crocs submerged in the river, some right alongside the barge near my dangling hand, but they were “probably rockodiles” according to Sam. It was the word “probably” that had me worried.

The kayakers we passed on the river must have been incredibly brave or foolhardy — I couldn’t decide which.

Turning my attention upwards, while keeping my arms and hands well clear of the water, I was awed by the staggering height of the sheer cliffs on either side of our barge, reaching 60 to 100m depending on the depth of the river. The Katherine rises up to 9-10 metres during times of flood and the extreme sideways lean of the trees are an indication of the strength of the current.

But the day I was there, the river was so low we had to hike over rocky terrain between the two gorges, boarding another barge on the other side.

Earth is mother

Sam pointed out aboriginal paintings etched in the rock walls high above us, still intact after thousands of years. Some indigenous art in the region dates back 40,000 years, the oldest known art form on the planet.

As we neared a deep pool in the upper reaches of the second gorge, Sam told us a Dreamtime story of the Jawoyn people.

“According to legend, Bolung, the rainbow serpent, carved the gorge in his own image then laid to rest in the 40m deep pool right below us.

“There’s a whirlpool there and Jawoyn people won’t swim, fish or drink water from the pool for fear of causing a flood or other natural disaster.

“The serpent is one of few common threads in aboriginal culture. Indigenous people in the Flinders Ranges area have a similar story.”

Sam explained the kinship system of the aboriginal people whereby a skin name is handed down by your mother meaning those of the same name cannot marry. The penalties for breaking the rules are severe — a spear to the back of the legs.

She pointed to huge gashes in the rocks on both sides of the river indicating fault lines, and trees used by the Jawoyn for a variety of traditional practices.

The bark of the paperbark is used like cooking foil and the leaves for flavouring, the larruk has anti-inflammatory and insect-repellent properties and the fruit of the white bush apple is soaked in the river and then eaten.

Our barge passed beneath a towering cliff known as Jedda Rock after the 1955 Australian-made movie of the same name, the first feature film to star aboriginal actors.

The rocks in the Katherine Gorge are around 1.6 billion years old, Sam said.

Near the end of the cruise, I spotted a large cage on the water’s edge.
“It’s a croc trap,” she said, explaining that troublesome “salties” who get into the river system from further north during times of flood are caught and relocated.

Jay, a cheery lad with a huge smile shouted ‘boh-boh’ and waved to us as he tethered the barge to the jetty and we disembarked.

“The Jawoyn don’t say ‘goodbye’, they say ‘boh-boh’ — ‘see ya later’,” said Sam.
We called out “boh-boh” in reply.

For dinner that evening, I just had to try the crocodile sausage entrée with a lemon aspen sauce. Having been warned by my Aussie mates that croc meat was bland, I found it surprisingly tasty. It went well with the South Australian bubbly I had developed a taste for . . . and all the hair-raising croc stories I was regaled with over dinner.

Sticking with exotic, I had an excellent chickpea saffron dahl served with pickled okra and basmati rice as a main course, and yummy ginger and macadamia nut pudding with caramel sauce and coconut ice cream for dessert.

“More hiking tomorrow,” I told myself as I polished off every last crumb. “Lots.”

Back in my cabin, I found my bed beautifully prepared and a piece of chocolate fudge on my pillow, along with postcards and a pen. My hospitality attendant Aaron said he would post them for free at the next stop.

As I snuggled into my super-comfy bed, I replayed images of the day in my mind. I found the grandeur of the Katherine Gorge quite overwhelming. The deeply-furrowed, weathered old faces of the rocks towering above the river gave me a powerful sense of the ancientness and dignity of the land, wise, all-knowing, all-seeing. How insignificant, puny and transient we are by comparison. I understood the spiritual relationship and veneration the aboriginal people have for the land. They regard the Earth as their mother.

To be continued . . .

Justine Tyerman sees ‘crocs’ everywhere as she cruises up the Katherine River in Australia’s Northern Territory . . .

I came face-to-face with a ‘rockodile’ on day one of my train journey from Darwin through the ‘Red Centre’ of Australia to Adelaide on the famous transcontinental Ghan Expedition.

Having left Darwin mid-morning, The Ghan pulled into the Northern Territory town of Katherine early in the afternoon to be met by a fleet of coaches waiting to take us on a variety of excursions. After much consultation with Aaron, my hospitality attendant, I chose a cruise through two of the 13 gorges on the Katherine River in the magnificent 292,000-hectare Nitmiluk National Park.

The cruise also involved a hike, a token attempt at justifying the consumption of alarming quantities of delicious food and beverages served to passengers on the four-day, three-night Ghan Expedition.

We boarded barges and cruised slowly up the first of the spectacular steep-sided sandstone gorges, carved by the Katherine River over millions and millions of years. The commentary of our skipper-guide Sam added wonderful layers of meaning and history to the experience.

“Nitmiluk means ‘cicada country’ to the indigenous Jawoyn people,” she said. “Listen and you’ll hear the buzzing sound. It’s especially loud in the evenings.”

The white sandy beaches alongside the river looked like idyllic spots for picnics and swims until Sam drew our attention to the signs: ‘Crocodile nesting area — do not enter.’

They’re mainly freshwater crocs here not the monster ‘salties’ I’d seen in Darwin but you still wouldn’t want to get in their way. Thereafter I imagined I saw many crocs submerged in the river, some right alongside the barge near my dangling hand, but they were “probably rockodiles” according to Sam. It was the word “probably” that had me worried.

The kayakers we passed on the river must have been incredibly brave or foolhardy — I couldn’t decide which.

Turning my attention upwards, while keeping my arms and hands well clear of the water, I was awed by the staggering height of the sheer cliffs on either side of our barge, reaching 60 to 100m depending on the depth of the river. The Katherine rises up to 9-10 metres during times of flood and the extreme sideways lean of the trees are an indication of the strength of the current.

But the day I was there, the river was so low we had to hike over rocky terrain between the two gorges, boarding another barge on the other side.

Earth is mother

Sam pointed out aboriginal paintings etched in the rock walls high above us, still intact after thousands of years. Some indigenous art in the region dates back 40,000 years, the oldest known art form on the planet.

As we neared a deep pool in the upper reaches of the second gorge, Sam told us a Dreamtime story of the Jawoyn people.

“According to legend, Bolung, the rainbow serpent, carved the gorge in his own image then laid to rest in the 40m deep pool right below us.

“There’s a whirlpool there and Jawoyn people won’t swim, fish or drink water from the pool for fear of causing a flood or other natural disaster.

“The serpent is one of few common threads in aboriginal culture. Indigenous people in the Flinders Ranges area have a similar story.”

Sam explained the kinship system of the aboriginal people whereby a skin name is handed down by your mother meaning those of the same name cannot marry. The penalties for breaking the rules are severe — a spear to the back of the legs.

She pointed to huge gashes in the rocks on both sides of the river indicating fault lines, and trees used by the Jawoyn for a variety of traditional practices.

The bark of the paperbark is used like cooking foil and the leaves for flavouring, the larruk has anti-inflammatory and insect-repellent properties and the fruit of the white bush apple is soaked in the river and then eaten.

Our barge passed beneath a towering cliff known as Jedda Rock after the 1955 Australian-made movie of the same name, the first feature film to star aboriginal actors.

The rocks in the Katherine Gorge are around 1.6 billion years old, Sam said.

Near the end of the cruise, I spotted a large cage on the water’s edge.
“It’s a croc trap,” she said, explaining that troublesome “salties” who get into the river system from further north during times of flood are caught and relocated.

Jay, a cheery lad with a huge smile shouted ‘boh-boh’ and waved to us as he tethered the barge to the jetty and we disembarked.

“The Jawoyn don’t say ‘goodbye’, they say ‘boh-boh’ — ‘see ya later’,” said Sam.
We called out “boh-boh” in reply.

For dinner that evening, I just had to try the crocodile sausage entrée with a lemon aspen sauce. Having been warned by my Aussie mates that croc meat was bland, I found it surprisingly tasty. It went well with the South Australian bubbly I had developed a taste for . . . and all the hair-raising croc stories I was regaled with over dinner.

Sticking with exotic, I had an excellent chickpea saffron dahl served with pickled okra and basmati rice as a main course, and yummy ginger and macadamia nut pudding with caramel sauce and coconut ice cream for dessert.

“More hiking tomorrow,” I told myself as I polished off every last crumb. “Lots.”

Back in my cabin, I found my bed beautifully prepared and a piece of chocolate fudge on my pillow, along with postcards and a pen. My hospitality attendant Aaron said he would post them for free at the next stop.

As I snuggled into my super-comfy bed, I replayed images of the day in my mind. I found the grandeur of the Katherine Gorge quite overwhelming. The deeply-furrowed, weathered old faces of the rocks towering above the river gave me a powerful sense of the ancientness and dignity of the land, wise, all-knowing, all-seeing. How insignificant, puny and transient we are by comparison. I understood the spiritual relationship and veneration the aboriginal people have for the land. They regard the Earth as their mother.

To be continued . . .

Factbox

  • The Ghan Expedition is a 2979km four-day, three-night train journey through the ‘Red Centre’ of Australia from Darwin to Adelaide.
  • Justine travelled courtesy of international rail specialists Rail Plus and Great Southern Rail.
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