Katherine Gorge, in the Nitmiluk National Park, an iconic Australian outback experience. Even though we were travelling to Darwin quickly, we decided that we really couldn’t miss out on one of the best Northern Territory experiences. We arrived at the information centre late in the afternoon and looked at the options for an early morning hike, preferably one with a water hole at the end where we could cool off before returning. After examining the maps and talking to the information centre staff, we decided that a hike to the Southern Rockhole would suit us well, although at only 1.8 km we were a bit confused as to why everyone was saying it would take a good hour each way. We assumed like many other national parks around the country that the time was estimated for people who were older or immobile and we would surely be able to do it faster than that. How wrong we were!
We struck out early as the day was forecast to hit 38⁰ C and, as one ranger told us, it could be 10⁰ C warmer up on the escarpment country. We packed enough water for a small army, bundled Sebastian in his backpack and set off. After 15 minutes walking we ran into a ranger who suggested a better, shorter route which involved walking back to the visitor centre, driving about a kilometre up the road to a ranger station and starting again. We moved the car and, again, struck out on the path. We had already walked about a kilometre, were hot and sweating and feeling mildly concerned about the heat.
After another 15 minutes we came across a sign telling us there was a swarm of feral bees on the track ahead and we should take care. What?!? Feral Bees??? We imagined being engulfed by a swarm of thousands of angry, vengeful bees all hell bent on sacrificing their tiny lives in order to protect their queen. We proceeded warily, senses heightened, ready to turn and run at the first sign of a bee. Imagine a B-grade, jungle warfare movie, where the lone hero is trying to evade the marauding enemy; hiding behind rocks and sneaking looks at the path ahead, commando rolling across the gaps between trees and crouching at the slightest hint of noise. That was us, and for a few concerning minutes, we were John Rambo, until we came to a sign alerting hikers walking in the other direction to the same danger. It appeared we weren’t a big enough threat for the bees to launch an attack against, either that, or they were paralysed by the heat and just couldn’t muster the collective will to care.
We stopped, had a quick drink and felt our adrenaline levels slowly subsiding. We pulled out the map to check our progress and realised that we were still on the ‘blue’ path and hadn’t yet even reached the ‘green’ path which was the trail down to the Southern Rockhole. It appeared that despite people telling us it was only a 1.8 km walk, this distance was measured from the start of the ‘green’ trail; the overall walk was more like 4 km each way. We were starting to think the friendly people at the visitor centre were either vindictive psychopaths, dolling our mis-information to unsuspecting travellers or had never, in fact, completed the walk they had recommended. We decided to press on and after another 15 minutes, reached the start of the poorly marked green trail. Huzzah!
From this point, the trail became steep, rocky, rough, and it was getting hotter by the minute. We had drunk nearly half of our water and were starting to feel pretty anxious about the return journey. But the lure of the cool, fresh water of the rock hole was too tempting to ignore. After a few misleading signs, wrong turns and what felt like an eternity, we finally reached the top of the gorge. A few people had said the last 500m of the trail were pretty hard, but they had clearly been trying to not put us off. The trail down to the rock hole was made largely of loose cobbles and scree and was extremely steep and slippery. Whoever had constructed the trail had thought it was dangerous enough to install makeshift handrails in the steepest parts, but these were made from loosely-hung chains which swung away from you each time you put the slightest weight on them. Between the handrails, rocks and low hanging branches, we were lucky that Sebastian wasn’t tossed out of his carrier and down into the gorge.
By the time we had struggled our way to the bottom of the gorge, we were all exhausted and hot beyond words. We stripped off as quickly as we could and dived into the clear water, figurative steam rising from our heads and shoulders as our core temperatures slowly cooled to normalcy. Oh, miraculous water, bringer of life, how we love you! As the heat-fog lifted and we started feeling like ourselves again, we realised that we were going to have to turn around, climb back out of the gorge and walk all the way back to the car; more heat, more rocks and, of course, the phantom swarm of feral bees! Panic started to rise, until we remembered that there was a tour boat that could pick up hikers and take them back to the information centre. We had decided not to book a spot on the boat because we were certain that we could do the walk easily, but now it seemed like our only hope of getting out alive. We asked another group of swimmers if they knew when the boat was arriving, and they said 10.30 am. 10.30! That was only minutes away. We had to get to that boat! We scrabbled back up the rocks and quickly gathered our gear, not even bothering to get dressed and ran further down the gorge to where the boat would arrive. Just as we arrived and joined another group, we heard the putt, putt putting of an outboard engine. As the boat came around a bend in the river the captain waved a greeting. We could have cried, we were saved! The boat landed, and the other group boarded while we, who had not reserved a place, looked pleadingly at the captain, our eyes begging for him to take pity on us. “We didn’t book, but can we please get a lift back”, Margie asked in her most exhausted and pathetic voice. “we have a baby, and it’s too far to walk back, sorry”. The captain looked at us and decided we might be worth saving “No worries, get on” he said. Oh, sweet river-boat captain, you are a wonder! We scrambled aboard simultaneously effusing apologies and thanks, collapsed into our seats, breathed out and relaxed. The ordeal was over.
On the trip back to the visitor centre we realised that in the haste of the last few hours, and in the handful of minutes we spent swimming, we hadn’t taken a single photograph of the walk in or of the stunning water hole we ended up at. I pulled out my camera to take some photos of the river and the scenic gorge, but my heart really wasn’t in it. We did see a couple of little crocodiles on the way back, though.