Exploring the Jatbula Trail

By Jennifer Byrne 18 December 2009
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A dazzling NT walking track reveals the grandeur and ancient culture of Nitmiluk National Park.

IT’S STILL EARLY MORNING at Katherine Gorge, Northern Territory, before breakfast, but the tourist day has already begun. Buses coming, boats going, tour guides calling to their parties to “come along, please” as they load that day’s share of the 190,000 or so who visit this sensational combination of river and cliffs each year. Katherine Gorge is one of the Top End’s best-known drawcards. And the gateway to one of its least.

The lesser-known gem is the Jatbula Trail, which leads away from the Nitmiluk Centre and disappears into the scrub just across the Katherine River from the managed bedlam of the gorge boat-landing. It’s a low-key beginning – amid a tangle of grasses and shrubs are trees from which hang small, blue, triangular trail markers. These will become very familiar over the next five days and 58km. “Now be aware, this is not a groomed trail,” we are warned before setting out. “There are rocks, sticks, holes in the ground and wallows dug by buffaloes.”

We fall into file and within minutes the sound of motors and megaphones fades away, replaced by birdsong and the steady huff of humans in stout boots carrying rucksacks, heading into one of Australia’s grand wild experiences.

The Jatbula Trail runs through the south-western corner of 2928 sq. km Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) National Park, which is owned by its traditional custodians, the Jawoyn people. This smaller southern neighbour of Kakadu offers its own distinctive spectrum of environments, from monsoon rainforests to savannah to spectacular gorges. To walk the Jatbula is to see the best and broadest Nitmiluk can offer. The trail’s official standard is “challenging” but really, it’s more a case of being fit, organised and eager than having any predetermined level of experience, and it’s easy walking to begin as we swing out of the gorge towards our first stop some 3 km on, at Northern Rockhole.

Water, one quickly realises, is at the heart of the Jatbula experience. This large, limpid pool at the foot of a steep waterfall, surrounded by bush, pebbles and a wedge of sandy beach, is just one of a string of perfect swimming spots along the track. Most are also campsites, each more stunning than the last. For the next four evenings, we will rinse off the day’s effort in rivers and falls, and be lulled to sleep by the sound of rushing water.

These campsites are spaced roughly 10 km apart, breaking the track neatly into five sections, which is how most official descriptions of it run: from Katherine Gorge to Biddlecombe Cascade, from the cascade to Crystal Falls, and so on. But the country itself does not flow so tidily. For a walker, the more real separation is by ecosystem – from savannah country through to rock country – dominated by the outcrops of colourful Kombolgie sandstone – back to sand and river country.

Each section has its own character and vegetation – and wildlife too, although this area has suffered, like so much of northern Australia, from the invasion of the cane toad. Since it turned up about five years ago, this much-loathed creature has depleted the number of venomous snakes and pythons, carnivorous reptiles like frill-necked and blue tongue lizards – even the freshwater crocodile population. Native species are slowly adapting to the toad’s presence. For example, senior district ranger Andrew Davies describes how crows and other birds have learned to turn a toad on its back before eating it, to avoid its poison sacs. The traditional owner with whom we walk, the wonderfully named Lazarus Ford, clearly regards them with deep abhorrence and unceremoniously squashes any he spots.

Jatbula Track map

Jatbula Trail: many things to many people

Over the years, the Jatbula Trail has been many things to many people, including a stock route and Aboriginal songline. For years it was monopolised by drovers but the Jawoyn people never stopped walking the route, which is crisscrossed by Dreaming trails, and includes several rock-art sites. It was named after traditional owner Peter Jatbula, once a drover himself, who fought fiercely for the return of the land to his people in the 1970s and ’80s.

Before we set out we met Peter’s great-nephew, 30-year-old Ryan Buruwei. He remembered being taken out to “look after country” from the age of three; remembered, too, when the land was finally returned to the Jawoyn in 1989: “A very important moment, when that piece of paper was handed over.” He still serves on the Nitmiluk Board of Management, and plans to take his young son out and teach him to care for country also. “We welcome visitors, we are happy for them to leave their footprint,” Ryan said. And he advised us: “Listen to the birds, listen to the ground – and watch out for snakes.”

Buffaloes, snakes…sounds like just the sort of adventure we’re after. For the first leg though, as we wind through the open woodland of the Seventeen Mile Creek valley, our eyes are drawn upwards. First, to a flock of 40 or so noisy red-tailed black cockatoos, then to a pair of wedge-tailed eagles riding lazily, silently, on the air currents. Kites and falcons live here too, and are commonly seen hunting insects and lizards after burn-offs. The Wet has come late this year and the grass, still unburned, is not black but a gentle, waving wheat-gold.

This is country ruled by water – or its lack, as our guide Jenn Child explains. To demonstrate, she stops beside a clump of sword grass and pulls out what looks like a small nest, tears off a patch and places it on the dusty path. In our rucksacks we are all carrying plastic water bladders, and she squeezes a few drops from hers onto the tangled grass. Within seconds, it animates, rearing up like an angry animal before the scores of tiny white-tipped tentacles turn and push down, disappearing into the earth. It’s an evolutionary adaptation, of course, to ensure the species will survive and reproduce when rain falls. But it happens so fast and fiercely we jump back. Forget the buffalo, beware the sword grass, which has been known to mistake a sweaty human foot for the start of the Wet and burrow deep into a hiker’s tender sole.

Scattered through the grasses are diverse species of eucalypt. The woollybutt, or yiwal, is in over-full bloom and its bright orange flowers drop a soft carpet along our way. The salmon gum needs no floral decoration. Its rough white bark flakes away from the trunk and its branches emerge smooth and shiny like tangerine sculptures.

By early afternoon the track is steepening; less sand, more rocks, and after a sharp climb we are on top of the escarpment, the tail end of the mighty Arnhem Land plateau, which stretches east to the Gulf of Carpentaria. It feels and looks like old country but is relatively young in earth-history terms at about 1.7 billion years old. Aeons ago this area was a vast river delta, and the most visible result of the complex geological processes it has undergone since is what’s known as the Kombolgie Formation, a mix of hard sandstone and gravel that forms the escarpment on which we walk. From the edge, we look down over 100 m into the valley of Seventeen Mile Creek, fed by the many tributaries and falls beside which we’ll camp en route. Our first overnight site – where we thankfully unload our packs and head out for a swim – is Biddlecombe Cascade.

Jatbula Trail campsites run on a first-in-best-position basis. At Biddlecombe there is no bad position – tents can be pitched close or closer to the cascade, which falls in a pattern of ledges and small pools, bubbling in some places like a natural spa. In the quieter water are scores of delicate, ruby-red sundews, each with its own quivering tentacle that shines like dew – though it’s actually a sticky mucus, trapping any fruit fly or gnat that flies too close.

The big surprise is that in this wild place there’s a fancy composting toilet, an indication of the NT Government’s desire to upgrade the Jatbula, and increase its accessibility to walkers. Less than 400 in total walked the track last year. Its capacity is still under study, awaiting development of a management strategy, but the increasing popularity of walking holidays has clearly piqued the interest of park and tourist authorities. They want more walkers to come, more to savour this extraordinary gift of nature.

Dreamtime stories of Jatbula

We take a fading pink light and crisp air, whispering of rain. Our heads are full of Dreamtime stories. The night before, Lazarus shared some of the traditional tales of the Jawoyn, stories of the animals with which (or rather whom, for the Jawoyn) they share their country – of mischievous kingfisher, who stole the firesticks belonging to old man crocodile and got himself a set of long tail-feathers; how long-necked turtle tussled so long with echidna, his enemy left him with an echidna-shaped mark on his neck.

Early in the day we reach a rock-art site. A place of warning, Lazarus says, where evil spirits are painted on the sides of huge sandstone boulders. Some have six fingers on their hands; they are a ghostly white, without feet – they’re known as nomorratu, or “debil-debils”. People must not camp here, and children know to be quiet or the spirits will beam out light and “take their breath away”.

“People used to stay here and these things did happen to them,” Lazarus says, “If they cook after dark the spirits can smell the food, they will come and get them.” He points to a four-fingered hand stencilled against a rock. “An old man or woman lost a finger here.”

But there is bounty in Nitmiluk too. The park is named after the sound of the cicada – Nit! Nit! – and as we walk, Lazarus points to the white bush apples that make sweet eating for the Jawoyn, the giant termite mounds used as nests by bee-eaters and parrots. He stops to pull up a blood root plant – muluppirnti to the Jawoyn – and prises it open, exposing the scarlet centre used to colour fibres used in basket- and mat-weaving. The fibres come from the bark of the kurrajong or putput, which the women rub and twist against their legs until it forms long, strong  fibres ready for weaving. Lazarus’ stories bring the landscape alive. The scenery is enlarged as he adds to its dimensions, pointing out sources of food, medicine, culture and weapons.

Meandering arc of the Jatbula Trail

The Jatbula Trail traces a meandering arc east to west, and by our third night we have walked and climbed 35 km to the arc’s centre, after which the track turns south-west. We camp on a sandstone plateau beside the 17 Mile Falls, a spectacular single-drop waterfall comparable to Kakadu’s iconic Jim Jim Falls. Ancient geological forces have pressured the rocks so they are now twisted and tilted at impossible angles, causing the water to zigzag wildly before it falls, trailing spray, to the valley far below. Towards evening, the rocks glow gold.

Not far from this astonishing waterfall, one of the Jatbula’s finest sights, the track starts to descend again. We are leaving the escarpment, heading into the green of wetland. The ground squelches beneath our boots. Jenn Child says we’ve reached the famous Edith River soak – famous with drovers, that is, because they knew they were out of the rocks, heading for river country. The trees around us mark the change: grevillea, banksia, stands of spiky pandanus. By mid-morning the track has gone from spongy to boggy; we end up taking off our boots and wading through thigh-high water to our last stop at Sandy Camp Pool.

After all the tumbling falls and cascades, this is a quiet and peaceful place, a deep round waterhole thick with waterlilies and fringed by paperbarks. Well versed by now, we have our tents up and tea made within minutes. There is no wind, no noise. We swim, chat, read and take notes. Mine read simply: bliss.

The trail’s end is Edith Falls/Leliyn, about 14 km from Sandy Camp. Screened by paperbarks, the Edith River runs alongside us most of the way, seeming to speed up as we slow down to prolong this final leg. Surrounding us is a profusion of grasses – spinifex, kangaroo grass and spear grass – some with catkin-heads, some with small white seeds, some as bright and bushy as a young girl’s braids. Above are bee-eaters and galahs and a flock of ever-busy red-collared lorikeets. We never do see any buffalo, but Lazarus spots a pile of brumby droppings on the path, and tells us that when his ancestors first saw the drovers on their horses, they asked the white men: “Your dogs, they quiet ones?” He laughs and waves us dawdlers on. His family is waiting at Edith Falls; he is keen to be home.

The air is clear, the sky a brightening blue. I set out on this track having never carried a rucksack for any distance, with all the experience that a daily walk with a small frisky dog will offer – in short, very little. Five days and 58 km seemed a considerable challenge.

But as it turns out, the Jatbula Trail is a perfect distance. Short enough to arrive wanting more, long enough to revisit in our dreams

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