Kayaking the Katherine River

By Brendan Thorne 9 September 2014
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A kayak journey down the Katherine introduces a novice to the splendid beauty and bewitching isolation of one of the Top End’s major rivers.

AS I SIP ON MY morning coffee and pore over the day’s headlines, a menacing photograph grabs my eye. A large saltwater croc is lunging from the cover of the NT News. Its enormous mouth is open wide, revealing sharp teeth that hint at the crushing power of mighty jaws. Alongside the image, the ­Darwin-based newspaper’s cover line reads: “Kids use live dogs for croc bait”. I suddenly feel a bit sick. I’m about to embark on a three-day kayaking trip down the Katherine River: was this a sensible decision?

Under normal circumstances, such an image would send me packing. Instead, I rationalise that the ­Katherine is a freshwater river so there won’t be any salties lurking in its depths. Right? I tell myself this again, later in the morning, as I board a coach headed for a popular kayaking spot on the outskirts of Katherine township, about 320km south-east
of Darwin.

Three and a half hours later, after a drive through the lush savannah woodlands of the Top End, I’m met by tour guide Collin Jerram. Clad in shorts and a shirt that match the colour of the outback dirt, and with thick tufts of white hair poking out from under his Akubra, Collin seems very much at ease in his environment. In fact, he looks like a man who could run from Darwin to Alice Springs without breaking a sweat. He has a warm smile, a firm handshake and he speaks openly. I am compelled to ask him the question that had been eating away at me during the long bus journey.

“There are no saltwater crocodiles in the Katherine River, are there?” I inquire, nervously. “Oh, yes,” Collin says brightly, breaking into a broad smile. “My word, there’ll be plenty of salties in the river!”

Kayaking the Katherine River

I STAND BESIDE the faded ocean kayaks that will be our life rafts for the next three days. At their bows, just above what looks to be a series of scratches left by crocodile claws, are their names: BamBam, Melon, Bom Shiva and Tree Hugger.

“Tree Hugger. That’ll be my ticket,” I say, looking around at the other three members of my group: Nat Bradford, a publicist from Adelaide; Dave Cauldwell, a journalist from Melbourne; and Jesse Trushenski, a fisheries and aquaculture professor from the US state of Illinois.

Our kayaking guide Matt Leigh runs through the protocol we’ll need to follow for the next three days as we journey 50km along the Katherine River. Most visitors to the region travel the river in Katherine Gorge, in Nitmiluk National Park, but our tour heads in the opposite direction, downriver, for a quieter, more isolated paddle. We launch from Manbulloo homestead, 13km west of Katherine township.

The Katherine River is a mighty 328km stretch of fresh water that runs south-west from Nitmiluk NP, through Katherine – where some 10,000 residents tap its water – to merge with the Flora River, at the eastern tip of Flora River Nature Park. The two rivers form a major tributary of the Daly River, whose system is the longest in the NT and is kilometres wide when it reaches the sea south-west of Darwin. During the dry season (May–October), the Katherine River is spring fed by the Tindall limestone aquifer in the ­Katherine region and the Oolloo Dolostone aquifer of the Daly River basin. During the wet season (November–April) monsoon rains fill the river and supply the aquifers.

This whole area is the Jawoyn’s beat; they are the custodians of the Katherine region. Their traditional lands, which sprawl across about 50,000sq.km, include ­Nitmiluk NP, southern parts of Kakadu NP and western Arnhem Land. In 1978 the Jawoyn people lodged a claim under the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act 1976 over lands including Katherine Gorge National Park (proclaimed in 1962), but it wasn’t until 1989 that ownership of Nitmiluk was returned to the elders. The Jawoyn Association Aboriginal Corporation was established in 1985 as the representative body for the traditional owners and jointly manages Nitmiluk NP with the NT government.

Aboriginal origins of the Katherine River

The Jawoyn have lived with the river for some 70,000 years. They recognise two distinct social groupings, or moieties – Duwa (or Dhuwa, Dua) and Yirritja – which were created during the Buwurr (Burr), or Dreaming. Each of the two groups is divided into four skin groups and every person, animal, plant and place belongs to one of the two groups. Moiety is an important part of Jawoyn, balancing the natural and cultural worlds.

Balance can be thought of as the act of weighing factors, one against the other. And indeed, as I cast off from the bank of the ­Katherine River, I’m weighing up whether to abandon the kayak and head back to shore or to continue with my fellow paddlers and avoid the humiliation of looking like a mountain goat trying to stay upright on a pair of water skis during a heavy swell.

The river is moving swiftly now. Matt senses the need to calm my jangled nerves. “I wouldn’t worry so much,” he says. “The salties that we get down here are mainly smaller males, under 3m, that make the 300km trip from the coast to fatten up before ­heading back to breed and compete with the larger males.” He tells me that the Parks and Wildlife Commission NT trap a few larger rogue salties every dry season but this year has been quiet. “You’re viewed more as a large 15ft [4.6m] object that’s too big to compete with than as food in a kayak,” he reassures me.

Feeling a little less like a kangaroo in headlights, I paddle into the first set of rapids we’ll cross. The Katherine River is intersected by rock bars and the elevation drops by up to 2m between each bar, causing a very manageable, yet exciting, whitewater experience. I realise that the scratches on the sides of our kayaks aren’t claw marks after all but evidence that newbies, such as myself, have been unable to zigzag around the exposed rocks and submerged eucalypts without damaging the kayak.

The twisted trunks play an important role in supporting the river’s large and varied aquatic ecosystem; 38 species of fish are found in the Katherine. The fish include barramundi, sooty grunters, and freshwater long toms, which have long arrow-shaped bodies and jaws like miniature bill­fish.
As we paddle along, we see archerfish knocking prey insects into the river from overhanging plants by exposing their lips just above the surface and ­spitting a jet of water. Yellow-faced and northern snake-necked turtles are also common in these stretches.

Sights on the Katherine River

BY OUR SECOND DAY on the river, my haze has lifted; I am no longer numb with fear and my balance in the cigar-shaped kayak has improved. It’s the dry season. The days are long and hot and blue skied. A flock of exuberant red-tailed black cockatoos flies overhead, screeching and flapping.

Matt is quick to list the impressive diversity of birds that live along the river. “You have your apex birds like the white-bellied sea eagle and whistling and black kites – they’ve been known to pick up smouldering wood from the edge of a bushfire and drop it into a separate part of the bush to start another fire and flush out prey,” he says. He names blue-faced honeyeaters and rainbow bee-eaters as they flit into view. We see a great-billed heron, an elusive native wading bird, as well as pied cormorants, royal spoonbills and raja shelducks.

Early each morning, the landscape is transformed as an eerie mist cloaks the river. Over the mist, ­sunlight streams through the silver-leaved and weeping paperbarks. Freshwater mangroves and palm-like pandanus crowd the bank. One narrow, fast-moving stretch of the Katherine, dubbed ­“pandanus alley”, is covered by a canopy of leaves stitched together by the webs of Saint Andrew’s Cross spiders.  

As the river cuts its way through the landscape and I am carried further from mobile-phone reception, I begin to feel at home. I’m about to relax and pull out a fishing rod when Matt points out a freshwater crocodile sunning itself on the sandy bank to my left. Freshies are far smaller than their saltwater cousins; they can grow up to about 3m but more commonly only reach about 2m. They are not as territorial as salties – which can grow to 7m – and are less aggressive. They eat small prey, such as fish and cherabin (freshwater prawns). It’s my first up-close encounter with a crocodile; all the other freshies sighted have darted from the bank into the river’s depths before we could get within cooee of them.

After three days, as we pull into the pick-up point, about 50km down river, Collin greets us with cold drinks and chocolate. I wonder whether I should paddle in with the others or make a mad dash and continue on. Like the Katherine River itself, which transforms as it meanders through the landscape, I have undergone a great change. Climbing out onto the bank I know I have been bewitched by the ­natural delights of this remote pocket of the Top End and suspect I’ll be back to sample them again – hopefully in the not too distant future.

The full story can be found in Australian Geographic #118.