Nitmiluk Gorge - Walking/Paddling - July 2017

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Nitmiluk Gorge - Walking/Paddling - July 2017

Postby tom_brennan » Sun 07 Jan, 2018 11:08 pm

Back in July, my wife (Rachel) and I did a 5-day bushwalk/packraft in Katherine Gorge. I thought I'd write up our experience, since there were lots of things that we found that would have been useful to us in planning the trip, and so may be useful to others.
Pat's Lookout


Any overnight walking in Nitmiluk NP requires a permit. You can book by phone, but you need to pay when you get there. The Visitors' Centre opened at 7am (even though the website says 8am!), so we were able to get away reasonably early. You'll need exact money as you have to put it into an envelope, so bring some change. $3.30 per person per night at the time of writing.

The crows are very used to campers, so secure all of your food - and other items - if you are near any of the official campsites.

Daytime temps are very hot, so it's best to be walking early, and have most of the walking done by lunchtime. Walking on the tops is quite exposed to the sun, and the rocks heat up and then start radiating heat in the afternoon. It is cooler in the gorge, as there is often shade.

Cross country walking


There are two main routes to get to Smitt Rock and Eighth Gorge. The Yambi Walk (inland route), which mainly follows vehicle tracks, and the Waleka Walk/Windolf Walk (cliff route) which crosses rough country. We took the latter, so the only info I have on the Yambi Walk is what I've read elsewhere. ... -guide.pdf

In general, the Waleka Walk is pretty rough, and this is coming from someone who does a lot of off track walking. By rough, I mainly mean rocky underfoot, and slow going (1-3km/h). It is not technically difficult, just slow and rough.

The route is marked every 20-50m with green arrows. However, the further out you go, the less of a track there is and you are really just following arrows. The arrows are difficult to spot. Partially because they are green (on a white background), and mostly because they are in the shade. They usually hang from trees, and since you're walking generally NE, the sun is behind them more often than not. They would probably be easier to spot in the opposite direction. We were wearing approach shoes, which we often wear for multi day canyons in the Blue Mountains, but if I had my time again, I'd have worn my proper walking shoes, as my feet were killing me by Eighth Gorge. There are no significant elevation changes (50-100m tops).

All of the tracks are marked with arrows hanging from trees every 20-50m. Different coloured arrows mark the different tracks.
Smitt Rock


There are 13 gorges, separated by rapids. It's not always clear which rapids are gorge boundaries, and which are just rapids within a gorge.

No paddling is allowed in gorge 1. From 2nd to 4th Gorge, it's pretty busy during the day, as all of the day trippers paddle upstream from 2nd Gorge. Few day trippers go upstream of 4th Gorge, so it's much quieter, with typically only overnight paddlers. The portage at 7th Gorge is a long one, so above 7th Gorge you're likely to have things to yourself.

Packrafts make the paddling slower, but the portages easier, since you can tuck the rafts under an arm. Some of the portages involve scrambling over large boulders and can be pretty tricky even without a raft or canoe. It was quite windy when we were there, which made the portaging difficult - packrafts are like an inflatable sail!

There are 3 main campsites for paddlers in the gorge - 4th Gorge, on the opposite side of the river to the walkers' campsite; 6th Gorge; 9th Gorge. The last doesn't have a toilet.
8th Gorge camp views

Drinking water

There was a lot more water available than we expected. Other than in Katherine Gorge itself, we found flowing water:

1) in Butterfly Gorge
2) in the creek above the Lily Ponds
3) at Smitt Rock Campsite
4) at the creek crossing before 8th Gorge
5) at 8th Gorge Campsite
6) also higher up in the same creek, which is the one that drains Jawoyn Valley
7) at the back of the 6th Gorge Campsite

This was in the second week of July 2017. 2016-17 was a big wet in the Top End, so it's hard to say which of these would be flowing in drier years. I imagine Lily Ponds Creek would stop flowing, but there are pools above the falls that would retain water. Similar with 8th Gorge/Jawoyn Valley - there are big pools upstream, and I don't imagine they would dry up. The creek crossing before 8th Gorge flows through rainforest in a gorge, so may well flow year round. The 6th Gorge Campsite is from a spring below the falls, so may also persist.

There are a number of tanks on the Yambi Walk, which are mostly fairly long detours from the Waleka Walks. Someone we spoke to said they were empty. We never used them. Presumably they are filled up regularly by vehicle, since they are all on the vehicle track section.
Upstream from 9th Gorge


We followed the Windolf and Waleka Walks to Smitt Rock, and then on to 8th Gorge. From there we walked down to the river, inflated packrafts, and paddled up to 9th Gorge. Leaving packs, we continued up to the top of the gorge system and then back to 9th Gorge to camp. Next day we paddled down to 6th Gorge, and on the last day, paddled to 2nd Gorge, and then walked out to the Visitor's Centre.

Day 1 - Visitor's Centre to Smitt Rock

This is a fairly long day, so we took the easy half of the Baruwei Loop, and then the Windolf Walk to Pat's Lookout and Jedda's Rock, and then back to the Butterfly Gorge turnoff.

The track out to Pat's Lookout is easy. There are a couple of rough bits from Pat's Lookout to get across to Jedda's Rock, but also mostly fairly easy to follow.

Apparently there is a route down to the river from the vicinity of Pat's Lookout - some people we met ended up at the river rather than Jedda's Rock. We climbed from the river back up to Pat's Lookout later in the trip (see Day 5) but didn't seem to be following any existing route.

From Jedda's Rock there is a section of a few hundred metres where the track is difficult to follow, before it becomes obvious again to the head of Butterfly Gorge.

From there it is a fairly slow section to Lily Ponds Creek, which took 2.5h of walking (plus 30 minute break) to cover the 6km. It was worth the detour to the Lily Ponds waterhole for lunch, since it has shade til mid afternoon. A short rugged section across the grain of the country leads to the Smitt Rock track, which is pretty easy going.

The Smitt Rock campsite is above the gorge, and it's a 5-10 minute walk down to the river. The campsite has a number of small tent sites over a reasonably wide area, so even if there's other campers around, you might be able to get away a bit. There's a toilet nearby. There is also possible camping down in the gorge itself.
6th Gorge beach

Day 2 - Smitt Rock to 8th Gorge

From Smitt Rock it's about 20 minutes back to the main track, and then across country for a couple of hours. There is little to no track so it's a case of following the markers, and it's fairly rough walking up to a steep descent into a large valley. This had a flowing stream in it. There we met another party who said there was a "stagnant waterhole" at the 8th Gorge Campsite. Obviously other people have different ideas of stagnant, since when we got there, there was a small but delightful waterfall into a large pool, great for swimming and water collection!

We took a detour up Jawoyn Valley for a bit, and found a number of art sites, some of which were signposted, and others not. We then headed off track down to the creek, and followed it down until we hit water, and a swimming hole. Further down, a small waterfall tumbled into a rainforest gorge, so we returned to the track and headed for the campsite

The campsite at 8th Gorge is delightful, a small sandy camp next to a large (30m) pool and waterfall, and a short walk out to a big waterfall looking over the gorge. There is no way down to the river directly, but by walking up the valley to the east of the campsite for 100m or so, you can then climb over the low ridge, and back west down a long ramp to the river. Allow about 20 minutes. There is reasonable shade at the campsite.

With multiple groups the campsite would be rather cosy. There would be options to move away, up the valley to the east, or down to the river. The toilet is a short way up the valley to the west.

Day 3 - 8th Gorge to 9th Gorge

It was only half an hour or so of paddling up to the 9th Gorge Campsite. This is on a sandy beach, with limited shade. The campsite faces north west, so gets the afternoon sun. There is one large tree, so it would be a bit awkward if there was more than one group. There is no toilet (climb up on to the rocky plateau?), and no water options other than the river at 9th Gorge.

From there we paddled upstream through a number of gorges, finally leaving our rafts at the bottom of a major blockup. A tricky scramble got us up to the plateau where we walked for a short distance to where we could see the gorge conditions ending. We had lunch in the major side tributary that enters from the north, since it had walls providing shade.
Gorge paddling

Day 4 - 9th Gorge to 6th Gorge

The paddling and portaging (with packrafts) was relatively straightforward. It took us around 1.5h to get from 9th Gorge to the 6th Gorge campsite, though for canoeists, the National Parks suggest the portages alone will take 1.5h.

6th Gorge campsite is on a beach in a small side gorge. It faces north east, so there is shade for the afternoon. At the back of the gorge is a small waterfall and pool (not for swimming) in the rainforest. It was very windy down on the beach when we were there, so spent a good deal of time up at the waterfall, which was more sheltered.

It's not that big a beach, so it's a fairly cosy campsite if you have to share it. There is a pit toilet in the gorge.
Scrambling back up to the Waleka Walk from 1st Gorge rapids

Day 5 - 6th Gorge to Visitor's Centre

For the last day, we hadn't managed to organise a boat pickup through 1st Gorge. Rachel (my wife) had asked about this while booking, and been told that private paddlers weren't allowed. I suspect they thought we wanted to put our kayaks on the boat, and didn't understand that packrafters would just have packs! In any case, we would be walking out from 2nd Gorge.

Heading downstream, it was quiet for the first couple of gorges, and then we started meeting day paddlers at the 4th Gorge rapids, which are fairly substantial. By the time we got to the 3rd Gorge rapids, it was like Pitt St!

Including a short walk up Butterfly Gorge, it took us 4.5h all up to reach the 1st Gorge rapids. We packed up the rafts and set off walking, to the bemusement of everyone else who was coming and going on boats.

The lady at the Visitor's Centre had pointed out the route, but I had obviously misinterpreted it. I thought we'd be able to walk along the river to the Southern Rockhole, but after a bit of narrow ledge walking, we ran out of ledge. Hmm. Not sure where the route/track was - probably further back nearer the rapids. We spotted a gully that looked like it would go, and scrambled up it, coming out pretty close to the main Waleka Walk track.

We had been told that the Southern Rockhole was dry, but after going down to check it out, it had a small pool, big enough for a quick dip. From there it was back to the fire trail, and then the other half of the Baruwei Loop back to the Visitor Centre.
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Re: Nitmiluk Gorge - Walking/Paddling - July 2017

Postby weeds » Mon 08 Jan, 2018 5:27 am

Awesome report, thanks for posting.

We have been considering pack rafts but time to use them is limited so we have held off for now.

What make/model pack-rafts do you have?

We just come back from the blue-mountain after doing a couple of guided cannons....we are keen to get back and do a few multi day trips.

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Re: Nitmiluk Gorge - Walking/Paddling - July 2017

Postby tom_brennan » Mon 08 Jan, 2018 7:31 am

weeds wrote:What make/model pack-rafts do you have?

Alpacka (Alpaca (S) and Llama (L) ) - probably overkill in terms of sturdiness for a trip like this. Most of the rapids were too low to run successfully.
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Re: Nitmiluk Gorge - Walking/Paddling - July 2017

Postby bigkev » Mon 08 Jan, 2018 5:36 pm

Hi Tom,

Great report, that campsite at Eighth Gorge is one of my favourite camps in Oz, I was there very early in the season years ago and it's seared into my memory http://goinferalonedayatatime.blogspot. ... k-may.html

I've also lilo'd down to the visitor centre from Butterfly Gorge one year (my arms are just recovering :shock: ).

As you don't have to cross the river a lot of the walks are open for a fair bit of the wet season too, which is a magic time to visit - although I wouldn't pack raft at that time of the year as the salties sometimes journey up stream that far.

Thanks for the great report and info.
Cheers Kevin
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Re: Nitmiluk Gorge - Walking/Paddling - July 2017

Postby Lizzy » Tue 09 Jan, 2018 4:56 am

I did some of this with the kids a couple of years ago. Back then you could paddle the first gorge but the year before I had done this and had a hard time against the wind. So we caught a boat to the Southern Rockhole and paddled from there. Awesome trip :)
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Re: Nitmiluk Gorge - Walking/Paddling - July 2017

Postby stepbystep » Tue 09 Jan, 2018 10:56 am

Excellent Tom! Thanks for the report. I was also there in July paddling, just for a day with a daywalk the following day. I'll replicate your trip one day for sure. Thanks for the report, photos and info!
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Re: Nitmiluk Gorge - Walking/Paddling - July 2017

Postby north-north-west » Fri 12 Jan, 2018 3:00 pm

It's a great trip. And you can easily camp away from the official sites - just (as usual) be careful about toileting.

Have been some changes since I was there - used to have to organise permits and make payments (for overnight trips) on the day you left, in person, and you had to wait until the appropriate staff member turned up to man the desk (which generally happened at least half an hour after the posted time). Good to know they've improved that appalling system.

And the Waleka route to Smitts is also new - great to see them opening up something like that. Put together with the bureaucratic changes it's almost enough to make me reconsider my insistence that nothing would ever make me go back.

But if you can't paddle out from near the Visitors Centre, how do you get a private kayak to where you can paddle? Do the tour boats tow them or are they just banned? If it's a ban, I'm back to 'never, ever go back'.
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Re: Nitmiluk Gorge - Walking/Paddling - July 2017

Postby mbatch » Thu 08 Feb, 2018 9:49 pm

Great report Tom,

I did something similar a few years back, at that time the only option was the Yambi track out to 8th gorge. You are correct in that it follows a maintenance trail but it's still pretty nice , more like one of those old 4wd tracks in the Snowys than a road bash (for ambience) and provides quite a different experience to paddling the gorge, a great combo. Took us three days but doable in two if you are pressed for time (i'd try not to be) Pack rafts are the go for this one

I'll link my trip report, nothing on the above for info but provides a few more pics .. feel free to be the first to view besides me !

https://mildadventureswithmickb.blogspo ... -trip.html
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