As our boat glides through the waters of the second of Katherine's thirteen gorges, the sun slowly drops behind the towering ochre cliffs creating a shadow play that gives the land an air of spiritual mystery. The word 'Dreamtime' springs to mind – that time long, long ago when all-powerful transcendental spirit beings set the sun, moon and stars in their courses and created the earth and everything on it.
As the shadows lengthen the spirituality deepens and I am left with a real sense of wonder at how our Indigenous people tamed this sun-baked land, drawing out its secrets of survival to overcome hunger and thirst and create a tribal culture that still survives today. In this part of Australia, you can't escape the feeling of being part of something much bigger, much older and more spiritual than other places.
The top end is home to 50,000 years of accessible and fascinating Indigenous heritage and art so Australians should be flocking here to experience this unique part of our large and varied continental home, even if only for a long weekend. I must admit I had never given any thought to the Northern Territory as a short break destination, but when we accepted an invitation to experience a couple of days at the 100% Indigenous owned Cicada Lodge in the Nitmiluk National Park which included this wonderful Katherine Gorge cruise, a whole new world of short break options opened up for us.
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Arriving at the lodge we were greeted with a glass of French Champagne which in no time at all became two – but then we felt we had earned them after our three hour drive (usually closer to four!) down the almost arrow-straight Stuart Highway from Darwin, along the way passing unbelievably long road trains at a speed I don't like to think about – quite an experience for a girl more used to crawling through peak hour city traffic. Now fully relaxed we were ready to be escorted to our suite to unpack and get ready to see the magnificent Katherine Gorge on our sunset dinner cruise.
Spreading like tentacles from the central pool and restaurant area, timber boardwalks fan right and left to the 18 deluxe rooms and suites which are perfectly suited to their location with plenty of room to move about, sit and relax in the comfortable armchairs or laze away a few hours on the private balcony watching the local wildlife flit or hop by.
The decor is a reflection of the outdoors, all gleaming timber floors and colours of taupe and green on the walls and in the soft furnishings – in short five-star bush accommodation which can't be faulted. Having already received numerous awards and accolades including being listed as one of the best new properties in the world in Travel & Leisure USA magazine since its opening in early 2013, our brief visit verified that all praise is well earned.
Years in the planning and execution of building a luxury accommodation venue in this lovely wilderness has provided high-end travellers from all over the world a unique experiential opportunity to learn about this ancient land and its original settlers without destroying the natural world in which it sits – the buildings leave a very small footprint.
But time waits for no man (or woman) so a quick shower and we were off to the jetty next door for a much anticipated outing on the water before our candlelit dinner.
We cruised in a covered boat along the first two waterways of Katherine Gorge (now known by its traditional name of Nitmiluk Gorge), a stunning waterway that can be either a mighty, flooding river or
a tranquil, almost placid pond depending on the time of year you visit. For us the river was free-flowing and full, having flooded a few weeks before our visit and as we made our way upriver past huge sandstone escarpments and sandy coves, one of which had a crocodile floating nearby, I was reminded of the old television ads from the 80s when TV star Darryl Somers floated along the gorge on a blow up tyre telling us, "You'll never, never know if you never never go," and how right he was.
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These gorges are an awe-inspiring sight, made even more special by our local Jawoyn guide, Jamie Brookes who enthralled passengers with his knowledge of the local landscape, fauna and flora and shared stories of traditional folklore.
Our candlelit dinner served on white tablecloths was a superb medley of dishes created by Cicada's head chef at the time, Adam Woods using local produce including crocodile and accompanied by sparkling, white and red wines. Gliding along the moonlit water under a velvet sky dripping with more sparklers than the girlfriend of an ageing Hollywood mogul was an experience to be treasured and remembered as one of life's special moments.
The traditional custodians and owners of Nitmiluk National Park and Cicada Lodge (plus vast tracts of Arnhem Land) are the Jawoyn people with the Jawoyn association heavily involved in the running of the lodge and Nitmiluk Tours which offers exclusive experiences to guests of Cicada Lodge, such as their 'Welcome to Country', a real treat for us the next morning when we were shown the basics of basket weaving, painting, spear and boomerang throwing and fire-making in the comfort of the lodge grounds. To me, watching resident artist 'Long Johnny' Dewar, who only has one good eye run his paint brush in a straight line with no wavering at all, bringing a fish to life on a small canvas was amazing, as was my husband's spear throwing lesson – pity the poor wallabies hitting the wire fence while trying to escape his spears didn't know how hopeless he was!
As good as our cruise along the gorge was, seeing it all from the air on another exclusive outing was a stunning experience. After one of Adam's divine breakfasts that left me hoping I wouldn't have to be weighed before climbing into the helicopter for our flight to a hidden bush pool for a swim and picnic lunch, again prepared by Adam, we boarded the chopper (yes I was weighed and yes I was embarrassed but even I know the weight wasn't because of the breakfast!) and with blades whipping the air, lifted up, up and away flying over the lodge and the gorge almost to its beginning, spying waterfalls and hidden tributaries from up high – oh the sheer exhilaration of skimming over the landscape like a bird of prey was fantastic.
And then below we see a white cross on a timber landing pad sitting next to a pond and down we go, the wind of the rotors buffeting us as we land. Not only do we have two swimming holes with waterfalls to splash around in, we also have a natural art gallery of ancient rock paintings to explore – my first sighting of this fabulous Indigenous artwork in-situ and I have to say it's a humbling experience to see art of this age in this country which we think of as so young.
Sunset drinks on the pool deck followed by yet another of Adam's superb dinners was a fitting end to two days of discovery and adventure, a short space of time but it gave us an immense appreciation of the unique attributes of the top end as a wonderful short break destination and a real insight into what Jane Runyu and her group from the Jawoyn Association/Nitmiluk Tours and Clive Pollack, CEO and the driver behind the building of Cicada Lodge have achieved with this wonderful property... but you'll never, never know if you never never go!
Need to Know
Qantas flies to darwin from 16 australian ports. Rent a car from hertz at darwin airport (but make sure to book in advance) for the 300 km drive down the stuart highway to Katherine then turn left at the traffic lights (the only ones you will see!) and drive another 20 minutes to nitmiluk national Park and cicada lodge.
Stay in Darwin
If staying overnight in Darwin book a swim-up suite at the fabulous Skycity Darwin Beach Resort – great restaurants and modern, roomy suites overlooking the huge lagoon pool.
Nitmiluk Tours run all tourism operations at Nitmiluk National Park.