Katherine makes for a perfectly rounded short break full of Indigenous culture, outdoor adventure and turmeric lattes.
Perched on the banks of the mighty Katherine River, Katherine, or ‘K-Town’ as it’s affectionately known to Territorians, is where the big outdoors meets small town charm, offering one of the Northern Territory’s fastest evolving regional experiences.
Where is Katherine?
From Darwin take the three-hour drive down the Stuart Highway, through the historic townships of Adelaide River and Pine Creek, to discover quintessential Australian outback and some of the best Indigenous experiences in the country.
Built in the 1870s to service the Overland Telegraph Line, NT’s fourth largest town is currently in the midst of a metamorphosis from ‘frontier town’ to a popular weekend getaway hotspot. Yellow canoes float on the emerald water at Nitmiluk National Park near Katherine, mountain bikers pull on helmets to tackle newly built mountain bike trails, cafes serve up single-origin brews, and guests at the luxurious Cicada Lodge dine on crispy skin local barramundi.
Nitmiluk National Park won the Northern Territory’s highest tourism honour in 2019, winning best major tourist attraction in the NT Brolga Awards for the second year running. “We are proud to be recognised as we work to uphold the wishes of our elders and share our country,” said Nitmiluk Tours CEO Jane Runyu-Fordimail, who is also a board member of the Jawoyn Association, which owns Nitmiluk Tours. Jane was a young woman when the land rights campaign was underway. Jawoyn people were demanding that their ownership – of what was then called Katherine Gorge National Park – be recognised by modern law. The controversy that it caused may seem strange now, but around 30 years ago many non-Indigenous Australians feared the gorge would be closed to visitors. Rather, since the gorge was officially handed back in 1989, the opposite has happened – more visitors than ever are welcomed.
Now a world-class national park attracting around 270,000 visitors a year, Nitmiluk is the jewel in the crown of Katherine, boasting a swanky lodge, award-winning restaurant, boat and helicopter rides, and cultural tours where visitors are fascinated to learn about local Aboriginal culture and history.
Where to stay in Katherine
The most important aspect of any short break is the accommodation you will be relaxing and recharging in. If you’re keen to be close to Nitmiluk Gorge and budget is no issue, the obvious choice is to check into Cicada Lodge. Each of its 18 rooms features luxurious appointments and local Indigenous artworks telling ancient stories of the surrounding landscape. The 100-room ibis Styles also offers all the creature comforts including wi-fi, restaurant and a bar for sundowners at a more budget-conscious entry point.
For campers, Nitmiluk Campground is the most convenient base to explore the park. Opt for one of the permanent tents, each of which comes with its own fire pit. Alternatively, Shady Lane Tourist Park on Gorge Road (near Top Didj and Marksie’s Camp Tucker) has breezy elevated cabins and grassy campsites. The swimming pool is a delight, the camp kitchen is well equipped, and the shower facilities are in as-new condition.
Day one: Katherine swims and Indigenous culture
Wake up with a soak in Katherine Hot Springs. It’s free and close to town, so why not? Start at the top pool located at the source of the spring and work your way down.
No need to pack a picnic: grab a local mango frappe and brekkie bao bun from the Pop Rocket Cafe on site. There’s time for a second swim later as the afternoon is all about spending time at Top Didj Cultural Experience & Art Gallery, just five minutes from Katherine. Here, Manuel Pamkal shares his Dalabon language and teaches visitors how to make a rarrk painting (crosshatch) and spear throwing with a woomera. The gallery has a large collection of Indigenous art, ranging in price from a couple of hundred dollars all the way to Lorna Fencer Napurrula’s exuberant Big Bush Potato, 2003 for $69,000.
Day two: Katherine cafes and bush yarns
Start your day with a pit stop at one of these three cafes: Maiden’s Lane for boutique burgers and loaded shakes; the vegan-friendly Finch Cafe; or the Black Russian Caravan, located at the Katherine Visitor Information Centre, for tasty toasties and baked goods. And don’t leave the visitor centre without a tin of loose-leaf bush tea from the Aboriginal-owned Seven Emu Station for later.
Once well fed, make a beeline for Katherine Outback Experience. There is possibly nowhere else in Australia that you can go from sipping a turmeric latte to finding yourself on a bona fide outback station in under five minutes, but that’s the true lure of Katherine. Owned by horseman and Golden Guitar-winning singer-songwriter Tom Curtain, Katherine Outback Experience provides a taste of rural life for urban imports. Visitors can join a private or group horse-riding lesson, or for those who are already comfy in the saddle, an off-farm ride down local bush tracks. Before leaving take a seat in the undercover arena to watch the outback show featuring horses, working dogs and Tom singing his heart out.
Another of K-Town’s colourful locals can be found at Marksie’s Stockman’s Camp Tucker Night (it shares an entrance with Top Didj) where Geoff Mark (Marksie to all comers) invites his guests to sit with him around the campfire while he tells tall bush yarns and cooks up a feast that might include buffalo, kangaroo or barramundi with bush spices depending on what’s good at the time.
Day three: Nitmiluk National Park and Instagram
Leaving the best for last, exploring Nitmiluk National Park, just 30 kilometres north-east of Katherine, can be undertaken on foot, on water, in the saddle or by air. The 180,000-hectare park, carved from ancient sandstone country, is resplendent with deep gorges, cascading waterfalls and ruggedly wild swimming holes.
To really appreciate the unspoilt beauty and understand the privilege of being able to explore this ancient landscape you need to get up early and hire a canoe from the visitor centre in the park for the 4.5-hour AM experience, which kicks off with an 8am boat trip through Nitmiluk’s first gorge to the canoe launch area. From there you paddle off at your own pace through the serene waters among the freshwater crocs.
In the afternoon, go in search of the best viewpoints – and envy-inducing Instagram shots – by hiking the 4.8-kilometre Baruwei Loop Walk via its lookout, or the 8.4-kilometre Windolf via Yambi Walk, which takes in sweeping scenes from Pat’s Lookout.
Katherine is a three-hour drive south-east of Darwin.
Cicada Lodge, Nitmiluk Cabins and Permanent Tents and Campground; Shady Lane Tourist Park; and ibis Styles Katherine make up a rounded Katherine accommodation offering.