On the Jatbula Trail, it’s said that each campsite is better than the last, and that adage holds true as I approach Sandy Camp at the end of my penultimate day on the trail. I’ve spent four days hiking across the sandstone plateaus that form the southern end of the Arnhem Land escarpment, and have finally crossed into the Edith River catchment.
The comparatively lush environment is a striking change from the broad savannah that I’ve become used to, and a short walk from the campsite lies a gorgeous palm-fringed pool with a sandy beach. Tiny fish dart around my feet and the water’s surface is dotted with the delicate lilac water lilies that provide a splash of colour.
Best of all, I have it all to myself. Though Nitmiluk National Park is one of the most popular spots in the Northern Territory, only 15 walkers per day are issued permits for this stunning hike.
The trail meanders in a broad arc, beginning at Nitmiluk Gorge, where gaggles of tourists board boats or hop in canoes to explore the numerous gorges of the Katherine River, and connecting the park’s most popular attractions.
From there, it traverses 62km of rarely seen country, a journey that takes five or six days, before ending at the spectacular series of cascades known as Leliyn (or Edith) Falls.
The Jatbula Trail begins and ends with water – the very reason for its existence. It connects the permanent water sources that give the campsites their names – Biddlecombe Cascades, Crystal Falls, Sweetwater Pool – which were bestowed by stockmen that used this path as a stock route.
It’s named after Peter Jatbula, a one-time user of the path and vital player in returning the national park to its traditional Jawoyn owners. These days, they look after the park in partnership with the state government, and while I’m walking the trail it feels as if I exist outside of the modern world.
For three-and-a-half days, I walk across an open grassland where woolly butts and light pink salmon gums are interspersed with orange termite mounds. It’s a land that offers precious little relief from the sun and this dictates the rhythm of the day, necessitating early starts and making the regular appearance of waterholes all the more welcome.
Red-tailed black cockatoos crowd the trees around Biddlecombe Cascades, looking over a series of pools connected by short falls that are perfect for a relaxing back massage. At Seventeen Miles Falls, a pool long enough to swim laps in sits above a spectacular 30m waterfall, the rocks on either side turned gold by the setting sun.
But perhaps the most memorable site is the amphitheatre. In stark contrast to the scrubby land atop the escarpment, this deep bowl at the head of a gorge supports a lush pocket of monsoon rainforest.
Though it’s just a short climb down, it’s significantly cooler than the land around it, making this oasis of butterflies and ferns a natural resting place. As delightful as it is unexpected, it’s also a rich repository of Indigenous art — one of several such sites along the trail — depicting local fauna, spirits and handprints.
The landscape changes over the fourth and longest day as I walk from the semi-arid stone country of the savannah into the catchment of the Edith River. The ground underfoot turns boggy and broad fronds of pandanus and curling grevillea flowers start to appear. Above them, shaggy paperbarks provide the shade that I so sorely missed on the first few days.
The Nitty Gritty
Most campsites are around 10km apart, and the walking is easily finished before lunch. Regular water sources mean that there’s no need to carry more than three litres, which is good news, given the week’s supply of food you’ll need.
But short walking days and minimal elevation gain mean that anyone with a reasonable degree of fitness can walk the Jatbula Trail. In fact, the hardest is securing one of the 15 daily permits. Get one of those (from $13 per person) and you’re ready to embark on a fascinating journey through the natural and cultural history of Australia’s top end.
The Jatbula Trail begins at the visitor centre in Nitmiluk National Park, three hours’ drive south of Darwin. It’s open year-round, though it’s best walked during the dry season, from June to September. Special permission is required to walk between 1 October and 31 May.
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After spending years as a music journalist and beer-taster, Alexis Buxton-Collins now travels the world searching for new adventures to write about, from navigating the Alps with Austria's last nomadic shepherd to hiking through the Central American rainforest in search of ancient Mayan pyramids.