Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Jatbula Trail

"It's a tough track ya know." The ranger was scrutinizing my walking plan for the 58 kilometre Jatbula Trail. Four days seemed reasonable to me, but the Jatbula Trail is a trail that demands that you take your time. This is what I, like many others who have walked it, have learnt on the trail.

Jatbula Trail, Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge), Northern Territory

The comments book at the kiosk at the end of the walk reads the same, again and again - "It took a couple of days before we worked it out." Rising early - before first light, walking - preferably slowly - in the morning, swimming and relaxing in the shade of a tree in the afternoons. I even got up at 6am once or twice, Graham you would be proud. The terrain is not difficult, it is the tropical heat that beats you into submission. Venturing into the sun, away from the water's edge, you suddenly realise just how hot the afternoon has become.

The Jatbula Trail starts from the Katherine River in the Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) National Park, 30 kilometres east of Katherine, in the Northern Territory. It follows the escarpment across the park to Leliyn (Edith Falls). The campsites are ideally spread about 10 kilometres apart, each beside a picturesque waterfall, creek or rockhole.

In the queue for the ferry at Katherine Gorge, I met two fellow walkers, two women who had escaped their partners and children in Melbourne for a week walking. We looked around for the other seven hikers who would be beginning on the same day, only to see none of them. How odd, we thought. The trail, or so we thought, was limited to 10 hikers starting out per day. We soon learnt though, that this was not the case. We saw no-one else on the trail until the fifth and final night, at Sweetwater Pool, where anyone can hike the four kilometres in from the end of the trail at Leliyn. Perhaps it was limited to 10 hikers on the trail. We had both had trouble booking a place on the trail months beforehand, it certainly seemed to be fully booked.

My four day hike turned into a six day hike. It was so relaxing just to take it easy and relax each afternoon. I spent six days - six hilarious days - with Kris and Kristen, who I had met on that first day, hiking, swimming, relaxing and playing cards on our makeshift picnic rug. We exchanged tales of our hiking adventures, all of us becoming converts to hiking in the previous five to ten years.

Our first campsite, at Biddlecombe Cascades, was the entree of what the Jatbula Trail held in store for us. Water flowed from the escarpment over the terraces into large rock pools. Being swamp fed the water was deliciously cool, warmer than other nearby pools.

Crystal Falls is on a river, seemingly unnamed, so much water is there. Flowing over rocks creating eddies in the many rock pools. The shady trees on the bank offered numerous choices to set-up camp. Glorious riverside camping, the afternoon spent dipping ourselves in the rockpools or relaxing in the shade, as we pleased. The Crystal Falls themselves remained hidden down the valley, the following day we saw the falls plunging far off the escarpment into a narrow chasm below.

The falls weren't hidden at our third campsite, 17 Mile Falls. Walking in, we were treated to a clifftop view of the falls, the water dropping into a large plunge pool below. The campsite was bright and overpowering in the midday sun, but relaxed into the afternoon as the shade crept across it. We spent the afternoon, once again, at the water's edge.

The photos do no justice to Sandy Pool camp. The shaded campsite, set on the sandy banks of a large, deep pool. The Edith River enters over rocks upstream, dissapearing into reeds at the other. The edge, with it's lily pads, hiding the near vertical rocky sides.

It's not all picturesque creeks and falls though. The Amphitheatre is a little oasis on the escarpment edge. A narrow track leads down into the deep, steep sided valley. The sheer cliffs on the three sides, adorned with the ancient of the Jawoyn People. A stream, seemingly emerging from no-where, meanders through the landscape. If it were not for the tropical humidity, cool as the Amphitheatre was, one could mistake this for Tasmania - the tall myrtle trees dropping their leaves to cover the forest floor, dappled sunlight coming through the thick canopy.

The landscape is diverse: savannah, swamps, melaleuca stands, rocky escarpment outcrops. The wind whips through the trees on the turbulent escarpment edge, providing welcome relief to the tropical heat. At 17 Mile Falls, rain and lightning rolled around us, lighting the night sky. It did not rain on us, much to the relief of Kris and Kristen with their mosquito net, their Forcefield against the night's bugs but somewhat ineffective against rainfall.

Now, how much do you think such an exclusive hike would cost. Well, there's the six dollar ferry fare. Then, the three dollar nightly camping fee. Seriously, there are limited options on how to return from the end of the trail at Leliyn (Edith Falls) to Katherine, or to Katherine Gorge. The only services provided are by the several taxi services from Katherine, putting the cost at about $150 to Katherine. There are some rumours that as of 2010 Dysons buses are providing a service for about $100 but I haven't been able to confirm this. Nitmiluk Tours, via Dysons buses, provide an affordable shuttle service between Katherine and Katherine Gorge.

The Jatbula Trail, a unique and seemingly exclusive trail. I have two pieces of for you. Take it easy, get up early, walk slowly. And to ensure you can enjoy what this trail offers, book early.

Download kml file to view in Google Earth or adapt to use as a navigational aid in a GPS unit


Jatbula Trail
Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday Monday Tuesday
29/7/2010 30/7/2010 31/7/2010 1/8/2010 2/8/2010 3/8/2010
Nitmiluk Visitor Centre to Biddlecombe Cascades Biddlecombe Cascades to Crystal Falls Crystal Falls to 17 Mile Falls 17 Mile Falls to Sandy Camp Pool Sandy Camp Pool to Sweetwater Pool Sweetwater Pool to Leliyn (Edith Falls)
Distance 7.9km 10.5km 9.8km 16.8km 11.2km 4.1km
Start Time 9.08am 7.49am 7.19am 7.20am 7.57am 6.41am
End Time 12.18pm 11.39am 10.48am 12.00pm 10.19am 8.05am
Moving Duration 2h04m 2h45m 2h16m 3h31m 2h11m 1h03m
Stationary Duration 1h13m 1h04m 1h12m 1h04m 10m 21m
Moving Average 3.8km/h 3.8km/h 4.3km/h 4.8km/h 5.1km/h 3.9km/h
Overall Average 2.4km/h 2.7km/h 2.8km/h 3.7km/h 4.8km/h 2.9km/h
Oodometer 7.9km 18.5km 28.3km 45.3km 56.6km 60.7km

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