Most visitors to Australia have heard of Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, but few realize that neighboring Nitmiluk National Park, four hours south of Darwin, is actually more spectacular. During the wet season, from November to April, electrical storms streak across the sky, Nitmiluk’s waterfalls transform into thundering cascades, and immense flocks of magpie geese, brolga cranes, and jabiru storks converge on the wetlands. Year-round, the Katherine River carves a path through 13 sandstone gorges—Nitmiluk’s main attraction.
The custodians of this land are the Jawoyn, Aboriginal people with one of the oldest living cultures on earth. Jawoyn-owned Nitmiluk Tours rents canoes and guides visitors through the gorges in flat-bottom boats. Arrange for excursions at the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre, where the Jawoyn also run arguably the best restaurant in a 220-mile radius: the Sugarbag Café. The menu incorporates bush tucker (native ingredients) in such entrées as kangaroo steak accompanied by Kakadu plum chutney and barramundi fillets with lemon-myrtle sauce.
For more than 50,000 years, the Jawoyn people have hunted and camped throughout the Nitmiluk region. Their vivid depictions of spirits, warriors, kangaroos, turtles, and emus can be seen painted in yellow, red, and white on the rust-colored rock of the gorges and throughout the park. Some of the estimated 3,000 rock-art sites here are currently accessible only by helicopter. Contact Aboriginal helicopter pilot Richard Baker through Nitmiluk Tours to see rock art at such secluded sites as Nipbamjen. At this remote gorge system, one waterfall cascades into another, forming emerald-colored swimming holes.
“I used to work for the Parks and Wildlife Service,” Baker says. “Out here, all that textbook science stuff is still living and breathing as if development never occurred.”
Photo by Jimmy Chen. This appeared in the March/April 2010 issue.