Nitmiluk Gorge is considered one of Australia’s most impressive natural wonders, and a must-see on any visit to the Northern Territory. It lies 350km south of Darwin on the Arnhem Plateau, and is actually a chain of 13 gorges carved from ancient sandstone. To explore the dramatic cliffs and green waterways you can join a local guide on a river cruise, rent a canoe, take a scenic flight, or if the weather permits, hike along one of many trails. The one thing you won’t want to miss is watching the sun sink beyond the horizon from the Baruwei Lookout. It has to be said, there is nothing like a Northern Territory sunset!
Day 1: Darwin
Darwin is the gateway to the Northern Territory, but it’s also a vibrant destination in its own right – a tropical blend of First Nations cultures, Asian enterprise and Aussie frontier resilience. With lively markets, street art, great restaurants, bars and a spectacular harbour, there is plenty to keep you busy. If you are interested in military history, check out the Darwin Military Museum and the WWII oil tunnels. Darwin was a key Allied base during World War II and was the target of Japanese raids in 1942. More bombs were dropped on Darwin than on Pearl Harbour!
Day 2: Adelaide River, Leliyn Falls and Nitmiluk
It’s November, well outside peak tourist season in the NT when we visit, so we’re up early and on the road to Nitmiluk National Park before the temperature starts to soar. First stop is Adelaide River – a pretty town, a little over an hour outside Darwin. Just 250 people live here now, but the town played a crucial role during WWII. A rest camp and farm were initially set up here, then Darwin came under attack, and Adelaide River became the base for communications, transport and ammunition storage. These days, the iconic Adelaide River Inn is the main attraction. Set among palms and poincianas, it is crammed with memorabilia, including a stuffed water buffalo (that featured in the Crocodile Dundee movie) as well as a five-metre crocodile. If I ever needed a reason to stay out of the water around here, Jock the Croc is a very good one.
Around 180km further down the Stuart Highway we come to the Leliyn (Edith) Falls. The area is part of the Nitmiluk National Park and offers camping facilities, picnic tables and a kiosk that operates May to October. The lower falls are easily accessed from the car park but we take the trail to the upper falls for a dip in the tranquil waterfall-fed pools. Definitely worth the extra effort!
A short drive down the highway is Katherine, the Northern Territory’s fourth largest town. Here, there is a good range of accommodation, along with pubs, art galleries and supermarkets. The town is 30km from the Nitmiluk visitor centre – the hub for gorge cruises and hikes – making it a good base for exploring the region. We are keen to stay closer to the gorge, so we opt for Cicada Lodge, a stylish bush sanctuary, just a five-minute walk from the visitor centre. With 18 air-conditioned rooms set around a swimming pool, it is a welcome sight after a hot day in the park! After checking into our room, we head to the visitor centre to get the lay of the land, book a river cruise, and tuck into a huge salad at the cafe. The centre also houses a small museum dedicated to the Jawoyn people – the traditional owners of region. They, along with the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Commission, manage Nitmiluk National Park, which covers almost 300,000 hectares of gorges, waterfalls and rock art. The museum is a great starting point for understanding the Jawoyn’s land rights battle, their dreaming stories and their calendar. The Jawoyn recognise five seasons: Jiyowk – when heavy rains arrive, Bangkarrang marks the rain easing, Malapparr is the dry, cool season, Jungalk is the hot, dry build-up, when cicadas sing for the rain. Then comes Guran, the hot, humid period as the wet season begins.
Late that afternoon we are back at the lodge, enjoying pre-dinner canapes on the outdoor deck, watching the light turn gold, and listening to the song of the cicadas. It’s the build-up – Jungalk – the bush is dry, storm clouds are high in the pink sky, and it feels like the entire gorge is anxiously waiting for the rains to begin.
Day 3: Nitmiluk
We are up before daybreak to climb to the Baruwei Lookout. The walk is just 900 metres, with steep sections of steps, but worth the small amount of suffering once you get to the top. The view over the gorge and the Arnhem Plateau is absolutely spectacular. We soak in the cool morning light as the sun peeks through the palm trees and cockatoos screech in the treetops. A stunning way to start the day.
Back at the lodge, we enjoy a tropical breakfast, then make our way to the nearby jetty for a two-hour river cruise – one of the many offered by Nitmiluk Tours throughout the year. Our guide shares stories of the Jawoyn people’s connection to the gorge as we pass between towering sandstone escarpments that rise 100 metres above the water in places. The gorge was formed between one and 25 million years ago as the Katherine River forged a path through the cracks and faults in the sandstone. The waterway is spring fed, which means it never dries out, and provides a haven for wildlife. The layered cliffs and surrounding bush are home to more than 200 species of birds, including migrating fairy martins, herons and kingfishers, as well as wallabies and freshwater crocs. The walls of the gorge also tell the stories of the Jawoyn people. Rock art can be seen on the huge cliffs as we walk the short distance between the gorges. Other sites can be visited along the Jatbula Trail that leads to Leliyn Falls, or can be accessed via helicopter.
We finish the day where we began: at the Baruwei Lookout – gazing out over the vast landscape, and making the most of our last magical Northern Territory sunset.
Day 4: Nitmiluk to Darwin
By the time we return to Darwin for our midday flight, it feels like we’ve been away for weeks, not days. Spending time in the bush has a way of extending time as well as refreshing the spirit. And while three days is long enough for a taste of Nitmiluk, it’s not nearly enough to explore the Northern Territory. I can’t wait to get back!
Julie Fison is a Brisbane author and travel lover. Her debut novel for adults, One Punch, is a compelling contemporary drama that tells the story of two mothers facing impossible decisions after one life-changing night. When not at her desk, you can find Julie hiking a bush trail with her energetic border collie, exploring the outback, or chasing the perfect sunset. She is a committed traveller and enjoys sharing tips for midlife adventure.