Kayaking the Katherine

LEE ATKINSON
Last updated 05:00 09/11/2013
Katherine River Landscape
Lee Atkinson

KAYAKING KATHERINE RIVER: Unlike Katherine Gorge - which can get crowded with kayakers and cruise boats - you're pretty much guaranteed to see no people.

Katherine River Std
Lee Atkinson
CAMP BY THE RIVER: Setting up camp.

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Rocks kill more than crocs.

It might be sound advice but as far as I'm concerned, it sounds more like a Top End newspaper headline than an answer to my nervous question about whether we're in any danger from saltwater crocodiles at the start of a three-day kayaking trip down the Katherine River.

Unlike the better known stretch of the river upstream of Katherine township in the gorge at Nitmiluk National Park - where the water is cleared of any wayward salties at the end of each wet season - the downstream section of the Katherine River (where we're going), is prime crocodile habitat.

Not that that worries Matt Leigh, our river guide from Katherine-based Gecko Canoeing & Trekking.

"The rangers have traps in the river but we usually see two or three each trip," he says in a tone of voice that indicates he'd be disappointed if we didn't.

"When we are in our kayaks we are quite intimidating to the them," he continues. "We've never had a problem in the 20 years we've been running this trip," says Matt with a trust-me air of confidence.

Right, I think, trying to remember if the Katherine River featured on the map of fatal croc attacks I'd Googled before I left home; I really don't want to see any and I'm definitely not going swimming.

Our trip will take us 50 kilometres downstream and we'll be camping beside the river in swags - like a canvas bedroll - at night.

At this time of year, the tail end of the dry, there's no mozzies, so we don't need tents. Cooking is done on an open fire.

Matt's canoe is laden with food, a camp oven and a table. Our kayaks are stuffed with our clothes, sleeping bag and swag, a folding chair, spare paddle and anything else we can fit in. We refill our water bottles by dipping them in the river.

Despite my new-found obsession with crocs, I'm soon distracted by the scenery as we paddle off down the river, the banks lined with paperbarks and pandanus, white-bellied sea eagles nesting in their branches.

It doesn't take long before we see our first freshwater crocodile, basking in the sun on an overhanging branch.

These small crocs are generally harmless but I can't help but wonder if his much more dangerous cousin, the saltie, is lurking unseen ready to pounce as I nervously scan the reedy riverbanks for signs of life.

We paddle on, round a bend and there they are, poking their noses above the water, several big, black treacherous-looking rocks.

Actually, they're not - they are small, round and very picturesque.

I pull out my camera, line up the perfect shot and the next thing I know I'm in the water, my kayak, swag, and everything else I need to survive three days on the river heading south and a told-you-so voice in my head screaming "rocks kill more than crocs".

There's just four of us on this trip - Matt, a couple from Canberra and me. Unlike most adventure tours that need minimum numbers to guarantee a departure, Geckos will run the river trip even if there are only two people booked. One adventurous couple even spent their honeymoon on the river.

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"It's really lovely," says Matt. "We lay out their swag with candles around it, cook and serve dinner and then disappear to the beach around the corner and leave them to it."

Underneath the rough bushman's khaki uniform, Matt's obviously a bit of a romantic. He's getting married on the same beach in a few weeks' time.

His bride, a former river guide, will arrive by canoe. "What will she wear?" I ask. "A wedding dress!" answers Matt.

I lay in my swag later than night, after a dinner of wild-caught barramundi and half a bottle of white wine, mesmerised by the Milky Way overhead.

The river is a series of long deep pools, separated by shallow rapids. Although we cover 50 kilometres the paddling pace is leisurely and the trip is suitable for first-timers.

Unlike Katherine Gorge - which can get crowded with kayakers and cruise boats - you're pretty much guaranteed to see no people.

Over the next day and a half, I settle into the languid rhythm of life on the river.

Mornings are particularly beautiful. Iridescent rainbow bee-eaters, great billed herons and red-tailed black cockatoos swoop from tree to tree.

Pied cormorants dry their wings on riverside snags and Burdekin ducks glide through the shallows.

Agile wallabies bound off to hide behind trees as we paddle past, although one decides to jump the other way, and practically leaps across the bow of my kayak as he scrambles to make it to the other side.

Afternoons are still and quiet, the birds and wallabies - and presumably the crocs - all keeping out of sight in the stifling heat.

Despite my earlier vow, I do swim, a lot, but never where it's deep.

At the end of the trip, as we haul our kayaks and gear up to a waiting trailer parked beside a faded saltwater crocodile warning sign, I realise I'm rather disappointed we didn't see one.

The writer was the guest of Gecko Canoeing & Tourism NT.

GETTING THERE Katherine is 316km south of Darwin on the Stuart Highway, about a three-hour drive. Fly to either Sydney or Melbourne. JetStar (jetstar.com), Qantas (qantas.com.au) and Virgin Australia (virginaustralia.com) all have regular flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Darwin.

TOURING THERE

Gecko Canoeing & Trekking three-day Katherine River trip costs $810 and runs during the dry season, May through to October. All food and camping equipment, including swags, are supplied. BYO drinks.

MORE INFORMATION

geckocanoeing.com.au; travelnt.com.

- FFX Aus

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