21-22 July: Katherine welcomes us for the weekend

Author: Mrs A

Location: Katherine, Northern Territory

Saturday: Leaving Bitter Springs, it was just over an hours’ drive up the highway to Katherine. We last visited here about 15 years ago when we hired a Landrover Troop Carrier in Darwin and explored the region.

We set up at the campground and headed to the shops in town to finally replenish our ailing fruit and vegetable supplies – we have not seen fresh food since Cairns and the Atherton Tablelands, so were down to the last scraps.

The scenery is gradually becoming a little lusher, with occasional patches of grass and tropical landscaping – a long way from the wet tropics of northern Queensland but a step improvement from the dusty dry standards of our recent travels.We set up under the shade of some of the tallest trees we have seen in a month, demonstrating just how much more water falls in these parts.

Buoyed by our good experiences at Bitter Springs, we decided to check out Katherine Hot Springs. This little known natural feature was just 200 metres from our camp, so it seemed logical to have a look.

We looked at the flowing pools first, steps leading into a deep turquoise creek with quite a few people sitting in there enjoying the warm water. Lower down a large group of young men sat in the water with cans and bottles of beer, obviously enjoying a rather rowdy Saturday afternoon despite the strict ‘no glass or alcohol’ rules posted around. Unlike Bitter Springs, this is not National Park run, and seems not to be policed by anyone. Disappointed, we decided to give it a miss.

As we turned a corner we spotted a deep pool, the source where the warm water wells out of the ground. It was blissfully empty and quiet, so we jumped on in for a swim.It was a small deep pool, but you could swim quite a bit due to the continuous strong current – a bit like a 33 degree centigrade swimming treadmill!

Sunday: Our morning started with visitors – Joadie and Derek, fellow Zoners, live and work at the airforce base in Katherine, so they popped over with coffees to say hello.Before we knew it, three hours had passed, many stories and experiences shared and laughs had. Hopefully we will meet again on the road some day.

When we last visited Katherine we had hired canoes and paddled along the Katherine River through several of the gorges. We recalled the heavy, 18kg bathtub like boats that you have to drag over rocks to reach the next gorge. Our inflatable Packrafts were a much better option at around 3kg, so we called the tour company which ferries people to the start of the paddlable gorge to see whether we could bring our boats instead. It was immediately clear they didn’t want to forfeit their hire money, so we abandoned that idea and decided to do something completely different.

The Cutta Cutta Caves National Park is located about a half hour drive south of Katherine, and home to a set of limestone caves originally explored in the early 1900s. We decided to join a tour.

It’s always hard to look at caves and not compare them to the spectacular displays at the Jenolan Caves or Wombeyan Caves back in NSW. These were a long way from the splendour of those, but as we learned, are equally as old. Rain predominantly falls in these parts between December and March, meaning the chemical reactions which result in stalagmites and stalactites are infrequent and they are slow to grow.The caves have also been poorly cared for – in the early 1900s they were used for wild parties, and during World War II soldiers used the stalactites for target practice. With this preamble Mr A and I wondered what on earth we were here to see!

Fortunately the caves were embraced within the Parks and Wildlife Commission in 1967, were cleaned up and walkways provided. Solar panels and banks of batteries supply all lighting in the caves. These are the only caves open to the public in tropical Australia.

They were named Cutta Cutta Caves in 1967 by the local Jawoyn people, meaning cave of many stars, named after the glittering limestone features. While it is admitted the local Jawoyn knew about the existence of the caves, they apparently did not enter them and our aboriginal guide told us there is no evidence they feature in any stories either.

As with all caves, much of the talk was about what people think the rocks features look like, with a profile of Elvis, a dragon, unicorn and kangaroo among the more interesting.It was interesting to hear that the caves flood every wet season, and the water drains out through underground streams – ending up at the springs we swam in yesterday – funny how everything is linked!

The caves are home to a couple of endangered species of bat, mouse spiders (we didn’t see any but apparently they’re quite big!) and snakes among other critters. We spotted a Banded brown tree snake curled up along the wall as we explored.We finished our stay in Katherine with a night out at the local Chinese restaurant. There are in fact three Chinese restaurants in Katherine, but Regent Court Chinese is the one to visit. Fortunately we booked, as it was very busy, and great food.

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