Thursday, April 18, 2013

Katherine River Gorge – Gorgeous!!!!!

18 April 2013

Okay, bad pun, I know – but it was incredibly beautiful and amazing!  We’ll get to that in a minute.
First, I promise to take photos tomorrow morning of the tent on the car.  Unfolding, and then folding back up.  We got up early this morning for a tour.  We slept better last night, and it actually was cold in the middle of the night!  That middle-of-the-night bathroom run is a pain, since the ladder is in the middle of the doorway and that means rolling on your stomach and backing out the door, legs hanging out until there’s enough leg to hook onto the ladder.  We inevitably wake each other up during this maneuver. 

Second, here are shots of the Stuart Highway.  Looking south and then north.  That’s what the road looks like.  You can see why I was driving 120-130 kmh on this road!

Okay, the Katherine River Gorge.  We signed up for the river cruise, because other than hiking in the 90-100 degree heat, there isn’t any other way to see the gorge.  Oh, sorry, one could ride in a helicopter.  We aren’t those ones.  So the gorge river cruise was our best option.

It was amazing!!!!!  Beautiful, relaxing, some hiking, some walking, little bit of swimming, and just so gorgeous!

Basically, the area started as a huge sandstone escarpment.  Over the millennia, the seasonal rain found weak points in the sandstone, and began to cut in and erode away channels, which have become the gorges we see today.  These are huge sandstone cliffs on both sides of what is now a permanent river, the Katherine River, which runs through a series of thirteen to fifteen gorges.  The reason they’re considered separate gorges is because there are areas between the gorges that separate the water, so that a boat can’t go through continuously.  Plus there are very small sub-gorges that may or may not connect into the main gorges, so the number varies depending on who is doing the counting.

Also, because of the way the weak points in the sandstone go, the river zigzags, often turning 90 degrees in one direction or the other.  The Aboriginal legend is that the snake god (didn’t catch the name) created the river in his image, and that’s why it’s so zigzaggy. 
Katherine Gorge is in the Nitmiluk National Park – this is owned by one of the Aboriginal tribes (and I have no idea how to spell the name of the tribe, it sounded something like Yarwin but I don’t really know).  The Australian government finally gave the people back there land, but as some of the Maori people in NZ, the tribe agreed to a partnership with the Aussie government – so the land is part of the national park system, and is administered by both the government and the tribe.  Interesting, and a major relief after some of what we’ve heard from Aussies about how they view Aboriginal peoples.  (At times it seems like the Deep South in the 1950s or 60s, with major prejudices and segregation.  Very depressing!)

We had two crew members, and twelve other passengers.  Our captain (or pilot) was a big Kiwi guy, Jake, from Whangarei, on the North Island, which we had gone through on our NZ trek.  Our narrator and cultural specialist, Tyrus, is from the local Aboriginal tribe, the people who administer the park.  He talked about the traditional names and uses of a variety of plants, the relationship of the people to the land – and he also had a very low-key and dry sense of humor.  (He said his grandfather said, when the government gave the land back to the original people, some of the Euro-Australians complained that the Aborigines would take the land away.  His comment was he had no idea where they thought the tribe would take the land and the gorge, it was obviously still there.)

The two of them, Jake and Tyrus, were actually the most interesting people to talk with on this tour.  There were some interesting people – an American couple traveling for 6 months to celebrate the husband’s retirement.  A brother and sister from Sydney who were taking several months to tour the parts of Australia they never see.  Interesting people doing things off the beaten path, as are we.

But with Jake and Tyrus, we could ask the questions that have been bothering us – how are the Aboriginal people treated?  What’s with the segregation we see?  And the poverty?  Are there integration efforts?  

Plus Jake is Maori, and his mother’s family is related to the Maori Queen, so we had questions for him as well.  We actually ended up having a lovely lunch with Jake – Tyrus had to go to a meeting, although I think he might have been a bit shy about hanging out with old people.  But this is what both Richard and I enjoy most about traveling – getting a chance to hang out and really talk to local people, find out their views and their culture.  So we really enjoyed the two of them.

Okay, so, the tour – we walked down to the boat, climbed in, took off.  Went through the first gorge, which is 3.something kilometers long.  Reached the line of rocks across the middle, docked the boat (as in right up against a rock ledge and tie the lines around a convenient tree) – walked over rocks and paths to a second boat on the other side of the portage point (or haulover, as we would say in the VI).  In that boat, second gorge – another 3.something kilometers.  Second portage walk.  Third boat, third gorge, just about 1 kilometer.  Turn around and do the same thing in the other direction.  Except that instead of going directly back to the park dock, we tied up at a different location and hiked in to a waterfall pool. 
This was AMAZING!  Well, the hike wasn’t – this was the kind of hike where you slog through sand (yes, the sandstone erodes to sand, so there are sand beaches and banks throughout the gorge system) – then on narrow paths above dry riverbeds full of large rocks – then clamber and slide and climb and try not to fall down over rocks and boulders, part of the time with a chain to hold onto, because even a mountain goat could use assistance here.  Oh, and across a small river, again with a chain so you don’t get washed off the rocks.  Yeah, can you tell the rock clambering wasn’t our favorite part?  Uh huh.  Having a sense of balance would help.  Being under 50 yrs old would help.  Heck, being graceful would help.

But we made it, often with help from Jake.  Changed into swimwear, and climbed over rocks into this beautiful turquoise pool of water fed by a waterfall!!  So incredibly gorgeous, so unbelievably cold!!!  The kind of cold water that takes your breath away when you first get in!  I swam across to the waterfall, and got under the sides – it’s really hard to swim up to a waterfall and not get your eyes full of water!  So I hung out at the side of the falls, then swam back.  It was glorious!!!

Okay, so, some highlights – we saw two crocodiles!  One was a little guy, maybe a meter long or so, hanging out on a rock, sunning.  He stayed put for quite a while, but finally got tired of boats of people, and slipped into the water.  The second was larger, maybe 1.3 – 1.5 meters long, and he was swimming in the middle of the river – we saw him as we approached, first looking like a disturbance in the water, finally looking like a tail with the scales sticking up – then he swam to one side and we could see he was a young croc – he stayed around for a few moments, then plunged under the water.  These were both freshwater crocodiles, or freshies, as they’re known around here.  They have the long narrow snout, and are very shy and not aggressive.  They live only in freshwater.

We didn’t see any saltwater crocodiles, known as salties – they can live in saltwater or fresh water, and during rainy season they’ll swim as far up river as they can, just to find other things to eat.  Salties have been seen in Katherine River this season, although not recently.  And there are stories that during the various floods in the past twenty years, when the Katherine River overflowed the banks and flooded the town of Katherine, there were salties swimming down the main streets.  Salties are the mean crocs, the ones with the reputation of eating people, dogs, horses.  They’re the ones with the big wide snout, and grow over 5 meters long!  They also attack brightly colored objects for no apparent reason, and so the salty test is just a bright red buoy floating in the river – if there’s a salty, it’ll come attack the red buoy.  If the buoy is fine, it’s pretty much a sign of no salty in the area. 

As Tyrus said – if you jump in the water and a croc swims away, he’s a freshie.  If a croc swims toward you saying “I’m your friend,” he’s a salty!

I could describe the beauty of the gorges, but I think the photos speak for themselves.  Incredible scenery, rugged, awe-inspiring – all those things.  Look at the photos.  Click to enlarge them for more detail.  And the colors really are that intense: the deep cerulean blue sky; greens ranging from deep forest green to bright kelly to pale sage; and the rich reds, siennas, umbers, golds, terra cottas of the soil and sand and rocks.

We had a great day!  Fun, interesting, active, all that.  Which of course means that we’re fairly tired, and ready for a good night’s sleep in the tent.

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