The Jatbula Trail is a 5-day hike through everchanging ecosystems in Nitmiluk National Park. With a limited amount of hikers allowed at once, you get to deeply immerse yourself in the Australian outback and ancient landscapes as you walk this traditional Indigenous songline.
- Stunning waterholes to camp at every night
- Ancient ecosystems
- Rich Indigenous history and rock art
- There’s a great burger & milkshake joint at the end
Under a chorus of fruit bats, the boat ferries our small group of strangers across the river to a hidden patch of sand. The group unloads their packs, and the first group sets off. We adjust our packs, take a few happy-snaps while we’re still clean (the last time we’ll have this opportunity for the next 5 days), and wade into the thick heat of the Jatbula Trail.
It’s my first real multi-day hike. I’ve always loved my adventures, but I’ve spent years not understanding how walking a really long way is somehow desirable, and cynical that the ground covered by foot could really change enough to keep me interested.
But here I am, with my partner (far more experienced in hiking that I am) gearing up and heading off into the tall grass and rocky climbs that will define the next week for us. We are walking the 62km of remote desert trail that traces the western edge of the Arnhem Land escarpment in Nitmiluk National Park, just out of Katherine, NT.
The trail follows a traditional songline of the Jawoyn people who have travelled this region for thousands of years, and it doesn’t take long before the sound of the boat engine fades into nothing, to be replaced by cicadas and the calls of black cockatoos.
We’re hiking light this trip, our two packs carry a respectable 10kg each. Flying in from cool Canberra we were intimidated by the idea of hiking for hours in the heat of northern Australia and pretty concerned about not over-doing it.
We ditched the tent, opting for a shared mosquito net, went for as much dehydrated food as we could stomach, one book between us, and what will become some well-walked in clothes. The bulk of our weight is made up of water, of which we’re carrying 6L each, and we’ll need every drop.
Day 1 – Nitmiluk Gorge To Biddlecombe Cascade
The first day leads you away from the Katherine River across tall grassland and along the base of the escarpment. Climbing up and down the sandy hills, the landscape slowly changes into grassy woodland, bringing welcome reprieve from the ever-strengthening sun. Biddlecomb itself offers a number of beautiful swimming holes, rock climbs, and stunning views out across the valley below.
Walk, Walk, Swim
The trail management of Jatbula only allows 15 people to walk any one section per day and walkers are set to a strict schedule of pre-identified campsites. This gives the walk an interesting community feel, where you spend all day walking alone only to find the same familiar faces at the campsite each night – each of whom we will enjoy getting to know progressively over the week.
To add to its uniqueness, we opt to get up and start walking before sunrise each morning (covering anywhere between 8 and 17kms), and so we arrive at our destinations each day in the mid-morning (or on one of our more our zealous days, before breakfast). Of course, to me, getting in early is no problem at all – arriving at each campsite is like unwrapping a patiently anticipated present.
Day 2 – Biddlecomb Cascade To Crystal Falls
Heading out of camp on day two begins through the boggy upper reaches of the cascades, with our eyes peeled for buffalo, the landscape soon enough changes again into dry, rocky outcrops and our first sighting of the ancient rock art that defines the region.
The land, scarred by fire, speaks of a recently burned savanna with just the upper reaches of the gums remaining. But out of the still-regenerating landscape emerges crystal falls, offering some of the most stunningly clear swimming spots of the trail.
Each campsite is uniquely beautiful, with gorgeous views, waterfalls, and crystal-clear swimming holes to wait out the heat of the day. To me, this is heaven – the trail feels like just another walk-in campsite. The hiking itself seems almost incidental.
A Truly Ancient Land
That’s not to say the Jatbula Trail is easy walking; the track crosses rocky escarpments peppered with slippery shale and sandy hill climbs. Every hour of walking reminds you just how hot it’s going to get, and it’s a constant race to beat off dehydration.
But the walk also offers a spirit that I’ve never experienced anywhere else on this continent. I remember walking through the streets of London and being dumbstruck by the sense of history of the place. Few places in Australia have inspired that same feeling in me. But this trail is ancient, and it constantly reminds you of this as you pass by unprotected rock art, rarely signposted but reaching out to you with the full weight of the history that it represents.
It’s not the same as driving up to a protected patch of historical landmarks. Happening upon these signs of life in such a remote place, and not just signs of life but deeply spiritual records of the people who walked here, speaks to the culturally rich history of Australia that is so rarely taught. An appreciation of the life of this land before foreigners arrived and claimed it as our own.
Day 3 – Crystal Falls To 17 Mile Falls
On day three we had our first sighting of the dinosaur-like red-tailed black cockatoo which we had been hearing since first stepping onto the trail. These beautiful birds, whose lazy flight can be identified a long way off, to me are the calling card of Central Australia. Day three also dropped us into the amphitheatre, a little desert oasis with beautiful geology and ancient rock art – it’s one of the only locations on the that’s trail signposted and teaches walkers about the sacredness of the site and its importance on this songline.
Trekking across the top of the escarpment and looking out into the valley below, the vastness that is Central Australia somehow feels different with the knowledge that it’s a three day walk back to any human infrastructure. It’s not just the human history of this place that’s striking, the geology is incomprehensible. The Arnhem Land escarpment was formed over 140 million years ago, as the cliffs of a shallow inland sea, and the sediment consolidated here (literally) one billion years ago.
When you drop into the amphitheatre on day three, descending below the cliff line into a fern laced gully, you get up close with the beauty of these rock formations, amplified by the ancient paintings that signify a site of spiritual significance.
Day 4 – 17 Mile Falls to Sandy Camp
On day four, the biggest day at 16.8km, we saw the country change yet again. Intimidated by the distance and worried about the sun, we rose extra early and were on the trail well before sunrise. We climbed through greener landscapes than anywhere else on the trail, across muddy flood plains, tropical savanna, and then descending to Sandy Pool.
Perhaps a little over-keen to arrive, we were in camp before 10am, hardly a day’s hike! This has got to be one of the most gorgeous campsites of the trail, set on the banks of a large permanent waterhole. It was this day that we really got to spend time learning about the other hikers, building some sketchy launch pads with hikers Zan and Pearce for the local rope swing, trading adventure tales, and dreaming up the next big plans after the trail comes to an end the next day.
Day 5 – Sandy Camp to Sweetwater Pool & on to Leliyn
The final day takes you out of the dense tropical forest and into open grasslands, across dry mud plains (which must be hell to hike at the beginning of the season), and along river banks to Sweetwater. Some opt to camp here, but with only a 4km to the end it doesn’t seem like a real stop. Definitely worth a dip though!
We spent time with our newly found friends, swapping stories and delaying the inevitable end. With the red-tail black cockatoos continuously passing overhead, there’s a sort of sadness at the idea of leaving the trail so soon. But nonetheless, after giving in and jumping back on the trail you’re led into grassy woodlands and slowly the end becomes clear.
Sweetwater is a popular day-hike from Leliyn (Edith) Falls, which attracts thousands of visitors every year. Quickly the magic of being so remote gives way to the excitement of indulging in a burger and milkshake at the campsite tuckshop.
As you get closer to the end, the trail begins to fill up with day hikers, who somehow seem to miss the grandeur of the land that they’re walking across. Stepping out of the air-conditioning to walk the 4kms to Sweetwater doesn’t do the place justice.
Nonetheless, we arrive in at Leliyn Falls at the peak of the heat (courtesy of our extra-long stay at Sweetwater), and that burger never tasted so good. It’s a few hours until our ride is due to pick us up, which we spend swimming across the pools at the bottom of the falls and relaxing on the grass – taking time to appreciate the places we’ve seen.
I don’t know if I’m a full convert yet, but what I do know is that hiking offers a connection to country that you can’t get from the car.
The scale of this place cannot be appreciated when you’re passing by at 100km an hour. The intimacy offered to you by the slow and deliberate interrogation of the trail, gives you a window into the hidden history and silent spirit of the land that you are walking across.
- Headtorch – both for the campsites and early morning starts
- Dehydrated food to save on weight
- Broad Brimmed hat and sunscreen – it is HOT
- Hiking in the dry season, we didn’t take a tent – opting just for sleeping mats and mosquito nets
- EPIRB/ELB – There are emergency contact devices at each campground, but you should carry one throughout the day
How To Get There
The hike begins at Nimiluk Gorge just west of Katherine by the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre and campground. You need to book a ferry to take you across the gorge to the beginning of the hike.
The track is well marked and the distances not too significant, but the heat can have a significant impact on those not used to it. You should have a reasonable level of fitness for this hike.
Total distance – 62km over 5-6 days
Day 1 – 8.3km – Cross the Katherine River to the mouth of 17 Mile Creek via small boat and then walk to Northern Rockhole – towards the end of the season the water might not be so great to swim in. Continue on to Biddlecombe Cascades to camp for the evening.
Day 2 – 11km – Crossing the cascades in the morning, passing some rock art continue on to Crystal Falls.
Day 3 – 10km – Leave Crystal Falls on the way to the Amphitheatre, a beautiful break from the desert sun and some great rock cart. Continue on to 17 Mile Falls for the night.
Day 4 – 16.8km – Walk to Edith River Crossing, which is very low towards the end of the season, and snake through some beautiful forest on to Sandy Camp Pool for camp.
Day 5 – 15.6km – Leave Sandy Camp Pool, cross a couple of creeks and through a bog (dry at the end of the season) to Sweetwater Pool which is a great stop for morning tea (you can also camp here for a final night). From here, walk the final stage (you will start to see people) down to Leliyn (Edith) Falls, burgers and milkshakes!