For my tour guide, Tyrus, the story of Nitmiluk Gorge is about the culture as much as the nature.
He is, through his grandfather, part of the Jawoyn people who have lived here for tens of thousands of years. It means a strong connection to the land, one that has existed well before he was showing people through the gorge.
Where I see a rock escarpment, he sees a wall of history. Where I see a gum, he sees a family tree. Where I see a sight, he sees his story.
Although Tyrus doesn’t just see his family history here – he also feels it every time he comes.
“It’s like when someone tells you about somebody who died in a house and then you feel that energy,” he tells me.
“That’s like here where you can feel the old Jawoyn people still roaming around.”
Nitmiluk Gorge was formerly known as Katherine Gorge until it was renamed with a more appropriate indigenous title. (‘Nitmiluk’ means “place of the cicada dreaming”.)
The gorge is close to the town of Katherine and it borders Kakadu National Park to the north.
It’s one of the natural highlights in this part of Australia’s Northern Territory, a region where there is no shortage of unique experiences in the vastness of nature.
The name ‘Nitmiluk Gorge’ is slightly misleading because there is actually not one but a series of gorges that run through the national park.
There are thirteen of them with rapids and waterfalls in between. They were cut out of the sandstone by the river that runs through the middle.
When I visit, it’s dry season in the Northern Territory. That means the water levels are low and calm – perfect for a boat trip along a couple of stretches of the gorge.
(It also means that there are only freshwater crocodiles in the water – harmless to humans. The saltwater crocodiles, who would pull a human underwater, can only come up the river during the wet season.)
Tyrus is not just our tour guide for the afternoon, he’s also the driver of the flat-bottomed boats that are taking us through two sections of the gorge.
As we ride along above the water, he talks about the age of the geology here (1.6 billion years old), talks about the history of the indigenous Jawoyn people, and cracks quite a few jokes for good measure.
In between the two sections, we get out and walk over the rocks. There’s no ‘tour’ here. Everyone just walks at their own pace and enjoys the atmosphere in their own way.
I wait for Tyrus and ask him a bit about his background and working here at Nitmiluk Gorge.
“It doesn’t bother me waking up and coming to work on my country because it feels right to do it,” he says.
“Feeling the way I feel now, working on my country, there’s no feeling like it – unless your partner has a kid, it’s like that, knowing that you’re going to look after another life.”
The Jawoyn people had to fight to get control of this land under the native title laws that Australia brought in during the 20th century. From start to finish, the process took more than ten years.
The simple version of the story is that it only happened because more than 50 indigenous clans came together and brought representatives from the Federal Government to the area to show them how their ancestors used the land for thousands and thousands of years.
Going between gorges, Tyrus and I are walking along a path that’s been created amongst the boulders, the escarpment towering above us to the right, water running between rocks down to the left.
I ask him what this area would have been used for before the Europeans arrived. He tells me it would have been a fishing spot and explains why.
“You’ve got two creeks and then you’ve got two main rivers on either side,” he says.
“In the wet season, there are plenty of fish coming through and getting stuck in these rock holes.”
It feels so serene here. Even with the tourists walking through at the moment, it’s quiet.
There’s the sound of the wind when it picks up and animals if you listen closely. But mainly it sounds like calmness.
Tyrus explains that the Jawoyn people would have viewed it the same way.
“It was pretty much a spot where they could relax,” he says.
“Where they could not be in too much of a rush, not walk around trying to get themselves killed by chasing something else to kill.”
I feel relaxed too. It’s the site… but it’s also the trip I’m on.
As I’ve mentioned a couple of times now, this excursion to Nitmiluk Gorge is part of The Ghan Expedition, the luxury train ride from Darwin to Adelaide.
This new version of The Ghan goes for four nights and three days, which gives you lots of time to get off the train and see Central Australia.
This side trip to Nitmiluk Gorge was my choice of activity on the first day. (This excursion, like almost all of them, is included in the price of the ticket.)
The natural setting is beautiful and I really am blown away by the colours and the scale of everything here. But, unexpectedly, it’s Tyrus who is the highlight of the excursion.
He provides a connection to the stories of the Jawoyn people and does it in a way that seems so friendly and relatable.
People and nature. When they inherently go together, you need someone who can guide you through both.
Before I arrived – perhaps before you read this story too – I thought Nitmiluk Gorge was just about the scenery. There’s much more to it than that, though. The stunning landscapes are just the bonus!