Trek Tours Australia Jatbula Trail

Trek Tours Australia Jatbula Trail

JATBULA : How the trail came to be
Story by Matt Sykes


Stunning Waterfall Jatbula Trail

One of the many stunning waterfalls (Photo courtesy of Holger Strie)


This weekend Trek Tours Australia is excited to kick off the Jatbula walking season. With 2016 departures near capacity and 2017 already filling up we thought we’d introduce you to this incredible walk and delve into its origin.


The land claim


In 1989 a fella named Peter Jatbula was instrumental in the Jawoyn peoples’ land claim for Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) in the Northern Territory. (Pronounced “Nit-me-look”, which translates as the Cicada Place (1)). Peter was one of the Traditional Owners who submitted the claim ten years earlier and when he passed away it was fitting for the Jatbula Trail to be renamed in his memory. He’s remembered as one of the old people who really knew ‘about their country very well’ and how to care for it. (2)


The trail follows a chain of waterholes from Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) to Leliyn (Edith Falls), which Jawoyn people have been walking for generations. Peter Jatbula walked this pathway with his family, some of whom still live in the area and are active in caring for country. It’s the cultural heritage of Nitmiluk National Park that is transforming this place into one of the most sought after walking destinations in Australia.


Jatbula Trail Lily Pond

Lily pond (Photograph courtesy of Trek Tours)


Nitmiluk National Park


What was interesting about the Jawoyn peoples’ land claim, apart from being an epic battle, was that as soon as they had ownership the Aboriginal community leased it back to the NT government and established a jointly managed national park. This meant that the Jawoyn people and Parks Australia would work ‘together, solving problems, sharing decision making and exchanging knowledge, skills and information.’ (3) Peter Ross, District Manager of the Savannah Gulf Region, explains that Parks and Wildlife manage the day-to-day operations within the park but strategic decisions about new developments, like signage and campgrounds, are made in consultation with Traditional Owners. (4) By the way, this wasn’t the first example of joint management in Australia. Kakadu takes that cake. Tjoritja / West MacDonnell National Park, home of our beloved Larapinta Trail, is also run under joint management.


The evolution of the Jatbula Trail


In the 2000’s there were around 600-700 people walking the trail. Now there’s almost double that (3). But that doesn’t mean if you come on one of Trek’s trips that you’re going to be surrounded by crowds of people. The structure of the landscape simply means that there’s limited room for growth, making it an exclusive experience. Trek Tours consciously restricts group sizes to 12 people to maintain that sense of intimacy. Each night you’re camping in close proximity to waterholes (crocodile-free!) in secluded locations tucked into the natural landscape.


Out on the Plains Jatbula Trail
Out on the plains (Photo courtesy of Jacob Robinson)


Jawoyn Culture


One of the highlights of the Jatbula Trail is the stop that we make at The Amphitheatre, a little pocket of rainforest that is home to some incredible Jawoyn rock art. The artworks connect to the Jawoyn Creation stories, and one figure in particular ‘Bula’. One of Trek’s guides, Jacob, describes some of the art figures as having dreadlocks just like his, but to really feel the significance of the place you have to be there.


A way to learn more about Jawoyn culture would be to time your booking with the Barunga Festival. The annual event, staged on the Queen’s birthday, gives people the opportunity to learn more about traditional culture as well as the broader Katherine region. ‘The 31st annual Barunga Festival will highlight the role, influence and importance of women in community life’, with headline music acts including the likes of Courtney Barnett and Gurumul. (5)


The Weather


Trek Tours’ trips centre on the season of Malaparr (June, July, August). Traditionally this is understood as the middle of the dry period when temperatures are much cooler, including mild nights. (6) Perfect walking conditions.

Cleansing of the Soles Jatbula Trail
“Cleansing of the soles” (Photo courtesy of Jacob)


Final words
It’s interesting to contemplate how political events have shaped Australia’s tourism industry. Around the same time that the Jawoyn people were fighting their land claim, the Franklin Dam was being contested in Tasmania. This later event is believed to have led to the establishment of the walking tourism industry as we know it today – the first private bushwalking huts were built within an Australian national park back in 1987. Next year the now legendary Cradle Huts of the Overland Track, designed by architect Ken Latona and town planner Joan Masterman, will celebrate their 30th anniversary. The Jatbula trail shares a similar origin but one that is intrinsically connected to Aboriginal people and culture.


In a small way Trek Tours continues the legacy of environmental and cultural advocacy in Australia, building deeper awareness one step at a time.


Gecko Jatbula Trail
A tiny gecko saying “goodnight” (Photograph courtesy of Holger Strie)


(1) Cicada Lodge (2016) Nitmiluk pronunciation and basic history. Accessed May 25 2016 from
(2) Jocelyn, from the Jawoyn Association Aboriginal Corporation. Pers. comm. May 26 2016.
(3) Commonwealth of Australia (2016) Joint Management definition. Accessed May 25 2016 from
(4) Peter Ross, pers. comm. May 25 2016.
(5) Skinnyfish Music (2013) Event details. Accessed on May 25 2016 from
(6) Bureau of Meterology (2014) Jawoyn Seasonal Calendar. Accessed on May 25 2016 from (Originally sourced from Reid, A. (1995) Banksias and Bilbies – Seasons of Australia)

Jatbula Information Sheet

Advanced Eco-Tourism Accreditation
Accredited Tourism Business Australia
Friends of the Larapinta Trail
Respecting Our Culture