Water, rocks, laughter and big skies are my memories from the Jatbula Trail. Leaving my three young children behind with my husband at the helm, I was a bundle of excitement as I boarded a plane with my backpack and hiking boots, feeling very much like I was in my twenties! My destination was Darwin, as I eagerly awaited 6 days of trekking in Nitmiluk National Park along the Jatbula Trail with Trek Tours Australia.
Entering Nitmiluk National Park, which joins the southern border Kakadu National Park, the harshness of the landscape becomes clear, the searing heat burning down us all, a welcome feeling from the cooler southern winter days. A pretty good reminder that although I’m still in Australia, the contrast in the temperature is great and I’m a very long way away from home.
As soon as we arrive in the park to prepare our packs for the trek wildlife is present, with a colony of fruit bats hang upside down in the trees around us- there is anticipation and excitement for what is ahead as we collect our thoughts and make last minute adjustments to our packing surrounded by a bunch of strangers who will soon become our friends.
Sitting in the shade, I review my packing and shed as many items as I can, including my beanie, I conclude that if it gets too cold I’ll wrap a t-shirt around my head! Confident that we have all of the essentials and we have sufficient water to get us through the next 5 hours of walking we board the boat which signals the start of our walk. The boat crosses the Katherine River and it provides an opportunity to view the gorge entrance and look up at the escarpment that we will climb up to in the next few hours.
For me this is our last point of contact with technology and the outside world- my iphone switched off, and from here I’ve got my ‘point and shoot’ camera to capture memories and moments. Excitedly I have no capacity to communicate with anyone other than the people surrounding me on this boat- it is a liberating feeling as we cross the river away from reality and connectivity towards our adventure. We’ve come together as a collection of individuals, each seeking something different from our journey-some of these stories we all share with each other over the coming days, but one thing connects us all; our love of walking and wild spaces. There is something completely special about ‘switching off’ and being completely present in the moment, with the environment and the people in your space.
As we reach land our walk begins, and we discover how sensory it is to be walking through savannah grasslands. The light breeze in tall grasses makes an unmistakable sound of gentle rustling, rocky underfoot, and birdlife above- the heat of the day making us all conscious to drink lots of water. Amongst the grasses are tiny wildflowers that are delicate and create a beautiful contrast against the golden hues of dry grasses that at times feel like walking through a wheat field.
Climbing higher on to the escarpment we reach rocky outcrop that creates a breathtaking panorama and a real sense of understanding of the lowlands and the escarpment. We relish in the feeling of wind across our faces and the pockets of shade created by the gum trees. This is bushwalking in the top end, it is hot, it is dramatic, beautiful, peaceful, ancient and a real privilege to journey on the same path that generations of the Jawoyn have traveled to feed their families, educate their children and seek shelter. The true magic of each day is the approach of the water that provides relief from the heat of the day.
Our first waterfall was Biddlecombe Cascades-the rocks that create this natural spa in the river are wide and flat, perfect for exploring and the water so perfect in temperature it was refreshing but like having a relaxing bath in one of the most spectacular places in the world. The sun sets, our guides provide a cheese platter that we snack on from the water- we chat with our new found friends as we wash off the sweat and dust of the day. A monitor lizard joins in our little party and attempts to climb the waterfall to our amusement- none of us knew they could swim- let alone climb a waterfall! We get a real sense of what the trail will be like- traversing the landscape to find the spectacular oasis that water creates.
As night falls after a delicious dinner of fish miso noodle soup we climb in our mosquito domes that create a thin barrier between us and the insects and creatures that surround us. We are immersed in the landscape – the stars above us, the sand below us. It is peaceful, calm and the sound of the cascading water lulls us to sleep, it is such a magical experience and a ritual which becomes a joyful part of every day.
Each day begins before the sun rises with head torches, moon light, water gently rolling over the rocks, quiet chatter, the sound of tent zips, air out of mattresses and the smell of brewing coffee. It’s a peaceful time of day and as a non-early morning person it delivered rewards that were breathtaking, the rising sun hitting the landscape intensifying the colours of the beautiful rock, changing the colour of the grasses to golden. Day in day out the sun has risen over this land, these waterfalls, whether we are here or not- life continues.
As I walk thoughts of the ancient nature of this trail drift in and out of my head- the sense that for thousands of years the Jawoyn had walked this land and cared for this landscape, and our history, our “European” Australian history is really so insignificant compared to this ancient way of living, my very existence, merely a dash on the existence of time.
Day three truly confirms this sentiment when we explore a natural amphitheatre- which has its own ecosystem and plant species quite different to those in other parts of the trail- it’s wet rainforest, lush and green, a complete contrast to the dry savanna grasslands and the evidence of bushfires that are scattered throughout the trail. The walls of the amphitheatre tell the stories left by the Jawoyn for future generations – we are fortunate to witness a glimpse of their culture through their distinctive rock art. Like all art it is in the eye of the beholder – there are images of kangaroo, emu’s, crocodiles, fish and humans in various forms. Some of the stories associated with the art are shared- those which the Jawowyn deem appropriate to share with us. Their family stories and lessons to be learned about living in this environment are expressed in the remnants of artwork which have been created over thousands of years- it really was a privilege to be able to visit such a magical place with such a beautiful energy I think that the three days of walking to reach it, made me appreciate it even more! The remoteness and rawness of the landscape combined with the stories of the rock art and ancient history really left me with a sense of a bigger picture of the universe and our own insignificance in the world- ahhh the places your mind takes you when you walk for days…it is such a beautiful space that is created within yourself.
After a day of walking, removing boots and backpacks was relief – the work for the day completed and the rest of the day is time to just be. There was time to explore the surrounding water hole and rock spore. Some days I explored by myself or I found a shady spot to read a book, other days I explored the area around camp with others in the group discovering a greater understanding of the landscape and enjoying the adventure of exploring waterholes in our bathers. At every campsite water is the hero and swimming in the beautiful fresh water surrounded by spectacular rock formations is the highlight of every day. The juxtaposition of the dry trail and the water just reinforced its magic.
There was challenge, achievement, fun, laughter, culture, beauty, there was time to do more, or do nothing, time to nap in the afternoon shade, time to explore, read, write, swim or chat. The balance of walking, resting and playing was perfect, as was the company of a random collection of individuals who came together for six days to experience something unique, special and real.
[Blog written by Anna Coxen. Photo credit: Trek Tours Australia / Anna Coxen / Michelle Boswell]