We were touring the Northern Territory, finally being able to tick the word “seen” beside many of the Australian icons like Uluru, Kings Canyon etc. We had enjoyed a mild autumn in the Red Centre with bushwalks during the day, campfires at night and dingoes all around us and were on our way north towards Darwin. After having spent a couple of weeks in the Centre’s semi-desert, it was a relief to arrive in the wetter region of Katherine. We knew that many club members were about to have a fantastic week-end on the waters of the NSW coast – and we just couldn’t resist a leisurely Saturday paddle for ourselves.
Every now and then, estuarine crocodiles wander into Katherine River in search for unoccupied territory. Since tourism is an important market in NT, the rivers are patrolled and estuarine crocodiles are removed from the area. The canoe hire business of Katherine Gorge is just next to a croc trap… We hired our double canoe for a whole day, queuing at registration to finally receive our PFDs, paddles, and a drum for the gear. Now, the word kayak does not quite reflect the kind of boat we got: plastic, yellow, 45kg, with the bottom reinforced to drag the boat across rocks. The paddles were yellow plastic with aluminium shafts and weighed about 8 times as much as our go-fast wing paddles at home. Yet, we had the best time on the water.
Katherine Gorge is subdivided into 13 sections or gorges separated by rapids. For a full day in a canoe, the recommendation is to paddle up to the end of the third gorge. Any desire to paddle into the fourth gorge is suppressed by a long portage of 45 minutes across unworked rocks between Gorges 3 and 4.
Was there any difference between the “leisure tourists” who only paddle once a year on holidays and us, who virtually live in our kayaks? Yes, we did paddle in sync, and we did dip our paddles in the water vertically, and did use our bigger torso muscles for propulsion. Yet, we have to admit, not much faster than anybody else! With the equipment we got, it was impossible to speed. It was all about the enjoyment of the surroundings.
Enjoyment we had. It was a hot day but the water temperature was just about perfect. When we approached the first rapids, we hopped out of the boat and tried to drag it upstream. A rather unsuccessful attempt and we ended up carrying the yellow butter box on dry land. At the far end of the third gorge, we were by ourselves, everyone else had already returned. Sitting in the boiling sun on the rock’s edge after a dip in fresh water and having lunch is the essence of paradise.
What was that? That big brownish dish in the water, did you see that? Three long-necked turtles turned up to watch us have lunch and patiently wait for a bite. They escorted us back to where there was a cave in the sheer cliffs. We paddled through parts of the gorges called “Hanging Gardens” and “Butterfly Valley”. With our canoe made to survive any bad treatment, we paddled down the rapids, hitting only two rocks, and finally acknowledging their thick plastic walls.
At the next set of rapids, we proved that we were real kayakers. Another couple had capsized in the last set of rapids. The girl was washed downstream, finding shelter on a rock, where she was so confused that she didn’t know what to do and didn’t move at all. In the meantime, the guy had tried to free their boat from the rock it was washed up on. The cockpit was facing upstream, constantly being refilled with water, pressing the boat onto the rock with such force that it wouldn’t move. When we arrived, he was exhausted and desperate. It was not an easy task to swim over to help, and when Peter was only 2m away, he was washed away by the current. Luckily, he managed to not hit a rock during his involuntary journey downstream. I managed to get over to the guy, and eventually we levered the canoe over one the side of the rock, freed it, swam it to the bank and emptied it.
We made it back just in time to return the boats and retrieve our cash deposit. We had done 13km in 7.5 hours. The sun was setting in a pink sky reflected on the water. The turtles would have said good night by now, enjoying the night and awaiting another beautiful hot day.