The Katherine River is best known for its upper reach, where it has cut a deep gorge though the sandstone escarpment. Cruises or kayaking on the river into Nitmiluk Gorge are a popular tourist activity and rightly so, as the previous section of this photodiary shows. From the gorge, the river flows through the town of Katherine and another 300km to its junction with the Daly River. This section is barely known.

A local company, Gecko Canoeing and Trekking, have made a 3-day trip down the Katherine River their signature tour. We decided it might complement our Jatbula Trail walk nicely and booked a place. We were not disappointed. Downstream from the town of Katherine, this is a superb river with lush vegetation lining it banks and overhanging the water, long calm reaches interspersed with sporty rapids and shallow sandy channels. The river also has a rich birdlife that calls this lush corridor home, while the chances of spotting a freshwater crocodile (or even a saltie) are high. All this, plus candelight meals, served with wine at a table and chair setting on a sandy beach at the end of each day, makes for a memorable trip.

The fair Nello and I declared it the best canoe/kayak trip we had done. Hopefully, the following photos and description will explain why.

Day 1 - Manbulloo to Millsy's (19 km)

The temperature in the north seems to be relentlessly unchanging, with more clear skies and 35-36°C heat forecast for the three days of our kayaking adventure on the Katherine River. Still, at least we would be on the water.

We arrived at the Gecko Canoe and Trekking base at Manbulloo, 11 km west of Katherine, at 7.30am to be met by Jon, our river guide, Dennis, our driver and Leanne, our fellow kayaker. Covid-19 had wreaked more havoc, with five people from Sydney unable to make the trip due to the lockdown. That said, with only four people on the trip, it promised to be a more relaxed adventure.

After assembling and dry-bagging all our gear, Dennis drove us down to the launch site just beyond Manbulloo Homestead. Jon had a 2-man canoe, loaded up with food, cooking gear, tables, chairs, safety gear etc, we had single-seater kayaks with watertight compartments and comfortable strap-on backed seats. I also noticed with some concern that we had helmets, as well as the usual PFDs and paddles.

An attraction of the Katherine River is the many rapids along its course, and I quickly came to put them into three categories; riffles, which were just a bit of fast fun in bumpy water, hatted rapids, which were bigger and required some more control, but no special gear, and helmeted rapids, which were more serious with big rocks or overhanging branches and technically more challenging - the need for the helmet in these became obvious.

The river surface was a mirror, reflecting the dense vegetation along its banks, as we put in for a few practice paddles and turns before heading off downstream in the morning sunshine to run the first of several short rapids for the day - only hat ones.

Ready to go - Manbulloo on the Katherine River

Kayak try-out before setting off

A crocodile trap - just a reminder of what lives in the river

The beauty of the Katherine River quickly became apparent - the banks lined with pandanus fronds, freshwater mangroves, and the branches of green- or silvery-leafed paperbark trees overhanging the water. In the early morning stillness, these cast brilliant reflections on the glassy surface. As well as leaning out and over, many trees leant downstream, testifying to the force of wet season floods. The sight of debris and large pieces of dead wood stuck 10m above our heads in the trees confirmed this.

Heading off down the Katherine ....

..... beneath overhanging branches ....

... and through riffles and small rapids

After a few rapids, separated by long deep reaches, we pulled in to shore at a sandy beach for morning snacks. Then it was off again to the rhythm of the pinkling paddles. The riverside birdlife was a constant companion - both waterbirds (herons, ibis, ducks, cormorants) as well as land birds flitting across between the two banks or twittering, whistling and screeching in the treetops.

Morning tea time on a sand bank

Reflections in a still reach

More short rapids separated by deeper pools passed by. If a rapid had a name, it usually required a helmet - thus we ran Crystal Rapids for our pre-lunch thrill. After paddling the stretch known as Galloping Jack, we pulled in to a shady sandbank that a pair of jabiru storks kindly vacated for us. Jon lit a fire in the sand and boiled the billy for lunch and cup of melaleuca-infused tea. This was also a spot where we could have a quick soak in the clear, shallow, fast-flowing water of this sandy channel (NB deep, dark waterholes are to be avoided - the Katherine River is home to crocodiles).

Time for a bit of fun

A shallow sandy channel - the perfect place for a soak

The hot afternoon sun seemed to dampen the rhythm to a more languid paddle, as we sought the shade of the northern bank. We began to look forward to the short sections of rapid or shallow sand channels that separated the long, deep and still reaches.

Freshwater mangroves and paperbarks overhang the river

Heading down a snaggy side-channel

A nice run in the pandanus-lined channel

Finally reaching a point where a very small channel left the river, Jon led us into it to first manouvre our way around some sharp bends and overhanging snags, before cruising down the fast-flowing stream and plunging over a small cascade back into the main river - good fun.

The channel re-enters the river

End-of-day swim

Candlelit dinner on the sandbank

Almost immediately, we pulled into the bank and hauled our kayaks out. We had reached a site called Wilden (or Millsy's), our campsite for the first night. Millsy's was a lovely spot, braided by dry sand beds, just right to lay out our swags beneath some of the many shady trees. We had plenty of time to while away the afternoon or take a dip in the waterhole of the protected side-channel. Afternoon tea arrived and later, a sumptuous dinner prepared by Jon on the campfire while we relaxed.

With only four of us, we were a two candle table as the night fell over a feast of barbecued barramundi and salad, followed by home-made fruit cake and accompanied by a nice red wine. This is glamping at its best - a great way to end a great first day kayaking the Katherine River.

Day 2 - Millsy's to Split Rock (14.5 km)

After a leisurely breakfast of fried eggs and bacon with brewed coffee, we packed up and set off for our second day on the Katherine River. With bigger rapids and some narrow channels, Day 2 promised to be the sporty one, but for now the reflections in the still morning light in the deeper reaches were superb.

Heading off from Millsy's campsite

Some brilliant morning reflections on the river

The rhythm of the river quickly re-established itself - a succession of long deep and slow waterholes, fast-flowing shallow sandy sections and rocky narrows, overhung by leafy-branched paperbarks and intruded by snags created by the flood-fallen trees. These sections were separated by short rapids, some a riffling of the water, others more sporty and technical where Jon had to stand mid-rapid and call out instructions.

Mid-morning, we reached our first and only portage - a few metres of dragging the kayaks to cross a jumble of water-worn rocks before being shot off down river from the cascade at its end.

Time for a short portage

Starting point for the nest section

Entering Pandanus Alley

Jon also led us on an interesting meander through Pandanus Alley, an area where the river braided into several shallow fast-flowing channels, with sharp bends and overhanging branches adding to the entertainment.

Paddling down the Alley with its ovehanging pandani

Emerging from the channel

Time for another swim

Soon after, we donned helmets to run the Boatcrusher Rapid, followed by a long and wide reach of still water. It gave time to look up and admire the birds - raptors such as the black and whistling kites and a wedge-tailed eagle, while a white-bellied sea eagle led us down stream for a distance. A couple of freshwater crocodiles, sunning themselves on the bank, added to the interest as we drifted by.

Running Boatcrusher Rapids ....

... before entering another still reflective reach

Freshwater crocodile basking in the sun

The fair Nello cruises by

A big paperbark on the river bank

Soon after the next set of rapids, we reached our shady lunch spot in time for some more billy tea and a soak in a clear shallow sand channel.

Surveying the next small rapid

Inland from the river

In fact, we lunched between two sets of rapids, and shot through the second set to start the afternoon, as the everchanging riverscape passed by. As we set out, I noticed a change - for the first time since arriving in the Northern Territory, there were clouds in the sky. Did it mean a change to the relentless hot weather? Who knows, but they did provide some lovely reflections on the glassy surface of the long deep pools.

One of many of today's rapids

For the first time we saw clouds - and their reflection

The high-point of this section was spotting our first saltwater crocodile, a young 2m one gliding silently along, with only its eyes and broad snout above the water. Now we know why swimming here is restricted to a few safe spots.

The landscape now began to change, becoming more rugged, large boulders formed obstacles in the water and rocky outcrops jutted in from the banks.

Entering the section of rocky riverscape ....

... with its large rock ribs and boulders intruding into the river

This announced the arrival of the Dogleg Rapids, the biggest on the river. Here lay a series of sharp drops between rocky outcrops, all with their own little navigational requirements to run. Jon gave us the tips and called out instructions from the edge at each rapid. The first couple seemed easy, but such is the nature of overconfidence that, at Carbeens Drop, I found myself wedged against a rock mid-rapid. Still "3 out of 4 ain't bad" and, if you count a perfect backwards passage on the last rapid, the fair Nello clean-sheeted the run.

Running Carbeens Drop

A rock-rib stricture in the river

A smaller rapid in the Dogleg Series

Lesser rapids and narrow channels continued through this rocky section, leading us to another broad and lovely sandy beach. It was mid-afternoon and we had arrived at our second campsite arlier than expected. Time for relaxation, calmed by the gentle rush of the nearby rapids and a quick soak in the shallows (actually a bit quicker tonight, after having seen that saltie).

Hauled out at day's end

Campsite with a view at Split Rock

Relaxing end to a hard day at the office

Tonight's dinner was another feast prepared by Jon, the master bush chef - roast lamb and vegetables in a camp oven on the fire, finished off with a glass of red. As a bonus, Jon, whose day job is a music teacher, entertained us with a few songs. As we lay in our swags looking up at the intense clarity of the stars and the milky way, I thought it was the perfect end to a perfect day on the river (now, if only I hadn't bombed that one rapid).

Day 3 - Split Rock to CSIRO (13 km)

It appeared that the cloud yesterday afternoon meant little, as we woke to clear blue skies yet again. Our breakfast of damper and jam with freshly brewed coffee on the river's edge was a little more sedate this morning, as we did not have a long day of paddling until trip's end. Still, the sun was warming up and it would be cooler on the water, so we packed up for the last time and paddled off.

Riverscape at Split Rock

The Fruitcake Rapid - a nice start to the day to wake you up

The day started with The Fruitcake, our last helmeted rapid, followed by a short slalom through the fallen tree snags - a good way to wake up properly. Then we settled into the Katherine River rhythm of long deep waterholes, shallow sandy fast-flowing channels, rocky bottomed narrows, separated by small rapids or riffles. The river's edge was lined, as always, with drooping paperbarks and fallen trees from floods gone by, with the regular calling or fly-bys of the many bird species that call this home. Several small wallabies hopped quickly away as we passed.

Back on the river for Day 3

Gliding down a long deep reach

The fair Nello runs a sporty bit of white water

Jon picking a route through the shallows

The King River flowing into the Katherine

Soon, we reached the junction with the King River, a much smaller stream babbling in from the left bank. It marked the appearance of casuarinas for the rest of the trip amongst the trees growing on the steep banks. A short hatted rapid or two later, we reached our morning break spot - yet another shady sand bank, with clear shallow water for a sit and soak.

The shallow sandy sections seemed to be coming more quickly now, with Jon, standing in his canoe looking for the deeper negotiable channels, as we wended from bank to bank.

Morning tea is the time for a soak

Gliding down another long reach

Then it was lunch-time beneath the shade of a tall paperbark, entertained by a flock of cockatiels, before our final leg of the trip. With the day heating up quickly and the sun scorching exposed skin, we ran our last minor rapid and hugged the shady side of the river as much as we could as we cruised down a long deep reach.

Our last lunch stop on a sandy bank

The last (and longest) reach

Ahead, a snowy bearded figure appeared on the bank. It was Dennis, our pick-up driver - we had reached the end and pulled into shore one last time. Our very enjoyable three days on the Katherine River were over, though not quite the hard work. We had to haul the gear and canoes up the steep bank to the waiting troop-carrier and trailer, before heading off home.


Hauling out at CSIRO - the end of a superb river journey


That was an interesting trip in itself - as the troopy ground its way up the steep outer bank and crept along the bumpy cattle station roads through the dry northern savannah woodland. Once on the Victoria Highway, it was a quick trip back to base to farewell our companions of the last three days. Thanks Jon and Leanne for your pleasant company on the trip, and, Jon, for sharing your knowledge of the river and its landscapes and wildlife, feedng us so well (and for getting us down the bigger rapids), and thanks Dennis for getting us to and from the river.

Without a doubt, the Katherine River was the most interesting, picturesque and varied river that we have kayaked down.