NT Road Trip Itinerary: Darwin to Katherine and Nitmiluk Gorge

In the words of the late Australian songwriter, David McComb, on the wide open road, “you can go any place that you want to go.” When it comes to road-tripping around the Northern Territory – which, at 1.4-million square kilometres, is Australia’s third largest region to visit – a curious traveller might easily succumb to decision paralysis. With so many places to choose from in the NT, where does one begin?

The prospect of a Northern Territory getaway usually conjures images of red desert landscapes and goggle-inducing rock formations. It’s an accurate association, but there’s more to the NT than Uluru, Kings Canyon and Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles). For one thing, the NT’s native fauna and flora are more idiosyncratically Australian than elsewhere on the continent – there are cute local mammals, such as the spinifex hopping mouse and agile wallaby, and marvellous reptiles like saltwater crocodiles and frilled neck lizards. 

The NT capital, Darwin, is a multicultural mecca that encompasses all the comforts and diversity of a modern western city without the alienating hustle and bustle. Meanwhile, the archaeological history of the NT dates more than 60,000 years; the region’s First Nations people have fought hard to preserve ancient cultural knowledge and living practices up to the present day.

There’s simply nowhere else like the Northern Territory and there’s no better way to experience it than with a road trip. To help ward off decision paralysis, head to NorthernTerritory.com, where you’ll find a range of suggested driving itineraries. Here, we share an itinerary for a four-day journey travelling south from Darwin to Katherine and Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge.

Day 1 – Darwin to Katherine

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Katherine is a three-hour drive southeast of Darwin along the Stuart Highway. It’s an easy-going drive, perfect for cranking local favourites King Stingray and Birdz on the car stereo. There are some worthwhile scenic pit-stops along the way, such as Buley Rockhole, located in Litchfield National Park 100km outside of Darwin. Stop in for a dip in the shallow pools and cascading waterfalls of Buley Rockhole and Florence Falls nearby before re-joining the highway and continuing on to Katherine. 

There are plenty of places to camp in Katherine, as well as hotels, apartments and holiday parks. Once you’ve arrived and found an appropriate homebase for the next few days, it’s time to get familiar with Katherine’s thermal pools. Follow the river south of the town centre and you’ll come across Elsey National Park, which are characterised by the untainted clarity of the water. These natural thermal springs are the perfect place to relax after a few hours on the road. If you’re limited on time, you can stop for a quick swim in Katherine Hot Springs, located within town. 

Days 2 & 3 – Town of Katherine and Nitmiluk National Park

According to the 2016 census, Katherine is home to six-thousand, three-hundred people, which makes it one of the most-populated towns in the NT. Approximately 25 per cent of Katherine’s residents are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. There’s also a significant Filipino community and a customary contingent of wayfaring travellers and adventurers. The area’s diversity contributes to a friendly and engaged local community, bustling with art galleries, pubs and restaurants. 

Start day two by popping into Finch Café for a cup of coffee and a big breakfast (including vegan and gluten-free options). The locals will have plenty of suggestions for where to go and what to see. The most commonly heard recommendation is to take a drive to the world-famous Nitmiluk National Park, 30 kilometres north-east of the town centre.

The jewel of Nitmiluk National Park is Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge. You can park the car and explore the extensive sandstone gorge on foot. Or, you could hire a canoe and gently paddle past ancient Indigenous rock art and towards waterfalls spilling into the northern and southern rockholes of Nitmiluk Gorge.

The river views at Nitmiluk National Park are sufficient to convert visitors into wannabe nature photographers, trying, but failing, to capture the sublime essence of Katherine River through the lens of a smartphone camera. For an even better view, why not jump in a helicopter for a scenic flight over the gorge?

Day 4 – Katherine to Darwin

There’s still plenty to see in the Katherine region before returning to the city on the final day of your road trip. For instance, 60 kilometres north of Katherine is Leliyn (aka Edith Falls), an appended area of Nitmiluk National Park that’s home to spacious and picturesque waterfalls and surrounded by grassy bushlands.  

If you’re not on a strict time schedule, Leliyn is an ideal camping spot. You can relax by the water and tune out the buzz and hum of daily life. Or you can strap on your hiking boots and go bush. For the more ambitious, there’s the 62-kilometre Jatbula Trail, which connects Leliyn to the heart of Nitmiluk National Park. There’s also the more approachable 2.6km walk along Leliyn Trail, which sends you out at the upper pool of Leliyn Falls.

If you plan things right, you’ll arrive back in Darwin on a Thursday or Sunday evening, which means you can round off your trip with dinner at the Mindil Beach Sunset Market (May – September).

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