Tuesday, 13 October 2015

In the footsteps of the Jawoyn - The Jatbula Trail, NT

A small tribe of bushwalkers are strung along the dusty track as it weaves its way through dry grass and past scattered bloodwood and woolybutt trees. Two of the youngest are out front, Brad and Angus, a fishing rod strapped to the outside of one pack. Kirsty and her daughter Ruby have stopped to rest in the shade and are eating home-grown mandarins. Behind me are Louise, Red and Caz. We are the chatty ones today, catching up on stories after long absences. Down the last rise are Louisa and Shirley, setting a steady pace that comes with years of experience walking wilderness trails like this. 

Generations of families, clans, and tribes have followed this same path, through dry savannah woodland, crossing rivers and creeks, and following the escarpment edge for 62km from Katherine Gorge to Leliyn Falls in the Northern Territory. Now called the Jatbula Trail this remarkable walking track follows the route travelled by the indigenous Jawoyn peoples for tens of thousands of years. Now it has grown to become one of Australia's best-known and most-loved multi-day bushwalking trails. 

Only 15 walkers are permitted to depart on the walk each day. We are groups of strangers, forced now to share campgrounds and swimming holes so the 6-day journey is a kinship of sorts. And, they're a good bunch we've scored – a family of friendly walkers with stories and common interests, happy to share resources and support. It is one of the more social treks I've had. 

Because of its popularity and well-managed set-up, there is plenty of Jatbula Trail information, track detail, and organisational advice available online at the NT Parks website. So what follows here is simply a collection of observations, a feeling for what it is like following such an ancient path, the sights and sounds of a small tribe out walking.

Day one – Katherine Gorge to Biddlecombe Cascades – see the crimson finches flitting through the pandani that line Northern Rockhole and the small orange flowers of bladderwort along the shore. Soon after, the track climbs onto the plateau with good views of 17 Mile Valley stretching away south and north. Start early. It is hot and dry climbing to the high savannah woodlands even though this is Malapparr – the cold weather period of the dry season. 

Biddlecombe Cascades is more impressive than expected. There is a lot of water flowing into dark, sweet swimming holes. Despite the full complement of walkers being in camp, I have the place to myself this evening, lying on warm rocks in the last light, watching red dragonflies. 

Day two we lose two members but welcome two late arrivals. Louise and Red are unfortunately forced to return to Katherine Gorge but Lilly and Mark arrived late yesterday. So there is some readjustment. We all walk more individually today. The yellow, swirled and furry bark of scarlet gums mark the way, with brilliant orange blossoms thrown on the ground like markers. The forest is a mix of brown grass, and pale trees. Dark blue sky. A broad rim hat is essential and a light cotton shirt would be better than my synthetic t-shirt. Sunscreen on our arms and faces creates a sticky sweat. 

There is rock art where we rest. Look for the well-worn footpads of other curious walkers venturing among the boulders. Flowering Fern-leaved Grevillea fills one small, hot valley with a rich, sweet fragrance. I taste the globules of clear nectar. It would go well stirred in a cup of hot tea.

Arriving in camp is like a miracle. The river is bigger than the landscape lets on. Water is this place's secret; big cascades. There is one long still pool with a big pink water lily flowering above enormous green pads.  Its stems are visible as they drop like long tresses of rope to the sandy bottom of the pool. 

Don't expect complete isolation. A sightseeing helicopter buzzes over all afternoon, way too close, so that I can see the passenger holding up their tablet device taking photos of us basking on the warm rocks. 

Things to note on day three – Crystal Falls to 17 Mile Falls: while having our early morning cuppa we notice that in the dark, one of the submerged lily bulbs has opened up facing downwards, its pink petals are under the water and facing the white sand.

As we leave camp, barefoot across the river, the moon-set is a remarkable and rare sight that I tuck away in my mind, filing it under 'bushwalking wonders'. The moon is near full and cast with orange light from the distant rising sun. It has enough of a golden glow to light up the clouds on its horizon. 

All the walking is quite flat, a little undulating but the path winds its way around rocky ridges and small scarps. Today is our day in The Ampitheatre, a rock art site giving more evidence of the long history of people walking this path and creating complex and interesting stories. We explore both sides of the small gully. There are turtles, human figures, fish, wallaby, and birds. Crow butterflies fill the air. Our bushwalking tribe arrives and departs at different times, crossing paths and exchanging quietly spoken observations – a Great Bowerbird display's his bright pink crest in a noisy, cackling dance in the shady glen. 

At 17 Mile Falls there is a tiny rock art figure – leaping, doing a bombie? The falls are tall. The pool below is filled with dark-skinned sooty grunter. The beach at the base is good for reading books and lying back for another long, quiet afternoon. It is a good afternoon for the Falcon cruising the cliff top. The campsite is small, a tight fit for 13 people, but easily overcome by chatting and sharing wine and food.

Night is a different story. Cloud cover keeps it hot and stuffy in the tents. Noises in the trees hint at small animals – perhaps gliders or possums? Everyone stirs early on day four and a dingo howls. It is the longest day in terms of kilometres – more than 17km today. Fortunately it is easy and flat. Little yellow noodles of wattle blossom litter the ground and termite mounds change colours depending on the soil type – red, grey, yellow. It is tribal tag team, we pass Brad and Angus. Then Mark and Lily pass us. Then we pass them all at the crossing of the Edith River. You can smell the valleys filled with fern-leaved grevillea and the birds are busy – red-winged parrots, friarbirds, pardalotes, hawks and kites. 

The long day means a lot to see. My favourite are the tiny flowers like purple pincushions. Louisa and Shirley don't like the section of long grass where the track braids as it is criss-crossed by water buffalo and pig tracks. Everyone finds the last two kilometres tiring as the path winds through lush pandani forest and is suddenly uneven and seemingly endless. Nicole finds a tiny tree snake stuck in a rock hole and so she places a small stick in there. Half an hour later and it is happily climbing on, stopping to warm up as it curls itself around its ladder. Sandy Camp is day's end and another long afternoon beside the resort pool awaits. Kirsty boils the jug and opens her small cafĂ© as we bring cups and coffee and tea. Rainbow bee-eaters and blue-faced wattlebirds skim the pool to wet their feathers before returning to preen in the paperbarks. A golden moon-rise silences the conversations, it is reflected in the still water and Shirley is reflective about our good fortune and our place on this path. 

Tribes scatter, as do families. Where there were 13, by this evening there are just 4. From Sandy Camp most of the group walk out to Leilyn Falls and only Caz and I and Mark and Lily choose to stop for an extra night at Sweetwater Pool.

On the way: loads of bee-eaters in the air, five woodswallows perch in a row, shoulder to shoulder on a tree branch; a Forest Kingfisher flashes through the trees. All day the Edith River is to our left, a strip of green oasis. To our right, the brown hues of the forest. And while we walk through the dry woodlands, there are day trippers migrating up to swim at Sweetwater Pool. They are our first contact with outsiders for many days.

Arriving at Sweetwater at noon means another lazy afternoon, lying about under the broad wings of three brolgas as they fly north to south. It is nice, the social side of a tribe and the days spent with our group of walkers. It is also nice to sit quietly, no questions asked or answered. The gusty breeze has worn itself out by 5pm but I don't think I will ever tire of this kind of solitude and beauty. Sweetwater Pool is a sweet ending for us but let's hope the Jawoyn will always be walking through their land. 

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  1. You made me want to be there! Again...

  2. Beautifully written.. I am sister to Shirl & Lou and absolutely thrilled to bits to read your amazing account of this trail.. Thank you.. I would dearly love to do this trek and I am sure Shirl and Lou would jump at it again if the opportunity arose... Keep these amazing blogs happening...

  3. I too loved this blog on the Jatbula Trail. Beautifully written and wonderful photos.I too am the sister to Shirley & Lou, and Sue as in above comment. And there is still another sister, Shirl's twin sister Bonny. We have all had our fair share of trekking and still wish to do more. My husbnad & I have camped at Edith Falls 3 times now, and on my own, I walked to Sweetwater Pool. met a few of the trekkers too who raved about the trail. Thanks.
    Robyn Towne 21st Oct.