Karen and I only spent one full day in Katherine before moving on. In the morning we took advantage of the Springvale Homestead daily free guided tour for patrons. We heard some of the history of the property, visited its cemetery and toured the actual homestead itself. We also saw and heard about the record floods that raise the level of the river by as much as twenty metres. Only a year later, Katherine would be devastated by the mother of all floods which would totally swamp the already amazing levels we were shown.
The Katherine River was its normal, lazy self as we paddled a hired canoe upstream in the afternoon towards the Low Level Bridge. We saw a few splashes that may have been fresh water crocodiles, or perhaps just water monitors, though we did make one confirmed croc sighting. The poor little bugger was only about a foot long. The lack of water in the river was amply demonstrated as we dragged the canoe over a few small rapids. Eventually we reached the bridge, a low causeway we had ridden over on our way out to Springvale. After a swim and a look at the hundreds of noisy, smelly flying foxes squabbling in the trees by the river, Karen and I returned to the canoe to run the rapids and laze our way back down the river with the current.
We experienced yet another example of the generosity of our fellow man later on that evening. Karen and I were sitting at a table in the outside bistro area, making the most of the furniture and the light to catch up on some reading and crosswords. A couple of guys came up to us, explained they had six other family members coming, and asked if they could share our table. We agreed, of course, and put aside our cryptic crossword for a while to engage in some conversation. They planned to attend an aboriginal corroboree show a little later on, and their tickets included a three course meal at the bistro. Pretty soon the whole family rolled up, and Karen and I were each offered a bread roll and some butter, which we accepted. The golden rule of cycling around Australia, as I have said, is never, ever refuse any offer of food.
Each family member had been given three vouchers, one for soup, one for the main meal, and one for dessert. Well, you know how it is in a large family, someone will not want their soup, or will not have enough appetite for a dessert. Karen and I were offered a couple of soup vouchers, so ever mindful of the golden rule, we accepted. When Karen came back from the bistro she had two plates of salad. Apparently they had run out of soup, and had offered the salad as a replacement. Beauty! A short while later, with the starting time for the corroboree almost upon them, two members of the family donated their dessert vouchers as well. Half an hour later we waddled back to our tent, placing the can of baked beans which was to have been our dinner back into the food pannier for another day.
The following morning we packed up and rode into town. I spent an absolutely delightful hour standing outside the shopping centre minding the bikes while Karen was inside doing God knows what. We then headed out into the perennial headwind for a thirty kilometre ride to Katherine Gorge. In the camping area we set up in a site with a table, right next to a couple of young Germans in a van. Marcos was good looking, but Christina was drop-dead gorgeous and was quickly added to my list of the best looking women I had seen. Karen and I shared our table with them during the evening, learning that Christina was a therapist for disabled kids and had met Marcos when he had opted for social work rather than the army for his compulsory national service. Smart move.
During the night a couple of very argumentative Agile wallabies had a running battle around the campground, punctuating the night with a weird variety of thumps and grunts. They were soon rivalled by some loud cockney accents worriedly discussing what in the world was happening. All was quiet eventually, except for the most gentle disturbance we ever experienced - the soft crunch of grass being eaten by wallabies close to the tent.
In the morning we opted for the challenge of a canoe paddle up the gorge rather than the more sedentary guided tour. We hired an amazingly small double kayak complete with equally tiny double paddles. If I had paddled normally I would have hit Karen in the back of the head with every stroke, so I used the paddle like a single paddle instead.
Portaging the tiny double kayak
Katherine Gorge has been created by the Katherine River, and is actually a series of gorges separated by waterfalls and rocks rather than one, long, single gorge. Karen and I paddled about two kilometres to the end of the first gorge where a long, difficult and surprisingly heavy portage along a narrow path led over a jumble of rocks to the second gorge. Another two kilometres of water and a much shorter portage - about five metres - took us to the next gorge. This one was smaller, but the length of the portage at its end forced us to leave the kayak and proceed on foot. After a walk of about eight hundred metres we arrived at the fourth gorge where both of us had a swim.
On the return journey we called into an offshoot called Butterfly Gorge, had lunch at the portage between the second and third gorges, and again struggled with the weight of the kayak at the long first portage, taking five rest breaks along the way. The search was on for freshwater crocs as we paddled very leisurely back along the first gorge. A five footer was the only one we spotted.
Day two at Katherine Gorge was yet another day of physical activity. We had seen the gorge from the water - now it was time to see it from the land. A number of walks led off into the park from the camping area. Karen and I chose a twenty three kilometre walk to Smitt's Rock, a huge island stack in the middle of the river between the fourth and fifth gorges. We reached it via a four wheel drive track that occasionally deteriorated into loose rock as it made its way up onto the undulating plateau through which the gorge was cut.
Away from the river there was not a great deal in the way of scenery or birds for us to see, not that Karen and I were paying too much attention anyway. Both of us were embroiled in a bitter discussion (argument) about what we would do after reaching Darwin. Karen was adamant she had no intention of riding down the west coast, and was even hesitant to commit to further riding even if we bussed all the way down to Perth. She was fed up after almost three thousand kilometres of desert riding, and could only imagine that the west coast would be more of the same. I, on the other hand, was looking forward to the challenge, so Karen (irresistible force) and me (immovable object) brawled our way along the track talking about time apart, separation and even divorce.
Nothing had been decided when our discussion was temporarily postponed due to the turn-off to Smitt's Rock where Karen almost trod on a snake. A significant reduction in the quality of the track then forced us to concentrate on our bushwalking skills and not on mutual abuse. The signposted two kilometres to the end of the walk stretched out to more than three. After three hours of walking, including one hour from the turn-off, we reached the rim of the gorge, where a truly spectacular scene awaited us. Stretched out below us was the rocky portage between the third and fourth gorges. Off to our right at the end of the fourth gorge was Smitt's Rock itself, the fifth gorge visible behind it. We tried to imagine how the scene would look when the river was in flood. Smitt's Rock would be surrounded by torrents of white water as the Katherine forced its way past on either side. The portage would disappear underneath metres of rapid river. The noise would be deafening. Karen and I vowed to return to the gorge during some future wet season and repeat this walk when the river was in flood.
Now, however, we took a few photographs to remind us of the beauty of the view, then tracked around a gully too steep to take us down to the water before finding a more manageable slope through a scree covered gully. We soon arrived at the water, walking past Smitt's Rock to a spot near the portage leading to the fifth gorge where we lunched and swam. I spent a few minutes photographing a Merton's Water Monitor, which had lived up to its name by faithfully monitoring the water for over half an hour while we ate lunch. It was quite happy to sit in the sun, soak up a few rays and check out the goings-on around it as I snapped a few shots, but I finally sent it into startled flight when attempting a super-duper close-up.
During the walk back to the camping area, Karen and I resumed our previous discussion before withdrawing into mutual silence. With the walk dragging on, Karen went into dawdle mode, her usual reaction when the going gets tough. As a result, I started getting even more pissed off, wishing she would put in a bit more effort and regard the walk back, like the cycling down the west coast, as a new challenge to be met. Why couldn't she realise that you only get something out of life when you are prepared to put something in?
Karen soon became aware that I was upset, possibly because I was saying very little - my usual reaction - or possibly because I told her she was slacking off and had better pull her finger out. This, of course, made Karen slow down even further, and so we descended into thoughts of mutual annihilation as the vicious circle continued its downward spiral. By the time we reached the camping area, however, both of us realised how pig-headed we were being and apologised for our behaviour. But Karen said she still had no intention of cycling to Perth.
Our moods were improved by an afternoon cup of coffee accompanied by cake and icecream. Eating is Karen's preferred method for making herself feel better. She also knows the foods that make me feel better too, although she rarely feeds them to me, but on this occasion she suggested I buy a bucket of hot chips to tide me over until dinner time. Not wanting to disappoint her, I bought and lovingly consumed the chips. I would eat anything if it was cooked in oil and served with salt.
The park rangers had scheduled a slide show on the lawns outside their headquarters for seven o'clock. The show started late due to the belated arrival of a family who had given warning that they might be delayed. During the presentation Karen and I were forced to correct the female ranger when she displayed a slide of a Silver-crowned Friarbird and said it was a Noisy Friarbird. After the slide show, she took us into her office where she consulted her bird book and discovered somewhat apologetically that the Noisy Friarbird is not found in the entire Northern Territory.
Outside again, the family who had arrived late came over to talk to Karen and me, believing that they remembered meeting us earlier in the year. They had! We had first met them almost a continent away at Easter, over three months before, outside the southern South Australian town of Naracoorte, when we had all been camped at the caves. On that occasion they had invited us over for breakfast, and treated us to bread and butter and lashings of home made jam. Karen and I could not quite recall their faces, but we could clearly remember the food! Like an earlier, equally amazing coincidence, they too were on a completely different holiday from the one they were on when they met us!
They invited us back to their caravan for a coffee and a couple of glasses of port where we soon caught up with everyone's latest adventures. Peter and Sandra were on three months long service leave, travelling from their home in Victoria up through the Red Centre to the Top End and back home via the east coast. They admitted that they had not really recognised our faces either - it had been Karen's tracksuit pants with their Coca-Cola insignia that had been remembered! We all had a very pleasant evening of conversation until the port ran out shortly before eleven o'clock. We all called it a night, but not before Karen and I had been invited over for breakfast.
In the morning we had toast, butter and home-made apricot jam lavished upon us as we spent another hour talking with Peter and Sandra and their kids. Because of this, and also because of a flat rear tyre we discovered a little later, Karen and I did not pack up the tent and ride out of the Katherine Gorge camping area until midday. We had originally planned to ride back through Katherine and continue north, but the lateness of our starting made us revise our plans and spend a night in town.