Thursday was just another driving day, despite it being my birthday. Actually, it was the shortest birthday I've ever had, as I crossed the border from Western Australia to the Northern Territory, losing an hour-and-a-half in the process. I drove from Kununurra to Katherine through the most amazing scenery, and to break the journey I stopped for a couple of walks in the Gregory National Park, home to the Stokes Range and the Escarpment, the latter walk ending in a beautiful view over the Victoria River valley.
I turned up at Katherine in mid-afternoon, and after swimming in the hot springs – a little river that is really quite warm, and very refreshing after a long, dusty drive – and filling up with dried food at Woolworths, I headed north to Nitmiluk National Park.
The following day was quite a contrast; instead of spending all day behind the wheel, I spent it in the bush. Katherine Gorge is the main attraction of Nitmiluk National Park, and I set off at 8.10am to explore the area, initially heading for Smitt's Rock, some 11.3km along the gorge. The gorge itself is always flowing, so you can't walk down it (though you can take boat tours and hire canoes, a rather attractive idea in retrospect); there is, however, a long trail that goes parallel to the river, from which you can duck off down creek beds to the gorge proper.
The ranger suggested that a good day's walk would be out to Smitt's Rock and back, 22.6km in length, but I made such good time to the Rock – where I had the first of many welcome swims, a wise move in the mid-30°C heat – that I decided to visit the other walks on the way back. Undeterred by mountain tracks and searing heat I ended up visiting Smitt's Rock (a huge fork in the river, complete with soaring heights and deep, dark water), the Lily Ponds (not a bad spot, but a little dry at this time of the year), Butterfly Gorge (a lovely, shady inlet where black and white butterflies flit around in the trees), the Windolf Walk (a very open part of the gorge, with spectacular views up and down the Katherine River) and the Southern Rockhole (a beautiful, tiny beach, just right for a final dip).
It was a lovely walk and I made it back by the allotted time, but I paid for it in the end. The total walk came to a whopping 35.7km (a shade over 22 miles), and my feet were totally shredded. I line my boots with Odor Eaters, to cushion my feet and keep the smell manageable, and I'd forgotten to get a new pair after wearing out the current ones on the Chichester walk; the result was a collection of big blisters where the holes in the Odor Eaters were. It served me right, but I had to soak them that night and take it easy over the next few days... feet aren't like tyres, where you just bung on a spare. At least my leg muscles recovered quickly, so I could walk, at least.
That night I gorged on a burger 'with the lot' – that's burger, cheese, bacon, egg, lettuce, grated carrot, pickles, beetroot, pineapple and anything else that will fit in the bun, plus chips... it's easy to see why it's an Aussie favourite. I also drank tons of high-energy fizzy drinks and cups of tea; I'd already drunk about six litres of water on the walk, but I was still thirsty, and I didn't need to take a leak for the entire day. But, boy, did I sweat! This tropical heat is no joke; I've been putting up my tent without the flysheet, effectively using it as a glorified mosquito net, and it's still boiling at night. I'd sleep in the open if it weren't for the fact that the mozzies can carry the Ross River Virus, a nasty piece of work that can make you quite ill. I daren't think what this place is like in the middle of summer...