Northern Territory’s Umbrawarra Gorge offers RVers an exciting new outback adventure
WORDS BY PATRICK KENNEDY, PHOTOGRAPHY BY JENNIFER KENNEDY
On our first night in Umbrawarra Gorge, I woke up several times, impatient for the dawn to arrive. My wife Jennifer and I were thrilled to be back again, and I planned to get up early to catch the sunrise on the smooth red rocks of this magnificent piece of God’s creation.
Finally the sun crept over the distant horizon, and I eagerly got out of bed. Jennifer groaned sleepily. “It’ll be another hour before the sun is on the gorge,” she said.
I thought of how the first hint of the dawn’s rays would light up the hidden majestic beauty of Umbrawarra Gorge and couldn’t wait. “Sorry, you can catch up. I’m off,” I whispered as I left our motorhome with camera in hand.
I made my way along the short 500-metre walk from the campsite into the gorge and was immediately rewarded for my persistence. The first fingers of the sun’s rays were already being caught in spectacular fashion on the red cliffs, which towered over both still and running streams.
Visit Umbrawarra Gorge, and you will experience what can best be described as an unexpected outback pleasure. Unexpected, because as you drive along the 20 kms of the dusty, corrugated road, you rarely see another vehicle. No one would blame you if you didn’t expect too much from this outback destination. It was on the road leading into the gorge that our excitement was somewhat quenched when the only vehicle we saw was heading back out. He stopped us to say the gorge had dried up and wasn’t worth visiting and that we might as well turn back.
I was shattered, but we thought we’d carry on just to get some photos of the sunset on the cliffs. As we continued along the road, we had to traverse a number of shallow water crossings in our Iveco motorhome and I began to wonder if our informant had unintentionally misled us. There seemed to be plenty of water on the roadside, so why wouldn’t there be water in the gorge? Our hopes began to flower again. We arrived in one piece at the camp site and, in retrospect, took too much time setting up the van.
By the time we got down to the gorge the sun had almost gone, leaving only dark shadows. The great news was that there was plenty of water – our fellow traveller was mysteriously mistaken. Every cloud (not that there are many in the NT at this time of year) has a silver lining and ours was that we decided to stay another day at Umbrawarra.
A TASTE OF PARADISE
For the entire next day we rock hopped over mostly solid rocks as the small creek gurgled its way past us. On our first trip here a few years ago we were content to explore just the first two easily accessible gorges but this time we decided to walk another two kilometres upstream. Thank goodness we did! We discovered not only many other gorges but also beautiful swimming holes and large yellow sandy beaches.
When you walk along the banks of the creek it’s easy to see where it expands into a raging torrent in the wet season, carrying all before it. It would be wonderful to see. But for now, we were content to see the area at its peaceful and tranquil best. With the discovery of yet more gorges, Umbrawarra was living up to our expectations of another outback adventure.
Let me be clear this is not Katherine Gorge with wide-open waterways buzzing with human activity.
Umbrawarra Gorge is in a league of its own – crystal clear swimming holes, sandy beaches, towering 30 metre cliffs and masses of native vegetation providing adequate shade as you explore what is undoubtedly my favourite place in this vast nation. I love Uluru, Kakadu, Katherine Gorge and the Great Ocean Road and the West Australian coast but nothing beats Umbrawarra Gorge for beauty, peace and quiet and isolation.
As we wandered through the gorges we could only imagine what it must have been like to the Wagiman Aboriginal people who used to inhabit the area decades ago. What a privilege to live, fish, swim and hunt in this idyllic place. The first non-aboriginals, entering the gorge in the late 1870s as part of the siting party of the Overland Telegraph route, must have been spellbound when they saw the area.
Tragedy struck the area in the early 1900s when 40 men, who were working in a tin mine, died of malaria. They were tough days.
A MEMORABLE TREK
If you are steady on your feet don’t just visit the first two gorges – keep going and explore the further nine we discovered. Yes, nine! Many of them are deep; some have expansive beaches and shady trees. And the wonderful thing was we didn’t see another soul for the entire day. We had the place to ourselves. There is just one spot where you will need to strip off and jump in to wade onto the, next beach so you can continue your walk. It is a really good little adventure. We walked another hour and a half and could have kept going, but we wanted to be back at the main gorge for sunset.
It was late afternoon when we finally found ourselves back at the beginning of the string of gorges. It had been a tiring day but I was determined to be back to snap the area as the sun dipped below the cliffs. One final swim in the cool pools, a flurry of photos and my day was almost over. I had been in the gorge country from dawn til dusk and now it was time to get back to pack for the trip back to Katherine where we needed to buy tyres before heading towards Broome.
Umbrawarra is certainly great value. Not only are the gorges, well, gorgeous, you are charged only $3.30 per person to stay there!
Next morning we took our time on the 23km back to the Stuart Highway. Nineteen km of the road is dirt and it has 15 floodway crossings, although only three had water in them when we left the area. The remaining ones are quite rough but easily traversed if you take your time. We took about an hour to do the dirt section and before gladly rolling on to the tar and progressing towards Katherine.
One last piece of excitement was waiting for us in the form of a massive roadblock at the entrance to Katherine. A dozen burly khaki-clad police officers, all armed to the teeth, were searching cars and RVs. As one police officer stood with a rifle at the ready, another climbed warily into the back of our motorhome, searching it carefully for a dangerous criminal who was on the run after allegedly murdering someone. At least the police office had a good sense of humour. “Okay,” he said, “you’re not hiding any murderers – you can carry on.”
And carry on we did, happy in the knowledge we had discovered hidden treasure on our latest trip: the string of gorges at Umbrawarra. We were even happier that we had managed to avoid a murderer roaming the outback somewhere between Darwin and Katherine. We were pleased to hear later that he had been caught hidden deep in bushland south of Darwin.
FURTHER DELIGHTS IN THE TOP END
If you are heading south, be sure to check Edith Falls, just 90 kilometres away. It is often overlooked by RVers in their understandable rush to get to the magnet of the area – Katherine Gorge. Try to work a couple of days into your schedule and, at the very least, set up overnight at Edith Falls. The national park campground is green and inviting with many cool pools and fabulous easy walks.
If you are heading north then you won’t want to miss taking a tour on the Adelaide River Queen Jumping Crocodile Cruise. You will be just amazed as massive crocs jump from the water to snap up pieces of meat held out tantalisingly on very long poles by crew members. While in the area, visit the largest war cemetery in Australia: the Adelaide River War Cemetery. The rows of headstones caused us to reflect on those killed during World War II in the devastating Japanese air raids. There are more than 400 graves located in the cemetery. We stood in silence, saddened to see the tender ages of the men killed in the NT during the war.
In keeping with the military theme, check out the excellent Darwin Military Museum. This stands as a poignant reminder of what happened in NT when hundreds of men and women were killed in the many air raids, which most Australians down in the southern States weren’t even aware of. Take it from someone who doesn’t really like museums: this is an outstanding investment of your time.
Whichever way you are travelling along the Stuart Highway, north or south, take the time to drop in to Umbrawarra Gorge on your journey. There’s no way you can miss this outback gem.