Monday, 31 July 1995

AUS 1995 - Katherine Gorge Cruise

Without doubt, this was our biggest day of the trip, to date. For some, it would fulfill a dream; for others, it would realise great planning; and for a third group, it would capture their imagination and ignite their appreciation for their country.

Nitmiluk NP has given the franchise for accommodation to the Travel North group - the same company which manages the Mataranka accommodation - and we were to be similarly impressed with their approach to keeping customers satisfied. The standards set in seeking customer happiness, organisation of the camping grounds and the enjoyment of the sights were very high.

Sue taking off for the gorges
One of the methods for enjoying Katherine Gorge is a three-seat helicopter, which flies fifteen or thirty minute flights over the gorges and toward the escarpment of Arnhem Land. Earlier in the trip, Sue had seen a helicopter at Renner Springs and had asked me whether the owner might allow her to sit in it, as she had always held a secret fantasy for flying in a helicopter. Perhaps always is a little strong: it was actually a desire which dated back to her early years, growing up on the farm on the Clarence River. During a flood, she had watched with glee as the "choppers" had flown in supplies. The children were all on alert they might have to be evacuated by helicopter, but as it never happened, a little girl was left in suspense and disappointment.

Therefore, the chance to meet this unfulfilled need in Sue was too good to miss and ticket clutched firmly in her hand, she stepped forward to the helipad and boarded the craft which had been part of her childhood dreams. She was in fact doubly lucky because, as centre passenger, she wore the headset, putting her in communication with the pilot and they were able to carry on a conversation throughout the half hour she "flew the gorges".

When her flight was completed, she emerged from the "flying bubble" with her stomach intact and a large smile on her face. To quote her: "I wasn't nervous at all ... just excited. I saw feral cattle and some brumbies and the entire gorge system. Farout!"

I must admit, for $ 100, 1 thought we deserved a more extensive description !

From this mid morning "high", we all departed from our camp site to the jetty, for a four hour cruise of the first three gorges, which had come so highly recommended. I admit to being wary, as often, when one anticipates something of this nature for so long, there is often a sense of disappointment when the event actually takes place.

On this occasion, it was not to be. The cruise was magnificent and every one of us was taken by the colours, the beauty and fact all we saw was naturally created. Our tour guide, Rob, also deserves mention, for his could well be seen as a situation where familiarity would breed contempt. The dialogue could easily be jaded, given the number of cruises operating.

It was not the case.

Rob was witty, fresh and happy to inform or answer questions. Perhaps the roster system which has all members of staff set down to share cruises, cleaning, rubbish removal etc., means they look forward to the part of their job which allows them a pleasurable interface with the public.

There were many points of great Interest during the four hours of cruising, walking and swimming. Samuel was able to begin to overcome his fear of crocodiles during this cruise, through a combination of Rob's confidence and the lure of the beautiful blue water.

The magnificently sheer 70 metre cliff known as Jedda's Leap is part of the second gorge and has a special place in Australian film history. The movie Jedda was made by Charles Chauvel, using the brilliant Katherine Gorges as a backdrop to this moving story of ill-conceived love between members of two different aboriginal "skins". The term "skins" refers to aboriginal tribal law which dictates marriage can only take place between certain mixes of people, according to their skin relationship or tribal background. Jedda and her lover throw themselves of this cliff as the climax to the movie. The scene was shot using paper mache dummies, but had 20 "takes" before the legendary director was satisfied the fall looked realistic. The wonderful irony of this insistence on perfection came when the final thirty seconds of the film - containing the fall sequence - was lost in a fire as the film was being transported to Sydney for final editing. The falling bodies were then reshot in Wollemi NP and edited into other scenes, because the cost of a return to the Northern Territory would have been prohibitive.

We observed three Johnson River freshwater crocodiles during the cruise and many places where they nest and lay eggs. These sites are protected from canoeists, who can paddle upstream and land in any other area for overnight stops. The crocodile siblings are transported to the water after hatching, in the mouth of the mother.

The rock hop between the first and second gorge, revealed some outstanding aboriginal art, high up on the rock faces. "Experts" have conjectured the artists used tree trunks or rock ledges which have since fallen, as their perch for the performance of the art work. Much of the work was in excess of 10 000 years old. The local Jaywon people believe some of the art has been done by the "first people" who are Ngyuyen, or giant spirits from the dreaming.

Having reached the extent of our journey in the third gorge, we returned to the second gorge for a swim. This was a wonderful diversion to the passing of the afternoon. The water was chilly at first, but after a minute or so, it was relaxing to paddle about in the clear, cool river and see the red I orange walls rising above us. We were served orange juice and fruit cake for afternoon tea, taken on the rocks and sandy foreshore beside the river. Sue shared her thoughts with the assembled multitude, uttering the phrase "I wonder what the poor people are doing". It was reflection on our good fortune, rather than a question indicating our social position.

The afternoon sun threw fresh angles on the water surface, as we headed toward our starting point. It was one of the awesome sights which became daily experiences the further we travelled north. We returned to the jetty full of wonder because of the fantastic things we had seen and experienced.

The evening belonged to a dance troupe from the local Jaywon people, who operated from an open air arena for one of the most effective demonstrations of dance we have seen. Made up of a combination of locals dancers and some from other areas, the dancers were all full blood tribal members. They shared with us many of the important dances which form part of their traditional life.

The corroboree commenced with the lighting of the fire by the traditional rubbing of firesticks to create friction and heat and my attempt to video tape this was thwarted by the rush of people to the fire to observe the custom at extremely close quarters. It should be said, this was encouraged throughout the evening and the dancers were more than happy to have photographs and videos made during the performance and afterwards.

There was a high degree of audience participation in the evening, with all of the children joining in at
varying junctures of the evening. It transpired that Chris was the best of the non-aboriginal users of the woomera assisted spear and was even better than many of the aboriginals ! He also excelled at playing the didjeridoo and was one of only two adults or children who managed to emit the correct sound.

The evening ended with Sue, Sam and Sarah taking an active part in the Brolga Dance. All agreed this capped the best day of the trip to date and the return drive of 40 kilometres back to camp,
eventually saw all but the driver drift into satisfied pre-sleep dozing.

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