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Katherine, NT

Third largest town in the Northern Territory famous for the Katherine Gorge and its position as the crossroads of the territory.

Katherine is the third largest town in the Northern Territory after Darwin and Alice Springs. Situated on the banks of the Katherine River it is the service centre for the Gulf Savannah region of the Territory and a popular stopping point on the Stuart Highway. Its primary appeal is tourism with both the Katherine Gorge, in the Nitmiluk National Park, and the Cutta Cutta Caves being the most popular drawcards. It has a stable, permanent population of around 6,000 and the strategically important RAAF base, RAAF Tindal, is nearby.


Katherine is located 316 km south-east Darwin and 1181 km north of Alice Springs via the Stuart Highway.


Origin of Name

Should the town, perhaps, be called Catherine? The story of the naming of Katherine is a comment on the nature of 19th century exploration. On his third journey north the great inland explorer John McDouall Stuart reached the Katherine River. This expedition had been financially sponsored by the South Australian pastoralist, James Chambers, and Stuart was so grateful that he kept naming prominent landmarks after Chambers' family. On 4 July, 1862 Stuart crossed the Katherine River and recorded in his diary: "Came upon another large creek, having a running stream to the south of west and coming from the north of east. This I have named 'Katherine', in honour of the second daughter of James Chambers Esq." The only problem is that Chambers' daughter was Catherine. His wife's name was Katherine. So did Stuart make a mistake with the member of the family he was honouring or did he make a mistake with the name.


Things to See and Do

Katherine Railway Station
The Katherine Railway Station at 998 Railway Terrace was built in 1926 and is currently owned and operated by the National Trust. An historic railway station, it was the only one on the North Australian railway line built out of concrete. It is open Tuesday to Thursday 10.00 am - Noon and Friday and Saturday 10.00 am - 2.00 pm. Tel: (08) 8972 1686 or check out http://www.travelnt.com/katherine-and-surrounds/things-to-do/old-katherine-railway-station.

Katherine Museum
The Katherine Museum is located in the old passenger terminal of the Katherine Aerodrome which is located 3 km out of town on the Katherine Gorge Road. Special interest in the museum focuses on the Dr. Clyde Fenton Gypsy Moth (an original Flying Doctor plane);  a room dedicated to the history of the Overland Telegraph Line; a room exploring the role of the Chinese in the Territory; the actual punt which took Jeannie Gunn across the Katherine River; interesting and significant local Aboriginal artefacts; a detailed history of the changes which have occurred to the town from the first settlement at Knots Crossing to the modern settlement. Tel: (08) 8972 3945 or check out http://www.katherinemuseum.com.

Katherine Hot Springs
Most visitors tend to head towards Mataranka, with its famous hot springs, without realising that on Riverbank Drive, just off the Victoria Highway south of the town centre, are the Katherine Hot Springs which are a constant 32°C, are crystal clear, and are surrounded by trees. An ideal place to swim and have a picnic.


Other Attractions in the Area

Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) National Park
Katherine Gorge is considered the must-do activity in the Katherine area. It is part of the huge 292,800 Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) National Park which is located 29 km north east of Katherine on the Katherine River. The Park offers boat tours, swimming, bushwalking, camping and canoeing as its main activities.

Katherine Gorge
The Gorge, which lies at the southern end of the National Park, actually comprises thirteen gorges each of which is separated by rocky sections which become exposed during the dry season.
It is possible to hire canoes at the Nitmiluk National Park Centre (tel: (08) 8972 1886 for more details) and make your own way, at your own pace, (the canoes can be hired for four hours, eight hours or overnight) into the Katherine Gorges. When the water is low in the winter months the paddler has to drag their canoe over the rocks when passing from one gorge to the next. For more information check out http://www.nitmiluktours.com.au/book-a-tour/canoeing-trips.
Gorge Cruises
The most popular way of visiting the gorges is to take one of the four cruises:
Nit Nit Dreaming Two Gorge Cultural Cruise - 2 hours
Timeless Land 3 Gorge Cruise - 4 hours
Dawn Cruise - 2 hours
Nabilil Dreaming Sunset Dinner Cruise - 3.5 hours
All the journeys involve some rock hopping with, obviously, the Nit Nit Dreaming being the easiest. There are also helicopter flights over the gorge. For all information about the gorge cruises check out http://www.nitmiluktours.com.au/book-a-tour/gorge-cruises.
There are brochures which can be downloaded and provide detailed information about the walks in Nitmiluk National Park. The Southern Walks brochure (http://www.parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/10557/southern_walks_13.pdf) lists eight walks ranging from a relatively easy 1.8 km walk to Baruwei Loop Walk (1 hour, medium difficulty at the point on the Katherine River where the cruises depart) through to the 39 km, 2-3 day, Jawoyn Valley walk (medium to difficult) which includes the galleries of Jawoyn rock paintings. For more information check out http://www.parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au/parks/find/nitmiluk#.VU7XotOqpBc or download the excellent Park Fact Sheet at http://www.parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0015/10554/Nitmiluk-FS-12.pdf.

Edith Falls
Located 62 km north of Katherine (20 km from the Stuart Highway), the picturesque Edith Falls are in the Nitmiluk National Park. The Edith River is spring-fed and therefore flows all year round. The primary appeal of the falls is a combination of excellent swimming in both the lower and upper pools and pleasant bushwalking on either the Leliyn Trail (2.6 km, moderate difficulty, 2 hour circuit) which ascends from the car park to the Upper Pool, and the Sweetwater Pool Trail (8.6 km, moderate difficulty, a day or overnight walk) which is also ideal for swimming. There is an excellent Parks & Wildlife brochure which can be downloaded at http://www.parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au/mediaa/parks/find-a-park/pdf/Leliynfs12.pdf.

Top Didj Cultural Experience
The Top Didj Cultural Experience can be enjoyed at the Top Didj Art Gallery which is located on Gorge Road only 7 km out of town. The experience, which lasts around two hours, includes learning about local Aboriginal culture; creating your own rarrk painting; trying your hand at a dot painting; learning to create fire with two sticks; learning how to throw a boomerang or throw a spear using a woomera. Session times are 9.30 am and 2.30 pm. For more information check out http://www.topdidj.com or tel: (08) 8971 2751.

Cutta Cutta Cave Nature Park
Located 29 km south of Katherine is the 1,499 ha Cutta Cutta Caves Nature Park. The park was created in 1967. It became officially known as the Cutta Cutta Nature Park in 1979. Geologically Katherine is surrounded by 500 million year old limestone formations with thermal springs (at Mataranka and Douglas Hot Springs) bubbling to the surface and over 100 karst caves. The Cutta Cutta Cave is the only cave in the Northern Territory which is open to the public. It is a tropical cave with an average temperature of 35°C and 80-90 per cent humidity. It has a total length of 750 metres. The first 250 metres are open for guided inspection.
The cave is unusual in the sense that it does not "grow" in the dry season. It only grows during "the wet" when the area receives most of its annual rainfall. The caves are known for their colonies of blind shrimp (an ancient form of shrimp previously unknown in Australia) and Golden Horseshoe Bat.
The wide opening means that the caves are home to a wide range of local creatures including mouse spiders, brown tree snakes, blue-faced honeyeaters, orange horseshoe bats, marbled velvet geckos and red-backed fairy wrens. Don't be concerned. They stay well away from visitors. We did not see any of them when we visited.
The main attractions in the park are two walks and the opportunity to inspect the Cutta Cutta Cave. There is a car park one kilometre from the Stuart Highway. Near the information centre is the 625 m Woodland Walk (it takes 20 minutes) which is an opportunity to experience the open tropical woodland flora of the area. Next to the car park is the Karst Walk (650 m -  "The surface walk includes bridges and viewing platforms overlooking cave entrances, and provides excellent opportunities for interpretation of surface and sub-surface karst processes and landforms and relationships between geology and vegetation." ) which is accessible to those people intending to go on a caves tour. Conducted tours, lasting about one hour, are held at 9.00 am, 10.00 am, 11.00 am, noon, 1.00 pm, 2.00 pm and 3.00 pm. (NB. The caves accept cash only).
The cave is known for its impressive columns, pillars and flowstones of calcite crystal. There is a remarkably detailed, 38-page Plan of Management which can be downloaded at http://www.parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au/?a=10087 and an excellent Parks & Wildlife brochure with a useful map at http://www.parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0016/10546/CuttaCutta_FS11.pdf.

The Geology of the Caves
In the Plan of Management the geology of the caves is explained: "The Park overlies a geological sequence known as Tindal Limestone, a member of the Daly River Group formed on the eastern rim of the Daly Basin. This sequence, developed in the middle Cambrian period more than 500 million years ago, consists mainly of porous and permeable grey limestone. From the Park’s geology, along with the tropical climate and the passage of time, an ancient tropical karst landscape has developed – a terrain with distinctive landforms and hydrology due to the limestone's high solubility and porosity. Tropical karst and cave systems such as those represented in Cutta Cutta Caves Nature Park are of limited extent in Australia and are, therefore, of considerable scientific interest. This Park, and the Kintore Caves Nature Park northwest of Katherine conserve the most significant limestone and karst of the Katherine area.
"Karst formations and caves develop from the chemical weathering / dissolution of limestone. Carbonic acid formed from the absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide into rainwater slowly dissolves limestone. The Park’s landscape exhibits a range of surface weathering features unique to karst including pinnacles and towers, ground collapse structures (dolines) and limestone pavement dissected with deep crevices (grikes) that have developed from chemical weathering along rock joints.
"Caves are a measure of the intensity and persistence of karst processes. Acidised rainwater moves slowly through cracks and joints in the limestone, producing the soluble compound calcium bicarbonate which is carried away, leaving a cavity. If
the process continues a cave is formed. Solutional activity is highest at, or just below the water table where water movement is slow and acidity highest. Most caves on the Park are believed to have been formed in this way."

Springvale Homestead
Located 8 km west of Katherine is Springvale Homestead, the oldest station homestead in the Northern Territory. It offers a rare insight into the kind of life led by European settlers in the area towards the end of the nineteenth century. In 1877 Alfred Giles and Alfred Woods, accompanied by 40 men, overlanded 2,500 cattle and 12,000 sheep from South Australia. After twenty months they reached Katherine in June, 1879 and near the Katherine River they built a homestead which they called 'Spring Vale'. With its thick limestone walls it is a rare example of early colonial architecture in a region where most early buildings were constructed of timber. At the time the land upon which the house was built was owned by Dr W. J. Browne, a respected pastoralist in South Australia. Alfred Giles had been second-in-command with the team which had surveyed the Overland Telegraph Line route. Some believe he was the first white man to see the Katherine Gorge. Today Springvale Homestead is within the Springvale Homestead Tourist Park and can be visited and inspected. During the winter months there is a free Historical Tour of the Homestead at 3.00 pm. For more information tel: (08) 8972 1355.



* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area around Katherine was the traditional land of the Jawoyan, Walpiri, Dagaman and Wardiman Aboriginal people. The Katherine River and Katherine Gorge were popular meeting places.

* When John McDouall Stuart passed through the area in 1862 he named the Katherine River. Stuart's expedition was being financially supported by a South Australian pastoralist, James Chambers. Stuart reciprocated by naming a number of places in the Northern Territory after members of Chambers' family.

* On 4 July 1862 Stuart crossed the Katherine River and wrote in his diary: "Came upon another large creek, having a running stream to the south of west and coming from the north of east. This I have named 'Katherine', in honour of the second daughter of James Chambers Esq."

* The Overland Telegraph Line reached the town and the Katherine Telegraph Station was opened on 22 August 1872. James Stapleton, who had chosen the site for the Telegraph Station, became the first stationmaster.

* In 1877 Alfred Giles and Alfred Woods, accompanied by 40 men, overlanded 2,500 cattle, and 12,000 sheep from South Australia. They reached Katherine in June, 1879 (the journey had taken them 20 months) and near the Katherine River they built a homestead which they called 'Spring Vale'.

* In 1889 gold was discovered at Mount Todd, 50 km north of Katherine.

* By 1900 the main Cutta Cave was known as Smith's Cave. It had been named after a European stockman.

* When Jeannie Gunn, the author of We of the Never-Never, reached Katherine in 1902 she saw a settlement which "appeared to consist solely of the 'Pub', which, by the way, seemed to be hanging on to its own verandah posts for support. We found an elongated, three-room building, nestling under deep verandahs, and half-hidden beneath a grove of lofty scarlet flowering poinsettias."

* In 1917 the North Australia railway from Pine Creek reached the northern bank of the Katherine River.

* In 1919 an airstrip was built at Knott's Crossing

* By the 1920s the Cutta Cutta Caves were a popular picnic location for people from Katherine.

* The railway bridge wasn't completed until 1926. On 21 January, 1926 the first train crossed the bridge and reached Katherine Railway Station.

* During World War II two military hospitals were established in the town.

* On 22 March, 1942 the Japanese bombed the town and one man was killed.

* In 1926 the town was officially gazetted.

* In 1967 the Cutta Cutta Caves Nature Park was officially established.

* In 1988 Woolworths opened in the main street.

* In 1998 RAAF Tindal became operational.

* In 1998 the town had one of its worst floods with over 1000 homes being affected.

* By 2000 mining had ceased at Mount Todd.

* In 2003 the Ghan railway line from South Australia was completed.


Visitor Information

Katherine Visitor Information Centre, Stuart Highway, Katherine, tel: (08) 8972 2650.


Useful Websites

The official Katherine website - http://www.visitkatherine.com.au/pages/about-katherine - had detailed information about the town and the area.

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  • Does anyone have a list of the names of the Russian migrants who arrived around 1923 to help set up the peanut industry , amongst other professions?

    Bob Durnan