July 01, 2003
Odd Man Out
"And, on your right, you'll notice a group of backpackers, sunning themselves on the sandbar like geckos," the riverboat guide said, his amplified voice booming across the gorge. We looked up from our lunches and waved at the capacity tour boat as it chugged slowly along the river. The passengers waved back and I laughed thinking how funny it was to be pointed out like a bonefide tourist attraction.
We smiled knowingly at each other and returned to our lunch, wordlessly expressing preference for our slower and more challenging mode of transportation - brightly colored yellow canoes. Even with sore arms and sun burnt shoulders, I would not have traded places with anyone on that boat. While they cruised along with a schedule, we were free to paddle along as we liked. While they were herded on and off the boat at designated ports of call, we could stop when and where we liked.
Katherine Gorge, also known by its original Aboriginal name, Nitmiluk, is the main reason people make the journey to Katherine, a small town south of Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory. There are two options for seeing the gorge - by a riverboat cruise or by canoe. Traveling alone, my plan was to meet up with someone else who would be interested in canoeing and tour the gorge that way. Though I knew there were single canoes available, I wasn't confident enough in my skills to go solo - so, even though it was a distant second, I kept the river boat cruise as a backup plan.
Upon arrival at the backpackers, I started "advertising" my availability as a canoeing partner. Unfortunately, my four roommates, all solo travelers, had already coordinated themselves and were planning on canoeing the next day. I wandered around to the other rooms, but everyone had either been to the gorge already or was traveling in pairs. Still not willing to go alone, I resigned myself to waiting another day, hoping someone new would arrive.
Val, the owner of the hostel, asked why I didn't go in a solo canoe and tag along with the four in my room. "It's a little more expensive, but I'm sure if it gets too hard someone won't mind switching it out with you along the way," she said. This wasn't my ideal situation - I wasn't keen on being the odd man out - but as I was afraid to wait around in case no one new turned up, this seemed like the most reasonable option. I hesitantly pitched the idea to the group and they were game.
We left at 8 am via shuttle bus and traveled about 30 km to Nitmiluk National Park where we rented our canoes. My travel companions consisted of Linda, a pixie faced Scottish girl with a thick almost understandable accent; Monika, a no-nonsense young German with a mass of curly dark hair; Yearina, a tiny Mexican girl with a tongue ring she played with constantly; and Claudio, a Swiss guy with 70s style hair that he was constantly brushing out of his face.
We were each given a map, a pony keg sized waterproof drum for our stuff and a lifejacket. Monika and Claudio led the way, followed closely by Linda and Yearina. In my tiny one person canoe, waterproof drum wedged between my legs, I was dead last, like the youngest child trying desperately to keep up with older siblings. It had been years since I last canoed, and it showed. Every few meters my canoe would inexplicably turn left so that I would end up paddling in a circle, like a dog chasing his tail. I immediately dubbed the canoe Lefty. Looking ahead at the others, effortlessly paddling forward, I was annoyed and frustrated at being left behind and started thinking that maybe it would have been better if I'd waited for a partner instead of going off on my own.
After a while I saw that Yearina and Linda has stopped their canoe and were waiting for me to catch up. "You're paddling too hard man," Yearina said. "You gotta steer with your paddle, otherwise you gonna wear yourself out." She showed me what she meant and after a few more meters I had the hang of it. Though still awkward for me, the canoeing became suddenly manageable. That was when I finally had a chance to look around.
Tall, steep sandstone cliffs lined the walls of the river with trees and smaller shrubs growing through the rock crevasses, hanging precariously over the edge. The shining sun would send dancing snakes of light, a reflection from the water, onto the sandstone cliffs, looking like some kind of moving artwork. These reflections were almost hypnotic, and as I watched my canoe again began to veer left - but this time, I let it, taking in the 360 degree view of my location and beginning to think this wasn't so bad after all.
The river is broken up into 8 or 9 gorges, separated by rock bars and sometimes rapids. For a day rental, we were only allowed to go as far as the third gorge, a 7 hour round trip with time for lunch and a swim. In between each gorge we were required to carry (portage) our canoes across the rocks and rapids to the next gorge. It was here that I was most grateful for my companions as it would have been near impossible for me to carry my canoe, however small, across some of the rock bars.
Once to the third gorge we turned around in search of the sandbar we'd passed earlier, our chosen lunch spot. On the way I heard the sound of water trickling from a height and noticed a small "waterfall" seeping out of the rocks. The park ranger had told me that the water in the river was safe to drink, but to be on the cautious side he recommended finding a place where the water trickled from the rock. "It's filtered through the rock for one to five years, so its as pure as it gets," he said. While filling my water bottle, two turtles became curious and swam around our groups' canoes - getting as close as two feet away, their head sticking out periodically to get a better look at us. Their feet were flat and wide, like little paddles and they moved effortlessly around us as we scrambled for our cameras.
After lunch we had a quick swim in the water, a cool and refreshing relief from the sun's heat. None of us swam out too far, however, well aware that freshwater crocodiles inhabited the river. Even though it is considered safe to swim in the water - "freshies" are shy reptiles who rarely attack and only if cornered or provoked - we were all still a bit apprehensive. We'd heard all the stories about the "freshies" cousin, the estuarine (or saltwater) crocodile. Also a protected species in the Northern Territory, though not an inhabitant of the river, these "salties" are aggressive and known to attack and kill humans.
On the way to the 3rd gorge we'd followed the rules and carried our canoes and gear across the rocky rapids instead of trying to make our way through them. However, on the return trip, the current in our favor, we decided to brave the rapids. It was here that the benefits of my smaller kayak-like canoe became apparent. While the others struggled, getting stuck on rocks, my streamlined little canoe effortlessly passed through the rapids and down to the next gorge, a brief but exhilarating experience. Looking back at the others, each group stuck and rocking back and forth in an effort to free themselves from the rocks, I couldn't help but laugh. Sometimes, its not so bad being the odd man out.