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Read Jatbula Trail with a Rookie – Part 1

Chairs are gathered in an intimate circle down one end of the breakfast room of our hotel, and as I take my seat, I scan the circle and recognise seven of the nine other faces, each of us ready to undertake the bucket-list Jatbula Trail Adventure! It’s the afternoon before we drive out of Darwin and make our way to Katherine, and with our Big Heart host, Kim, we meet our guides from World Expeditions, Tahli and Maggie. The jokes and banter flow effortlessly throughout our pre-trek meeting, and as we go through our gear, there’s an overriding positive energy fuelled with excitement and anticipation for the days ahead.

It’s the dry season, and the forecast predicts typical August conditions for the Top End – hot blue-sky days, clear starry nights, and no rain! We’re instructed to leave our rain jackets behind and only the mesh dome inners of our tents would be necessary – Tahli and Maggie having already removed the flies from our loaner tents. Bowls, cups and scroggin mix were all distributed, along with a cautionary word to leave space for our food bag – we would each carry an additional weight of approximately 2-3kg of communal food!

Back in my room, I emptied my pack and spread everything out. It was crunch time! I had been very intentional with my gear, but despite the thoughtful process, I desperately needed to cull! Being the Rookie that I was, it was tricky to predict what I would need versus what I would not and then negotiate those needs against wants. I didn’t have scales with me, but I was now an official gram-counter, haha!

I snapped my toothbrush in half, I dispensed a portion of my toothpaste into a separate, small and squishable container, I did away with a few extra toiletries that were really not necessary, and I drastically reduced the number of extra snacks I’d packed. I’m not sure what I was thinking before leaving home but going by the bag of extra food I had packed as ‘energy rations’, I was clearly expecting to need some Alone Australia survival techniques!

In that moment, I felt confident that all the research and conversations I’d had leading up to this trip were paying off, and I found myself being able to make final calls without too much deliberation. And grateful that I had a suitcase for my Darwin clothes and could also stash the extra unwanted items where they would see out the next five days in the hotel storage room.

Darwin to Nitmiluk National Park

It was well before dawn as we made our way out of Darwin and headed towards Nitmiluk National Park. Reception was patchy at the visitor’s centre once we arrived, and as we puttered our way across Katherine River on the shortest ferry ride of all time, my phone dropped to SOS.

There would be no more contact with the outside world for 5 days. Not until we had trekked into Leliyn (Edith Falls) and made our way back into Darwin. I relished the thought! I frequently need to carve out space for myself and quieten all that external noise we’re constantly bombarded with. Trail time is the time to breathe, be in nature, and the chance to play by my rules and do things on my own time, slowly and methodically. So, choosing an environment where I’m completely unplugged is lovely.

Hopping off the ferry with our packs, we climb up the bank, a short steep rise, and follow the path a little way to the trailhead. We were officially entering Stone Country and marking the start of our five-day journey from the entrance of Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge to Leliyn (Edith) Falls. What an incredible honour and privilege it was to be here.

Trail Notes: Jatbula Adventure Day 1 

Katherine Gorge to Biddlecombe Cascades

Today was hot but with a welcome breeze. Tahli says that having the breeze on day one is unusual and we were very lucky. I know for me, and I think for all of us, it was a welcome reprieve!

Today’s walk felt hard over a mix of sand, compacted earth, and rock. I expect there’ll be a lot more of that since it’s Stone Country. My pack is heavy, and my feet are tight and hot in my boots against the ground. I have a couple of hot spots – one on the pad of each big toe. What an annoying spot!

The swim en route at The Northern Rockhole was glorious. But, to describe what greeted us as we walked into tonight’s camp, I’m really not sure I have adequate words.

Biddlecombe Cascades is breathtaking! The knowledge that so few people will ever have the opportunity or inclination to experience this spot fills me with an intoxicating sense of wonder, gratitude, and fortune. Country and Mother Nature make you work for her jewels, and so we should, for without the effort, we might risk taking the reward for granted.

Walking Distance: 8km

Lunch: Sandwiches at Pine Creek
Dinner: Pasta with herbs, wilted greens and salmon

Trail Notes: Jatbula Adventure Day 2 

Biddlecombe Cascades to Crystal Falls

Gosh, we’re lucky with the breeze! An earlier start made for far more pleasant walking before the afternoon heat kicked in. Our daily routine is establishing itself quickly, although both Tahli and Maggie have done this trail multiple times and are well-practised in running things efficiently.

I’m surprised by how varied the terrain is. Certainly, Stone Country lives up to its name with plenty of boulder hopping, rock scrambling, and loose pebbles, but there’s also sand, dirt, mud, and today, our first creek crossing.

I began the day wearing my hiking sandals, grateful for the choice as we navigated a mud passage upon leaving camp, followed by the creek crossing. My feet found my socks and boots on the other side of the creek, still dressed in last night’s blister patches. I brought hiker’s wool with me as well, and halfway through the morning, I was wrapping a fourth toe! My boots are well worn, and usually, my feet are comfortable, but the heat, paired with the weight of my pack, was changing things. My first lesson…

Carry a full pack; your centre of gravity is different; your weight is different, the way you stand, walk, scramble, hold yourself – all of it is different. I’m carrying about 17-18kg, which is heavy but manageable. My pack doesn’t feel any lighter than yesterday, and it’s a relief to get into camp and shrug it off my shoulders. It’s even more of a relief to unlace my boots and dunk my feet into the cool water. I really underestimated how the heat would affect my feet. Actually, if I’m honest, that’s not even something I considered. I should have, especially as they have quickly become my greatest concern! Training with my pack had been during the cool of an Adelaide autumn/winter, where even the ground temperature wasn’t an issue. Here though, the heat penetrates through the soles of my boots, and combined with the weight I carried, my feet are swelling like never before. The heat pulsated through them like a neon strobe. I realised today that I had accidentally left my toe ring on, and not only was it now constricting my swollen toe, but it was rubbing against the swollen toes next to it as well. Needless to say, I quickly removed it and stashed it away.

This afternoon’s downtime was interrupted by a delightful side excursion to Crystal Falls. Again, words prove insufficient in describing the immense beauty! Swimming these waters is beautiful and an opportunity not to be missed.

Walking Distance: 11km

Breakfast: Choice of cereal with milk (dairy and coconut)
Lunch: Wraps
Dinner: Veg laksa with noodles and shitaki mushrooms

Trail Notes: Jatbula Adventure Day 3 

Crystal Falls to 17 Mile Falls

We greeted the start of our walking day with varying levels of apprehension. To get to the trailhead from camp, we first had to cross the river! This was a river crossing, not a creek crossing, involving strategy and technique. There were places to tread and places not to tread, all while navigating the river’s current and our additional weight with new centres of balance. And just to spice things up that little bit more, some rocks were either wobbly underfoot or slippery with mosses, sometimes both! Those were the ones to avoid!

However, by 7am we were all safely across and donning our boots once again, ready to make our way to The Amphitheatre. Showcasing remarkably intact Jawoyn rock art, The Amphitheatre is a welcome shady pocket of natural monsoon rainforest protected by towering cliffs. It’s a lovely spot to rest and immerse in the ancient energy of Jawoyn history.

It felt easier today. Perhaps because we arrived at camp before the midday sun was beating down, or perhaps it was because the final stretch was less rocky and exposed than the previous days. Or maybe, my body is adjusting. Getting stronger and more conditioned. We’ve also eaten some of our food, so the distributed weight within our ration sacks is certainly a little lighter. I’ll be savouring that luxury throughout tomorrow’s walk as well before topping up our supplies from the food drop that awaits us at Sandy Camp Pool. We’re all a little apprehensive about tomorrow as it’s our biggest day on the trail.

My feet are still troubling me, so I’ve decided to experiment. Something I perhaps should have done sooner but it’s taken this long for me to realise that throughout each day on the trail, my feet are actually swelling a whole shoe size! So, my boots are actually too small for these conditions. Yikes! What to do? And, I’ve also applied my blister patches too tightly, so they, too, are adding pressure to my toes. Tomorrow is a big day, so it’s time to remedy this situation as best as I can. I’ve re-laced my boots to allow space for my feet to swell. I removed all dressings from my feet in preparation for a fresh application of light medical tape and hiker’s wool in the morning. The blister patches are overkill for the hot spots and are constrictive, not to mention manky! They are more suitable for when the hot spots have developed into blisters, and I’ll save the ones I have left for those if that happens. In hindsight, I think in future, I’ll be a fan of toe socks for that barrier between each toe, but right now, I’m making do.

Walking Distance: 10km

Breakfast: Choice of cereal with milk (dairy and coconut)
Lunch: Wraps
Dinner: Mexican beans

Trail Notes: Jatbula Adventure Day 4

17 Mile Falls to Sandy Camp Pool

Today is the big 17km day! A significantly longer distance to cover than what we’ve been doing. The up-side? It’s day four so we’re each a little bit stronger, our food bags are lighter, and we’re starting out in the cool darkness of pre-dawn with our headlamps to light the way.

There are always surprises here, and just when you think it can’t get any more breathtaking, Country chooses to reveal herself and let you in that little bit more. The early 4:30am start is well worth it for the milder temperatures, not to mention being greeted by the new day as dawn breaks. Walking across the Savana in a quiet active meditation, surrounded by the muted light and chorus of birds as Country wakes. Allowing the others to walk up ahead, I dropped behind a safe distance to enjoy the solitude and experience dawn breaking with peace and seclusion. Breathing it in through every sense, what a gift that was! Feeling the mostly cool air but noticing the occasional warm pockets that felt somehow denser, perhaps with humidity. The sight of the landscape as it slowly revealed itself more and more with the growing light. A gentle glow, then soft hues, then golden, and on it went. Hearing the first call of birds, their chorus growing louder as more joined in. And the smells, moist and dewy, fresh before the sun. Then steamy with changing scents as we walked through differing ecosystems.

The Savana gives way to rock, then boulders, then sand. On it went and on went the changes until our final few kilometres, where the harsher landscape softened into rainforest. Ponds of water lilies surrounded by Pandanus trees and other broad-leaf foliage, Paperbark, and Grevillea. The earth is cushioned and cooler underfoot as we tread upon fallen leaf matter.

After a deep-water creek crossing, we arrive at camp. Our hotspots, aches, and pains competing with each other to be the loudest, but our collective relief over making it through our longest walking day wins out. And the good news for me is that the adjustments I made to my laces and the wool and tape wrapped around my toes gave my feet some much-needed relief! It wasn’t a cure, but my feet are so much better, and I can always rock the socks and sandals if need be. Hallelujah!

Walking Distance: 17km

Breakfast: Choice of cereal with milk (dairy and coconut)
Lunch: Rice salad with spicy salmon
Dinner: Veg curry mixed with rice
Dessert: chocolate slice (because it’s food drop day!)

Trail Notes: Jatbula Adventure Day 5

Sandy Camp Pool to Sweetwater Pool

It’s late in the season for Grevillea but their nectar is so sweet as I steal a taste from the last remaining blooms. We pass through a stretch that is home to several flocks of Lorrikeet – all loud and raucous in their drunken calls after having feasted on the nectar. The sweet syrup affects them in the same way alcohol does people. To my palate, it has a mild, warm depth of flavour similar to honey, yet different.

We arrive at camp before midday after bathing our feet in an upper pool about 800m from camp. This camp is said to have bats flying between the trees at night, but as we pitch our tents, I’m not sure there’s any way to avoid being in their path. It’s a gentle, relaxing afternoon spent swimming and resting in shaded rocky crevices surrounding the pools. We savour these final moments on the trail and our last camp. I reflect upon the previous days, what I’ve achieved, the challenges and the moments of awe. Attempting to ward off my reluctance to reintegrate into the outside world the following day. I don’t feel ready. I haven’t had enough of the trail yet and wish I could keep going for a couple more days. Alas, all good things must come to an end.

Tomorrow morning, we have an easy 5km walk into Leliyn (Edith Falls) – heavily touristed and easily accessible; it’ll be a baptism of fire back into society.

*Side note: I can confirm that Sweetwater Camp definitely has bats flying between the trees at night. They are completely harmless; however, their little squawking sounds and consistent swooping make for an interesting night of ‘rest’.

Walking Distance: 11km

Breakfast: Choice of cereal with milk (dairy and coconut)
Lunch: Wraps
Dinner: Pasta with sundried tomatoes and broccolini

Trail Notes: Jatbula Adventure Day 6

Sweetwater Pool to Leliyn (Edith Falls)

Following the same morning routine, we are packed and on the trail by 7am. These final steps along the Jawoyn songline feel different – there’s almost a sadness to have it come to an end, yet an overwhelming sense of achievement, understanding, and gratitude for what I’ve undertaken and been gifted. It’s been such an incredible experience!

We reach Leliyn all too quickly, and after enjoying a final swim, we make our way down the last few hundred metres towards the souvenir shop and carpark. Our World Expeditions bus is parked, ready to be loaded and to transfer us back into Darwin.

Most of us are quiet throughout the four-hour drive. No doubt tired, lost in thought, and maybe fantasising over the hair washing and nail scrubbing that would take place later that afternoon before our celebratory dinner. I sure was! But most of all, I was proud of what I had accomplished. I had done it!! All that training and preparation paid off, and that thing about proving to myself that I was capable? Well, yes I am, and it feels so good!

Daily Routine

Each day on the trail followed a familiar and comforting pattern.

5:30am – Wake up
6:00am – Breakfast
6:30am – Pack up camp
7:00am – We hit the trail

Throughout the morning, we break to rest, refuel, talk/learn about the significance of the area we’re passing through and are briefed on the upcoming section of the particular trail.

12:30/1:30pm – Arrive at camp and set up while lunch is prepared. Some of us chose to swim straight away before setting up. However, I preferred to get my work done before enjoying that cool reprieve. It doesn’t take long to create a personal system for setting up your tent and sleeping arrangements, nor to pack them away into their designated spots each morning.

The afternoons combine resting, swimming, conversations, and side trips. The natural water holes and falls at each camp allow for some quick hand-washing and safe refilling of our hydration reservoirs. Some may prefer to filter this water, but there’s no need. I found the water to be exquisitely pure and energising. I can only imagine how beautiful it would look under a microscope, with each crystal molecule exploding with life force. That’s how it made me feel, like it sparkled its way through my system, alkalising and nourishing each cell. I miss that water! Every sip was healing and restorative.

6:00/6:30pm – Dinner
7:30/8:00pm – Bed

*Side note: I was so impressed with the meals! Tahli and Maggie are both very well-rehearsed in menu planning, and their ability to create delicious and nourishing meals with minimal resources is outstanding. The menu and World Ex guides both vary per trip, so there’s no guarantee future adventurers will get the same dishes, but it’s a safe bet to say they’ll always be yummy.

Packing list

  • Osprey Aura AG 65 litre backpack
  • Down sleeping bag (Rated 5°C)
  • Silk liner
  • Sea to Summit Comfort light Self-Inflating mat
  • Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow
  • 3 litre Camelback hydration reservoir
  • 500ml Salomon Soft Flask (for daily electrolyte mix)
  • Single-serve sachets of Pure Sports Nutrition electrolytes (plus 1 pkt lemon energy chews)
  • Medium-sized ziplock of scroggin mix (supplied by World Expeditions)
  • Various sized Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil dry bags (I used these to compartmentalise my gear and keep everything organised)
  • Foldable sit pad (off eBay – much cheaper!)
  • Groovy Gaitors
  • Pee rag (I left it too late to make my own and purchased this one)
  • Sea to Summit collapsible X-Cup (a plastic non-collapsible cup can be supplied by World Expeditions)
  • Plastic bowl & spoon (supplied by World Expeditions)
  • Hiking boots
  • Hiking sandals
  • Hiking shorts x 1
  • Merino tank top x 2
  • Lightweight pure linen shirt x 1
  • Two-piece bathers x 1
  • 3/4 activewear tights x 1
  • Lightweight silk gypsy pants (for nighttime) x 1
  • Long-sleeved lightweight Merino top (good for the early start)
  • Active bra tops x 2
  • Knickers x 3
  • Socks x3 (only needed 2)
  • Silk sarong x 1
  • Cap
  • Big Heart Adventures Merino head-sock (good for wiping sweat!)
  • Biodegradable wipes x 2 small pkts (I would have liked 3 pkts and I prefer multiple small packs over 1 large)
  • Toilet paper roll x 1
  • Basic toiletries (including my special treat of peppermint foot rub & sunscreen)
  • Basic first aid kit (including repellent, which I didn’t use)
  • Small journal & pen (I also had a novel and a small lightweight stitching project – neither of which I needed)
  • Head torch
  • Smartphone (for photos & video only)
  • Powerbank
  • Lightweight & foldable 4-panelled solar charger – this was awesome, and I used it every day to keep the power bank charged. I found it more effective to lay in a sunny spot once arrived at camp where it would stay of the afternoon. I was always careful to place the power bank in the shade and had brought a long cable specifically to be able to do this. Each night I used the power bank to charge the phone and head torch as needed.

*Many items can be sourced through Big Heart Adventure buddies, Exurbia

*Read Jatbula Trail with a Rookie – Part 1, HERE
Training, Preparation & Strategy, plus Pack and Weight.

Additional Reading

Big Heart Adventures is a commercial tour operator (CTO) and leads walking adventures along the Jatbula Trail and throughout South Australia, Australia and overseas. We offer fully guided walking tours and self-guided walking adventures.

Read the itinerary and view departure dates for our next Jatbula Adventure for beginner pack carriers, here.

To see all our South Australian walking tours, visit our website here.

You can check out all our other walking tours here.

Read more about ‘Big Heart Adventures’ and wellness walks

To learn more about ‘Big Heart Adventures’ and wellness walking, visit our website here.