A national park that sparked racist animosity more than a quarter-century ago has become a tourist icon and is recognised as an outstanding example of joint management and ownership.

Story + photos David Hancock

During the northern dry season the coffee-coloured Katherine River flows languidly out of southern Arnhem Land between lofty cliffs of layered sandstone, across rock bars and around sandy beaches. The bulk of this country falls within Nitmiluk National Park, an oasis of outback Australia and the traditional lands of Jawoyn people.

Thirty kilometres east of Katherine, Nitmiluk is a magnet for tourism in the Top End. It attracts more than 270,000 people each year – that’s 80,000 more than Kakadu National Park to the north-east. They come to enjoy boat trips, helicopter rides, bushwalks, canoeing, camping, mountain-biking, swimming and fine dining at Cicada Lodge. Many of the activities are based around the Katherine River and a network of trails that wind through the park connecting creeks, waterholes, springs and lookouts with spectacular views. 

Bernie Fernandez lives between Katherine and the park. Nitmiluk is her backyard – a place to ride, walk, swim and socialise with friends over a coffee or an outdoor film night. She often cycles to the park to take a riverside walk or make a breath-robbing climb to the top of the escarpment for a view over the river. 

Over the past 40 years Bernie has seen the park expand from a small tourism operation with a tiny kiosk to an internationally acclaimed attraction. “It has been wonderful to watch the park grow,” she says. “The Jawoyn and their partners have done a great job. They have provided me and my family with a lot of good memories and created economic opportunities for people living in Katherine. The township largely depends on the park.”

When the Jawoyn made their initial claims over Katherine Gorge in the 1980s there were many who opposed them. A group called Rights for Whites marched in the streets of Katherine, the conservative NT Government challenged the Jawoyn in court and Katherine Council tried to expand the township boundaries to incorporate the park.

The Jawoyn won the land under the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act and assumed control in 1989. Nitmiluk National Park was declared the same year, jointly managed by the Jawoyn Association and NT Parks and Wildlife Commission under a 99-year lease. 

While some people wore black armbands at the hand-back ceremony, lamenting the park’s ‘loss’, Jawoyn leader Bangardi Fordimail Nagarimayn remarked that the park was still there for all to see and enjoy, and was clearly going nowhere. 

Today, representatives of government, council, tourism and the Jawoyn sit together on the board of management. The Jawoyn have undertaken several joint ventures and openly encourage businesses to work with their tourism flagship, Nitmiluk Tours.

CEO of Nitmiluk Tours Jane Runyu says the organisation wants to increase the number of people visiting the park, with more trails for walking and mountain bikes, venues for glamping, more access to rock-art sites and further safe swimming and canoeing areas. 

A long-term goal to establish a nationally recognised five-star facility was recently achieved when Cicada Lodge won several gold plate awards for fine dining. A feature is dinner on the Katherine River, surrounded by towering sandstone cliffs and covered by the stars of a clear northern Australian sky.

This story excerpt is from Issue #126

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2019