“Put your helmets on – rapids at the next bend!” yells Mick, our guide. “Turn sharp left before the rock, or you may tip up!”
I feel a little nervous, but also excited, as Pete and I steer our double canoe onwards down the Katherine River.
Soon: whoosh! We’ve whizzed round the bend, down a small fall, and we’re back gliding along another peaceful stretch of this beautiful river.
We’re on a three-day river canoe journey organised by Katherine-based company Gecko Canoeing and Trekking, and this is Day One. No going back now!
Most of the time, the ride is gentle and invigorating; surrounded by a cathedral of trees, peppered with beautiful water birds.
There’s no noise other than the splash of our oars and the occasional instruction from Mick.
“This is my favourite river in Australia, and I’ve canoed down most of them, ” Mick enthuses.
He hands us each a water bottle: “Fill it often, straight from the river. The water is fresh, pure and unspoiled. Drink as much as you can.”
Bordering the Katherine’s banks are pandanus plants, paperbarks, and mangroves. From time to time we see a wallaby hop past, or glimpse a monitor lizard basking on the river bank.
Yes, there’s even the occasional croc lurking – this is the Northern Territory, after all – but the canoe trip we’ve signed up for is not one for those with a death wish.
Rather, it’s a wonderful opportunity to be surrounded by nature in tranquil surrounds, paddling gently downstream.
Mick Jerram, a former army guy with great organisational prowess, has been hosting canoe trips like this for more than two decades.
He’s nailed it, and importantly, he knows how to cook very tasty meals on campfires.
With a great love and knowledge of native flora and fauna; he’s the ideal guy you want to be your guide on a trip like this.
Also on our three-day journey is a young German family of four, and a Dutch woman from New Zealand.
A few hours earlier, we’d all met up at Gecko headquarters in Katherine (three hours south-east of Darwin) and nodded shyly at one another. But the group that sleeps under the stars together bonds pretty quickly!
“This is where we’re starting – about 20 kilometres southwest of Katherine – and this is where we’ll end up,” Mick had said, showing us our route on a map before we got in a mini-bus.
Thirty minutes later, we were bouncing down a steep, dusty track, alighting beside a quiet river bend. After a quick demonstration on how to best manage our canoes, we were away.
“We do have tents, don’t we?” Aletta, the Dutch traveller nervously asks Mick later that day, as he points to a sandy area by a river bank, proclaiming that’s our campsite.
“No, we’re just in our swags, under the stars,” he replies, proceeding to tell us how to inflate our mattresses.
“I’m not sure I like that idea,” Aletta fires back. “You’re sure no Australian animals are going to get us?”
“You’ll be fine,” Mick responds, stoking the campfire. Soon he’s serving up a delicious barramundi feast, washed down with the wine we’ve all brought along, which has been cooling in the river.
Though we’d brought jumpers in case the nights became chilly, we’re lucky; the weather is the perfect temperature.
When I wake once or twice during the night, it’s joy to look up at the giant constellations above us, unmarred by city lights.
By the time I open my eyes next morn, Mick’s fire is ablaze, breakfast nearly ready, and the billy boiled. “Mellaluca tea?” He hands us mugs. Happily Aletta is looking much more relaxed; not even a mosquito has paid her a visit.
An hour or two later, we’re back in our canoes, gliding downstream.
“I keep waiting to spot other tourists on this trip. I can’t believe we’re the only ones on this fantastic river,” Sven, the German businessman, marvels.
His hitherto-quiet sons have now opened up and are merrily chatting to us in a combination of German and English as we spot bright water birds, and glide past a multitude of fish.
And every so often, the pulse quickens as Mick points out that we may spot a croc or two in the river – or that we’re about to whiz around a hairpin bend.
“There’s a young saltwater croc that’s been living near here for the past eight years,” says Mick. “You may spot it on the left as we go past – yep, there it is!” We turn our heads and catch a reptilian head on the far left beside the bank. Pete manages to whip out his camera and take a pic before we’ve glided on.
“Even though most places we’re going through are probably safe to swim in, we’re not taking any silly risks. I’ll show you the really shallow places where it’s fine to have a dip,” Mick tells us.
We’re all too happy to heed his recommendations!
Mick’s made it clear from the outset that we’re to treat our environment with great respect, and take all our leftovers with us, even apple cores.
We’ve been told how to dig a hole when we need to go to the loo, with the lavatory paper later placed in a brown paper bag and discreetly burned in the evening campfire.
To my surprise, I find I soon grow to enjoy this routine. I haven’t camped for decades – let alone slept on a swag without a tent.
And though I usually don’t even like sharing a bathroom if it can be avoided, I find myself totally at ease wandering a few metres away from the group to do nature’s bid, surrounded by scrub.
The three days fly past and by the end of our 40km kilometre journey, none of us is ready to go home.
The whole experience: canoeing down a pristine river, surrounded by nature; bonding with a handful of strangers, sleeping in a simple swag under the glittering southern sky; enjoying tasty meals and being enlightened about this region by a caring, informative guide has been unforgettable. Life-changing. Magical!
Next time we’ll take the six-day tour!
For more information or to book a tour with Gecko Canoeing and Trekking go to: https://geckocanoeing.com.au
To see more of Mick’s organised tours around Katherine, including bird-watching events, visit www.mickjerram.com
Starfish Photographs: Peter Rigby