Outback oasis

Wandering onto my balcony, book in hand, I glance out into the surrounding bushland and notice a wallaby foraging in the grass a few metres away. To my delight, I realise it is accompanied by a joey. Out of the corner of my eye I notice another, hopping out of sight. The wallabies that call the area around Cicada Lodge home are left-handed wallabies, so-called because of their trait of waving their paw in a circular motion. 

After a relaxing afternoon reading, we make our way to the pool deck for sunset champagne and canapés. The eucalyptus trees that surround the lodge are silhouetted against a blazing orange sky; a stark contrast to the bright electric blue backlit pool.

We mingle with other guests chatting about our days’ adventures before heading into the restaurant for a three-course chef’s table dinner. Cicada Lodge prides itself on serving native, seasonal dishes. It is the little touches that make a stay here special, such as the personalised menu with our names printed at the top. We start with mixed seed and grain sourdough before moving onto the entrée, which consists of turmeric poached local prawn and Victorian sea scallops with a Tian of blue swimmer crab, tomato and avocado. Our main is a medallion of eye fillet on potato skordalia with brussel sprouts, parma ham and red wine jus, followed by rosewater-scented milk pudding with a wattle seed baklava, Turkish delight and fresh blueberries.

Opened in Nitmiluk National Park near the town of Katherine in the Northern Territory in 2013, Cicada Lodge is a joint venture between the Jawoyn people and Indigenous Business Australia. The walls of the 18-room, architect-designed lodge are decorated with works by local artists. It also has an impressive indigenous training program.

The lodge is a short walk from Nitmiluk Gorge, previously known as Katherine Gorge, which can be explored by canoe, on a boat cruise or on a scenic helicopter flight. Previously known as Katherine Gorge, it actually consists of 13 gorges stretching over 16 kilometres that are separated by natural rock barriers and rapids during the dry season. Scientists believe the gorge was one big block of sandstone until 25 million years ago when an earthquake caused it to fracture. Some of the Jawoyn people who still live there however believe it was carved by the rainbow serpent Bolung. They avoid fishing, drinking or swimming in the gorge out of fear they may disturb him.

The gorge was named Katherine in 1862 by explorer John McDouall Stuart after the second eldest daughter of James Chambers, the politician who helped fund his expeditions. When the Jawoyn people were recognised as traditional owners in 1989 the gorge returned to its original name Nitmiluk, which means “cicada place”. They chose to lease it back to the government for use as a national park on a 99-year lease.

Paddling through the gorge feels a little like stepping into a Hans Heysen watercolour. We are encompassed by towering orange cliffs, with the reflection of paperbark trees in the still water before us. After about an hour paddling we reach the end of the first gorge and pull our canoe onto the beach, where we find a shady spot on a rock to devour a chicken wrap bought at the café in the visitors centre earlier in the day.

I can’t resist going for a swim in the inviting clear green water, despite seeing several freshwater crocodiles sunbaking along the banks. But even when you are aware freshies are harmless to humans, it’s hard to relax knowing you are swimming in croc-infested waters.

We also get to see the second gorge on a two-hour Nit Nit Dreaming cruise, admiring the soaring cliffs which feature in the 1955 movie Jedda, which was the first Australian film starring indigenous actors and  the first Australian feature film made in colour. More recently the horror film Rogue, in which a giant, man-eating crocodile terrorises a boatload of tourists, was also filmed here.

Around an hour’s drive from Nitmiluk, on the road back to Darwin, we stop at Leiliyn, which was formerly named Edith Falls after another of Chambers’ daughters. After a 20 minute hike we come to the upper pool of the waterfall where teenagers are jumping off rocks several metres high and children are clambering over a natural island rock island in the middle like it’s a castle. We swim around the island and explore the waterfalls and small pools formed by thousands of years of drips in the rock. If I’d been an indigenous Australian living in the Outback thousands of years ago, I would have wanted to live within cooee of this oasis.

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