The Katherine River in Australia’s Northern Territory is a place… (Amanda Jones, Amanda Jones )
NORTHERN TERRITORY, Australia — It was a terrible thing to admit to myself, but my teenage daughters are a bit spoiled. My own youth involved riding public transportation, taking bug-infested hikes, sailing competitively in thunderstorms and sleeping on the ground. My children, I realized, would be adrift if asked to do any of these things.
Summer was approaching, and I knew I had to do something.
"We are," I informed them, "going to remotest Australia, and there we shall sleep on the ground and in tents. This will be very good for you. And don't bother to bring your phones. They won't work."
They gasped. They objected. They cited the number of venomous snakes and spiders and noted the crocodile population in Australia. All of it fell on deaf ears, just as my whining had when I was a girl.
The Northern Territory, the least populated of Australia's eight main states with only 235,000 people in a place the size of Peru, sounded like the ideal location for my teen-toughening task. It has an abundance of untouched bush, rain forest, rivers, wetlands, mountains, escarpments, beaches, gorges, deserts and swimming holes.
Most of the Australia travel specialists I contacted wanted to send us to the established tourist hotels in the well-known parklands, but fine linens, room service and Internet were not what I had in mind. Finally, I found L.A.-based Springboard Vacations, and when I described my goal, the Australian owner told me, "No worries. We'll send you into the backabeyond. And I promise your kids will speak to you again."
We had two weeks, and in that time we would start in Darwin and drive down to the Katherine River, where we would take a guided kayak trip and sleep on the ground. I caved slightly and agreed to go to a new semi-luxe bush camp in the Mary River wetlands, but at least we would be in a safari-style tent cabin with no room service. Then we would head to the top of the state to the Cobourg Peninsula, where there was a small camp with tents, no room service, no Internet.
We flew into Darwin (we had a stop after the 14-hour flight to break up the trip), then drove 200 miles southeast to reach the three-pub town of Katherine, spending the first night in a simple cabin in a campground at Katherine Gorge.
Early the next morning, Mick Jerram, owner of Gecko Canoeing & Trekking, picked us up for our four-day trip on the Katherine River, which flows through Arnhem Land, Kakadu National Park and the 13 flaming red-walled gorges that make up the Katherine Gorge of Nitmiluk Park, and past the namesake town of Katherine.
Flowing year-round, during the "wet," as locals call the rainy season, the river can rise more than 60 feet, flooding the surrounding banks. But in the "dry," or March through October, the river is wide and calm with a few small rapids shaded by gum and paperbark trees that grow on sandy banks between rocky outcroppings. The water was perfectly clear and cool.
We were instructed to pack one change of clothes into a dry bag, and we were handed a swag, the traditional Aussie oiled-canvas sleep-under-the-stars bedroll that would be our nighttime arrangement for the next three nights. Everything had to be packed into our kayaks. This was an excellent exercise for teen girls.
Indigo, my 14-year-old, and I were each in our own kayaks. Sofia, 13 and small, was doubled up with Mick in his canoe. A lively British couple accompanied us in another canoe.
The river was calm and the bush beautiful and alive with bird life and wallabies. On our first lunch stop riverside, Mick challenged the girls to a bird-species-spotting contest, having taught them a bit about local fauna as we paddled that morning. The outcome was the identification, with much help from Mick, of 28 species in 10 minutes: kookaburras, cockatoos, bee-eaters, ospreys, kites, wrens, herons, fantails and pelicans among them.
Each evening we would pull below a small rapid (crocodiles don't like rapids), swim, make camp and help Mick as he turned out gourmet meals: roast beef with chutney and lemongrass barramundi cooked in a classic outback Bedourie, a type of Dutch oven, over hot coals. The girls were put to work gathering firewood, setting up camp and getting water.
Afterward, they lounged in the river, tattooed themselves with mud and made instruments from sticks. Then, as cold descended, we climbed into our swags and fell asleep to one of the most cosmically brilliant night skies on the planet, waking to no sound other than that of birds and river.
The routine was so peaceful that after four days and an easy 35 miles of paddling, I felt like one of those Buddhist monks who can slow their heartbeat to nearly nothing. That's the joy of trips like this: All else but the moment disappears.