A quantum physicist, a mathematician, an accountant, a GP, her daughter and a public servant all walk into a bar… Okay, no they didn’t. They actually hiked the Jatbula Trail, an epic 62-kilometre backpacking journey, navigating the western edge of the Arnhem Land escarpment in Australia’s Northern Territory.
This trip had been on my bucket list for many years and I’m not going to lie, I’m hardly an accomplished hiker – in fact, this was my first actual multi-day hike. I also hadn’t been camping in years and I tricked myself into thinking that walking the mostly flat Canberra paths in the dead of winter with a (much smaller) pack would be enough preparation.
But absolutely nothing could prepare me for how intense the hike would be for me or how it would pulverise my absolutely filthy (I was cleaning dirt out of my toenails for weeks after), blistered and swollen feet. And yet, writing this while in lockdown I would trade my festy cankles to get back there in a hot second.
The rise and fall of the trail
A keyword that our guide Eric used was ‘undulating’ (I would hear this word over and over during the 6 days) and that’s exactly what it was — most days the trail was rocky, some days sandy, some days we walked in a bit of bog or marsh. Sometimes you’d get your foot stuck in the bog and one of your fellow hikers would have to yank you out by your pack and sometimes you’d walk through 10-foot spear grass, which would result in a head-to-toe body rash. Every day was both challenging and exhilarating.
I’ve told most of my friends I wanted to quit after the first four kilometres, in reality, I wanted to quit after the first 5 minutes! Starting at Nitmiluk Visitor’s Centre just after lunch, a barge drops you off to the other side of the Katherine River (because y’know, crocodiles) and just jumping off and walking up the small embankment had me sweating.
While it was the dry season (I travelled in July), make no mistake it’s still hot and my 15 kg backpack (with an extra two litres of water) might as well have weighed a tonne. 'Do people actually do this for actual fun?' I kept asking myself. 'Why?' Reaching our first pitstop at the Northern Rockhole provided relief from my backbreaking pack. (Have I mentioned that my backpack was really heavy?)
With an undignified bellyflop into the refreshingly cold water, any possible thoughts of a Saltie making me their lunch was quickly forgotten. It helped that it was really picturesque!
Completing the trail on day one was a definite highlight and reaching our final destination at Crystal Falls was magnificent because:
(a) the trek was finally over for the day and
(b) we had a piece of paradise pretty much to ourselves.
The waterfalls are spectacular and should be on everyone’s bucket list.
When you’re sitting in the freshwater pool, listening to the water cascade around you, eating cheese and crackers it’s hard not to think you’re in some exclusive Outback eco Club Med resort – although it would have been nice to have a waiter or two serving up some well-earned margaritas!
Food to fuel the (ravenous) soul
During the days when I was struggling (okay, nearly every day!) there’s a couple of things that I thought focused on to keep me walking – like, food. 'What culinary speciality will Jess, Maggie and Eric concoct today? Will Eric actually fry the chorizo this time? Is there any 4-day old, creamed hummus left? Can I have and lick the wrapper of the melted chocolate this time?'
The food was absolutely great but if I never eat another sun-dried tomato or shitake mushroom it’ll be too soon!
Jatbula Trail highlights: why it's a trip of a lifetime
There are so many highlights it’s hard to name just a couple, but here goes: the Jawoyn Aboriginal rock art at the Amphitheatre, a shaded monsoonal-type valley that almost tricks you into thinking you’ve been momentarily transported into a rainforest.
Spotting the small and large Magellanic clouds in the crystal-clear night sky at 17 Mile Falls. Walking out at sunrise – #nofilter required – on our 16.5km hike to Sandy Camp Pool. Getting used to my ever-deflating sleeping mat. Bats peeing on my tent twice, at said Sandy Camp Pool. ‘It’s just Grevilia sap,’ Jess tells me the next day. Yeah, right.
The midnight runs over undulating (there’s that word again!) terrain in the moonlight to the drop toilet at least 150 metres away from camp when you’re absolutely busting. Lazing about like goannas on the rocks at Sweetwater Falls. Staring in awe at the full pink moonrise that same evening at Sweetwater Falls.
Watching in wonder at the physical strength of Jess, Eric and rookie Maggie as they cart around 22 kilos of gear each, including most of the food, pots and pans and not complaining.
Savouring the taste of fresh water and not needing an Aquatab to filter it. Soaking in the natural silence, knowing that you are far from what’s going on in the outside world, especially Covid.
The blissful realisation that you don’t need to constantly glance at your phone, doom scrolling because there’s also no service out there.
Feeling melancholy at the finishing line at Leliyn (Edith Falls) and then smashing down the best Barramundi burger ever at the kiosk.
The natural wonder that is Arnhem Land. Summing up the Jatbula in a word: magical.
Things I realised with the benefit of hindsight:
• I regret not spending the extra hundred bucks or so and upgraded to an Osprey Aura Anti-Gravity suspension backpack. It seemed to be the one favoured by the more seasoned hikers on the trip, i.e. everyone else except me and I probably would have spent less time complaining to everyone within earshot about how heavy my pack was.
• Also, actually practice with your bag at the 15 kg weight for at least 6 weeks beforehand. The guides redistribute the group’s food every morning, so your pack doesn’t get any lighter!
• To make your bag lighter, you probably don’t need to pack 10 pairs of undies. Also, pack a book or kindle. Don’t pack both. • Buy that ugly, quick-dry, Leyland-brothers looking, wide-brimmed hat, with the matching ugly shirt. No one cares about fashun on the trail.
• Pack the hiking poles. You’ll need them. Trust me.
• A great tip I picked up from Jess was to drench my shirt and hat in the water to keep me cool during the rest of the hike.
• You’ll drink more water than you ever thought possible, I topped out at 4 ½ litres in one day so I highly recommend packing a hydration bladder. Which I didn’t.
• Why did I pack so many undies and not wine?
Words by Dragica Barac who completed the Jatbula Trail in July 2021.
Let us know in the comments below what you learnt from a challenging hike you completed. And if you could do it again, what would you have done differently?
Feeling inspired? Check out the 6-day guided Jatbula Trail trek and make sure you are well prepared for the adventure. The more training you do, the more enjoyable the trek will be!