Katherine is a thriving town on the Katherine River just a 3-hour drive (320 km) south-east of Darwin. It is here that the Savannah Way (Victoria Highway) and the Explorer’s Way (Stuart Highway) intersect allowing road travel across the continent from Cairns to Broome and from Darwin to Adelaide. It is little wonder that Katherine is often called the ‘Crossroads of the Outback’.
The town’s population is 6,100 but extends to encompass other local areas including the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Base Tindal which is home to around another 750 people.
Katherine’s economy is centred around mining, military defence, tourism and the pastoral industry. The climate is ideal for fruit, vegetables, hay and other field crops and the region is one of the major mango-producing areas in Australia. Other commodities include zinc, lead, gravel and limestone.
The Katherine River stems from waters high in the escarpments of Arnhem Land. As it reaches the relatively flat plains around Katherine it forms spectacular natural features. The region boasts time-worn limestone formations, a labyrinth of caves and deep, ancient gorges including the famous Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park.
Katherine’s tropical savanna climate has 2 main seasons – the wet and the dry; although the local Indigenous people recognise 6 distinct seasons. Humidity is very high in the monsoonal wet season with periods of frequent flooding and temperatures around 24° – 37°. The dry season (May to October) is the time when everyone comes outside to explore, work and play.
History and development
The traditional caretakers of the land were the Jawoyn, Warlpiri and Dagoman people. The Katherine region was and remains and remains an important meeting place for the tribes. For thousands of years the land was woven into the very fabric of their culture. Today rock art galleries, middens and other sacred sites still exist and much of the land management is shared between the Indigenous communities and government agencies.
In 1862, explorer John McDouall Stuart passed through the region while making his third successful expedition from north to south across the wide continent. He named the Katherine River after the daughter of pastoralist James Chambers though some believe it was for Chamber’s wife – also a Katherine.
Stuart’s passage was soon followed by the laying of the Overland Telegraph Line which ran from Adelaide to Darwin. The line was built with the backing of the colonial South Australian Government as the colony extended to the north coast of Australia at that time. It connected Australia to the rest of the world - meaning that messages could now be sent across the globe. Katherine Telegraph Station was established in 1872.
Workers on the line discovered gold at nearby Pine Creek sparking a gold rush that brought many thousands to region and much wealth to the young colony. A number of plans were made to build a railway across the continent but these did not eventuate. In the 1920’s the North Australia Railway was built from Darwin to Birdum via Pine Creek and Katherine. This was used for many years to transport iron ore from Francis Creek but the line was abandoned in the 1970’s.
During World War 2 the Australian Army built 2 hospitals and set up a headquarters in the area. An airstrip already existed and it became a strategic place for military activity. While the Japanese bombing of Darwin is a famous historical event, many are unaware that Katherine was also bombed once in 1942 and one man was killed.
Gold mining continued at Mount Todd until 2000, however mining activity continues in the area. A controversial uranium mine now operates in Kakadu National Park providing employment to hundreds of people.
It was not until the early 2,000’s that a continuous railway track finally connected Darwin to Adelaide. The Ghan train service now includes a stopover at Katherine to allow time for sightseeing and tours.
Exploring the Katherine region
Katherine Visitor Information Centre is located at the southern end of the town at the corner of the Stuart Highway and Lindsay Street. Here you will find all you need to know about local culture, festivals, accommodation, permits and alcohol restrictions plus all the nearby attractions and national parks.
If you’re planning a holiday in Katherine, you’ll find so much to do it may be hard to fit it all in. Within the town are several Aboriginal art galleries showcasing the work of traditional artists. Their art tells stories of the land from the dreamtime days right up to the modern era. You can also visit many historic buildings such as the old Katherine Railway Station or spend time wandering through the fascinating Katherine Museum displays.
Take the family on a picnic to the Katherine Hot Springs where you can soak in the pleasant 32° water of the thermal pools. Go kayaking through Katherine Gorge, indulge your tastebuds with fresh food from the market, join a barramundi fishing tour or go bushwalking to one of the stunning waterfalls or caves in the region. No matter what time of year you visit; you’ll always find fun and exciting things to do around Katherine.