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Australia How to survive the epic Jatbula Trail in the NT

How to survive the epic Jatbula Trail in the NT

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This post is also available in: Nederlands

We came to know about the Jatbula trail when we were in Katherine, NT. A local we were talking to mentioned the hike, that routes through the Nitmiluk National Park. The full-pack multiple-day hike starts at the Nitmiluk Gorge and ends 62km later at the Edith Falls.

To us, this hike was an absolutely stunning experience, where we immersed in the Outback of Australia and got in very close contact with the Aboriginal culture.

How to survive the Jatbula Trail in the Nitmiluk National Park

About the Jatbula Trail

The Jatbula Trail is named after Jawoyn (Aboriginal tribe) traditional owner Peter Jatbula. He walked this walk many times with his family. The aboriginal lifeline can be seen in the Amphitheater, where the old, but beautiful Aboriginal rock art still remains.

By walking the Jatbula trail you are absolutely going down under in the outback of Australia. The Northern Territory is known for its vast outback and the Aboriginal culture that is still very alive. During this hike you will explore these two things to the fullest which makes it an outstanding Australian experience.

How long is the Jatbula Trail?

The Jatbula trail is about 62 km long. The trail is a full-pack hike, which leads you through the Nitmiluk National Park. Keep in mind that the days are hot in the Northern Territory and the trail has quite some ascents and descents. That for your average walking speed might slow down a bit. The backpack you need to carry and the challenging trail might even make it slower. With these circumstances, the trail can be finished in 5 to 6 days.

How many people are on the Jatbula Trail?

Daily only 15 people will start the Jatbula Trail. So, you share the trail with just a couple of other people, which you might only see on the campgrounds.

When can I walk the Jatbula trail?

You can walk the Jatbula trail during the NT wintertime from the 1st of June until the 30th of September. Don’t think it’s gonna be cold though! The winter days in the Northern Territory can become really hot and temperatures of 40°C aren’t exceptional. The good thing is though that there is a desert climate, so the nights and early mornings are cool.

Diverse landscapes  

Diverse landscapes during the Jatbula Trail

What is the best time to walk the Jatbula Trail?

June and July are supposed to be the coolest months in the NT, so this would be the best time to walk the trail. Any time of the Jatbula Trail seasons should be good though, as the trail is open during this time of the year with a reason!

We walked the Jatbula trail at the end of July and had some pretty hot days. The nights were lovely though. We brought a sleeping bag but mainly just used our liners.

What kind of level is the Jatbula Trail?

The Jatbula Trail is classified as moderate. The trail has some challenging ascents and descents but in general, it is all quite manageable. The biggest day is 17km which can be finished in 4 to 6 walking hours. The biggest challenge of the Jatbula trail is that it is a full-pack hike, which means you have to carry your own everything. Tent, sleeping and cooking gear, food and a lot of water.

What kind of facilities are on the Jatbula Trail?

Compost Toilet at the Jatbula Trail

Not many! Walking the Jatbula Trail means going back to basics. The only facilities you have are the compost toilets on each campground. There are no garbage bins, no bbq’s, no toilets on the rest of the trail, no huts, no showers, no food shops and nothing else you can think about. Like I said: going back to basics!

The good thing is though, that each campsite is situated close to a waterhole. You can swim, wash yourself and your clothes and also drink the water from these water sources.

Where do you sleep during the Jatbula Trail?

You sleep in the tent you carry yourself (or your hiking partner if you get him/her that crazy!). The campgrounds are just designated areas where you are allowed to set up your tent. So, don’t expect any huts or a pre-setup camps.

Snake

Is it dangerous to walk the Jatbula Trail?

The Nitmiluk National Park is home to many wild animal species, like snakes, buffalos, wild pigs, spiders, scorpions, crocodiles, turtles, birds, butterflies and many more. In this list, there are quite a couple of dangerous animals. If you see such an animal, stop walking, remain quiet and wait for them to leave. When they are out of sight you can easefully continue.

We saw a King Brown snake (which can be deathly) coming out of the bushes right in front of our feet. We both fossilized, held our breath and our heart rate went up. Before we knew it the snake was far gone and we could breathe again. After all, nothing happened and that is what you can expect. As long as you are aware that you share the area with wildlife, respect them and give them the space they need, nothing serious will happen.

AllTrail app

Another thing that could happen is that you get lost. The trail is designated pretty good with blue triangles and most of the times you already see the next. But if you don’t pay attention to them you can easily walk the wrong way, as there isn’t a footpath to follow. The AllTrail app will help you out!

The AllTrail app saved us! We missed a sign and went in the wrong direction. It was in the woods, we had no sense of direction and didn’t know where we exactly came from or where we saw the last sign. The AllTrail app showed us the red line from the track and a black dot of our location. This way we found our way back to the trail (we were a couple of 100 meters outlying from the track)!

TIP: Download the AllTrail app. This is an app for hikers all over the world. Download the Jatbula trail track when you have access to the Internet. Turn on your GPS and you’ll see your position on the trail. This way you can get an indication of how far it is to the next campground and it is also very handy to get back to the trail, in case you missed a sign.

What to do in an emergency?

As there is no phone signal throughout most of the trail, you can’t call the emergency number 000 if you need help. If something happens on the trail and you don’t feel well, you can use one of the emergency phones you will find on the trail. On each camp, there is an emergency phone, which you are allowed to use in emergencies only.

NOTE: Optus doesn’t have phone reception at all on the Jatbula Trail. With Telstra you might find some signal every now and then, but nothing to count on!

Emergency Phone on the Jatbula Trail

For this reason, it is strongly advised to hike this trail with at least two people, but preferably even with three. In case of an emergency, one stays with the person that doesn’t feel well and the other one can go to the nearest emergency phone.

Another very handy device is the Spot Gen 3. This is a GPS tracker with an emergency button. This device will send out a GPS signal every 5, 10, 30 or 60 minutes. The battery lasts up to 10 days on a tracking interval with 10 minutes. On this device, you find an emergency button. If you press this button (which you can’t press by accident, as you have to lift the safety cover first), a signal is sent to the International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC). They will inform the local emergency services, so they can get you as soon as possible.

We always carry the Spot with us. No matter if it is during a hike of an hour or a 3-month cycling trip. It gives us a safe feeling and our parents can sleep peacefully, while we experience adventures on the other side of the world.

How much does it cost to walk the Jatbula Trail

The Jatbula Trail is affordable for everyone. You only pay a small camping fee of AU$3.30 per person per night. Besides the camping fee, you have to pay for the ferry to cross the river to the starting point of the Jatbula Trail. The costs of the ferry are AU$9.00 per person.

How to book the Jatbula Trail

If you dare to take the challenge of walking the Jatbula Trail you can book your tickets on the official Jatbula Trail booking site. The Jatbula trail bookings commence November 1st for the next season which is from the 1st of June until the 30th of September.

NOTE: The Jatbula Trail is one of the most famous multiple day hikes in Australia and only 15 people can start this trail daily. It is known that tickets sell out quickly.

If the date you would like to start isn’t available anymore, you can call the booking office: +61 (8) 89993638. They will put you on the list and let you know if there is a ticket available. Tour bookings often buy days up, and release the tickets a couple of days in advance if they can’t get their tours filled up.

Diverse Landscapes at the Jatbula Trail

Dirty legs after a day at the Jatbula Trail

Nanet doing a nap at Sandy Camp - Jatbula Trail

This was some basic information about the Jatbula Trail. Now let’s get on to the fun part! A day by day description and lots of handy tips on how to survive the Jatbula Trail!

Believe me, it’s gonna be great! Camping under the stars on very basic, but scenic campgrounds. Swimming in water holes and drinking from freshwater sources. Beautiful viewpoints and lots of wildlife. Are you ready for an adventure!?

Day 1: Nitmiluk visitor center to the Biddlecombe Cascades

Length: 8.2 km
Duration: 2 – 2,5 walking hours

We were so excited! Geared up with a fully loaded backpack, proper hiking shoes and a hat on our heads we arrived early morning at the Nitmiluk visitor center in the Katherine Gorge.

TIP: Wear a wide-brimmed hat! The sun burns constantly with full power and a hat will protect you from getting a sunstroke and sunburn in your face and neck.

Before we left a ranger did a little introduction talk and informed us about a couple of things like:

  • What to do when you see a bushfire (which will in all probability be a controlled reduction fire)
  • Taking care and being careful of all the wildlife you might see, like buffalos, wild pigs, crocodiles and snakes.
  • How to recognize a camp and where to find the compost toilets (only available on camps)
  • Which water is safe to drink.
  • What you need to do in an emergency (as there is barely any phone reception).

After the safety introduction, we were guided to the boat to cross the river to the starting point of the Jatbula Trail.

View at the Jatbula Trail

Walking on the Jatbula Trail

Taking a bit of rest during the Jatbula Trail

Start the trail

The first 4 km is pretty flat and easy to walk. It will lead you to the Northern Rockhole. This is a water hole where you can swim, or just watch the beauty of it and see the fishes swimming in the crystal clear water.

NOTE: If you Google the Northern Rockhole you will probably find a lot of pictures with waterfalls. This waterfall is only running during wet season between December and January, but not during the Jatbula Trail season.

Continue the trail by following the blue triangle signs. A couple of kilometers before reaching the campsite the trail runs into a 4WD maintenance track. After walking for about an hour we had our second, short, stop as we knew it wasn’t far to the campsite anymore.

The Biddlecombe Cascades camping area

After our break it was only another 15-minute walk to Biddlecombe Cascades camping area. The campground is flat, so you can set up your tent just anywhere you like. From the campground it is a 100m walk to the top of the waterfalls. In front of the waterfalls there are plenty of rock pools where you can enjoy a swim with a beautiful view.

Don’t forget to sign in at all the checkpoints along the track. On the Biddlecombe Cascades camping area is the first checkpoint. Fill in your name and the date. This will help a lot to find you in case you get lost. So, take the checkpoints serious. You’ll find them at every campsite and on the longer days also along the trail.

TIP: Download the AllTrail app. This is an app for hikes all over the world.

Download the Jatbula trail track when you have access to Internet. Turn on your GPS and you’ll see your position on the trail. This way you can get an indication how far it is to the next campground. It is also very handy to get back to the trail, in case you missed a sign.

The AllTrail app saved us! We missed a sign and went the wrong direction. It was in the woods, we had no sense of direction and didn’t know where we exactly came from or where we saw the last sign. The AllTrail app showed us the blue line from the track and a red dot from our location. This way we found our way back to the trail (we were a couple of 100 meters outlying from the track)!

The Biddlecombe Cascades camping area

Getting water early morning

Day 2: The Biddlecombe Cascades to the Crystal Falls

Length: 11.6 km
Duration: 3 – 4 walking hours

TIP: Bring an easy and quick breakfast, like a pre-workout protein shake. Mix with water, slurp it away and you are ready to go! Preparing breakfast on a stove, only cost you valuable time in the cool morning.

Kelly after the river crossing on the Jatbula Trail

We left the Biddlecombe Cascades campsite around 7.30am to avoid the heat during the day. Keep a lightweight microfiber towel in reach and don’t bother tightening up your laces, as you need to take off your shoes within 5 minutes after leaving camp to cross the river. It’s not hard, it will just give you some wet feet!

After the river crossing, the trail will lead you through high grass and over rock formations. The track becomes a bit more ascending and descending, but is still very manageable.

Today, we saw a lot of buffalo poo, but luckily we didn’t see a buffalo itself. It was when we saw the poo that we realized we were sharing this area with real wildlife. The Jatbula trail crosses the Nitmiluk National Park where wild animals live in their natural environment and they can just show up any moment.

TIP: If you see a buffalo, wild pig or a snake, make sure to stop and remain quiet. Wait for them to leave before you keep going on the trail.

The Crystal Falls Campsite

We continued the trail through the high grass and over the rock formations. A few hours and a couple of brakes later we arrived at the Crystal Falls camping area. This is a stunning spot! You can set up your tent right at the waterfront and cool off in one of the lovely small pools. If you want to go for a swim, just walk a little bit upstream to the bigger water hole.

During sunset, we cooked our meal on one of the bigger rocks in the water. This was definitely my most basic meal with the biggest impact ever. I will never forget this place, this meal, this view , and this sunset. Absolutely wonderful!

TIP: Leave the trail clean by bringing a small plastic bag. You can use this bag to carry your trash from snacks and meals, but also your used toilet paper! Please do not leave anything behind on the trail, as many others like to have the same view as you did, and not a view that is covered in toilet paper!

Leave nothing but footprints!

 Cooking at the Jatbula Trail 

Day 3: The Crystal falls to the 17 Mile waterfall

Length: 10.6 km
Duration: 3 – 4 walking hours

We decided to leave one hour earlier than the previous day, as we suspected a really warm day after a warm night. We left around 6.30 am., on our bare feet, as we had to cross a river straight away. The day before we checked out multiple routes, but the easiest way seemed to be straight across to the next blue sign.

The water was never deeper than up to our ankles. When we made it to the other side we put on our hiking shoes and prepared ourselves for the upcoming walking day.

This day started as what we expected from the Jatbula trail. A river crossing, climbing over rock formations and a beautiful view on the Crystal falls (the camp where we slept the night before).

Camping at the Jatbula Trail

View on the waterfall

Once we passed the rock formations, the trail turned to be pretty manageable for the rest of the day. Although the trail leaded us through a quite similar landscape as the day before, with lots of high grass (and a lot of buffalo poo), it seemed to be very different. We walked right along the edges of some very steep cliffs which gave us some outstanding views over the Nitmiluk national park.

TIP: Look up! The trail is designated very well, but you have to look up to follow the signs. 9 out of 10 times you can see the next sign already. If you don’t see the next sign right away, take a look around, as the chance is big that you have to make a turn. If you don’t see a sign at all, step a couple of steps in one direction and see if you see the next sign, if not, walk back to the previous one and set a couple of steps in another direction.

The Amphitheater

After about 6 km there is a track junction. If you go to the right you follow the Jatbula trail, if you go to the left you will go to the Amphitheater. This little extra walking is absolutely worth it! Immerse yourself in the Aboriginal culture and understand their art rocks.

Leave your backpack at the junction and follow the path to the Amphitheater. Go down the stairs, follow the footpath to the left and along the cliffs you will find some beautiful Aboriginal rock art.

You’ll see a lot of animals, painted in colors that are available in nature. Ochre, red and white are coming from clay pigments and the black comes from charcoal. A bit further up you’ll see a Jawoyn woman, dressed in a breast girdle, bracelets and wrist, and knee bands. She is ready to dance all night for the man she wants.

Rock Art at the Amphitheater during the Jatbula Trail 

Explanation of the Rock Art at the Jatbula Trail

Once you’ve seen it all, head back to the junction and follow the trail to complete day 3. Just before you reach camp there is a viewpoint on the 17 Mile waterfall. Continue to camp, but don’t cheer too early! The last part to camp (after crossing the 17 Mile Creek), can be very boggy! Pay attention to where you step, to avoid soaking wet and dirty shoes.

The 17 Mile Waterfall campground

The campsite is situated on top of the 17 Mile waterfall. The sites are flat and close to the water. Near the 17 Mile waterfall are several smaller waterfalls that can be climbed carefully. You can also walk around to the bottom of the 17 Mile waterfall and plunge in the large waterhole.

We climbed into the waterfall

View on the waterfall

You’ve got some beautiful views from the small waterhole near the camp and you might spot some wildlife. We saw 3 water lizards sitting on the rocks and swimming in the water.

NOTE: We took our drinking water from the small pool closest to the campsite, but the next day we both had some pain in our stomachs and needed to go to the toiled a couple of times. Make sure to get your drinking water from one of the small waterfalls close to the camp to ensure it’s clean. Or filter it.

TIP: Bring R.S. with you. If you eat or drink something wrong and get diarrhea this little sachet can be lifesaving. It is very important to stay hydrated with these extreme temperatures. Make sure you are able to stay hydrated for worst case scenarios.

The view from the top of the 17 Mile waterfall

Water lizzard

Day 4: The 17 Mile waterfall to Sandy Camp

Length: 17.3 km
Duration: 4 – 6 walking hours

This is the longest day of the trail and it is smart to leave early. When we left, it was still dark and needed our torches for the first part of the trail, which gave our experience an extra dimension!

TIP: Wake up early. Although it is winter in the NT, the days can be bloody hot and temperatures can reach 40°C easily. The good thing is though, that there is a desert climate, so during the nights it cools off. So, the early mornings are the best time to walk. The earlier you leave, the earlier you reach the next campsite, the more time you have to explore the areas of the campgrounds and the more time you have for swimming, chilling and washing clothes.

It was getting warmer and warmer during the day and we knew we made a good decision to leave early. To leave camp you have to climb on some real steep rock formations. Sometimes we needed both hands and feet to get where we wanted to come. A small consolation is that the rest of the day is pretty manageable. Some small ascents and descents, but nothing as crazy as the start.

A beautiful day

So far, this was the most beautiful day with a lot of various landscapes, like rocks, sand and jungle kind of landscapes. All very green. At one part you even walk on a natural border. On the right side, you see the dry and yellowish scenery and on the left side, you see beautiful green trees.

Rock Formation on the Jatbula Trail

Diverse Landscapes Jatbula Trail

Walking the Jatbula Trail

We remember very well that it smelled like honey for a long time throughout the day, which was amazing! We also saw poo from wild pigs, but luckily didn’t see the creatures itself.

The first 10 km until the checkpoint is pretty doable and we went quite fast. We arrived at the checkpoint at 9.30 am, when it was already very hot. The heat made the second part harder, especially as you mainly walk in open areas without any shades.

Sandy camp

Sandy Camp Jatbula Trail  

Sunset at Sandy Camp Jatbula Trail

Once you arrive at Sandy Camp you forget it all, as this is such a beautiful place. Almost like an oasis. We didn’t doubt a second and plunged into the water straight away to cool off. Sandy camp is a beachy kind of camp where you can set up your tent right next to the water pool.

TIP: Make sure to get your drinking water from the little waterfall that feeds the pool. Don’t take it from the pool itself, to make sure it is safe to drink.

During sunset, when we were doing the dishes we saw a long-neck turtle in the water between the water plants. We watched him for a little while as this is a beautiful creature. Eventually, he was joined by 3 scorpions who were fighting each other. So, you might be able to get a glimpse of the beautiful underwater world as well!

ULTIMATE EXPERIENCE: We were very lucky to see the moon eclipse the next morning between 4 and 6 am. Slowly the moon turned all red as Mars was shadowing the moon.

Blood moon

Waterhole at Sandy Camp, Jatbula Trail

Day 5: Sandy camp to Sweet water pool

Length: 11 km
Duration: 3 – 4 walking hours

We left camp around 7 am and just when we thought we survived the hardest day (day 4), there was today. It is a hard day as you walk many kilometers through loose sand. Our short night (due to watching the moon eclipse) didn’t help either. Luckily the surroundings were amazingly beautiful which makes you almost forget that you are walking.

TIP: Bring sock protectors, they will help you to keep the sand out of your shoes. We didn’t bring them and we had to make several stops to get the sand out of our shoes to avoid blisters. You can buy them at the Big W for about AU$5! For that price it is definitely worth the investment!

Halfway during the day, you’ll pass a waterhole. We had a little rest here, but didn’t go into the water. It was getting warm already and we preferred to keep on walking to the camp before it got even warmer. If you feel overheated when you arrive at the waterhole, jump in and cool off! It is a beautiful surrounding!

After the waterhole, the trail continued through some wetlands. Take care where you place your feet to make sure they stay dry. Your shoes might get a bit dirty, but hey, that’s just part of the experience!

Sweet Water Pool Nitmiluk National Park

Sweet water pool

Soon after these wetlands, you’ll climb the rock formations which are the top of the sweet water pool. This means you almost reach camp! Follow the signs on the rock formations and climb down to the lagoon.

NOTE: Sweet water pool is also reached by a lot of day hikers coming from the Edith Falls. This spot you have to share with a bit more people than just the 15 people that are allowed to start the Jatbula trail each day. The campsite itself is mainly used by Jatbula trail hikers though.

Sweet Water Pool Nitmiluk National Park 

Sweet Water Pool Nitmiluk National Park

The sweet water pool camp is a beautiful place to celebrate that you made it! The next day is only a 4.4 km hike, which is done by many day hikers as well. The chance is quite small to get lost from here or that you will be attacked by one or another wild animal.

Sweet Water Pool Camp, Nitmiluk National park 

The Jatbula Trail Hikers

We used the evening to make a group photo with all the Jatbula trail hikers that started on the same day as us.

TIP: Instead of camping you can also choose to finish the trail all the way down to the Edith Falls. It’s only a 4.4 km walk until the end of the Jatbula trail (see day 6).

Day 6: Sweet water pool to the Edith falls

Length: 4.4 km
Duration: 1 – 1.5 walking hours

The last part! First, you have to climb over some rock formations to leave camp and pass Long Pool. Just after this water hole, there is a last, not too steep, climb. Once on top, you’ll go down again and before you know it you’ll reach the sign that you survived the Jatbula trail! Well done!

Upper Pool, Edith Falls, Nitmiluk National Park

We survived the Jatbula Trail!

From here it’s only 600 meters to the car park, but we encourage you to take a little round trip to the upper pool. This place is absolutely stunning and if you leave camp early you might have this place to yourself for a little while. Jump into the water and swim to the waterfall to let the stream fall down on your head and shoulders.

TIP: Enjoy a delicious and well-earned meal at the kiosk down the car park. We had a buffalo burger and a hamburger and both a smoothie to celebrate surviving the Jatbula trail!

We love to hear from you!

The Jatbula Trail is an absolutely epic hike which we recommend to everyone who loves multiple day hikes and can handle going back to basics! Did you do the Jatbula Trail, or do you have a question? Please leave a comment below.

Lovely lunch at the Edith Falls, Nitmiluk National Park

Nanet Moesman
Nanet is a full time world traveler ever since May 2017. She writes with passion about the destinations where she has been. You'll always find a personal touch in her blog posts when she talks about her own experiences. A pleasure to read!
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  1. I did this hike last year and wow your information is gold! I hope to read more of this information about hikes here. All the best from Brisbane

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