The Jatbula Trail is one of the most famous multi-day hikes in Australia. The incredible trail traverses a remote part of the Nitmiluk National Park outside of Katherine in the Northern Territory’s Top End. The 62km long adventure links Katherine Gorge with Edith Falls/Leliyn, taking hikers along the western end of the Arnhem Land Escarpment.
I’d known about the Jatbula Trail for some time, having completed the Northern Territory’s other well-known trek, the Larapinta Trail, back in 2018. However, due to the restricted permit system and the short hiking season in the Top End, it often results in the trail being completely sold out within hours each year. I honestly thought it would be a long time before I had a chance to do the Jatbula.
However, on my way back through Katherine on the Stuart Highway late in the season, I decided to ask at Nitmiluk Visitor Centre if there were any permits available. It just so happened that there was one available departing the next day and so I took it. I rushed back to my van to quickly pack and prepare for five days in the hot conditions of the Nitmiluk National Park. The trek was simply incredible, and one that I feel privileged to have experienced.
I’ve put together this guide for independent hikers hoping to organise their own self-guided Jatbula Trail trek. However, much of this information would also help anyone planning on doing it with an organised tour as well. Otherwise, I’ve also got my day by day track notes from the trail here.
Quick facts about the Jatbula Trail
- Distance: 62 km
- Time to complete: 5-6 days (no less or more, campgrounds can’t be skipped)
- Direction: One way trail from Nitmiluk Gorge to Edith Falls/Leliyn
- Walking options: Independent thru-hike or commercial tour and guided trek (must be completed as a whole trek and not in sections)
- Campgrounds: 5 designated campgrounds
- Fees: There has always been a permit fee/camping fee per day for the Jatbula Trail, but as of March 2022, there is also be a multi-day walking fee as well.
- Restrictions: Each campground is only allowed a maximum 15 people
- Respect: The trail is on the traditional land of the Jawoyn people and traces a route once taken by them through the park area, which is demonstrated in the incredible rock art found near the track
- History: The trail is named after Peter Jatbula, a proud Jawoyn man who fought for land rights for his people
Why hike the Jatbula Trail?
The Jatbula Trail is one of the most well-known hikes in Australia. Along with the Larapinta Trail in Central Australia, it’s definitely the most sought after multi-day hike in the Northern Territory. It gives you a chance to explore some of the most untouched parts of an ancient landscape home to the Jawoyn people. It is completely inaccessible to anyone other than hikers completing the Jatbula, so the feeling of seclusion is unmatched.
However, the trail isn’t as difficult as the Larapinta Trail. As a moderate graded walk, the terrain is relatively kind to your body. But the real challenge lies in the climate and relentless heat that wears you down each and every day, even in the middle of winter/dry season. While the Larapinta tests your strength and endurance, the Jatbula tests your determination and tolerance.
The highlight of the Jatbula Trail is being able to end a long day of hiking in the heat with a swim in natural water holes. Each of the campgrounds are situated next to swimming spots, which is something so unique to the Top End that I don’t think there’s really any other trail quite like it.
When to hike the Jatbula Trail
The best time to walk the Jatbula Trail is considered to be between 1 June and 30 September, which is the coolest and driest time of the year in the Northern Territory. However, the rangers generally recommend you walk between June and August. Even then, temperatures are always above 30 degrees during the day, and only drop into the 20s or maybe 10s overnight, so you should always expect hot conditions no matter the time of year.
Between 1 October and 31 May the trail is not technically open. You’ll have to seek special permission from NT Parks to do it during these months, and honestly, I’m not sure you should. I doubt they grant permission very often. The heat and monsoonal rains would be dangerous even for the most experienced hiker outside of the dry season.
When did I hike the Jatbula Trail? I managed to secure a permit in mid-September, finishing the trek on the 19th. This was not ideal as it’s late in the season, but I felt lucky to even get a permit (especially considering I simply asked on a whim and scored a spot leaving the next day!). The temperatures were high 30s and low 40s every day and the coolest night we had was low 20s, so it was damn hot! I wouldn’t recommend this time of year unless you’re used to the heat, luckily I’d been in the Top End for a couple of months already and could tolerate it.
Camping on the Jatbula Trail
There are five designated campgrounds on the Jatbula Trail. Each campground is only allowed a maximum of 15 people per night and you can only stay one night at each campground. This helps keep numbers low, environmental impact to a minimum and a heightened sense of seclusion and remoteness.
Every hiker must stay at the first four campgrounds as part of the trek. The fifth campground is optional, but you must decide whether you’re going to stay there prior to beginning your hike. No wild camping outside of the designated areas is allowed.
- Biddlecombe Cacades
- Crystal Falls
- 17 Mile Falls
- Sandy Camp
- Sweetwater Pool (optional)
Each of the five campgrounds are next to or very close to fresh water or cascades for swimming and drinking. They all have a basic long drop toilet, sometimes quite a few metres away from the camping spots. Otherwise, there are no other facilities and you need to carry all required equipment with you (more on packing for the Jatbula below).
Jatbula Trail itineraries
There are only two different itineraries for the Jatbula Trail: five or six days. With the six day itinerary, it simply breaks up the last day into two, so it still covers the same distance. I’ve outlined both options below.
Day 1: Nitmiluk Gorge to Biddlecombe Cascades
- Distance: 8.5km
- Time: 3 hours
- Ascend: 175m
- Descend: 75m
- Highlight: A morning tea stop at the beautiful Northern Rockhole before having a swim near camp in the Biddlecombe Cascades.
Day 2: Biddlecombe Cascades to Crystal Falls
- Distance: 11km
- Time: 3-4 hours
- Ascend: 180m
- Descend: 172m
- Highlight: Interesting rock formations and rolling grasslands, before coming into a shady campsite right by the river.
Day 3: Crystal Falls to 17 Mile Falls
- Distance: 10.5km
- Time: 3-4 hours
- Ascend: 150m
- Descend: 142m
- Highlight: Incredible Jawoyn rock art in a pretty rainforest before getting spectacular views of 17 Mile Falls and the escarpment before coming into camp.
Day 4: 17 Mile Falls to Sandy Camp
- Distance: 17.5km
- Time: 4-6 hours
- Ascend: 115m
- Descend: 145m
- Highlight: A mostly flat trail through open grassland and bush, crossing over the Edith River and coming to the beautiful billabong at Sandy Camp.
Day 5: Sandy Camp to Edith Falls/Leliyn
- Distance: 15.5km
- Time: 4-5 hours
- Ascend: 73m
- Descend: 162m
- Highlight: A relatively easy morning on flat trail through bush until the incredible swimming spot at Sweetwater Pool. The final walk into Edith Falls is over a rocky, popular trail with a final steep descent.
Alternative Jatbula Trail itinerary ending
Day 5: Sandy Camp to Sweetwater Pool
- Distance: 11km
- Time: 3 hours
- Ascend: 13m
- Descend: 61m
- Highlight: A relatively flat trail through scrub until you reach the edge of the stunning Sweetwater Pool.
Day 6: Sweetwater Pool to Edith Falls/Leliyn
- Distance: 4.5km
- Time: 1 hour
- Ascend: 60m
- Descend: 101m
- Highlight: Final walk over rocky terrain, passing Long Hole Pool, until the steep descent into Edith Falls.
Read next: An Essential Guide to Edith Falls/Leliyn
Check out my video from the trail!
Jatbula Trail permits and costs
The Jatbula Trail is extremely affordable but the most difficult part of the process has always been in obtaining an actual permit. However, things are starting to change a bit in the NT.
Traditionally, you needed to jump online every year when they released the permits and try to snatch one up as soon as possible (usually in November for the following year). They generally sell out within a few hours. The cost has always been a camping fee which worked out to be $4 per night, per person.
However, as of March 2022, there will also be a multi-day walking fee or permit which needs to be obtained and paid for on top of the camping fee. The walking fee will be $25 per night.
For a standard, 4 night, 5 day itinerary for the Jatbula Trail, you’ll pay (in 2022): $116
You can book your camping permits and walking permits when they’re released each year through the NT Parks website here.
Transport and logistics
When it comes to costs, you also must factor in the boat or ferry crossing to the start of the walk. This must be booked through a private tour operator, Nitmiluk Tours, which takes hikers across Katherine Gorge to the beginning of the trail. When I did it in 2021, the ferry cost $15 per person. The ferry runs twice a day, 7am and 9am. I booked the ferry at the desk inside the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre, otherwise you can also book online here.
I parked my vehicle in the car park of the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre and then walked down to the boat dock from there. My van was fine for five days in the car park, and most hikers leave a vehicle there, with the rangers saying they’ve never heard of any problems.
Once I got to the end of the walk at Edith Falls, I had arranged a pick up service to take me back to Nitmiluk Visitor Centre. I used Gecko Canoeing which is recommended by NT Parks. They do a pick up service from Edith Falls to Nitmiluk every day at 3pm. They charge $75 per person.
Another option according to my driver from Gecko is that you can also do the same in reverse. You can drive your car to Edith Falls and then get them to take you back to Nitmiluk to start the walk, which means you’ll be able to leave Edith Falls whenever you finish the walk. This will come with an extra cost though, you’ll have to ask them about it.
Where to stay in Katherine
Katherine is usually where most people stay before and after the hike. It’s the only town close to the Nitmiluk National Park. It has everything you’ll need for supplies including a major supermarket and two camping and hiking stores. Here’s some recommended Katherine accommodation:
Pine Tree Motel || A nice and comfortable option close to the main street in town, with an outdoor pool. Double rooms, family rooms and inter-connecting rooms for larger groups. Check availability here.
Discovery Parks – Katherine || A popular caravan park just outside of town on the way to Nitmiluk. They offer powered camping sites, as well as, a variety of cabins. Check availability here.
Safety on the Jatbula Trail
For everyone’s safety, NT Parks run a compulsory safety briefing for all hikers. Safety briefings take place at 8am and 3pm each day during the hiking season. If you want to leave early on your Jatbula hike, then you must attend the 3pm session the day before. This gives you a good overview of what to expect out on the trail and any possible dangers you might face.
There are a couple of dangerous animals that you might encounter, including wild buffalos and King Brown snakes. The former rarely pose a threat and I never saw any on the trail, but they are out in the national park. The latter used to be very prevalent, but cane toads have severely impacted the snake population and it’s quite rare to see any on the trail. Even in the overgrown scrub, I never saw a snake, but you should still carry a snake bandage with you in case. Simply give any wild animals some space and you should be fine.
Crocodiles are not a real threat on the Jatbula Trail. In the dry season, the water holes are inaccessible to crocs and you’ll be safe swimming anywhere along the trail. However, this means that the trail is only opened when the water levels are considered safe, which is usually around May. It is a bit of a weird feeling to be swimming in such wild places in the Top End, but you’re on top of the escarpment which makes it safe in the dry season.
The only other real danger out on the trail is the heat. Heat exhaustion, dehydration and heat stroke are all real risks when you do the Jatbula Trail. While you can’t escape the heat, there are some things you can do to prevent being affected.
- Drink plenty of water (I was drinking around 5L per day!)
- Eat plenty of energy dense foods
- Carry rehydration solution or hydralyte (electrolytes) with you to add to your water
- Start walking early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day (I started walking at sunrise every morning)
- Keep your body temperature down by wetting your hat or shirt when possible and going for a dip in the rivers and swimming holes
- Stay out of the sun as much as possible when you reach camp
- Take frequent breaks during the day
Emergency communication on the Jatbula Trail
There are emergency satellite phones placed out on the trail at every campsite. These Emergency Call Devices are only allowed to be used in emergencies and connect you with a ranger to discuss what to do in the situation.
There’s not much phone reception across the Nitmiluk National Park. Some people report occasional Telstra reception, but there’s definitely no Optus, so don’t rely on it. It’s best to also carry your own emergency device like a Personal Location Beacon (PLB).
Remember! The trail is not vehicle accessible, so any emergency will almost always require a helicopter. Only request help if you really need it.
Hiking the Jatbula Trail solo or on a tour?
There are two ways to hike the Jatbula Trail. The first way is as an independent hiker on a self-guided trek. This means you’re completely responsible for organising your entire walk, including booking campsites and permit, carrying all your camping gear and organising food. As a solo hiker, I really enjoyed walking the Jatbula at my own pace during the day and then having other hikers to talk to at camp every day. It’s completely safe and easy to organise the Jatbula as a solo hiker (especially if you follow this guide).
On the other hand, you can also join an organised tour or guided trek. This means you leave all the organisation and logistics to the company and you can just book a date that suits you and just simply train and prepare in the meantime. This is good for inexperienced hikers or those wanting to be led by an experienced guide. World Expeditions is one of the best trekking companies in the world and are undoubtedly the best option if you want a guided Jatbula Trail experience.
Navigation on the Jatbula Trail is relatively straightforward. There’s one single track to follow the entire way, which is marked with big blue arrows on a reflective background. Generally, you should be able to see the next one when you’re standing next to an arrow, but this isn’t necessarily always 100% true.
But the trail is for the most part easy to follow, with a well worn track. There are a couple of sections that cross over a bare rocky surface which makes the trail a little invisible, but if you follow the arrows you can’t go wrong. I would still suggest having a backup GPS device or map app like Maps.Me if you want to be extra safe.
Food and water
There are no food drop locations or access to any food on the entire trail. You must carry all your necessary food with you for the whole walk. But, you’ll be happy to know that the Edith Falls kiosk offers meals for most of the day for a celebratory end of trek feast!
Water supply on the trail is from natural water sources, such as rivers and streams. Each of the campsites are next to natural water sources so you can be guaranteed to have water each night. However, between campsites it’s best to carry enough for the whole day.
Read next: How to Plan Your Food for Hiking
Preparation and training for the Jatbula Trail
The Jatbula Trail is not overly strenuous or physically demanding. It also doesn’t cover that many kilometres in a day, so in terms of training, you only need to make sure that you have a moderate level of fitness and can carry a heavy pack.
But, the heat is something you need to prepare for! The real challenge on the Jatbula Trail is the climate and it’s ideal if you can at least be used to the heat before setting off. Obviously, this is hard if you don’t live somewhere that hot, but if you can, at least spend a couple of days in Katherine or Darwin. The longer you can spend in the Top End beforehand, hopefully it will acclimatise you somewhat to the weather.
To be honest, I only handled the heat well on the Jatbula because I’d already spent weeks in the Top End, adjusting to the heat. I had done the three day Southern Walks when I first arrived in Katherine weeks before, and I really struggled doing that. So, by the time of the Jatbula in September I was well and truly used to the heat.
What to pack for the Jatbula Trail
Here’s what I packed on the Jatbula Trail:
Gear and equipment
- OzTrail lightweight tent
- Sleeping bag liner
- Sea to Summit sleeping mattress
- Sea to Summit inflatable pillow
- 3L hydration reservoir
- Lifestraw Bottle
- Osprey 70L Backpack
- GoalZero solar panel
- Full-length leggings
- Ottie merino wool t-shirt
- Long-sleeve UV resistant shirt
- Merino hiking socks
- Keen hiking boots
- Bike shorts (for hanging around camp)
Toiletries and medical
- Sea to Summit microfibre towel
- Multipurpose wilderness wash
- Aloe vera
- Lib balm SPF15
- Toilet paper
- First aid kit
- Hydralyte (rehydration tablets)
Important: You might notice that I didn’t list a sleeping bag above and this is because I didn’t take one! When I did the Jatbula in late September the nights were pretty warm so I didn’t bother to carry my -15 degrees down sleeping bag. Instead I just slept in a thin liner which was enough for me, but it all depends on the time of year.