Just east of Darwin in the Northern Territory, extending 100km along the Van Dieman Gulf on the north and 200km south to the Katherine River area is Kakadu National Park. Half the size of Switzerland and encompassing just short of 20,000km2, this World Heritage site is Australia’s largest national park and one of its most varied.
Kakadu encompasses a broad range of geographic landscapes, including estuaries, rivers, dramatic waterfalls, rock-faced pools with crystal-clear waters, billabongs, wetlands and floodplains; vast escarpments, steep gorges, hills, lowlands and even pockets of monsoon rainforest along the coast.
These varied landscape give rise to a large diversity of plant and animal life. One-third of all the bird species in Australia are represented here, along with one-quarter of its freshwater fish and over 60 different types of mammals. Saltwater crocodiles, whose males can reach a length of 7metres, are common and millions of water fowl and migratory birds make this a bird watcher’s paradise.
Whether you plan to stay for a day or a week, you’ll find no shortage of things to see and do. The per person fee to enter the park is a good value even for a short day trip, and there is no charge for residents of the Northern Territory or children under 16. Popular activities and must see sites offer so many options it’s impossible to see them all in a single trip.
Aboriginal Art and Culture
For at least 50 millennia, this area has been home to several Aboriginal clans. Although most descendents have moved to other areas many still remain, sharing management of the park with local government. At the Warradjan Cultural Centre, exhibits created by the clans inform visitors about the ancient way of life, with artefacts on display and information about customs, family structure and skills like hunting and fishing. At the Marrawuddi Gallery in the Bowali Visitors Centre, tourists can browse and purchase a variety of crafts and artwork made by indigenous artisans.
The greatest gift of the clans’ ancestors, however, are found outdoors, in one of the world’s largest concentrations of Aboriginal rock paintings. There are several rock galleries in the park, the most famous being Ubirr and Nourlangie, which lie along an easy-to-walk 1.5km loop. During the dry season, park rangers lead tours around the loop and give brief, informative lectures.
Rivers, Billabongs and Waterways
Of course you want to meet the crocodiles, though probably not at the same close range they’d like to meet you. While there are numerous places in Kakadu to canoe safely, always check with the visitor’s centre before setting out. For carefree sightseeing, take one of the many river cruises on offer. Good excursions can be had year round, and both have advantages. In the wet season, visitors cruise floodplains and see lots of water birds. During the dry season, the saturated land dries out quickly and even large billabongs shrink in size. There are fewer watering spots for animals, making for dense concentration and excellent sightseeing as throngs come to feed.
One of Kakadu’s most popular cruises explores Yellow Water, a land-locked billabong which features crocodiles, barramundi, wild horses, buffalo and millions of migratory birds. Other top excursions are the Magela Billabong and Creek system, the East Alligator River, and a nocturnal cruise of the Djarradjin Billabong, which treats visitors to views of the teeming life that comes out after dark.
Waterfalls and Plunge Pools
The rocky escarpments, gorges, and abundance of water that flows during the wet season have created numerous waterfalls throughout the park. By far the most famous are the Jim Jim Falls, bands of gradually descending falls that wander through the red ochre of the Arnhem Land escarpment before making a final unbroken descent of over 250 meters. At the bottom, clear sparkling waters and white sand that are just right for a refreshing swim. Also in the Arnhem Land escarpment is Twin Falls, whose clear water and scenic boardwalk at the falls’ base can be reached by ferry boat. Gunlom, on Waterfall Creek, features a waterfall, sparkling plunge pool, and picnic areas shaded by cooling gum trees.
There are many other waterfalls and gorges to explore at Kakadu, but be aware that most roads and paths to them are closed during the Wet Season. At this time of the year, the best viewing options are fly-overs, which are nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Kakadu Tours on Foot
Of course, one of the best ways to appreciate Kakadu is the way the original inhabitants did – on foot! Walks of varying lengths, degrees of difficulty and inclines are offered. Some of Kakadu’s best-known walks include:
- Bardedjilidji Walk: Far less strenuous than the Barrk Walk below, this short, moderately graded 2.5km walk threads through sandstone, woodlands and wetlands as it follows alongside the East Alligator River.
- Barrk Sandstone Walk: This steeply graded. 12km walk is recommended for very fit walkers in search of a challenge. In addition to wonderful lookout points and beautiful sandstone formations, hikers will see native black wallaroos and chestnut quilled rock pigeons.
- Bubba Walk: This walk through the wetlands is bordered with paperbarks, pandanus, lotus lilies and cycads.
- Gubarra Pools Walk: Though this walk takes an afternoon to complete, it offers features not common in the rest of the park, such as sandstone cliffs and shaded monsoon forests. The grade is moderate but your reward is a refreshing dip in pools thick with colourful butterflies.
- Manngarre Walk: This walk of three interconnected loops is one of Kakudu’s easiest. Even the longest loop can be finished in less than an hour and, despite the easy grade, includes an elevated lookout platform near the East Alligator River.
- Mirrai Lookout Walk: This is one of Kakadu’s more challenging walks to an elevated platform at top of Mount Cahill. Despite the climb and the time needed to complete it, the sweeping views from the top are worth the effort.
- Nanguluwur Rock Art Site and Walk: Located near Nourlangie Rock, this gentle walk through woodlands leads to a quiet art site with interesting Aboriginal rock art. The grade is easy to moderate, but be sure to allow 2 hours for the return walk. Vigilant bird watchers will be rewarded with rate glimpses of the white-throated grass wren.
- Ubirr at Sunset: In addition to the easy walking track, there’s a more strenuous 250 meter climb to view Ubirr from a rocky outlook. Time your walk to arrive near sunset for a vista you will never forget.
Facilities and Accommodation
A visit to Kakadu is best started at the Bowali Visitor Centre near Jabiru. Here visitors can orientate themselves, check on road closings, and receive assistance planning an itinerary. Though most visitors prefer the dry months (May to September), there is always something to see here, and visiting during different seasons is a good way to fully appreciate the park.
Lodgings and campgrounds are available at various sites within the park. As one moves away from the hub if Jibaru, amenities and restaurants become harder to find. Visitors who plan to camp for several days should stop in Darwin first to stock up on provisions. Even more crucial than food is drinking water. It is not common throughout the park, so campers and hikers should make sure they bring an adequate water supply with them.