There is one place in the world where you can see six seasons transform the land in an endless cycle of change and renewal. One place you can witness a biological wonderland teeming with life like nowhere else, one place where a million birds can all take flight in a living cloud of colour and reptiles and mammals of all shapes and sizes patrol the waterways and roam the woodlands. One place where you can stand on the edge of a cliff that stretches for 500 kilometres and it feels like you’re standing on the edge of the world. One place where you can read 20,000 year old stories on 200 million year old rocks. That one place is Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory of Australia.
Located in the tropical Top End of the Northern Territory, Kakadu is the largest national park in Australia, comprising nearly 20,000 square kilometres of pristine wildlife habitats and landscapes. Kakadu is one of the most biologically, ecologically and geologically diverse regions anywhere on the planet, with landforms and ecoregions that range from the coastal beaches and mangrove-fringed estuaries of the Arafura Sea, to open savannah flood plains, upland woods, monsoon rainforests, on up to the high plateau “stone country” of the 500 kilometre long Arnhem Land escarpment.
This natural diversity combined with six dramatic seasonal climate variations makes Kakadu a virtual living tapestry of wonder, one that offers something new to the visitor with each changing season and makes returning again and again an enriching experience. The Aboriginal traditional owners of the land, the Bininj/Mungguy people, identify six distinct seasons that drive the pace of life in Kakadu:
The Six Season of Kakadu
- Gunumeleng (October-December) is characterised by increasing heat and humidity in the build up to monsoon season. Afternoon thunderstorms begin to refill the billabongs and new growth begins to tinge the dry ground with green.
- Gudjewg (January-February) is the height of The Wet, a time of heavy rains and flooding. High heat and humidity causes an explosion of plant and animal life. Magpie geese nest in the sedge.
- Banggereng (March) is nicknamed “knock ‘em down storms” for the violent thunderstorms and high winds that can flatten vegetation. Most plants are in fruit and the animals look after their young.
- Yegge (April-May) brings morning mists over the plains, cooler weather and drying winds signal the time to start “burns” that clear patches of bush and encourage new growth for grazing animals. These burns are also insurance against more destructive fires during the hotter months.
- Wurreng (June-July) is the height of the Dry. This is the coolest time of year when most visitors come to Kakadu. The floodplains dry out and the creeks cease flowing, forming the famous billabongs that are now crowded with a myriad of water birds.
- Gurrung (August-September) is windless with steadily growing heat. The land and lifescape seems to pause and lie dormant as the thunderheads begin to build in the afternoons, anticipating the return of Gunumeleng.
No matter what time of year Kakadu is visited, the secret is to take the time to appreciate the place in all its various aspects. The Wet is the time to take an airboat tour of the vast wetlands with their teeming populations of birds and aquatic life, or to book a boat, raft or canoe tour on one of Kakadu’s many rivers; while the Dry is the best time to go for a guided walkabout or a four-wheel drive tour to appreciate the dramatic landscapes.
The Cultural Legacy of Kakadu
Kakadu is one of only a handful of UNESCO World Heritage sites so listed not only for its natural wonders, but also for its cultural significance. Kakadu is home to a living Aboriginal culture that has existed for thousands of years, and archaeological evidence indicates that the area has been continuously inhabited for as long as 50,000 years, making the Aboriginal traditional owners of these lands the oldest extant living culture in the entire world.
The park has the highest concentration of Aboriginal rock art in all of Australia. Over 5,000 Aboriginal sites have been identified within the park; including hundreds of rock art galleries that are renowned the world over and a major attraction for the park. Sites like Ubirr in Kakadu’s northeast feature paintings of the animals that were hunted thousands of years ago, some of them now extinct. Other paintings at this site record the first contact with “whitefellas,” thought to be buffalo hunters of the 1880s.
At another site nearby to Ubirr is found the gallery containing paintings that have been definitively dated through scrapings of their pigments as being at least 23,000 years old. Other famous rock art sites within Kakadu are Nourlangie Rock, Anbangang and Nanguluwu. Taking a Rock Art Tour with the help of a local Aboriginal park guide who is well versed in the meanings and stories behind the legendary pictures is the best way to experience the cultural significance of this vast trove of artwork.
Kakadu Park Information
Kakadu National Park is open to visitors all year round. The heaviest time for visitors is during The Dry, between April and October, when about 200,000 people visit the park. The place to start is at the Bowali Visitor Information Centre, where staff can provide detailed information about accommodations, tours and park attractions to help plan a visit. There are also regular audio-visual presentations, displays and a library to assist visitors in learning how much there is to see and do in Kakadu.
As a living cultural landscape, Kakadu offers the visitor a unique opportunity to experience not only the natural wonder and grandeur of this amazing land, but also the richness of the traditions and life ways of Australia’s first peoples. The Bininj/Mungguy people are the Aboriginal traditional owners of Kakadu who joint manage the park with the government Parks Service, and are committed to preserving their culture and their land and sharing it with the world.