Kakadu National Park - a Top End treasure
November 8, 2018 • Tegan and Leigh Davey
7 min read
Kakadu National Park is 20,000 square kilometres of Heritage Listed land with terrain as diverse as the abundant wildlife within. From wetlands, rocky escarpments, rivers and cascading waterfalls, the adventures to be had are wide and varied. The land is home to the Bininj/Mungguy people who have lived on and cared for this country for more than 65,000 years making them the oldest civilisation on earth.
Kakadu seems to be a dividing destination amongst travellers. Those that immerse themselves in the park’s rich culture and natural wonders speak of it being a humbling and spiritual experience. And then there are those who simply see the park as a money grab, with attractions spread too far and requiring too much effort to get to.
We spent five days exploring the area, not quite long enough to see everything but certainly enough for us to proclaim it one of our favourite destinations to date.
Kakadu is an easy three-hour drive southeast of Darwin. A parks pass is required for entry and can be purchased at selected locations or online. If you choose the latter we suggest you do so prior to arriving, as phone coverage is a bit sketchy. The prices of the pass vary depending on the season and are valid for seven days with an option to extend by another week at no charge. To give you an example, our family pass cost $100.
Now a lot of people complain about this cost, so it’s important to know where your cash is going. Not only are you supporting Kakadu’s traditional owners who the land is leased from, plus covering the cost of the park rangers, visitor information centres and walking tracks, but your hard earned cash is also working to preserve these important World Heritage listed sites so future generations can enjoy them too. And in our opinion, that’s worth every cent!
The most popular time to visit is during the dry season between May to October. However, the tropical summer (November to April) offers spectacular storms, lush green landscapes and thundering waterfalls.
There’s a variety of accommodation options available throughout the park including low-cost camping, caravan parks, resorts and nearby roadhouses. We stayed at Kakadu Lodge in Jabiru for three nights while we explored the top end and then moved further south to the Mary River Roadhouse so we could easily access the lower section and reduce the amount of driving time.
Speaking of driving, we found all the roads to be very accessible and only a few required 4wd for corrugations and some rocky sections. But like all roads, it pays to check with the visitor centre for current conditions if you are inexperienced or unsure of your vehicle’s capabilities.
Ubirr has some of the world’s best rock art and is one of the reasons for Kakadu’s dual World Heritage status. The intricate x-ray paintings depicting food and inhabitants are simply amazing and the volume and quality of the paintings had me wondering how you could experience this area and not be awestruck.
We jumped on a guided ranger tour, which was a great way to learn more about the area and give a greater appreciation for the site. The 1km walking track takes you past the rock art sites before a 250m climb to a rocky lookout offering 360-degree views of Arnhem Land and the Nadab floodplain. Watching a sunset here as the sun casts a hundred colours across the land is an absolute must!
Gunlom Waterfall Creek
Remember that scene from Crocodile Dundee where Mick spears the barramundi and cooks some bush tucker… well, that was Gunlom! A steep and rocky 2km return walk takes you to a lookout and a series of gorgeous clear rock pools high on the escarpment where you can swim atop the waterfall and get that famous infinity pool photo! The views out over Gunlom of the southern hills and ridges were well worth the hike up and our little explorers easily completed the walk. There is also a short walk at the bottom that leads you to the pool at the base of the falls. Swim here with caution though as crocs are common. There is a well-equipped campground at Gunlom, too.
The only road access point between Kakadu and Arnhem Land just happens to be on the notorious tidal river crossing of the East Alligator River. On our visit, the dangers of the high and fast flowing water levels were evident in the two overturned vehicles left abandoned along the causeway.
A visit here to watch the prolific population of saltwater crocs lurking in the water as they wait for the incoming tide to bring them a barra dinner, and the drivers who dare to make the dash, is a Kakadu rite of passage. Simply bring a chair and take a front row seat for the show. Make sure you time your visit to coincide with a tide change, as it was amazing to see the water stop dead and change direction. If you’re a keen angler, throw in a line and see if you can steal a barramundi from the crocs! We watched many unsuccessful tourists fail while the Aboriginal locals fishing from the other side ankle deep in water reeled in plenty of fish.
For tens of thousands of years, the Aboriginal people called Nouralangie home for the wet season, painting their stories on the walls of large rock shelters to pass on to younger generations. The paintings are up to 20,000 years old, which makes the artwork one of the longest historical records of any group of people on Earth, as well as being one of the world’s greatest concentrations of rock art. This is one site where I strongly suggest you make the most of the guided ranger tour as the talk was fascinating and easily held the attention of our two little ones. The 1.5km circular walk did contain some rocky sections, so come prepared with suitable walking shoes.
I highly recommend a visit to both the Bowali Visitor Centre and the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre. Both offered informative and engaging displays on the Indigenous culture, animals and plants as well as beautiful galleries and shops.
Don’t go past the opportunity to partake in a cultural workshop when on offer! At Warradjan we sat captivated as we watched a group of local men painting traditional x-ray pieces and then sat under the shade of trees with some lovely local women to learn all about the weaving process including making some bracelets of our own. A truly unique experience for our children who got the chance to make a real connection.
Maguk (Barramundi Gorge)
We can’t believe this is one of Kakadu's lesser-known attractions, it is our favourite swimming hole to date! After walking through the monsoon forest you’ll discover a pristine natural waterfall and large plunge pool surrounded by gorge walls. But don’t stop there – venture upwards for 1km to the very top and swim in the awesome clear, deep water holes while taking in the view! There was hardly anyone up top compared to the crowds below, too. Absolute bliss! You’ll need a 4WD to access Maguk as the road it can get a little rough, and if you’re keen to stay there are bush campsites available.