In Kakadu National Park the steamy fecundity of nature surrounds you. The sound of birdsong floats above the heat. A flight of black cockatoos swoops overhead, their red tails flashing.
In the campsite a sulphur-crested parrot attacks the brilliant red seed heads of a Pandanus tree. Just after sunrise on Yellow Water billabong an exquisite blue kingfisher alights on a paperbark tree and is reflected in the lily-studded water.
Somewhere nearby a four-metre prehistoric monster lurks under the trailing roots of freshwater mangroves. In these vast wetlands the Estuarine or Saltwater crocodile is king. Highly effective, opportunistic killers, they are always looking for food, love or a fight, and quite clearly at the head of the food chain here.
From watching the glorious sunset over Arnhem Land at the high point of Ubirr, to bathing in limpid waterholes at Gunlom Falls, Kakadu is wildly beautiful and my favourite experience from travelling in Australia. Of course it is on the Unesco World Heritage Sites list.
There are vast flood plains and woodland savannah, broken only by the harsh, stone country escarpments – great outcrops of red stone that brood over the landscape. In the middle of the day the sun beats down and you have to head for a cool waterhole. At night the dingoes howl and the brilliant stars fill the sky.
Things to do in Kakadu
First stop out of Darwin was the Bark Hut Inn, an example of an outback service station with a breeze block concrete pub and store. A shiver went down my spine as we crossed a bridge and saw a crocodile swimming upriver.
Then it was into the National Park proper and the Mamukala wetlands. There is an extensive observation platform here and the views out over the water-lily-strewn wetlands are nothing short of serenely beautiful. There is a three kilometre walk that gives a wonderful glimpse into the natural environment here.
Camping at Jabiru was fun – this is a big campground with a lovely swimming pool and some food facilities, although we cooked our own food. From Jabiru it was easy to head out to see the sunset at Ubirr.
My cousin who lives in Darwin recommended Gagudju Dreaming, an eco-certified tourism operator that runs the excellent Warradjan Cultural Centre and the famous Yellow Water Cruises. The sunrise boat tour on the Yellow Water billabong was one my highlights in Kakadu. A friendly, informative boat captain who was respectful of this special environment, and of course visuals that took my breath away. Gagudju also run various adventure activities and have accommodation at Yellow Water.
As well as the unique landscape, Kakadu is home to one of the world’s oldest continuous living cultures – aboriginal peoples who have an intense relationship to the land that is both spiritual and practical. I saw, and was inspired by, the rock art galleries at Nourlangie and Ubirr, which are truly a testament to millennia of rich human culture in this place. It was a privilege to be able to visit and share Kakadu with them.
Next stop was camping at Gunlom Falls and this was magic – swimming in the pool at the bottom of the falls and climbing up to the top of the falls to swim in the ‘infinity pool’ and splash about above the waterfall.
I also went up at sunset and the light and colours reflected in the pools above Gunlom was truly unforgettable.
Our final stop before Pine Creek and the Stuart Highway to Darwin was at Bukbukluk for a picnic lunch. Again the birdsong is incredible here, right in the midst of the woodland savannah. After that there was just time for a crocodile burger and a cold beer at the Humpty Doo Outback Pub before returning to Darwin.
When to visit Kakadu
The time of year you visit makes all the difference in terms of what you will see in Kakadu. If you come in the wet season most of the park is underwater and off limits while torrential rain falls. But there are incredible electrical storms. As the water levels drop at the end of “the wet” over 280 species of birds begin to arrive. Noisy Magpie geese, striding Jabiru and Brolgas, and Whistling Kites all come for the rich feeding opportunities of the billabongs.
I think the best times are the shoulder seasons, when it is less hot but unlikely to rain, and the campgrounds are not crowded. I chose to visit Kakadu near the beginning of the dry season in April but if I had waited until late August or September I would have seen vastly more birdlife and wildlife. And I would have been able to access the two most spectacular waterfalls in Kakadu – Jim Jim and Twin Falls. On the other hand I wanted Kakadu to be lushly green, and later in the season the sunrise cruise on the Yellow Water billabong would not have been so very limpid and the waterlilies not so entirely exquisite.
How to visit Kakadu
I spent four days in Kakadu and we hired a Landcruiser 4WD vehicle with camping equipment included, although I saw camper vans and even regular 2WD vehicles in the park while I was there. Remember that it is illegal to drink alcohol in public areas in the park – the Northern Territory has strict rules on alcohol that are for the benefit of all. It’s ok to bring some beers and drink them in private.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you been to Kakadu National Park? Tell me about your experience!
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