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Gunbim Galleries in Kakadu

The sheer size of Kakadu’s renowned natural reserves is truly mind- boggling, and you won’t fully appreciate it until you embark on a trail, explore the overhangs and immerse yourself in the places that bear witness to thousands of years of life. In this article, we showcase the top Indigenous galleries in Kakadu and the fantastic brief hikes that take you there.

Awander here helps to fill in some of the blanks, weaving the threads of my sublime natural experiences into a larger, more meaningful picture of all that this destination truly is.

The carpark is empty when we hit the trail, climbing gently above a gully of Darwin woollybutt trees still dusted with early morning mist. Anbangbang’s sweeping rock art galleries tug for my attention, but I’m chasing the rising sun — and my daughter too — towards Gunwarddehwarde Lookout, high above on the escarpment edge. The heady, honeyed scent of fern-leaved grevilleas hangs potently in the air, and treading softly, a black wallaroo and I startle each other around a bend. Finally, we are standing atop the rocky bluff known as Burrungkuy and peering out across Kakadu’s rugged stone country as the sun warms the sky.

Beyond this viewpoint, the Barrk Sandstone Walk sets a surprisingly lonely six-hour-long challenge, looping past the sculpted Enchanted Castles and Balancing Rock to remote, rarely visited Nanguluwurr (Narng-oo-loo-war) Gallery. This site safeguards intricate Dynamic Style art of powerful ancestral beings, dating back to around 15,000 BP (before present, which means 15,000 years before the arrival of carbon dating in 1950). There are animal X-ray motifs from the Estuarine Period of Indigenous art (around 8000 BP) and the most recent, 200-year-old Contact Art from the Freshwater Period that depict distinctly European-style sailing ships.

Nanguluwurr’s ancient meeting place rewards determined hikers with certain solitude and a cool pause before the return loop back to Anbangbang (Arn-barng-barng) Gallery. Here, crowds gather for ranger-led storytelling tours about Namarrgon the Lightning Man, who ignites Gunumeleng’s pre- monsoon storm season, and the dangerous spirit Nabulwinjbulwinj who strikes females with a yam and then eats them.

The frescoes are colourful and vivid thanks to some skilful retouching by Badmardi elder Nayombolmi (known as Barramundi Charlie), which shifts the artworks’ sacredness to the storytelling that endures. Nayombolmi’s work at Anbangbang in 1964 ended the last intensive period of rock art painting in Kakadu, when Indigenous artists shifted to more portable canvases such as cloth, canvas and bark.

Looking on, it’s easy to imagine the gatherings that might have created such incredible canvases: the hands dipped in ochre, the foraged and hunted food roasted on hot coals and recorded on rock, and the starry night musings of people deeply connected to their country for more than 65,000 years.

Rock around Ubirr

Just beyond the trailhead, we throw ourselves down on the grassy, paperbark-shaded fringe of Anbangbang Billabong, and devour our picnic as radjah shelducks dip and dive around the lily-covered lagoon. White egrets stalk fish in the shallows and magpie geese take flight against some unseen danger, looping in a languid swirl overhead. I pull out a map and we make some plans, then drive due north to the edge of the East Alligator River for crocodile spotting and rock art wanders.

In all, around 5000 cultural sites belonging to the Bininj and Mungguy First Nation peoples have been identified in Kakadu National Park. Together they showcase one of the longest historical occupations of any people, anywhere in the world. Moreover, Kakadu’s alfresco art galleries rate as the most concentrated of any in the world, and there’s no better or easier place to see them than at Ubirr.

After layering on sunscreen against the blazing wintertime sun, we join an eager rush of hikers on Ubirr’s easy, kilometre-long path. Some move swiftly from gallery to gallery, clicking and ticking before hurrying on. Others sit in silence, soaking up the inextricable energy of this deeply meditative place that transforms one of Kakadu’s most extraordinary wild places into utterly sacred ground.

Crowded with a thousand years of ochre storytelling, Ubirr’s decorated overhangs preserve a mystical history, but what gets archaeologists excited are the time frames that overlap here. At Main Gallery I spy a Contact Period depiction of a pipe-smoking whitefella, a 1880s-era buffalo hunter perhaps, with his hands in his trouser pockets. Freshwater Period X-ray style paintings considered some of the finest in the world reveal the kinds of bush tucker easily pulled from the nearby East Alligator River — barramundi, catfish, goanna, turtles and wallabies — painted up to 1500 years ago. But I’m struck most by a red ochre thylacine, painted high on the wall and still distinct, thousands of years after its extinction from the Australian mainland.

The coloured canvases at Main Gallery, Mabuyu, Namarrkan Sisters and Rainbow Serpent are all surprisingly vibrant, layered with contrasting motifs sometimes painted thousands of years apart. Pigments might be yellow (from limonite or goethite), white (from kaolin or huntite), black (manganese oxide) and the predominant, enduring, iron-rich red, some gathered locally or traded with distant tribes from the ochre-rich Red Centre. Typically these pigments were crushed on site, so eagle eyes might spot small, hollowed depressions in the rock slabs around Kakadu’s galleries.

If you reach Ubirr in that golden hour before sunset, make the rocky 250-metre climb to Nadab Lookout for vast, vibrant views across the floodplains. Over the peak winter months Ubirr opens from 8.30am until sunset, and if camping is part of your adventure, nearby Merl Campground is conveniently located with much-needed hot showers and private camping bays for $15 per person (half-price for kids).

The barramundi hunt

Down by the East Alligator River when the tide ebbs away downstream, 4WD travellers cross between Kakadu and Arnhem Land, traversing the low-slung concrete causeway at Cahills Crossing and stirring the muddy waters. The retreating water creates perfect hunting conditions, trapping barramundi on the upper side of the causeway and luring enormous estuarine crocodiles to haul out, warm up and spar for their share of the barramundi bounty.

This impressive spectacle rightly lures a crowd, and few other Top End locations bring estuarine crocodiles into such clear, close view. Anglers join the hunt too, gingerly casting from the causeway in murky, ankle- deep water, while far more sane travellers choose higher, drier ground for their shady riverside picnics.

Upstream, small-group boat tours with Guluyambi Cultural Cruise explore a rarely seen section of the river, and the Bardedjilidji Sandstone Walk weaves past dramatically sculpted 1500-million-year-old sandstone cliffs and art-filled caves. This is easily one of Kakadu’s best short walks, but we time it wrong and it’s hot as hell. The only other creatures braving the heat are the guilododo — chestnut-quilled rock pigeons — that whirr loudly into flight, so we seek out the shade of a sandstone fig tree and take in the rocky surrounds.

We find a small trackside cave adorned with rock motifs, and spy a hidden art scene, out of reach on a lofty ledge, that makes sacred one of the remaining outliers of the ancient Arnhem Plateau. Corkscrew woodland pandanus reach for the sky, and dark streams of wax on the cliffs betray the hives of native bees, magically conjuring up the “sugar bag” honey that Bininj foragers crave. This easy wander takes less than an hour, so there’s time to retreat to Cooinda Lodge to cool these hot heels poolside.

We are mere minutes away from enjoying chilly beers when I impulsively pull into Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre. It’s not for the air conditioning, or the chance to blow some holiday spending money on traditional Bininj/Mungguy cloths and artwork, but for the questions still swirling around my head. A wander here helps to fill in some of the blanks, weaving the threads of my sublime natural experiences into a larger, more meaningful picture of all that this destination truly is.

Wake up by a billabong

Scenically perched on the edge of Yellow Water Billabong, Cooinda Lodge endures as a popular place to stay, with a baffling choice of rooms, luxury safari tents and campsites for all budgets. Over the years I’ve tried a lot of what’s on offer and consider it a solid choice for post-hike, poolside beers and fresh-cooked meals, and for its unbeatable location for boat cruises, right in the heart of the national park.

The popularity of Yellow Water’s sunrise cruises are an indication that they are right on the money, showcasing what it really feels like to watch a tropical Australian wetland and its wild things wake up. Blooming lotus flowers camouflage the crocodiles, attracting jabirus and brolgas, white-bellied sea eagles, and rainbow bee-eaters and bright azure kingfishers that feed on the wing. Wallabies emerge from beneath the paperbarks to sip nervously at the water’s edge, and wayward buffalos graze the grasslands beyond.

Most people visit Kakadu during the May to September dry season when the floodwaters have retreated and all roads and attractions are open. Shrinking waterholes bring animals and birds into conveniently close view, but the mild weather spells the time when crowds swell and room prices spike. My favourite time to visit is just as the wet season ends, for the chance to see waterfalls in full, thundering flow. You tread a fine line booking a trip at this time. Sudden late rains can flood roads and close access, but that just gives you an excuse to board a scenic flight and watch a big wet purging itself over the escarpment edge of Jim Jim and Twin Falls.

For its sheer size, kaleidoscopic natural diversity and the cultural experiences that will engage you, it’s pretty difficult to outrank a destination as vast and impressive as Kakadu. To stand beneath its tremendous sheer-drop waterfalls, float in its lofty rock pools, completely hidden from sight, and to watch wild things feeding on crocodile-filled billabongs are distinctly Top End experiences you’ll discover only in Kakadu. But more than memories, this place stirs deep, reverberating connections to nature, and these feel- good vibes endure long after the holiday is over.

Escape routes

Go Kakadu National Park is located 250km southeast of Darwin via sealed roads. Some destinations within the park are restricted to 4WD vehicles.

Visit Kakadu is at its best during the cool, dry season months (May to September). Arrive after the last of the wet season rains (April to May) to see Kakadu’s waterfalls in spectacular flow.

Stay Close to Yellow Water Billabong, book an Outback Retreat Villa at Cooinda Lodge from $409/night (peak season). Back-to-nature campsites at Ubirr’s Merl Campground, Djarradjin/Muirella Park (close to Burrungkuy/Nourlangie Rock) and Mardukal Camp (for Yellow Water exploring) cost $15/adult and $7.50/child.

Pack Hiking shoes, a hat, swimwear, a refillable water bottle, natural mosquito repellent and waterhole-friendly sunscreen.

Park fees During the May–October peak season, entry costs $40/adult, $20/child, $100/ family and $30 for concessions (valid 7 days, free for NT residents). Prices drop as temperatures and the rainfall increases, and from November to mid-May, entry costs $25/adult, $12.50/child, $19/ concessions and $65/family.

Be croc-wise Estuarine crocodiles are found throughout Kakadu, so obey signage and if in doubt, stay out of the water.

More information

Plan your trip and make bookings at parksaustralia.gov.au

Photography by David Bristow

Article Featured in WellBeing 208

Catherine Lawson

Catherine Lawson

Journalist, editor, author and adventurer Catherine Lawson travels full-time with photographer-partner David Bristow and their 5-year-old daughter Maya. Captivated by wild places and passionate about their preservation, these storytellers advocate a simple life and document their outdoor adventures to inspire all travellers, but especially families, into the world’s best wild places.

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