At Yellow Water at first light, I stretch in the cool of pandanus palms, resting my gaze on an enormous crocodile lazing a safe distance below on the billabong’s edge. It’s Gurrung season in Kakadu National Park, the hot, dry pause between winter and the wet, when ever-shrinking wetlands bring the north’s abundant wildlife into clear view.
As glossy jabirus line up alongside elegant egrets patrolling the shallows, great flocks of magpie geese circle overhead and, beyond, on distant floodplains, brolgas, brumbies and buffalo graze. This wondrous scene pulls at my attention, which eventually returns to that solitary saltie on the mudflats, waiting patiently for the sun.
As I tune into the pulse of the bush below, it’s impossible to ignore the immense energy of this deeply meditative place, resonating off Nourlangie’s sheer escarpment.
Startling me with kaleidoscopic natural scenes, Kakadu’s 20,000 square kilometres of sandstone escarpments, swamps, savannah woodlands and wetlands support a stunning diversity of plant and animal life, unseen elsewhere in the country. But what boggles the mind is all the ways you can experience Australia’s largest and best-known national park, packing my itinerary with bushwalks, boat cruises and 4WD adventures.
There’s thousand-year-old rock art to discover, hidden plunge pools atop sheer-drop waterfalls and great opportunities to delve into the culture of Kakadu’s traditional owners, the Bininj/Mungguy, whose deep, spiritual connection to this region dates back 50,000 years.
Painting the scene
Around 5000 Aboriginal cultural sites have been identified in Kakadu National Park, its outdoor canvases crowded with one of the highest concentrations of rock art in the world. Popular galleries at Ubirr and Nourlangie Rock are the easiest to access, particularly Anbangbang Gallery at the base of Nourlangie Rock.
Dominating this gallery are the famous, much-photographed figures of Namarrgon the Lightning Man and Nabulwinjbulwinj, a dangerous spirit who eats females after striking them with a yam. Badmardi elder Nayombolmi (known as Barramundi Charlie) repainted both artworks in 1964 because they were considered at risk of fading away.
I join a free walking tour that follows a 1.5km-long circuit trail around Anbangbang at a leisurely pace, led by a park ranger whose insight helps interpret the mythical creation scenes before me. Afterwards, with sunset approaching, I scale the enormous granite slabs that lead to nearby Nawurlandja Lookout to watch the northern sun’s seductive play of light across the landscape. As I tune into the pulse of the bush below, it’s impossible to ignore the immense energy of this deeply meditative place, resonating off Nourlangie’s sheer escarpment.
“I’ve eaten buffalo and geese all my life,” he tells me. “It’s a good way to cook for a lot of people. It’s good tucker, mate.”
About 70km away where the East Alligator River snakes a boundary between Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land, I’m lured to Ubirr’s famous cluster of rock shelters and overhangs that harbour some of the finest and best-preserved art in the park. Timeframes overlap here: from the Contact Art depiction of a pipe-smoking white fella with his hands in his trousers, probably an 1880s-era buffalo hunter, to the freshwater period’s X-ray style paintings of barramundi, catfish, goanna, turtles and wallabies painted up to 1500 years ago, and the simple red ochre thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), still vivid thousands of years after its extinction from the Australian mainland.
Down by the river where 4WD vehicles stir up the turbid water at Cahills Crossing, Ubirr’s bush-tucker rock art comes to life and I watch a dozen enormous estuarine crocodiles slithering down the sunny banks to snap at unsuspecting barramundi. Tourists and locals alike stop to stare and anglers join the action, too, casting lines and creating a mad scene as they compete with the crocs for their share of the East Alligator’s bounty.
Upstream, where tourists board Guluyambi boat cruises to escape the midday heat, the Bardedjilidji Sandstone Walk weaves past dramatically sculpted 1500-million-year-old sandstone outliers, caves and cliffs. Setting out along what easily rates as one of Kakadu’s most fascinating short walks, I listen for the whir of chestnut-quilled rock pigeons taking flight, a species endemic to the park, and crane my neck to discover remarkable rock art adorning impossibly high walls.
Collectively, Kakadu’s rock-art galleries represent one of the longest historical records of any people anywhere in the world. For visitors, their presence transforms Kakadu’s extraordinary wild places into sacred ground, amplifying each day’s discoveries and arousing curiosity in the region’s ancient, still-thriving traditional indigenous culture.
Whatever brings you to Kakadu, be it wildlife watching, bushwalking, fishing or four-wheel driving, there’s a long list of indigenous-led tours to pack out your holiday itinerary.
You could spend a morning trekking with a traditional owner, gathering bush tucker and plant medicines before learning how to prepare a ground-oven feast. There are sunset boat cruises, overnight campouts and scenic flights that reveal new perspectives on the park, while interpretive displays at Bowali Visitor Centre and the excellent Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre help synthesise your Kakadu experience.
Then there are the festivals.
In Kakadu’s northeast we join Jabiru locals celebrating the Mahbilil Festival: harvest time for the magpie geese that have grown fat and heavy on the oily bulbs of eleocharis grass. Here I meet Fred Hunter from Kakadu Culture Camp as he carefully prepares the festival feast, a traditional ground oven packed tight with big chunks of bright red buffalo meat, two whole plucked magpie geese, countless parcels of sweet potato and, on top, layers of paperbark and melaleuca leaves for flavouring.
There is so much diversity within Kakadu’s immense boundaries you’d need a month or more of exploring to really map it all out.
In filling the pit with soil, Hunter takes great care to cover the holes where smoke is rising, ensuring the meat will be perfectly steamed after five hours underground. “I’ve eaten buffalo and geese all my life,” he tells me. “It’s a good way to cook for a lot of people. It’s good tucker, mate.”
Having just spent the morning spotting magpie geese with my binoculars, I take my vegetarian tastebuds to the juice bar and, afterwards, giggle at the dozens of kids — all shades of skin colour — throwing and retrieving their wayward boomerangs and stick spears from the long grass. As I breeze around the market stalls, I see fellow travellers sitting cross-legged alongside indigenous women who patiently share the secrets of their weaving expertise while, metres away, a pint-sized hip-hop singer is belting out beats from a stage.
When Mahbilil’s lively and laidback festival winds down, I retreat to Kakadu’s less-travelled southern fringe in search of solitude and some starry, starry nights.
Above the falls
Bound for Maguk and a secluded bush camp deep within Buladjang, or Sickness Country, I navigate my 4WD 12km off Kakadu Highway along a dusty, corrugated track. At road’s end I continue on foot, strolling through monsoon forest beside a cool, sandy creek and leapfrogging over rocky slabs until I reach the deep, rocky waterhole beneath Maguk’s ever-flowing falls.
Irresistible and spectacular, this is the hidden oasis I’ve been told would satisfy all my tropical dreams — and, thankfully, crocodile-free. I plunge straight in, paddling across the pool to float under the fall’s invigorating flow, then hauling out to warm up on hot rock slabs. Swimmers splashing about high above lure me up a rocky trail that in 10 minutes elevates me above the falls to where a cool cascade fills a string of bubbling spas.
Exploring upstream, I swim through a narrow rock chasm and discover the solitude I need, floating motionless, eyes closed, face warmed by the sun, my feet and hands bumping softly against cold, smooth rock. When the sun disappears from view, I make my retreat, retracing my steps back to Kakadu Highway and turning south once more for a night camped at Gunlom. Nestled beneath a steep rockface on Waterfall Creek, Gunlom’s waterhole is a reliable, year-round swimming spot: deep, icy and easy to reach (no sweaty hike required).
After a sound night’s sleep I emerge from my little tent before the sun rises, keen to welcome the day and scale the kilometre-long track that climbs above Gunlom Waterfall. The viewpoint is all my own at this early hour, so I easily dip into a restful state and salute the sun long before it catches up with me. Far below, Gunlom’s chilly pool beckons and within minutes I’m floating again, cooling my heels in the waterhole, another full day of Kakadu adventures ahead of me.
There is so much diversity within Kakadu’s immense boundaries you’d need a month or more of exploring to really map it all out. Between the dry ridges to the south and the tidal mangrove flats at the sea, pockets of monsoon forest surround waterfalls and creeks and savannah woodlands of eucalypts and speargrass support Kakadu’s greatest variety of flora and fauna.
Lotus flowers bloom on tranquil billabongs, attracting waterbirds and camouflaging the crocodiles that patiently stake out wildlife amongst the paperbark trunks. A quarter of Australia’s freshwater and estuarine fish species inhabit Kakadu, which also provides refuge for rare and endemic creatures, over 2000 plant species and a third of the country’s bird species. An abundance of these gather at Yellow Water Billabong where you can take a stroll along elevated boardwalks or watch the natural world at play aboard a guided boat cruise.
Close by, the Indigenous-owned Gagudju Lodge Cooinda provides convenient, comfortable rooms, as does the slightly more upmarket Kakadu Crocodile Hotel at Jabiru in the park’s north where, if you take them, kids stay and eat for free. To overnight in truly indulgent style you’ll need to look outside the park: Wildman Wilderness Lodge and Bamurru Plains offer packages unlikely to disappoint.
To really reconnect with the landscape, you might choose to bed down around a campfire and enjoy the convivial fun of a fully guided camping tour — or throw your own camping kit together, hire a 4WD in Darwin and discover Kakadu in solitude and at your own easy pace.
Know before you go
- Escape routes
Most travellers visit Kakadu during the cool, dry season (April to September). Adults pay AU$25 park entry fee (kids under 16 years and NT residents are free). For touring information, visit parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu.
- Be crocwise
Saltwater or estuarine crocodiles are found in waterways throughout Kakadu National Park. Two deadly attacks occurred in 2014 so visitors should be wary, always obey signage posted around waterways and, if in doubt, stay out of the water.
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