Some people disparagingly call it Kaka-don’t, but if you take the time to truly explore this vast region, you will soon see that it is, indeed, Kakadu.
It is tucked between the boundaries of eastern Arnhem Land and northern Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) National Park. Numerous creeks bubble up from the plateau and run out of energy before reaching the sea, while rivers like the East Alligator, South Alligator, West Alligator and Wildman snake their way without hesitation into Van Diemen Gulf.
During the Wet, these waterways flood and turn Kakadu into a ravishing wetland bursting with wildlife.
The park covers 20,000 square kilometres and can easily take a week or more to explore (a park pass is for seven days, extendable to 14 days at no extra charge). Free ranger-guided activities are on offer, as well as guided tours. The more you immerse yourself in the Kakadu experience, the more you will enjoy it.
Because the park is so large, planning is a must: the park’s booklet is packed with all the information you need to have a great experience (hard copies are available in the park).
Kakadu is divided into seven regions, each with camping. It can be worth moving camp once or twice so that you don’t spend as much time driving back and forth.
The dry season is April through October; the Wet is from November through March. If you are travelling on unsealed/4WD roads, or around the Wet, be sure to check on road conditions/advisories before heading into the park. There are several caravan parks; the national park campgrounds are first-come first-served with varying facilities and fees collected on site.
Assuming an approach from the north-west via the Arnhem Highway, a few stops along the way are worthwhile as the birdlife is astonishing, particularly at the Fogg Dam Conservation Area. If time allows, a few nights in the Mary River National Park area is worthwhile, with the Corroboree Billabong Wetland Cruise being a highlight. Don’t count on getting fuel at Bark Hut Inn because it is currently closed.
However, for closer access to both the Jabiru and East Alligator River regions, the Kakadu Lodge & Caravan Park is a perfect base camp in Jabiru. There is also the Anbinik Kakadu Resort; however, with only 15 caravan sites, you must book early and most certainly before you arrive.
The Bowali Visitor Centre is a must: if you want any information on the park, this is the place to go with rangers in attendance to answer all questions.
Jabiru is set to receive substantial government funding for its transition to a post-mining town, as is the entire park to improve tourist facilities and infrastructure. If you do opt for a base in Jabiru, then make sure you take a ride back to the Mamukala Wetlands, especially at dusk (but watch for wildlife on the road on the way home).
EAST ALLIGATOR REGION
Visiting Kakadu and not going to the East Alligator region would be nothing short of a sin. It is easily accessible from Jabiru, or if you prefer bush-camping (with basic facilities), the Merl campground is on offer in this region.
Kakadu’s rock art is prolific, with as many as 1000 sites across the entire park; however, only three are open to the public, including the magnificent Ubirr. The main panel here depicts many of the animals in the region, along with beings that played important roles in creation stories. The ranger talks here are revealing and fascinating.
As you wander higher to the Nadab Lookout, be sure to peer under rock overhangs for more artwork. At the lookout, you can gaze over the floodplain into Arnhem Land; the sunsets from here are breathtaking. On the way back to the parking lot, don’t miss the Rainbow Serpent gallery.
Also in the East Alligator region are a number of pleasant walks, along with a visit to Cahills Crossing where you might spot a saltwater crocodile (always be croc-wise in Kakadu, especially at Cahills). You might also spot a vehicle that didn’t make it across to Arnhem Land; the river is tidal and if you should venture over, be very aware of your timing.
The Guluyambi Cultural Cruise on the river is most worthwhile and a tour you won’t soon forget.
A walk around the Burrungkuy rock art gallery is yet another must, and the climb up to the Nawurlandja Lookout provides an expansive view of the escarpment.
The Anbangbang Billabong walk is very pleasant but is best done in the morning or afternoon when it isn’t as hot.
The Nanguluwurr Gallery walk leads to a lovely art site with some fascinating paintings, but the 4km (return) walk through the scrub can be very hot in the middle of the day (take water).
YELLOW WATERS REGION
The Yellow Waters region, which includes Cooinda, is 20km further. Cooinda Lodge includes a caravan park that can get very crowded during the height of the season with its swimming pool, restaurants and Yellow Waters cruises.
A quieter bush-camping option (with facilities) is Mardugal, 6km further.
The Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre is near Cooinda and provides insight into the traditional owners of Kakadu. Yellow Waters Cruises is named for the colour of the water at sunset, perhaps the best time to do the cruise. It really is not to be missed.
If you have a 4WD, you can access the Jim Jim and Twin Falls region from Cooinda (60km one-way from Kakadu Highway), or you can camp at Garnamarr with a tent or offroad camper trailer.
Twin Falls is closed through 2020 for upgrades, but Jim Jim is a perfectly rewarding experience all on its own. If you are lucky enough to camp at Garnamarr, you simply travel along a sandy 4WD track for 10km to the Jim Jim parking area, and then scramble over rocks along a path to the falls and a plunge pool (swim at your own risk). The short Budjmi Lookout Walk provides sweeping views of the outcrop.
MARY RIVER REGION
The next region (and the last along the Kakadu Highway) is Mary River (not to be confused with Mary River National Park along the Arnhem Highway).
Most of the highlights here are accessible by 4WD tracks. The easiest caravan camping is at Gungurul and Mary River Roadhouse. Maguk, with its lovely waterfall and plunge pool, can be found via a 12km 4WD track and offers tent camping. The Bukbukluk Lookout is easily visited by almost everyone.
Perhaps the most popular spot in this region is Gunlom Falls, and it is that very popularity that requires some careful timing. The 35km unsealed road to the campground can be utterly horrible on a long weekend or during holidays with locals arriving from Darwin and Katherine.
When exposed to heavy use, the road deteriorates to the point that towing a van would be foolish, and even 4WDs are in for a thorough thrashing. The traffic makes conditions even more dangerous.
Having said that, the moderately difficult hike up to the top of the falls is rewarded with an ‘infinity pool’ that demands a swim, and further up are cascades racing over and around the boulders.
It is lovely; however, save this for a mid-week visit when school holidays are not an issue.
As large as Kakadu is, it is small compared to Arnhem Land, and a cultural tour into this remote area is one of the more interesting Kakadu experiences to be had.
- Arnhemlander Cultural and Heritage 4WD Tour; this can also be combined with the Hawk Dreaming Wilderness Lodge, as can the Guluyambi Cultural Cruise mentioned earlier.
- Injalak Arts Rock Art Tours.
- If you visit Gunbalanya (Oenpelli), don’t miss the Injalak Arts & Crafts Centre. The artwork is outstanding, and the prices are excellent; you can also shop via the online store. The fabrics are particularly stunning and are available on the Etsy Injalak store with free shipping.
- Permits are required to enter Arnhem Land; there is a Northern Land Council office in Jabiru.
- For the trip of a lifetime (with a price to match), Davidson’s Arnhemland Safaris is both beautiful and intriguing. Flights are available from Jabiru or you can drive in yourself (58km from Cahills Crossing, experienced 4WDrivers only). Van and vehicle storage are available at Kakadu Lodge & Caravan Park.
- Check Cahills Crossing Tide Table before venturing into Arnhem Land.
So the next time someone says Kaka-don’t to you, don’t believe them!
– Images: Steven David Miller/Natural Wanders