What do you picture when you think of Kakadu? Me, not being particularly imaginative, conjured up images of a lush green environment with the stock standard water-lily pictures you might see in magazines, some rock painting thrown in as well. In reality (at the time we were there) it was hot, dry, dusty, there were long drives between places and I felt constantly dirty.
Was I disappointed?? Nope, I loved it!
Perhaps the hardest thing to get your head around is the sheer size of it. The park covers over 20,000 square kilometres – it is MASSIVE!! The park is World Heritage listed for both its natural and cultural values. Over one-third of Australia’s birds can be found here and we spotted a wide variety of animals. The thing that impacted the greatest on us though was the cultural value. Through a series of fantastic Ranger Talks we were fascinated to learn about the Bininj/Mungguy people of Kakadu. Particularly their kinship system and also their traditional ancestral knowledge of the land.
We entered the park from the Arnhem Highway with our first stop being at the Windows on Wetlands Visitors Centre where there are a number of interactive displays for the kids, a cafe and binoculars on the upstairs deck which overlook the nearby wetlands. It was here that we spotted our first Jabiru in the wild. We then drove to the Aurora Kakadu Resort to purchase the required Park Pass. These are $25 per person over the age of 16, although NT residents are free. This pass is valid for 14 days and we were asked to show the pass once during our stay.
We made our way to Merl Campground where we spent our first two nights. This campground looked a little tired, although we were grateful for the hot showers available. All of the campgrounds we stayed at charged $10 per adult per night, although you can go to cheaper campgrounds, without showers, for $5 per night. We had heard the mozzies (mosquitoes) were quite bad at Merl and took lots of precautions but over the two days we were there it turned into a bit of a blood bath for me, with Ben counting 39 bites just on the lower half of my body! No-one else seemed to be bothered by them, it was as though I was the sacrificial lamb – that or the mozzies a had refined taste and preferred fine dining!!
After getting set up we headed for Ubirr (oo-beerr) a couple of kilometres away to catch the sun set. We had heard that Ubirr featured in the movie Crocodile Dundee and were keen to check it out. Here, there is a 1km walking track that takes you past some Aboriginal rock art sites (such as the painting of Mabuyu which tells a story to warn against stealing) and a climb to a rocky lookout that provides views over the Nadab Floodplain. It was here that we experienced our first Ranger Talk and watched one of our most breathtaking sun sets yet.
After getting back to camp and trying to clean up a little we were lucky enough to catch a slide show on ‘ginga’ or saltwater crocodile. Now this was very interesting but also made me a little uneasy to find out that there were 10,000 crocs in Kakadu alone!
The next morning we headed back up to Ubirr for a series of Ranger Talks including; ‘Rainbow Serpent – creation and kinship’ and ‘Namarrkan Sisters – stories on stone.’ These talks were really good and as Kakadu was fairly quiet (being close to the end of the dry season) it was almost as thought we were having private tours. We were able to ask lots of questions and learnt more than we probably would have if it had been busier. Ranger Kristen was a fantastic guide and manage to really pique our interest in the culture of the area. The stories about the Creation Time and Mimi Spirits were fascinating. Kristen was also very interesting herself. This is her second year as a Seasonal Ranger in Kakadu, she has also worked on a tour boat in Coral Bay swimming with Whales Sharks and at the end of this season she is heading off to Nepal and then Sri Lanka to work on an elephant farm learning to do tricks with them! What an exciting life!!
Before visiting Kakadu we had heard of Cahill’s Crossing – a crossing over the East Alligator River into Arnhem Land. We had planned to go and have a look there as it is known for the number of crocs that hang around and we hadn’t as yet seen a croc in the wild. Well, when we got there it was low tide and after seeing a few cars going over Paul was itching to have a turn. Off he and Reardon took to get the car and have a go. To enter Arnhem Land you need a permit and as we didn’t have one Paul was content to just drive across and back. I guess technically the two of them have actually been to Arnhem Land! I knew they were ok but was a little tense seeing a 4m saltie in the water about 15 metres from the car!
We returned later in the afternoon at high tide as we had heard that mullet were swimming upstream to breed and that there were usually a number of crocs waiting for a feed. We counted seven salties in total and it was really interesting to watch them as they would sit in the water with their front legs out at a 90 degree angle trying to stop the mullet. You can just see one of the crocs feet sticking out of the water in the photo. There is a raised viewing deck that is quite safe to watch from, unsurprisingly there were a couple of idiots standing near the water’s edge trying their luck at fishing. I had a bit of a chuckle when the only one that caught anything was a bloke casting from the deck. He was a beaut fellow and offered everyone else a go with his rod. I am kicking myself now for not having a go but there were a few people around and I didn’t fancy an audience in case I did something dumb like casting out and copping a hook in the back of my head. Don’t laugh, it happens!
After an early start the next morning, we headed off into Jabiru for a quick look around and brekkie from the bakery. Jabiru was originally established after uranium mining began in the area and has a few shops, a post office, a service station, a pool (the only place rangers say you should swim in Kakadu) and we had fun checking out Gagudju Crocodile Holiday Inn which is the crocodile shaped hotel you might have seen in brochures.
Our next port of call was the Bowali Visitor Centre. Here, there are regular audio-visual presentations, lots of information to help plan your stay, habitat displays, a cafe and also a library where the kids and I enjoyed sitting down and reading some stories as well as looking at some big picture books made by local school children. As it was quite warm we took advantage of the air-con in the small theatre screening the presentations.
We then pressed on to Muirella campground for an overnight stay. This campground was better maintained, probably because there is a culture tour operator there that shares the facilities and looks after them as a result. After calling into the beautiful Anbangbang Billabong we went round to Nourlangie for another series of Ranger Talks. Once again Kristen was giving the talks and once again we were the captive audience. I particularly loved the rock painting around this area and enjoyed reading the corresponding stories. It is amazing the way that the surrounding landscapes and their formations are explained by stories from the Dreamtime.
Our next two nights were spent at the Mardugal Campsite where we had a busy time. From here we visited Yellow Water (where a number of cruise operators work from), the amazing Warradjan Cultural Centre, Jim Jim Billabong and Cooinda- where we snuck in for a swim at the resort pool. The highlight during our stay here was a visit to Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls.
The road out to Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls is accessible by 4WD only. It is about 43 km long with the last 10km being soft sand. It is recommended that the drive should take about two hours, we did it in one hour and 40 minutes. It got very boggy towards the end and there was a big creek crossing, the water level here determines whether the falls are opened or closed to the public. We headed out to Twin Falls first which involved a boat trip part of the way ($12.50 for adults). This was a nice trip and the Ranger was once again full of lots of information. There were plenty of fish in the water and a couple of croc traps set, although only fresh water crocodiles were present at this time. A part of the walk to the falls was via a boardwalk which had showers installed with hand pumps to draw some of the water to help keep cool. They were very much appreciated!
Unfortunately there was only a small volume of water cascading over the falls. I imagine it would be quite a sight just after the wet when running at full capacity. We had lots of fun climbing over the rocks and exploring and when we got back to where the boat needed to pick us up Reardon jumped on the walkie-talkie left there, to let the ranger know we were ready to return. From here we drove round towards Jim Jim Falls which had THE hardest walk we have had to do so far. It took us about an hour to get to the falls and there was LOTS of rock climbing involved. Unfortunately there was only a trickle of water running but the cool plunge pool at the base of the falls was a welcome relief.
Our final night in Kakadu was spent at the beautiful Gunlom Campground. There is a great day use area here and no doubt a popular destination for many visitors. It is here that Paul Hogan spears a fish in Crocodile Dundee. There is a great plunge pool at the base of the falls (once again, only running a small volume of water) where we all had a swim but we had heard that the jewel in the crown was at the top of the falls. Now, as I get older and since having kids I have become a bit of a scaredy cat. We all headed up to the top of the falls but just as we got to a lookout near the top I chickened out and headed back down again. Ben & Emma were very happy to come with me but Paul & Reardon kept going all the way. I will always be a little disappointed that I didn’t make it to the top but am content in the knowledge that the top of Gunlom Falls will remain a special place for Paul & Reardon. They loved checking out the many pools of water and I was relieved when they made it back down again!
All in all we had a great time at Kakadu and managed to fit lots in during our six night stay. I could write about a couple of other billabongs and plunge pools we visited but I think you get the picture! I highly recommend checking out the visitor’s centres and the Ranger Talks – we managed to catch around 10 or 11 all up. Many people we have spoken to have not really recommended Kakadu while others prefer Litchfield National Park instead. To us, trying to compare the two is like comparing apples and oranges. We loved both parks for different reasons. Litchfield is very beautiful with more swimming opportunities but the cultural value of Kakadu is immeasurable. I think it is a good idea to listen to other peoples experiences but at the end of the day there are many factors that could impact on a persons visit.
Visiting Kakdu is all about timing. Going there at the end of the wet would be a wonderful sight as everything would still be green with lots of water flowing but you also run the risk of roads being closed due to flood damage and the presence of crocodiles. Going at the end of the dry worked really well for us because the swimming holes were safer and everything was accessible but unfortunately there was not a lot of water at any of the falls and things were starting to turn brown (but still beautiful).
Whatever time of the year you go don’t expect to remain clean! But that’s really part of the fun isn’t it?
From Kakdu we headed back down towards Katherine with the intention of making our way to QLD. So how on earth do we wind up at Alice Springs & Uluru?
*The Travelling Beanie: through meeting other families travelling Australia, we came across the Travelling Beanie. Essentially, this is a group (coordinated via Facebook) of people travelling Australia. In a way of connecting to other travellers, someone came up with the idea of sending a Where’s Wally type beanie from family to family then publishing the photos taken wearing the beanie at destinations all over Australia. We got to take the beanie to Central Australia – photos next time!*