Kakadu is a remarkable destination throughout the year, but is often forgotten during the ‘Tropical Summer’, which basically lasts from November through to April. This can be the best time to visit with waterfalls flowing, abundant wildlife and fewer tourists.
This is a very interesting post by American traveller, Andrew Chapman, who toured Kakadu during February, staying at the Cooinda Camping Ground. It provides an action packed three day itinerary for visitors.
Saturday 21st February – Day 1 in Kakadu National Park
Another early start, this time I have to meet a few doors down the road at 6am for my Kakadu tour. Kakadu is Australia’s largest national park, covering 20,000 square kilometres east of Darwin (That is a tenth of the size of the UK). It shelters a wide variety of habitats and wildlife, the 2 billion year old rocks (amongst the oldest in the world) tell 30,000 year old stories about the oldest living culture in the world, the Aboriginal culture. For me the images that first brought the beauty of Kakadu, are those that were used in the filming of that classic 80’s movie, Crocodile Dundee. Our tour group is small, which is great. There are two girls from London, Amelia and Jo, a father and his son from Germany, Horst and Marc and Lulu from Germany, although she could almost be American. Our guide for the 3 days is Luke an Aussie from Victoria who is both knowledgeable and good fun.
Before we even reach Kakadu we make several stops. The first of these is at Fogg Dam, a wetlands area teemingwith birds. Egrets, Spoonbills and Magpie Ducks roam around the wetland habitat. Our second stop is at Adelaide River to do an hour boat cruise to watch large saltwater crocodiles jump out of the water up to two-thirds of their body length. On the hour long cruise we see half a dozen crocodiles, varying in length from 2.5 metres to 4 metres. The skipper of our boat gets the smaller crocodiles to jump out of the water by dangling horse meat on a pole a couple of metres out of the water. It’s incredible seeing the power of this prehistoric apex predator first propel itself out of the water, and then crunch down on the meat with the same force as the brakes on a jumbo jet. The cruise on the Adelaide River certainly overshadows the one on the Daintree, I’ve seen what I wanted, fully grown crocodiles. The last crocodile that approaches our boat is the largest, it must be 4 metres and when it gets within a few feet of the boat I must admit to a growing apprehension despite the fact that I’m in the relative safety of the boat. After playing with the crocodiles, our skipper tries to entice a white breasted eagle which is perched in the upper branches of the mangroves that line the river, with some meat. This ploy fails but we do manage to interest some Whistling Kites, another bird of prey.
I think Luke our guide must have been expecting double the number of people on his tour as at each meal time there is too much food. Not wanting to waste any at lunchtime, we manage to interest a couple of Aboriginal people who are passing in some sandwiches. Upon entering Kakadu national park we stop at the Bowali visitor centre which contains a wealth of information on the flora, fauna, culture and history of the park. The park is owned by the Bininj/Mungguy Aboriginal people who recognise six seasons of Kakadu according to subtle variations that signpost a transition from one season to another. This just goes to demonstrate how much more in touch with the land they are than non-indigenous people who typically recognise only two seasons, the wet and the dry. The six seasons they recognise from the start of the calendar year are Gudjewg (monsoon season), Banggerrreng (knock em down season), Yegge (cooler but still humid season), Wurrgeng (cold weather season), Gurrung (hot dry weather season) and Gununmeleng (pre-monsoon storm season). Gudjewg the season we are in now is characterised by an explosion of plant and animal life due to the heat and humidity. Spear grass grows to over two metres tall and creates a silvery-green hue throughout the woodlands. Speaking of woodlands, six main landforms are recognised within the vast landscapes of Kakadu. Savanna woodlands make up nearly 80% of Kakadu. They consist mostly of eucalypts like the Pandanas tree and tall grasses. They seem lifeless at first, however they support a greater variety of plants and animals than any other habitat in Kakadu. Already on the journey east through the park to Bowali we have seen a Frilled-Neck dragon, Sand and Water Monitors and a Brolga and that was without venturing off the road. The other 20% of Kakadu is monsoon forests, southern hills and ridges, tidal flats & coast, floodplains & billabongs and that which becomes my favourite, the stone country.
Staying in the east of the park we head off road on to a dirt track to get to the Gubara walk. No sooner have we started than a late afternoon thunderstorm comes in and we decide to abort the walk and head instead to the nearby Aboriginal rock art site of Nourlangie. We do a 1.5km circular walk that takes us past an ancient Aboriginal shelter and several outstanding art sites. Kakadu’s rock art represents one of the longest historical records of any group of people in the world. More than 5000 art sites throughout the park tell of the creation ancestors, belief systems, hunting experiences and changes in the landscape over thousands of years. To get the paint they used natural resources, haematite providing red, charcoal the black, pipeclay the white and limonite the yellow. The ground these rocks into powder and then added a resin. A moderate climb to Gun-warddehwardde lookout provides impressive views of Kakadu’s escarpment, an outlying part of the stone country. Even better, and probably my favourite experience in Kakadu is the view from the Nawurlandja lookout. A 600 metre climb offers a view of the Arnhem Land escarpment, Nourlangie and Anbangbang billabong in the valley below. The dominant sandstone escarpment of the Arnhem Land Plateau ranges in height from 30 metres to 300 metres, forming the boundary between Kakadu and Arnhem Land and stretches 500km south from the sea. I had wanted to make it to Arnhem Land but it is cut off by road in the wet season, so that will have to wait until another time. Arnhem Land is where you would get a true Aboriginal experience. The size of Portugal, you need a permit to get in and of the 15,000 people who call Arnhem Land home the majority are Aboriginals.
I begrudgingly leave Nawurlandja – it’s such an incredible view I could have stayed there all night – and we head west to our campsite at Cooinda in the centre of the park. It’s a pleasant surprise when we do arrive as we have fixed tents which have a bed and a mattress inside them. This is more luxurious than I expected. While Luke cooks the dinner the rest of us take advantage of the facilities which include a swimming pool and hot showers. After a day in intense humidity I decide that my clothes need a good washing as they are disgusting. They may be still damp in the morning but at least they won’t smell! Even in the campsite we are up close and personal with the wildlife. Every visit to the toilet block requires negotiating about a hundred kamikaze grasshoppers who throw themselves at your torchlight. Also, a flying fox flies over our heads as we soak in the swimming pool.
Sunday 22nd February – Day 2 in Kakadu National Park
Luke wakes the camp at 6am. On the way to the toilet block I come across 4 brumbies (wild horses) and a dingo. Today, we’re heading to the south of the park for plenty of hiking, exploring and swimming. We must do about 13km of walking through to lunchtime and the heat and the humidity are intense. At one point my watch is showing that it is 42 degrees in the sun and the humidity must be over 90%. Walking in such conditions is sapping, and heeding Luke’s warning from yesterday I’m taking plenty of fluids on board. By the end of the day I’ve guzzled though 7.5 litres of water – I don’t think I’ve ever drank as much. The walks themselves are through thick spear grass to two sets of falls, Kurrundie Falls and Motor Car Falls. At Kurrundie Falls after jumping in for a swim I start to climb up the rockface and end up falling a full body length. No worries, no harm done I’ll just pick my climbing point more carefully next time. At Motor Car Falls, which are even more picturesque than Kurrundie we also go for a swim. This time we haven’t got the place to ourselves like at Kurrundie and have to share the water hole with another group. I spend much of the morning walking well behind the rest of the group. I enjoy the quiet isolation and reflection on the stunning landscapes we’re passing through.
After a welcome lunch we have an afternoon dip at the Moline Rockhole which is our third waterfalls of the day. Thankfully it’s only a 5 minute walk from the car park as I’m feeling the effects of this morning’s trek. I’m thankful of the opportunity to cool down in the clear plunge pool at the base of the cascades after a big day. On the drive back to Cooinda for our second night in the park we stop at a huge Cathedral termite mound which is rock solid and probably 50-60 years old. Dinner is Buffalo sausages and Kangaroo steaks which goes down very well. We sit around talking and having a few beers together.
Monday 23rd February – Day 3 in Kakadu National Park
It’s an even earlier start today, Luke waking the camp up at 5:15am. We head east to do the Gubarra walk which we had aborted on the first day. It’s only 5km and it’s much cooler than yesterday. The Gubarra walk takes us into stone country and the monsoon forests. We do a sidewalk up to the Castle lookout where there is more Aboriginal art on show and it offers amazing views over stone country. Myself and Luke climb right up to the top for unrestricted 360 degree views which are simply magical. It is the sandstone rock formations of the stone country that I like the most about Kakadu. These rocks are 2 billion years old and were formed by the sea when the sea level was much higher and much of Kakadu was underwater. I can’t recall seeing anything quite like it anywhere else in the world, and that is what makes it special. Once we’ve climbed down the Castle we continue on the Gubarra walk to Wallaby Falls and then to the Garden of Eden where we jump in for a swim. The Garden of Eden is a great spot and the seven of us have it to ourselves. It is a shady monsoon rainforest pool with a small cascading waterfall running into it. On the way back to the truck I almost walk into a Golden Orb spider. Amelia shouts out to warn me just in time. We joke on that she has returned the favour of saving my life – yesterday I stopped her touching the poisonous cane toad just in time.
After lunch we start on our 3 hour journey back to Darwin, leaving Kakadu behind. I’m so pleased I came in the wet season but equally I’d love to return in the dry season. In the dry, many of Kakadu’s attractions which were inaccessible at this time will be open, including Jim Jim Falls, Twin Falls and the rock art site Ubirr. You would get a different experience as the landscape wouldn’t be as lush either. I’ve enjoyed the tour immensely.