The renowned travel editor of Australia’s Fairfax newspapers, Anthony Dennis, visited Kakadu recently and provides 20 reasons why everyone should visit this spectacular region…whether it be in the dry or green season.
1. BEHOLD KAKADU NATIONAL PARK Along with Uluru, another iconic Northern Territory attraction, a visit to Kakadu National Park is one of the most genuinely spiritual travel experiences an Australian can ever do. If you’re not moved by this 20,000 square kilometres UNESCO World Heritage-listed site, jointly managed by the Bininj/Mungguy people and Parks Australia, then you probably should, well, move. Don’t postpone a visit until you’re grey and nomadic, as while it is remote it’s by no means an ordeal to reach this biodiverse wonderland. See kakadutourism.com; travelnt.com; parksaustralia.gov.au.
2. EXPERIENCE THE GREEN SEASON The dry season is the most popular time for international and domestic tourists to visit Kakadu, because of the absence of rain, and tolerable temperatures. But the “green season” – the tourism industry’s clever new euphemism for the “wet” – can be even more rewarding. Sure, the crocs are harder to spot, but the sight of a massive drowned green landscape is something most, if not all, visitors will never forget. See travelnt.com; kakadutourism.com.
3. SEE NOURLANGIE ROCK ART SITE One of the most accessible, and magical places to view rock art in Kakadu, Nourlangie Rock is not merely an extraordinary outdoor gallery, but also one of the park’s most impressive natural sights. An easy to navigate network of paths and stairs lead to the rock art sites, some featuring the unique “X-ray art”. However, Parks Australia reinvested in new interpretive signage with some of it disappointingly faded and hard to read, at least at the time of this writer’s visit. See parksaustralia.gov.au; travelnt.com.
4. DO YELLOW WATER CRUISES A visit to Kakadu would be incomplete without a cruise on Yellow Water, a huge land-locked billabong. It’s probably the best and safest ways to view crocodiles in their natural and rather sinister state, as well as the rest of Kakadu’s bounteous flora and fauna. Cruises, with a lively commentary from an expert guide, operate throughout the day, including sunrise and sunset. There’s even a dry season-only cruise by night, Yellow Water Under the Stars, with a local indigenous guide providing a unique perspective on Kakadu after dark. Seekakadutourism.com; travelnt.com.
5. SEE SALTIES An extraordinary number of estuarine (saltwater) crocodiles – the world’s largest living reptiles with two of 20 species occurring in Australia – inhabit the waters of Kakadu. Unquestionably, they represent one of Kakadu’s most awe-inspiring features. The dry season, when they’re collectively more in search of water for food and habitat, is the best time to view them. Freshwater crocodiles, which are only found in Australia, can also be seen, but they’re no match in size for their saltwater counterparts. See kakadutourism.com; travelnt.com; parksaustralia.gov.au.
6. OBSERVE SCARY SIGNS If there’s a single constant reminder that you’re in a part of Australia utterly unlike any other it’s the profusion of crocodile warning signs. First-timer visitors can understandably feel a little disconcerted but they are all too necessary. Fatalities are not uncommon, keeping the main infamously racy Darwin newspaper, the NT News, with an oversupply of grisly front page headlines (now available as fridge magnets). Keep away from the water’s edge and observe “No swimming” signs. See parksaustralia.gov.au.
7. SEE UBIRR ROCK ART GALLERY Ubirr is the spectacular location where, in the original Crocodile Dundee film, Mick Dundee, played by Paul Hogan declares “This is my backyard”, as the camera pans across a vast green, vacant floodplain. You can climb a moderately steep track to reach this rocky lookout, but the views here competes with the Aboriginal rock art, known in the local language as “gunbim” for attention. You’ll see depictions of animals, people, Dreamtime ancestors such as the Rainbow Serpent and even the first Europeans. See parksaustralia.gov.au;travelnt.com.
8. KNOW KAKADU’S SIX REGIONS Kakadu National Park is not only subject to six distinct seasons, it’s so vast it needs to be divided in to as many regions, all of which are eminently explorable. The regions are South Alligator, Jabiru, East Alligator, Nourlangie, Yellow Water, Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls Gorge and Mary River. Each of the regions offer everything from bush campsites to accommodation with full amenities including stores and fuel. See parksaustralia.gov.au.
9. LEARN ABORIGINAL SEASONS Europeans simply divided the seasons in the Top End into the dry and the wet. Such simplification is at odds with the tens of thousands of years of climatic knowledge acquired by the traditional owners of Kakadu. They consider it to be subject to six seasons, including “Yegge” (cool weather time from May to June) to “Gudjewg” (Monsoon, December to March). There’s an informative chart explaining the six seasons of Kakadu, in the Parks Australia Visitor Guide available from wherever park permits to visit Kakadu are sold. See travelnt.com; parksaustralia.gov.au.
10. OBSERVE ROAD RULES Driving in the Northern Territory, which God seems to have created especially for four-wheel-drives, can be enormous and adventurous fun, with two-wheel-drive vehicles perfectly fine for sealed roads, even in the wet season. The speed limit of 130km/h outside built-up areas – which means pretty much everywhere – requires extra care. But it means you’ll cover the Territory’s vast distance and largest roads more quickly. Watch out for road-trains, which require concentration when overtaking, keep on an eye on the fuel tank indicator as petrol stations are few; and carry plenty of water in the event of a breakdown. Seetravelnt.com.
11. SEE JIM JIM FALLS One of Kakadu’s most scenic attractions is the Jim Jim Falls. The 200-metre-high falls are 43 kilometres south of the Bowali Visitors Centre near Jabiru, on an unsealed four-wheel-drive track. If you don’t feel confident tackling this dry season-only access road, there are plenty of guided tours where someone else does the driving, or even helicopter and fixed-wing joy flights (even better in the green season). Further on from Jim Jim Falls, and via a more challenging road, is Twin Falls, accessed by a boat shuttle service and a walking track over boulders, sand and boardwalk. See travelnt.com; parksaustralia.gov.au.
12. STAY COOINDA LODGE Naturally, being a national park, and a remote one at that, accommodation within Kakadu is fairly limited and at times a little basic. One of the better places to stay within the park is Cooinda, a convivial spot close to key attractions and with most mod-cons. For maximum comfort, opt for one of the recently spruced-up airconditioned motel-style rooms. An alternative and more luxurious option is the love-it-or-hate-it Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel, built in the shape of a salty and located in Jabiru. There’s a golf course just a five-minute walk away. Seekakadutourism.com; accorhotels.com.
13. VISIT BOWALI VISITORS’ CENTRE Designed by Australia’s Pritzker Award-winning architect, Glenn Murcutt, in collaboration with Darwin’s acclaimed Troppo Architects and inspired by an aboriginal rock shelter, Parks Australia’s Bowali Visitors Centre is looking a bit tired but well worth a pit-stop. You can buy your mandatory 14-day park pass here for $25 a person. In a part of the world where mobile coverage and Wi-Fi access is patchy to non-existent, Bowali is also a good place for a digital catch-up. See parksaustralia.gov.au.
14. SPOT WILDLIFE Crocs tend to steal the show in Kakadu but they represent only part of the picture. Kakadu National Park, after all, is home to nearly one-fifth of Australia’s mammals, along with 120 species of reptiles, more than two dozen types of frogs and 300 kinds of fish. There are several breeds of kangaroo and wallaby, as well as dingoes. The early morning and sunset are the best times for viewings. Pack a decent torch for sightings of nocturnal wildlife and keep an eye out for crocodile warning signs. See parksaustralia.gov.au.
15. VISIT WARRADJAN ABORIGINAL CULTURAL CENTRE The vast majority of aboriginal art in Kakadu is exhibited outdoors, at no fewer than 5000 rock art sites, some as much as 20,000 years old. But Warradjan, developed by the traditional owners of Kakadu, is located in airconditioned comfort just a kilometre up the road from Cooinda Lodge. On display are fascinating artefacts that illustrate stories of traditional aboriginal life and culture. See kakadutourism.com.
16. STAY BAMURRU PLAINS One of the Top End’s most distinctive and luxurious accommodation providers, in a part of Australia where five-star comforts are not abundant, Bamurru Plains sits outside the park but borders on it. It’s located on a privately-owned water buffalo station which can be explored on guided four-wheel-drive tours and trips out on the extensive floodplains on Everglades-like airboats. Seebamurruplains.com.
17. SPOT BIRDLIFE Kakadu, home to one third of Australia’s bird species, is a paradise for twitchers and even if you have a passing interest in matters ornithological it’d be impossible to leave the park unimpressed by its amazing birdlife. The most common types of birds among the nearly 300 species found in Kakadu are whistling ducks, which whistle rather than quack, and magpie geese, which do honk and gather in their thousands in wetland areas, which are a major hub for migratory birds. Seekakadutourism.com; parksaustralia.gov.au.
18. STAY DARWIN If you’re heading to Kakadu you’ll likely be doing so via the Northern Territory capital. It’s our closest city to Asia and the one urban centre that feels more like an Asian city than any other. It’s a much more sophisticated place nowdays, even though it still feels like an overgrown town, and it’s worth spending at least a few nights here, savouring the relaxed cosmopolitan atmosphere and an array of restaurants and cafes the near-equal of any other Australian city of its size. Seetravelnt.com.
19. SEE WATER BUFFALO Despite being instantly identified with Kakadu as a result of the famous hypnotism scene in the film Crocodile Dundee, water buffalo are considered a pest within Kakadu. An introduced species from Southeast Asia in the 19th century, water buffalo have adapted well to the wetlands of the Top End. However, pests or not, these beasts, which can weigh in at as much as 1200 kilograms, do provide a ready supply of meat for the Territory’s Indigenous population, while at the same time supporting a healthy export trade. Seeparksaustralia.gov.au.
20. DO BOOK KAKADU GREEN SEASON PACKAGES Until the end of March, Kakadu Tourism is offering a range of special green season cruise and accommodation packages. Visitors can book a Sunset cruise and the Sunrise cruise the following day and save $65, with the “Sunset and Sunrise Package”, available for $124 per person, which includes two cruises and a full buffet breakfast at Cooinda Lodge. There are also packages that include accommodation at the Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel. See kakadutourism.com.