Kakadu – A region like no other on earth
This is Australia’s largest National Park covering more than 19000 sqkm. Its name comes from the mispronunciation of Gaagudu- the name of an Aboriginal language formerly spoken in the northern region of the park.
There are four major river systems: East Alligator, West Alligator, Wildman River and the whole of the South Alligator River.
It’s a landscape of contrasts with heavy roaring waterfalls flowing into serene pools, delicate lotus flowers concealing ancient crocodiles and major landforms: estuaries, tidal flats, floodplains, lowlands, stone country and it’s covered by savannah woodlands.
An ecological jewel, Kakadu is one of the few world heritage areas listed for both natural and cultural heritage. As a World Heritage area and a UNESCO site it is only one of a few other sites in the world that can say the same. Aboriginal people have occupied the area continuously for 40,000 years and Kakadu is renowned for richness of Aboriginal cultural sites and over 5000 rock art sites can be found here.
Mathew Flinders named Arnhem Land in the north-eastern corner of the Northern Territory after the Dutch ship Arnhem that explored the coast in 1673. It is one of the largest Aboriginal reserves in Australia and its best known for its isolation, art, and the origins of the didgeridoo and bark paintings. It’s here that the oldest stone axe was found, believed to be 35,000 years old.
Kakadu is best visited after the wet season ends in April-May when the waterfalls are still spectacular and the heat still tolerable. Bird watchers will know that Kakadu houses one-third of Australia’s bird species (280) including the endangered Gouldian Finch and vulnerable Red Goshawk.
More than 20,000 visitors experience Kakadu each year with crocodile safety warnings proclaiming that most deep waterways arte inhabited by salt-water crocodiles. Despite these warnings, foolhardy fishermen chasing the elusive barramundi fish too closely to river crossings, risking their lives.
The northern entrance to the park is approximately 150km south-east of Darwin while the Bowali visitors centre near Jabiru is some 250km from Darwin and RVers travelling from Darwin can choose to stay at the Bark Hut Inn or nearby Shady Camp on the Mary River.
Even if you don’t intend to stop at the Bark Hutt Inn, I’d recommend a visit to learn about its early, wild-west history and stories of buffalo hunting days and carving of outposts from the virgin bushland. The bar is something else with croc, buffalo and all manner of artefacts on display. You will even find an old Landcrusier ute used for buffalo and cattle mustering. It’s well worth the visit!
Prior to arriving in Jabiru, which is the main township of Kakadu and gateway to all parts of the park with a range of essential services for travellers, you’ll come to Bowali Visitors Centre and I’d make it my first stop as it’s just five minutes from Jabiru township. Here you’ll find what to see, where to stay, and road accessibility and there is an audio-visual presentation every half hour. There is also a habitat display, library, interpretive displays and exhibits on flora and fauna. After you’ve collected your free information and maps, don’t forget to pay your park entry fees. Currently you will pay $25 per person but as this fee covers you for 14 days, it’s pretty good value.
Bowali is also the National Park headquarters and houses Marrawuddi Gallery with Aboriginal fine art from Kakadu. The cafe is a good opportunity to quench your thirst before the short trip to Jabiru. Jabiru is the main township of Kakadu with a range of essential services such as a service station, medical centre, chemist, restaurant and bakery. There’s even a police station, swimming pool and golf course. With this in mind you might consider staying at one of the caravan parks here. We stayed at the Aurora Kakadu Lodge and Caravan Park which is a well kept park with helpful staff, a great service point and restaurant.
For part of your Kakadu stay you should consider Merl Camp. Here you are close to Ubirr, the East Alligator River, Cahill’s Crossing and the Border Store. The camp can accommodate big rigs with plenty of shade and modern amenities. Alcohol is permitted and you can choose from generator and non-generator zones.
The store sells food, fishing gear and Aboriginal arts and craft. They’re also open for breakfast, lunch and tea and can organise local boat trips. They are a wealth of information on where to go and what to see and you can get great cappuccinos and first class Thai food.
Cahill’s Crossing really is a great spot to lure a barramundi, but please follow croc-wise instructions to avoid croc attacks. Nearby you can organise a boat tour along the East Alligator and learn about plants and animals so important to Aboriginal people.
Ubirr is one of the jewels in Kakadu’s crown and a must-see location. You’ll enjoy the rock art, stories and bushwalks. Rock art depicts creation ancestors as well as barramundi, catfish, possum and wallabies. Most paintings have been continuously painted for more than 40,000 years.
Three main galleries are accessible to visitors and although for the most part they are wheelchair accessible, caution needs to be taken when climbing to the lookout. The main gallery is the most photographed with beautiful examples of x-ray art. There are also paintings of white man and very high up, Mimi spirits so thin they can slip in and out of cracks in the rocks. At the northern end there is a painting of a Tasmanian Tiger and there is also the Rainbow Serpent Gallery, the most sacred site at Ubirr. I’d recommend a visit at sunset and a climb to the lookout with great views of flood plains and the East Alligator river right through to Arnhem Land.
This site was featured in the Crocodile Dundee film and the view is spectacular, so make sure your camera batteries are charged. Ranger talks are a feature so check for times and learn a whole lot more about this most photographed place.
Before you head back to Jabiru be sure to check out tours that will take you across Cahill’s Crossing into Arnhem Land. The tour stops at Injelak Arts and Crafts which shows off the skills of artists and weavers.
Throughout Kakadu there are emergency contact points to get help in the event of an accident or becoming unwell. It’s a good idea to keep plenty of drinking water and by that I mean more than a 650ml bottle.
From Jabiru heading east towards Pine Creek, six kilometres off the Kakadu Highway and 26km south of the Bowali Centre, you’ll come to Muriella Camps which can accommodate large rigs. There is also a Culture Camp here and night-time croc tours. One of the best campsites is the Sandy Billabong and as its name suggests its right next to the billabong. However for this spot you will want a 4WD and you might want to leave your van at Murriella Camp.
Travelling further south you’ll come across Cooinda with a caravan park and pool. The main attraction here and another jewel in the Kakadu crown is Yellow Water. The world-famous wetlands are located at the end of Jim Jim Creek, a tributary of the South Alligator River floodplains.
We took a three-hour Yellow River fishing trip which wasn’t cheap but was a great experience with a qualified guide and breathtaking scenery. Another great experience was the Yellow River cruise, and I’d recommend an early-morning or late-afternoon cruise, watching the sunset over the wetlands with Egrets, a variety of ducks and the amazing Comb Crested Jacana also known as the ‘Lotus Bird’. By the time sunset arrives you’ll be just about croc’d out with photos of some 30 or more.
Nourlangie is where you’ll find stunning rock art galleries with impressive views from the Gunwarrdehwarrde lookout on Kakadu’s escarpment and Nourlangie Rock. On your return you’ll come across Anbangbang Billabong, a great place to stop for lunch and admire the birdlife enjoying the billabong some 20 metres from you.
Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls are 43km south of Bowali Centre and will require a 4WD with caravans not being permitted in this area. Although its distance from Garnamarr is only 18km you need to factor in the road conditions as sand and a causeway with a deep-water crossing will be encountered. Unless you have a high-clearance 4WD, I’d opt for a tour-operator vehicle. Access to Twin Falls will require use of the boat shuttle service and a board walk, an easier option than Jim Jim Falls.
A little known place and great spot for swimming is Gunlom Falls, where there is a plunge pool and nearby waterfall as well as a campsite nearby with showers and toilets. The access road is located off the Kakadu Highway, 47km north of Goymarr Tourist Park, but the road is very corrugated and not recommended for caravans so slow down and take care on rocky outcrops. A steep climb to the natural pool above the falls will give you an unbelievable view of this pristine environment. From here continue to Pine Creek and south along the Stuart Highway.
Kakadu, quite frankly is like nothing else but you must be prepared to go out and experience it– it won’t come to you! I’ve heard some RVers say Kakadu– don’t! For its cultural value and the sheer unadulterated beauty of its wetlands and wildlife it is an experience you should not miss. Wherever I happen to be in this fabulous country of ours you can guess there will be times when my mind drifts back to Kakadu Dreaming.
Kakadu National Park Pass
Adult $25 per person for a 14 day pass. Child under-16 free. NT resident-free.
Kakadu Culture Camp
Accredited savannah guide site.
Where: Kurrajong Outstation Bowali Creek
Kakadu National Park
Ph: 0428 792 048
$10 pp over 15 per night
BOWALI VISITORS CENTRE
The Bowali Visitors Centre has free entry with information staff, free maps and info on the park as well as audio-visual presentations every half hour. Opening hours are from 8am till 5pm.
Here you will enjoy ancient indigenous rock art, stories, bushwalks and stunning views of the flood plains and the East Alligator river right through to Arnhem Land. This site was featured in the Crocodile Dundee film.
The Yellow River cruise is great for bird watchers or take a fishing trip with a qualified guide that will take you to all the best spots for barra on the river.
BOWALI VISITORS CENTRE
Where: Five kilometres west of Jabiru off the Kakadu Highway.
Ph: (08) 8938 1120
Malabanjbanjdju Camping Area
Located 16km south of the Jabiru turnoff or 31km north of Cooinda, this site offers toilets and suitable for camp trailers.
GPS 12˚45̕56 ̋ S 132˚45̕17 ̋E
TOILETS,CAMP TABLES, FIRE PLACES, CAMP TRAILERS,TENTS, NO PETS
Burbulda Camping Area
Located 17km south of the Jibaru turnoff and 31km north of Cooinda, this site offers toilets and is suitable for camper trailers.
GPS 12˚46̕18 ̋S 132˚44̕53 ̋E
TOILETS, CAMPER TRAILERS, TENTS, NO PETS, DRY WEATHER ACCESS
WHERE TO STAY
Aurora Kakadu Lodge and Caravan Park
Arnhem Highway, South Alligator, Kakadu National Park
PH: (08) 8979 0166
Bark Hut Inn
Where: Arnhem Highway, Mary River
Ph: (08) 8978 8988
Goymarr Tourist Park
Where: Kakadu Highway, 60km from Pine Creek.
Ph: (08) 8 8975 4564