A word from the wise: if you’re planning a visit to Australia’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory any time soon, you’ll need to be prepared. Prepared for the intense heat, with your Akubra hat, supersized bottles of water and 30+ sunscreen.
Prepared for the huge amounts of wildlife you’ll encounter, including nearly one-fifth of Australia’s mammals, 300 kinds of birds, and the park’s infamous crocs. And prepared, armed with your camera at all times, for the extreme beauty of Kakadu’s apricot-hued sunsets, wide-open vistas, pristine swimming holes and star-choked skies.
Meet the Locals
The first thing you’ll want to do when you arrive is meet the park’s most famous local, the saltwater crocodile (known as ‘ginga’ in local Aboriginal languages). To get into the mood, check into the Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel in Jabiru, a 2.5-hour drive from Darwin, that’s shaped like a ginormous croc. Take a dip in the pool (aka the croc’s belly), then check out the Aboriginal artwork in the in-house gallery.
By now you’ll be ready to head to Anbangbang Billabong to see the real deal: crocs that can grow up to seven metres and can live until they’re 200. If you’re visiting in the wet season, you’ll be in luck because the area will be transformed into a field of white water lilies. Just make sure you keep away from the water’s edge and take note of the crocodile warning signs – if they say don’t swim, don’t swim!
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Ancient Art Gallery
Kakadu is renowned for some of the world’s most spectacular indigenous rock art. The Bardedjilidji art site walk gives a great introduction to the art form, winding past shaggy paperbarks, pandanus palms and layered sandstone formations that were islands during the time of the dinosaurs. Here you’ll see ochre depictions, some of which are 2,000 years old, of the bad spirits believed to lurk around this area, and of the local flora and fauna.
Time your visit to Ubirr natural rock art gallery for an hour or two before sunset. You can peruse the three main ‘galleries’, caves that have served as both shelter and canvases for thousands of years, to see representations of the animals the Aboriginals hunted and Dreamtime ancestors like the Rainbow Serpent. When the sky starts to glow orange, scramble up to the rocky outlook and prepare for the spectacular tropical sunset over the Nadab Floodplain.
Fly, Float, Relax
Seeing Kakadu and neighbouring Arnhemland from above is an unforgettable experience. Scenic flights leave from the Jabiru airport, and your tiny Cessna plane will swoop over the winding rivers, sunburnt escarpments and gushing waterfalls, including the famous Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls.
Another must-do is a cruise along Yellow Water Billabong. If you choose the sunrise option, you’ll arrive at the wharf when the sky is still flecked with stars, and as your flat-bottomed boat glides out on to this huge land-locked billabong you’ll see the rising sun turn the water sunflower yellow.
As you float through the wetlands you’ll pass wild brumbies and water buffalo, and some of the 60 species of birds found in the wetlands, including magpie geese, eagles and dancing brolgas. Pull up by the fields of pink water lilies and you’ll most likely see the knobbly head of a saltie pop up to say g’day.
When you’re done, you can hire a 4WD, grab a picnic lunch, and visit one of the local swimming holes. If you’re lucky, you’ll have Moline Rockhole all to yourself.
Sit under the falls, the water thumping over your shoulders and back, and it'll be like you’re at a wilderness day spa. The perfect end to a perfect few days in this wild paradise.