Get in touch with essential Australia
The World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory covers nearly 20,000sq km and is one of the few places listed for both cultural and natural values.
The exceptional beauty has a variety of landforms, habitats and wildlife. It is home to about one-fifth of Australia’s mammals, more than 2000 plant species, reptiles, frogs, tidal and freshwater fish species, more than 10,000 insect species and it provides habitats for about 290 bird species (more than one-third of Australia’s birds).
Its wetlands hold international importance as a major staging point for migratory birds and some species are not found anywhere else in the world.
The easiest way to get to Kakadu is by road (about 253km east of Darwin) which is bitumen sealed and excellent for driving.
Kakadu is open year-round and seasons are divided into dry and wet.
The park entry pass is based on two rates - dry season, April 1 to October 31 and tropical summer, November 1 to March 31.
I would recommend a 14-day entry pass which does not include camping sites or accommodation but does include ranger-guided walks and talks.
Should you wish to continue on to Arnhem Land a further permit is required from the Northern Land Council. For all information regarding entry passes and permits to Kakadu visit parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu
I visited at the end of the dry season so missed out on seeing Jim Jim and Twin Falls flowing and the water holes were low, with burn-off season already underway on the floodplains. However, this opened up the land in a different light, from floodplains and billabongs to rugged stone country.
Interpretive signs and educational and easy-to-understand talks by park guides, made the introduction and discovery of this ancient culture and the diverse landscape enthralling.
Seasons dictate different attractions, with some closed by flooding during the tropical summer.
Most non-Aboriginal people really only refer to the rain and dry seasons, but the Binini/Mungguy identify six seasons, subtle variations that signpost the transition from one season to another – changes in the weather, which plants are in flower and which bush foods are abundant.
• Gunumeleng: mid-October to late December, pre-monsoon storm season with hot weather and building thunderstorms in the afternoons
• Gudjeuk: January to March, monsoon season with thunderstorms, heavy rain, and flooding; the heat and humidity generate an explosion of plant and animal life
• Banggerreng: April, the “knock ‘em down” storm season when floodwater recedes but violent, windy storms knock down grasses
• Yekke: May to mid-June, relatively cool with low humidity. The Aboriginal people historically started burning the woodlands in patches to “clean the country” and encourage new growth for grazing animals
• Wurrgeng: mid-June to mid-August, the cold weather season with low humidity; most creeks stop flowing and the floodplains quickly dry out
• Gurrung: mid-August to mid-October, hot dry weather with ever shrinking billabongs
In the wet season the floodplains surge, creating a spectacle of colour and wildlife. In the drier months, constricting habitats create a flurry of bird activity at places such as the famous Mamukala wetlands.
Bird hides offer views of the water birds, particularly the spectacular migratory magpie geese that come in their thousands. Egrets, jabiru and pelican are active.
At the south entrance to the park is the Gaymarr Interpretive Centre at Mary River Roadhouse, one place where you can purchase your park passes. I highly recommend a visit to the informative Bowali Visitor Centre which is only a short drive from Jabiru, a small township in the middle of the park where you can buy fuel and limited supplies.
It has a hotel, shopping centre (small), school, pool, bakery, caravan park and lodge and a small airport.
Tourism is the main source of income but Jabiru once serviced the nearby Ranger uranium mine which is totally separate from Kakadu National Park. The open cut mining finished at Ranger in late 2012.
Obviously, due to huge crocodile populations, swimming in the waterways is a bad idea. Signs constantly warn “Don’t risk your life – don’t swim”. Cahills Crossing is at East Alligator Creek where you cross over to Arnhem Land.
From a viewing platform you can see many crocodiles at high tide vigorously swimming across the crossing which again alerts you to the size and power of these ancient creatures that have remained unchanged for 200 million years.
Out of respect, no alcohol can be taken on any of the sacred sites/walking tracks but you will need to carry lots of water.
The camping grounds have excellent modern and clean amenities including hot showers. Most camp sites at Merl campground are individual.
A sign at one of the stops reads: “Management and staff have no control over the weather, mosquitoes, flies, frogs, cane toads, geckos and all other bugs and insects...”
Rock art sites at Ubirr, Burrunguy (Nourlangie Rock) and Nanguluwur are internationally recognised as outstanding Aboriginal rock art and can be found in rocky outcrops that have afforded shelter for thousands of years. For example, at Ubirr, which is close to an abundant food source (waterways/river) the rock art depicts barramundi, catfish, mullet, goanna, snake, turtle, possum, wallaby and thylacine (Tasmanian tiger).
There are also images of the Rainbow Serpent.
Many stories connected to Aboriginal rock drawings are highly complex and linked to other stories.
Often the true meanings have been lost, but they all have a purpose, which is usually a lesson or a warning to the young or those passing through the area. Anbangbang Billabong lies in the shadow of Nourlangie Rock and is inhabited by a wide range of wildlife which would have sustained traditional owners as well.
Nanguluwur is a small art site near Nourlangie which has several rock art styles such as hand stencils, dynamic figures in large head-dress carrying spears and boomerangs, representations of Namandi spirits and mythical figures.
There is also an interesting example of “contact art” depicting a two-masted sailing ship with anchor chain and a dinghy trailing behind.
Certainly the free ranger activities (included in your park entry pass) help visitors understand what the Manilagarr clan is sharing.
For example some of the programs which run morning, afternoon and on dusk are: “A home through the ages” in the main art gallery, “Creation and Kinship” the Rainbow Serpent area, and “Stories on Stone” at Namarrkan Sisters arena. One of the signs has the best comment: “Pay attention to stories, get the feeling of peacefulness so that when you leave Ubirr, you will have learnt something. By Jacob Nayinggul, Manilagarr clan.”
Every Australian should visit Kakadu, a unique opportunity to connect with aboriginal culture. Those who say Kakadon’t have not opened up their heart to the essence of this ancient land.