Dazzling visitors with kaleidoscopic natural scenes and 100 ways to explore them, Kakadu National Park is easily the best place to spend any chunk of time in the Territory’s far north. Why? Because where else but in Kakadu can you battle barramundi on a croc-filled lagoon, tackle off-road adventures that end beneath tremendous, sheer-drop waterfalls, or float in a hidden plunge pools, high above a waterfall.
Kakadu’s thousand-year-old rock art galleries record one of the longest historical records of any people, anywhere in the world, transforming the park’s extraordinary wild places into sacred ground and amplifying each day’s discoveries.
But it’s all the ways you can experience Australia’s largest and best known World Heritage Area that will boggle your mind and fill action-packed itineraries with bushwalks, boat cruises and off-road adventures.
Whether you shake out a swag at a remote bush camp, or stake out the deck of a five-star wilderness lodge and let the wildlife come to you, Kakadu offers it all and the opportunities to encounter rare and wild creatures are immense.
There are a million reasons to get yourself to Kakadu. Here’s our top 4:
1. Saltwater Encounters
At Yellow Water Billabong at first light, an enormous crocodile lazes on the billabong’s edge. It’s Gurrung season, the hot, dry pause between winter and the wet, when ever-shrinking wetlands bring the north’s abundant wildlife into clear view.
As glossy jabirus line up alongside elegant egrets patrolling the shallows, great flocks of magpie geese circle overhead, and beyond, on distant floodplains, brolgas, brumbies and buffalo graze. But it’s that solitary saltie on the mudflats, waiting patiently for the sun that has me spellbound.
A reliable place to get close to Australia’s top predator (albeit from a safe distance) is Yellow Water Billabong. Board a boat cruise at dusk or dawn, or spend time strolling the boardwalks that skirt the water’s muddy banks.
A totally different croc-watching experience takes place on the East Alligator River that snakes a boundary between Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land. Head to Cahill’s Crossing to watch enormous estuarine crocodiles on the river banks and the turn-of-the-tide feeding show that takes place when 4WD vehicles crossing the causeway stir up the turbid water, attracting unsuspecting barramundi and the salties that snap them up.
2. Discover Rock Art
Around 5000 Aboriginal cultural sites have been identified in Kakadu, it’s outdoor canvases crowded with one of the highest concentrations of rock art in the world.
Easy to access, Nourlangie Rock is famed for its free, ranger-led tours that help interpret mythical scenes of Namarrgon the Lightning Man and Nabulwinjbulwinj, a dangerous spirit who eats females after striking them with a yam.
Further afield at Ubirr, time frames overlap on frescos that rate as some of the finest and best preserved in the park.
There’s a Contact Art depiction of a pipe-smoking white fella with his hands in his trouser pockets (probably an 1880s-era buffalo hunter), a host of freshwater period X-ray style paintings of barramundi and bush tucker, and a stunning, simple red ochre thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), still vivid thousands of years after its extinction from the Australian mainland.
Don’t miss a trip to Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre (free entry), located close to Yellow Water.
3. Catch the Mahbilil Festival
In Kakadu’s northeast, Jabiru locals celebrate the Mahbilil Festival each September, harvest time for the magpie geese that grow fat and heavy on the oily bulbs of eleocharis grass.
The festival feast demands careful preparation and into the traditional ground oven goes big chunks of bright red buffalo meat, whole plucked magpie geese, countless parcels of sweet potato and layers of paperbark and melaleuca leaves for flavour. Five hours smoking beneath a thick layer of soil and this bush tucker banquet is ready to share.
What sets this festival apart is how immensely inclusive it is. As I breeze around the market stalls, I spot travellers sitting cross-legged alongside Indigenous women who patiently share their weaving expertise.
Over in the long grass, dozens of kids are being taught to throw wayward boomerangs and stick spears, and on stage, pint-sized hip-hop singers, musicians and local bands belt out their tunes.
4. Float Close to Heaven
Irresistible and spectacular, the hidden oasis sure to satisfy all your tropical dreams is Maguk Gorge, a rainforested haven and bush camp found deep within Buladjang, Kakadu’s Sickness Country.
To get there, tackle the corrugated track that leads 12km off the Kakadu Highway and continue on foot, strolling through monsoon forest beside a cool, sandy creek and leapfrogging over rocky slabs to reach the deep, rocky waterhole beneath Maguk’s ever-flowing Barramundi Falls.
If this gorgeous waterhole isn’t enough, hidden high above the waterfall, a string of bubbling spas afford even greater sun-kissed solitude as you float in deep, clear pools before chasing the rock chasm further upstream.
Essentials: Location: 250km south of Darwin via the Arnhem Highway. Visit: April to September. Entry: $25/adult, kids free. Contact: Bowali Visitors Centre on (ph: 08 8938 1120, parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu). Be Crocwise: saltwater or estuarine crocodiles are found in waterways throughout Kakadu National Park; always obey signage posted around waterways and if in doubt, stay out of the water.