Top End wonder - The delights of Kakadu
It would take a month to see the Top End in any depth but with some judicious planning, four days can provide a good sampler. If you are on limited time, simply aim for Kakadu, the largest National Park in Australia that was first listed on the World Heritage register in 1981.
After entering the park you cross the South Alligator River named in 1818 by Phillip Parker King who thought the local crocs were the same species as North American alligators. His mistake has confused tourists and locals alike ever since. Jabiru, the mining town in Kakadu National Park is 250 km (3 hours) east of Darwin along a good, tarred road.
Visitors can pay for park permits ($25 for 14 days for a tourist over 16) while gathering information at the Bowali Visitors Centre near Jabiru. It’s an attractive open-air complex with a café and small museum as well as the super-helpful information counter. We left with an action-packed program for our two days in the park. After checking into the nearby Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel in Jabiru (entering through the jaws our room was near its left hind leg overlooking the internal swimming pool) lunch was a surprisingly good meat pie at nearby Kakadu Bakery.
The rock art galleries of Nourlangie and Ubirr, where paintings date back tens of thousands of years, are two of the principal cultural features of Kakadu and Australia. We began at the little-visited Nanguluwur gallery on the Nourlangie massif that reveal a scary mythological figure and “contact art” showing a European two-masted sailing ship.
It’s not far to drive between most of the main sites of Kakadu and the roads are excellent. An hour later we were joining others for a sunset walk at Ubirr, guided by Marcus, a local ranger. It was a great chance to understand Kakadu as seen through Aboriginal eyes. We felt honoured when we learned that Marcus is a grandson of Bill Niedjie the elder who gave the land that became Kakadu in 1978. We all sat on top of Ubirr Rock watching the floodplains below glow in the dying day. It had been an enriching first day.
Dawn the next day saw us on a small dock near Ubirr to embark on the Guluyambi boat tour that takes tourists to the Arnhemland side of the East Alligator River. Otherwise, without a permit this Aboriginal reserve is inaccessible to tourists. Less than a minute into the cruise we were face to face with a large crocodile sunning himself on the sandy riverbank while people fished at the causeway less than 200 metres away. The croc slept, the people survived, and we cruised on through some beautiful riverside scenery.
Later that morning we relocated south to Kakadu Cooinda Lodge, an expansive resort with a casual outdoor dining area. The nearby Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre gives an evocative glimpse into how the park’s residents want their culture viewed and understood.
The sheltered caves of Nourlangie do indeed house impressive galleries of rock art. So the sun was low when we clambered up to Nawurlandga lookout on a neighbouring smaller, outcrop to watch the setting sun illuminate the walls of Nourlangie like a searchlight.
Our last morning in Kakadu began with a dawn cruise on the iconic Yellow Waters. Three boats of 140 passengers each ensure it’s not an intimate experience but watching the rich wildlife of the wetlands come awake was an affirming final Kakadu experience.
As we drove south out of Kakadu we made a list of all we had missed. The 50km 4WD track to Jim Jim and Twin falls was still closed after the Wet, nor could we access Gunlom, the waterhole featured in Crocodile Dundee. It had been an intriguing 400 km detour into the beating heart of Top End Aboriginal culture but we needed to return.
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