I recently read a slightly negative view of Kakadu National Park and my heart sunk.
The writer had visited on a group tour and raced in for a night after visiting Litchfield National Park (in the same day!!) Two outstanding national parks separated by a good three-hour drive. I totally understood why she wasn’t too fussed on the trip.
Kakadu is not meant for one-night whiz throughs. It is a profoundly spiritual place that offers adventure, cultural experiences, stunning landscapes, unique flora and fauna and a bit of star-gazing.
I was sad that people might read that review and think Kakadu is nothing but a place that is hot with lots of mosquitos and a magical sunset that you can’t fully appreciate because you’re on the great Top End race to see it all in three days.
If you don’t have the means and time to experience Kakadu properly then I suggest holding off until you can otherwise you’re just wasting your time and money.
Kakadu National Park is not far from Darwin, so you can easily fly in and hire a car. Skip the tour, grab a bunch of friends, and split the costs. Once you’re in Kakadu, besides your camping and entrance fees your costs are minimal as it’s just nature you’re exploring.
Kakadu is more than 19,000 square kilometres, in other words almost half the size of Switzerland. You can’t get to know it if you race in for a night. There is a lot of ground to cover and so much to see.
Savour the Kakadu Experience
After traveling around Australia the past 18 months, Kakadu is in my top 5 highlights.
It’s one of the few World Heritage sites to be listed for both its cultural and natural features. Kakadu is renowned for its rich Aboriginal history and biodiversity.
Where else can you come and see towering red rugged escarpments, impressive gorges, floodplains, art galleries thousands of years old, pockets of rainforests, billabongs dotted with lotus flowers and lurking crocs, waterfalls cascading into plunge pools, over one-third of Australian bird species, and thousands of plant species such as pandanus and cycads?
We stayed at the end of the dry season, when it wasn’t at its full green and wet glory, but still beautiful with much to enjoy. It’s on my bucket list to see it after a big wet!
We also intend to return next time with a 4WD, as some of the most spectacular areas we could not get access to.
We camped for five nights at Kakadu Lodge and Caravan Park in Jabiru, the main town. In hindsight, we would have split this between Cooinda and Jabiru as both give you access to different parts of the park and will save driving long distances to get to the various sites to explore.
[stripe text=”Southern Section of Kakadu”]
As we had arrived from Katherine Gorge, and Cooinda in the Southern part of the park would have been a great first base for us.
Cooinda has a lodge and camping for accommodation and offers daily activities which may include bush-tucker talks, stargazing, bush walks, bird watching tours, slide shows and bingo nights.
Camping starts at $46 for a powered site and rooms start at $74
From Cooinda we recommend the following Kakadu experiences:
- Sunrise Yellow Water Cruise
- Gunlom Falls
- Maguk Gorge
Depending on your time, you could do this in one day, although it will be exhausting. (We attempted this driving in from Jabiru. You’ll see why it didn’t work below).
Yellow Water Billabong Cruise
A journey through Kakadu’s wetlands
The mist floats above the water as the sun gently rises casting a soft yellow and pink glow over the billabong.
Slowly it wakens, flocks of egrets soar above, and magpie geese come into land, sea eagles perch above looking for their morning feed, while all eyes in the boat actively seek out the ancient example of perfect evolution.
Our guide points ahead to a one-metre tail swaying back and forth barely making a ripple in the water. This is what most of us have been waiting to see in the Kakadu wetlands – a croc stealthily hunting for his breakfast.
We’re sure to keep our hands and heads inside the boat knowing that they’ve survived for millions of years because they are master predators.
We see this later when our boat glides past the pink lotus flowers and we’re startled by a sudden snap. We turn and only just see the hungry monster slide back into the water with its barramundi breakfast.
The Yellow Water Cruise was one of our favourite experiences in Kakadu. We highly recommend visiting on sunrise when the air is still and the weather pleasant.
The billabong is abundant with wildlife and sunrise is when you see it wake up. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed seeing and learning about all the bird life.
I would love to do the Paul Arnold sunset photography tour – the perfect place to learn how to improve your nature photography.
Yellow Water Billabong Cruise: $99 adults, $70 kids (5-15)
Mary River Region
Gunlom was one of my favourite places in Kakadu.
The road in was a little rough in places, but we managed it in our Ford Territory. We drove through grass fires to get there so were a little nervous as the area was closed only days before because of fires. When we arrived the ranger kind of shook his head at the city folk warning him that there were fires around.
“It’s only grass fires. Nothin to worry about!”
There’s a steep walk up to Gunlom Falls from the car park, but the kids managed it okay. It’s well worth going up there, even if you have to carry your young children.
The sweeping views out to the valley are just spectacular, which can be appreciated straight from nature’s best infinity pool.
The waterhole is surrounded by shady gums and perfect for a refreshing swim and a spot of lunch.
I just felt like I was an angel standing at the edge of the world from up here. It was such a serene and magical place. It’s by far my favourite waterhole in Australia and possibly my favourite view.
The kids had a ball swimming here with their friends Jack and Scarlett. I can still hear their squeals of joy now!
There is a plunge pool at the base of the falls, but that was closed with a croc warning sign, so I’d just stick to taking the walk up the top for your swim!
Maguk (Barramundi Gorge)
We did our very best to get to this waterhole late in the afternoon after our huge day doing the wetlands cruise and Gunlom. Our friend Laurence from Finding the Universe who drove 60,000 kilometres around Australia said Maguk was his favourite swimming hole in the country.
Unfortunately, for us we got bogged halfway in on the 150-metre soft sand section. Our car doesn’t have high clearance.
By the time we dug ourselves out, looking like a bad science experiment gone wrong, it was too late to try again using the hard bush road beside the sandy bit. Yeah, we had no idea this was there until a local in his beat up commodore came driving by and inquired why we did not just use that road instead!
[stripe text=”Northern / Eastern area of Kakadu”]
Jabiru is the main town within Kakadu National Park. You’ll find services such as a supermarket, post office, and bank.
This is a great place to camp to explore Ubirr and Nourlangie. The Kakadu lodge and campground here often has evening ranger talks and a great restaurant and pool.
For those not interested in camping, and crave a bit more comfort, there is the Gagudju Crocodile Hotel, which has been uniquely shaped to reflect a certain estuarine animal.
From Jabiru we recommend the following Kakadu experiences:
- Ubirr aboriginal rock gallery and sunset
- Nourlangie sunset and aboriginal rock art
Bowali Visitor Centre
If you stay at Jabiru campground, I recommend riding along the 4-kilometre return nature trail to Bowali Visitor Centre.
The visitor centre is beautifully designed and hosts extensive displays and information about Kakadu. It’s a great first stop to help you plan your stay in Kakadu.
Kalyra and I enjoyed an afternoon bike out here winding through the woodlands. It starts opposite the Gagudju Crocodile Hotel.
East Alligator River Area
The East Alligator river area takes you to the border of Kakadu and Arnhem Land.
Take some time to stand at Cahill’s Crossing and watch the cars cross the Alligator River with crocs swimming up and down nearby. There were several people standing near the edge of the river fishing. No thanks!
If you drive across, you have to time the tides right to get across this river.
The Border Store
Check your Kakadu event guide as sometimes there are talks and art sessions on at the border store.
We sat with two Aboriginal men one afternoon as they painted their art works. It was a great experience for the kids to see and we loved talking to the men to hear of their stories and traditions.
Ubirr Rock Art and Nadarb Sunset
Guided talks on Aboriginal rock art and culture often run of an afternoon through the Ubirr rock art gallery. An Aboriginal ranger will tell you many of the stories behind the paintings on the wall of the 1km circular walk.
These tours can be quite popular and we found it difficult to hear the softly spoken guide. It was also a challenge having to manage the kids at the same time. They did love seeing the rock art though!
The rock art is impressive and worth spending time seeing. Go in the afternoon and then head straight up the top of the rock for one of the most beautiful sunsets you could hope to see over the Nadarb floodplains and Arnhem Land.
Sit for a while with your kids. Your hairs will stand on end as you sense the great spiritual essence that exists here and has untouched for millions of years.
Head to the Nourlangie region in the afternoon: Visit the Rock art, walk around the Billabong and then enjoy the sunset.
Nourlangie Rock Art Tours
There was nobody else in this incredible rock art gallery when we visited. The art sites and Aboriginal shelter can be explored along a 1.5km loop walk. It also takes you to Gunwarrddehwardde Lookout with spectacular views of the escarpment.
We loved the painting and story of Nabulwinjbilwinj, a dangerous spirit who likes to bang females on the head with a yam and then eat them.
Sunset at Nawurlandja Lookout
Another impressive sunset, without the crowds, is at Nawurlandja. It’s a short 600-metre climb and gives views over Nourlangie, the escarpments of Arnhem Land, and the Anbangbang Billabong, which is popular to walk around.
The sunset is not as striking as Nadarb, as you are looking away from the setting sun, but just as serene and beautiful. The kids had a ball playing hide and seek here with Jack and Scarlett.
On the way out of Kakadu, heading towards Darwin the Mamukala Wetlands is meant to be a great short 3km walk to explore the wetlands.
We ran out of time to do this, but it came highly recommended. It’s said to be spectacular during the dry season with an influx of migratory birds.
For the 4WD Adventurers in Kakadu
We of course did not get to experience these places, but they are high on our Kakadu bucket list and have heard they are amazing.
Jim Jim Falls
Jim Jim Falls is said to be one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Kakadu.
It has a deep plunge pool and is surrounded by 150 metre high cliffs. Check with the visitor centre as the falls will probably have dried up by the end of the dry season. During the wet, the road becomes impassable so you’ll have to see it via scenic flight.
10km further on from Jim Jim Falls is Twin Falls, accessed through a deep creek crossing (croc beware). You can walk (6km) up to the plateau above Twin Falls, and enjoy some beautiful views.
You can bush camp out in this area.
A couple of readers jumped out raving about Koolpin Gorge. Access is seasonal and requires a permit and a high clearance 4WD. It’s real wilderness camping and hiking, but if you’re up for it, you’ll almost have the waterfalls and swimming holes to yourself!
Other Tips for Kakadu
IMPORTANT: It’s essential you speak to the rangers and pay attention to ALL signs in Kakadu. Crocs can be found in all rivers and most waterholes. Don’t risk it.
- Take mosquito repellent. It was only one night we noticed they were particularly vicious.
- If you have kids, check our tips for hiking with kids.
- Rest during the heat of the day and walk/explore during morning and evening.
- Pack plenty of snacks, water and food.
Getting to Kakadu
We arrived from Katherine and so entered the park from the Southern section at Pine Creek (150 km from Katherine)
If coming from Darwin, you’ll enter the northern section of the park from the Arnhem Hwy (240 km from Darwin)
Unleaded and diesel fuel are available at: Kakadu Resort (at South Alligator), Jabiru, Cooinda and Goymarr Tourist Park.
Entry fee into the park is $25 for a 14 day pass.
Plan Your Trip in Kakadu
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Have you visited Kakadu National Park? What was your highlight? Share in the comments!