Australia's Garden of Eden

It takes apples, hiking boots, a tolerance of scorpions and snakes, an appetite for kangaroo steaks, a good guide, and a whole lot of knowledge to survive the country's largest parkland
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The Big Green: Kakadu's sprawling escarpment  (David Kirkland/Northern Territory Tourist Commission)
Access & Resources
CLICK HERE for details on getting to and around Australia's Kakadu National Park.

“Better watch that little guy by your big toe,” Marc, my guide and Outback guru, told me in his blasé Australian drawl, throwing his sun-bleached ponytail carelessly over a brawny shoulder. I had followed Marc on what I assumed would be a quick uphill scrabble to take a scenic shot of Kakadu National Park, one of those photos that travelers (not tourists) pride themselves on taking—even if it means ascending into the fiery grip of some self-induced hell.

Following Marc’s barefoot lead, I’d left my boots and the majority of my clothing at the refreshing base pools of Boulder Creek Falls. It hadn’t taken long to realize that, unlike him, I did not have footpads of leather, resistant to desert brambles and westward-facing black rock that had been baked in the desert sun for the better part of the day. Every ledge looked like the last, but upon crawling up, there was Marc scrambling effortlessly over the next embankment of bear-sized boulders. I finally found refuge in the shadow of a scrawny scrub and tried to appreciate the sprawling parkland of southern Kakadu as I cooled my aching heels. That was when Marc issued his warning about “that little guy.” I looked down to see a larger-than-guidebooks-ever-described scorpion, scuttling only a few implacable inches from my stumped, bleeding toe. I beat a hasty retreat back across the scorching rocks. So much for reprieve. And as for the remarkable photo that had brought me to this juncture of pain and peril? I’ve got two: One of me, very sweaty, very crazed, with a sunburnt, faint smile as I stand in front of a barren landscape, and another of a pocket of parkland that looks like it might’ve been taken from a mere ten feet up. Neither depicts the rapid evolvement from barren desert to rainforest-green oases that I remember. Neither made it into the photo album.

As one massive scorpion and a few hundred jagged rocks do well to illustrate, Australia’s Northern Territory is not for the faint of heart, and Kakadu National Park is about as wild and relentless as the country’s Red Center gets. By the time I’d begun my barefoot ascent at Boulder Creek, I’d been in Kakadu National Park for one day with a group of six other travelers and we'd already witnessed crocodiles tear apart lamb shanks on the Adelaide River, visited Fogg Dam where there are 3.5 tons of snakes for every 240 acres, and eaten kangaroo steak next to a slithering brown snake (one of the most poisonous in the world, I discovered afterwards). Snakes, scorpions, squelching heat, and precipitous heights aside, this is one park I’ll never regret visiting.

Kakadu is one of Australia’s superlative landscapes, a distinction reinforced by its status as a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Site, but its location (almost 2,500 miles from the east coast and a jarring three-hour drive from Darwin) keeps it relatively unscathed by the tourist tread. The park is mammoth—at 3.2 million acres, Australia’s largest—and there’s no sense taking it on in one day. A New Zealander had warned me from a barstool in Sydney not to take the day bus from Darwin to Kakadu, that I’d spend most of the time regretting that I’d only allotted myself a day. I decided to take four days to see the park, and even that proved insufficient. The hiking alone could fill weeks, but there’s also fishing, swimming, snorkeling, boating, scenic flights, and wildlife galore (impressively, Kakadu is one of a few areas in the world with no known endangered species). But all the active endeavors within Kakadu won’t necessarily associate you with the park’s most intriguing and magical feature—namely, some of the world’s oldest artwork.

Published: 14 May 2004 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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