Kakadu National Park
Before he died in 2002, Aboriginal activist and Bunidj clan elder Big Bill Neidje staked the survival of his culture on the protection of the land now known as Kakadu National Park in northern Australia. It was a smart play. Kakadu, the largest of Australia’s national parks, is now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Covering more than 7,500 square miles, the park encompasses woodlands, river valleys, coastal mangroves, and red-rock outcroppings. Wildlife is a major draw, including eight kinds of kangaroo and both fresh and saltwater crocodiles—the latter reaching 18 feet or more. The cultural sites are equally breathtaking, with more than 15,000 examples of rock art dating back some 20,000 years.
Kakadu is about 110 miles from Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory and the site of the nearest international airport. Once here, you can explore the park’s seven zones. Given the amount of territory comprised by Kakadu, which is nearly as large as the state of Massachusetts, you can plan on spending a certain amount of time in the car. But considering the scenery, this is not the cruelest sentence, even for more active visitors.
Purchase an entry permit ($25; good for two weeks) at the gate. May to September is considered the best time to visit. The monsoon season, which can start as early as October and runs through February, can lead to frequent road closures.
Currently, park administrators are looking to increase hiking options, which probably would have made Big Bill smile. “Walking is good,” he said. “You follow track, you sleep, wake in morning to birds, maybe kookaburra. You feel country.” The number of existing day hikes, not to mention the possibility of overnight bushwalks, is extensive. Among the most popular hikes is the two-hour trip to the Jim Jim Falls plunge pool, which traverses monsoon forests and boulder fields to a scenic, 150-meter-high falls surrounded by cliffs.
Given the cultural treasures at Kakadu, any traveler would do well to make time to see some rock art. The Warradjan Cultural Centre offers an excellent overview of the Aboriginal tribes associated with the park, many of whom are still present. For rock art, head to Nourlangie Rock, a 1.5-kilometer hike past an ancient Aboriginal shelter and several art sites. Along the way, you’ll face a steep climb to Gunwarddehwardde lookout for a view of Kakadu’s escarpment and Nourlangie Rock.
You have to apply for a permit to backpack one of Kakadu’s unmarked overnight bushwalking routes. Allow seven days for an issued permit, and include a topo map showing your proposed route and proposed overnight campsites in the application.
Boating and fishing on Kakadu billabongs and rivers is permitted, although threats ranging from flash floods to estuarine crocs mean that you must have a motor. The main quarry for anglers is the native barramundi, a tasty, hard-fighting fish, although mackerel and mangrove snapper are targeted in some areas. The floodplains of the South Alligator River are known to produce trophy barramundi.
Kakadu boasts 290 species of birds, roughly one-third of Australia’s bird portfolio. The Mamukala Wetlands in the South Alligator Region is a hotbed of birding, particularly during the dry season (September and October), when magpie geese flock to the marsh by the thousands. In the Yellow Water Region, the indigenous-owned and award-winning Yellow Water Cruises runs tours through Kakadu’s most famous wetland. Guides work hard to find “the big five”—all five species of kingfisher that can be found in Kakadu.
Camping is first come, first served, with managed and primitive sites scattered throughout the park. Managed campsites with facilities are $10 per adult per night. Bush campgrounds with composting toilets are $5 per adult per night. Stay at the Muirella campground for hot showers and flushing toilets in the heart of the Nourlangie Region of the park, with easy access to some of Kakadu’s best art sites and walks. Primitive bush sites are available for free. Two Mile Hole and Four Mile Hole are two such spots, offering solitude and great fishing in a remote corner of the South Alligator Region of the park.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication