Australia's Dreamtime Myths Come True: Kakadu National Park

The remarkable 44,000-year-old etchings that daub the rocks of Kakadu National Park, also a World Heritage site, are thought to be 10,000 years older than those found in Europe. In this rugged, wildlife-rich landscape infused with Aboriginal myths, it's easy to feel the urge to renounce modern-day life in favor of the spiritual wilds of Australia's Northern Territory.
Kakadu—the name derived from an Aboriginal langauge called Gagudju—lies about 95 road miles east of Darwin and sprawls across 7,645 square miles. Because of its unusual climate and remoteness (all the more apparent after a jarring 4WD trek into the heart of the park), Kakadu's ecosystem brims with life, including some 1,600 species of plant and 4,500 kinds of insect. The park's four rivers keep billabongs carpeted with water lilies, an important habitat for Australia's most impressive array of bird species. Covering the entire catchment of the South Alligator River, Kakadu supports over a hundred species of reptiles—including "freshies" and their more aggressive counterparts, "salties" (both Australian terms for crocs).
The park's world-renowned archaeological treasures lie near East Alligator River. Although there are about 5,000 different Aboriginal rock-art sites, Ubirr and Nourlangie Rock are the premier tourist-accessible galleries (others are considered too spiritual to be viewed by outsiders). The Bowali Visitor's Center, near Ubirr, is a good place to get your bearings. Ubirr's rocky plateau breaks off into a startlingly green billabong, and the walk toward Nourlangie Rock, at the end of a 7.5-mile sealed road off Kakadu Highway, leads you to an impressive frieze of paintings in Anbangbang shelter.
The incredible rock art is matched by equally breathtaking scenery. The park is latticed with wetlands, billabongs, woodlands, rock plateaus, and escarpments—a landscape perfect for bushwalking. The wet season from October to April feeds gorged waterfalls, but also closes many of the access roads. With the arrival of the dry season, roads and trails reopen; April and May are the best months for hiking.
Set aside the extra cash to join a small, multi-day tour. The guides are enthusiastic and know the ins and outs of the park—they've dedicated a good deal of time to learning about the 1,600-plus species of plants, they can point out a brown snake or scorpion well before you'll notice, and they're up-to-date on road closures, waterfall levels, and other constantly changing features of the park. Another option that's worth the extra buck is the flight over Kakadu Gorge and the Arnhem Escarpment (flights run from $70-$275, the high end being the cost for an aerial view of Jim Jim and Twin Falls).

Published: 15 Sep 2003 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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