Kakadu protects almost 20 000 sq km of unique parkland of natural and cultural significance in Australia’s tropical north. Listed as a World Heritage Area for both its natural and cultural features, Kakadu offers visitors a cornucopia of contrasts. You’ll see tranquil waters decorated with delicate lotus flowers that are also home to lurking reptiles, vast coastal flood plains, rugged escarpments and the most outstanding concentration of Aboriginal art in the country. Several Aboriginal clans still live within the Park, which is jointly managed by the Aboriginal traditional owners and Parks Australia.
The rhythm and flow of Kakadu is and always has been shaped by water, whose flood in summer and ebb in winter create spectacular waterfalls, gorges and billabongs. Most visitors prefer the dry season when the humidity and temperatures are lowest. The park is home to an estimated 10 000 species of insect, 1700 plant species, 117 reptile species and 25 species of frog. Over one third of Australia’s bird species can be seen at Kakadu.
LOCATION: 170km southeast of Darwin
BEST TIME OF YEAR: June to November.
Permits & Fees
Park passes are required and prices will depend on when you go.
Permits are required for bushwalking overnight, camping outside designated camp areas, commercial photography and conducting research.
More information: Parks Australia
The Northern Territory’s flagship park goes through six seasonal variations a year, with each distinctly different stage contributing to the epic transformations that come with the iconic Wet and Dry seasons.
The Wet Season
The wet season (October-March) is characterised by heat, humidity and powerful thunderstorms that spark life within the park, with the Top End consequently recording more lightning strikes each year than anywhere else on Earth. Floodplains dominate the landscape, with water coming down at regular intervals, most often in the late afternoon. Spectacles like Jim Jim Falls constantly dump water draining from the Arnhem Land Plateau, a 500km long ancient escarpment that once met a shallow sea over 140 million years ago. Other iconic falls and bodies of water such as Maguk, Gunlom and Twin Falls roar in the Wet, though reaching them in the grips of the season can be impossible without a flight tour.
With the downpour of rain comes life: billabongs and floodplains swell, plant-life visibly grows by the day, and wildlife takes advantage of this shift. Testament to this is that Kakadu National Park is home to one-third of Australia’s bird species, one-quarter of its mammal species, and is the most diverse region for freshwater fish in the country. Needless to say, the Wet is a powerful and humbling spectacle of nature, though that isn’t to say that Kakadu is uneventful during the Dry.
The Dry Season
In April the rains recede in frequency and ferocity within Kakadu National Park, the floodplains soaking up the remainder of the wet season while windy storms whip the region to test the resilience of plants and grasses. When the temperature and humidity lessen throughout and after May, the prime time to visit Kakadu arrives.
The majority of roads throughout Kakadu are bitumen or easy gravel drives, with low range needed in some of the tougher sections of the park. Jim Jim Falls becomes accessible again during the Dry (and is 4WD only), and though Kakadu’s waterfalls will mostly stop flowing during this time, the plunge pools and cliff faces of every one of them are stunning in their own right. Feeding and creating Kakadu’s iconic falls is the Arnhem Land Plateau, with the land on top of the plateau changing almost as drastically as the floodplains below during the Dry.
Known as Stone Country, much of Kakadu’s wildlife seeks refuge in this unique landscape. What are tall monsoon forests and dense plains in the Wet become deep gorges and wooded pockets of hardy trees and plants in the Dry, with the woodlands that remain playing host to a huge array of mammals, birds and reptiles.
Attached to the Arnhem Land Plateau is Ubirr, the cultural and historical attraction that visitors shouldn’t miss when they visit Kakadu National Park. A group of rock outcrops on the edge of the Nadab floodplains, Ubirr has served as shelter for groups of Aboriginal people for thousands of years. Its proximity to the East Alligator River and the surrounding stone country has made it ideal for sourcing food, and over the years Aboriginals have subsequently told their stories through rock art at this iconic site. The Ubirr rock art ranges in age from under 150 to over 2000 years old, and along with a sunset view over the park it is a must-see. Below the outcrops and stone country however, billabongs and floodplains still manage to dot the landscape in the Dry, with the unmissable Yellow Water a prime example.
Kakadu National Park’s ability to flow between the seasons and thrive in both is attributed to a cycle of weather that has remained unchanged for over 8000 years. This cycle has allowed for the huge diversity of life, landscape and history that makes Kakadu one of Australia’s proudest natural icons, and one of the most unique regions in the world.
South Alligator area
At Aurora Kakadu, follow the 3.6km circular Gu-ngarre Walk (2 hr) through woodland along a billabong’s edge.
There are special viewing areas and an informative walk at Mamukala where thousands of magpie geese congregate late in the dry season.
In the dry season it’s possible to head off the Arnhem Highway to the bush camping sites at Red Lily Billabong and Alligator Billabong. The large and tranquil Alligator Billabong is popular for fishing, but beware of crocodiles. There is also bush camping at Bucket Billabong.
East Alligator area
The East Alligator River marks the northeastern boundary between Kakadu and Arnhem Land. Arnhem Land can be accessed at low tide via Cahill’s Crossing but a permit from the Northern Land Council (08 8920 5100, 08 8979 2410) is required. There are boat ramps upstream and downstream from the crossing, which has riverside picnic tables and a viewing platform. The Aboriginal culture cruise, Guluyambi (1800 089 113) leaves from the upstream boat ramp (bookings are essential).
The Merl camping area, near the Border Store, has good facilities. In the dry season take the 1.5km circular Manngarre Rainforest Walk (1 hr). See sandstone outcrops on the interesting 2.5km Bardedjilidji Walk (2 hr).
With its galleries of fascinating Aboriginal paintings, Ubirr is definitely one of Kakadu’s major attractions. To see the numerous rock art sites follow a 1km circular walk (1 hr). An additional 250m climb gives outstanding views over the Nardab Floodplain – especially stunning at sunset. Between May and September, rangers provide free, informative talks. Ubirr is open 8.30am to sunset from April 1 to November 30, and 2pm to sunset from December 1 to March 31.
The audiovisual and walk-through displays make a visit to the award-winning Bowali Visitor Centre a must for all visitors. Meals, postcards and local crafts are available. You can follow a 4km return walking track between the visitor centre and Jabiru.
The township of Jabiru was established as the residential centre for the Ranger Uranium Mine’s miners and their families. Today, it is a thriving community with many services, including a bank, supermarket, newsagent, travel agent, chemist, medical centre, and service station offering vehicle repairs. The library, swimming pool, hire cars, restaurant and food outlets also help make your stay more comfortable. Take a scenic flight over Kakadu and Arnhem Land from the airport in Jabiru East or contact Kakadu Air (1800 089 113) about touring the Ranger Uranium Mine.
South of Jabiru, along the Kakadu Highway, are the Malabanjbanjdju and Burdulba camping areas. In the dry season, explore this area on the 3.8km circular Iligadjarr Walk (2 hr) across the floodplain to the Burdulba Billabong.
With two magnificent Aboriginal rock art galleries, Nourlangie Rock is an area of great archaeological significance. Anbangbang Gallery is just a short walk from the carpark on the southern side and a short climb from the Anbangbang Gallery is Gunwarddehwardde Lookout, which provides outstanding views. On the northern side, Nanguluwur Gallery is a 3.4km return walk from the gravel road. A 600m climb leads to Nawurlandja Lookout, which also offers amazing views.
In the dry season, take an easy one-hour walk around the Anbangbang Billabong for an intimate look at the plant and bird life of a tropical billabong – very peaceful at dawn or dusk. You may also like to consider the 6km return walk (4 hr) to Gubara Pools. Be warned: don’t enter the water because of saltwater crocodiles.
Yellow Water Billabong
One of Kakadu’s most popular attractions, Yellow Water is a large land-locked billabong fringed by pandanus palms, bamboo and lowland monsoonal rainforest. Regular boat cruises introduce visitors to the comb-crested jacana, elegant brolga and jabiru, squadrons of whistling ducks and the elusive rufus night heron. From the safety of the boat, visitors frequently spot large crocodiles that inhabit the billabong. To see Yellow Water at its finest, visit at dawn or dusk. (Cruise bookings are made through Gagudju Lodge Cooinda 08 8979 0145). Birdlife can also be seen from the boardwalk. The place to find out more about local Aboriginal culture is the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre. The centre has interesting displays, as well as local Aboriginal art and craft for sale. To see the local environment try the 1km Mardugal Billabong Walk (1/2 hr) or the 2km Gun-gardun Walk (1 hr) – both leave from the Mardugal camping area.
Jim Jim Falls
Set amidst the red ochre of the Arnhem Land escarpment, this iconic site is beautiful at any time of year. During the wet season, the Jim Jim Falls are magnificent- water cascades 210 metres down sandstone walls to the pool below (a spectacular sight to experience on a scenic flight). In the dry season, take a 1km walk in to the plunge pool. The gates into the falls area are closed from 8.30pm to 6.30am. For views over the area, take the Budjmi Lookout 1km walk (45 min) from the day use area.
The magnificent double cascades of Twin Falls are just past Jim Jim Falls. They may still be flowing if you arrive soon after the access track is opened, however vehicle access across Jim Jim Creek will be hazardous at this time. Access to the falls is only by a boat shuttle service (tickets are available from the Bowali Information Centre). The Twin Falls are inaccessible by road during the wet season, however it’s the perfect time to soak in the view by taking a scenic flight.
Aboriginal art sites
Aboriginal people have lived continuously in the area for at least 50 000 years, and the park is scattered with relics, including grindstones, shelters, stone tools and ceremonial painting ochre. Dreamtime legends are presented at various significant sites throughout the park, with rock art galleries showing images of hunters carrying barbed spears and an array of creation beings such as Ngalyod the Rainbow Serpent and Namarrgon the Lightning Man. Art and living sites such as Ubirr, Nourlangie and Nanguluwur introduce the world of Aboriginal culture. During the dry season, rangers run guided talks at Ubirr and Nourlangie (ask at the Bowali Information Centre for more details.)
With over 280 bird species recorded, Kakadu is one of the finest areas in Australia for bird watching, particularly water birds. The billabongs, streams and flood plains form some of the most important tropical wetlands in the world. In the wet season, the streams and rivers rise and the flood plains are inundated. In the late dry season, thousands of magpie geese, plumed whistling ducks and other water birds can be seen as they crowd the remaining billabongs of Mamukala, Yellow Water and Anbangbang Billabong. Stately brolgas, jabirus and egrets patrol the shallows while comb-crested jacanas are often seen walking across the water lilies. Parks Australia has provided specially constructed viewing areas and an informative walk at Mamukala where thousands of magpie geese congregate late in the dry season.
Boating and fishing
Always let someone know where you are going when you are boating because strong currents, sand bars, submerged logs and crocodiles mean Kakadu’s waterways can be dangerous. A permit is required to use a non-motorised boat, and jet skis, airboats and hovercrafts are not allowed. See the warning on the map for details of where you can use a motorised boat. Concrete boat ramps are located at both the South and East Alligator rivers, and at Yellow Water, Mardugal camping area and Jim Jim Billabong. An unsealed ramp is located at Muirella Park. Fishing using lures is permitted, but live bait, cast nets, traps, spear guns and crab pots are not. Remember that bag limits apply.
Areas closed to fishing are the entire West Alligator River system and east of the Kakadu Highway with the exception of Muirella Park, Sandy Billabong and Jim Jim Billabong. Do not clean fish close to boat ramps as this may attract crocodiles.
Conservation and environmental care are crucial to the preservation of Kakadu. Some areas in the park may be closed as a quarantine measure to prevent the spread of the salvinia fern, an invasive water plant. You should not put your boat into waters closed off by quarantine; make sure to check all conservation information.
With its wide variety of landforms and habitats, Kakadu offers spectacular sights for bushwalkers. Although the many short walking tracks are marked, the longer bushwalking routes are not. The harsh physical climate and terrain of the escarpment area means walkers need to be well prepared, fit, and experienced navigators. All long distance bushwalks must be well planned and walkers are required to carry the relevant 1:50 000 or 1:100 000 scale topographic map(s) with the route marked. Permits are required for walks of more than one day. When planning your walk, ask park staff for up-to-date information.
One of the best and most memorable ways to enjoy Kakadu is from the air. There are a number are options that fly out from Darwin, Katherine and around the park.
Bolawi Visitors Information Centre
(08) 8938 1121
Kakadu National Park Permits Officer
(08) 8938 1140
Northern Land Council, Head Office
(08) 8920 5100
Tourism Top End, Darwin
(08) 8936 2499
Only contact in emergencies. They are not always manned.
South Alligator (08) 8979 0194
East Alligator (08) 8979 2291
Jim Jim (08) 8979 2038
Bowali Visitors Centre Road Report
(08) 8938 1121
Two kinds of crocodile inhabit the waters of Kakadu. The extremely dangerous estuarine (saltwater) crocodile generally inhabits the lowland flood plains, rivers, creeks and billabongs: both salt and fresh water. However, estuarine crocodiles can also move into plunge pools and gorge areas before they are detected.
The freshwater crocodile lives in the freshwater rivers, billabongs, plunge pools and gorge areas. While the freshwater crocodile generally poses no immediate threat to humans it can attack if approached.
Obey all crocodile warning signs and remember that a lack of signage does not necessarily mean that waterways are safe for swimming. A crocodile can remain underwater for up to an hour, so just because you haven’t seen any, doesn’t mean that they are not there.
• Don’t risk your life.
• Always obey ‘no swimming’ signs.
• Do not enter the water and only camp where designated.
• Keep children away from water’s edge.
• Clean fish away from water’s edge and remove all waste.
• Always seek advice from the Bowali Visitor Centre.