A timeless place that woos more than its fair share of Top End travellers, Australia’s biggest and best-known national park has spent the last two years making headlines for all the wrong reasons. In May 2019, the construction of a new walkway to Gunlom’s Insta-famous infinity pool exposed a sacred Indigenous men’s site, sparking a controversy that closed down the site and landed governing body Parks Australia in hot water and on its way to the High Court.
Meanwhile, on Kakadu’s north-eastern boundary, Ubirr’s world-famous rock art site has finally opened. For long months, frustrated Traditional Owners played their ultimate card in a long-running conflict over poor park maintenance and staff cuts, and kept the site closed. Issues were resolved on 23 June, ironically just days before the NT went into its first ever COVID-19 lockdown, opening up Ubirr, nearby Merl Campground, and the Bardedjilidji, Manngarre Rainforest, and Sandstone and River walking trails along the East Alligator River.
Despite being ordered back inside for the school holidays, Territorians and travellers already in the NT are soaking up the sun after a bumper wet season that thwarted ranger-led efforts to give Kakadu’s waterholes and campgrounds the croc-free all-clear. As this issue goes to print, Kakadu is in great shape for travellers and you can still battle barramundi on a croc-filled billabong, laze in a rocky waterhole, and discover 1000-year-old rock art sites at the end of an easy trail. Even the track to Jim Jim Falls is open for adventures!
Entry fees are back this year after 2020’s COVID-19 freeze, but thankfully, there’s been no increase. That means you’ll pay $40 per adult, $30 for concession cardholders, $20 for kids and $100 for a family for visits from now until October, when prices drop.
While camping fees in neighbouring Litchfield and Nitmiluk National Parks will spike this July, Kakadu is keeping its camping fees in check, priced from free (for basic bush camps) to $15 per person for full-facility campgrounds. Two of my favourite, caravan-friendly campgrounds — Malabanjbanjdu (for early morning trips to Mamukala Wetlands), and Gungurul (for day trips to Maguk waterhole) — cost just $6 per person and are half-price for kids.
After a slow start, Kakadu is finally worth the ticket price, especially if it’s been a while between waterholes. I’m lucky enough to be living within easy reach and have nailed down my pick of top experiences you can enjoy in Kakadu this winter.
WAKE UP AT YELLOW WATER BILLABONG
Down by the billabong, estuarine crocodiles patrol the shallows at first light, sidelining glossy jabirus and brolgas against a backdrop of buffalos staking out the wetlands beyond. Overhead, white-bellied sea eagles complete graceful loops, and rainbow bee-eaters and bright azure kingfishers feed on the wing, colouring a vibrant scene as the sun begins to rise.
Yellow Water Billabong (Ngurrungurrudjba) is my pick of places to kick-start your day in Kakadu, staking out the banks and capturing stunning shots of Kakadu’s wild things at feeding time. The fact that a third of Australia’s bird species call Kakadu home is sure to excite bird watchers, and Yellow Water is one of the best places to tick them off.
It’s also conveniently close to the campground at Cooinda Lodge, where you can book a sunrise river cruise on Yellow Water Billabong (two hours, $99 per adult, $74 for kids). Centrally located, the campground is worth a few nights’ stay, especially after you’ve roughed it elsewhere in the park and want to unwind at the resort’s poolside bar and restaurant. Prices are at the high end of the scale and very dependent on what month you book: unpowered sites range from $39–49 for two people, and powered sites are priced according to their size, from $69–89 a night.
FIND NAMARRGON THE LIGHTNING MAN
Beneath Burrungkuy’s sweeping rock overhangs, spotted black wallaroos roam the bushland and a short, easy-to-access walking trail leads beneath Anbangbang Gallery. Here, a famous rock art scene depicts Namarrgon the Lightning Man, clearly visible thanks to some artful retouching in 1964 by Badmardi elder Nayombolmi (Barramundi Charlie). Namarrgon dominates a beautiful fresco along a 1.5km-long circuit trail of rock art galleries that also climbs to Gun-warddehwardde Lookout for views over the Kakadu’s lofty stone country.
You’ll discover Namarrgon at Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) Rock, the lower realms of which are called Anbangbang, and the lofty viewpoints Burrungkuy. Visit in the early hours to find peace and serenity at Gun-warddehwardde Lookout. There are toilets and interpretive signage on site, and nearby Anbangbang Billabong offers shady picnic sites with plenty of bird watching too.
ROCK AROUND UBIRR
Crowded with a thousand years of ochre storytelling, Ubirr protects one of the longest historical records of any people, anywhere in the world. It’s also stunningly easy to access along a short, sealed trail that loops past an extraordinary examples of contact art — pipe-smoking men with their hands in their trouser pockets — and a smorgasbord of bush tucker harvested from the nearby East Alligator River.
You’ll have fun identifying the layers and layers of barramundi and goanna, turtles and wallabies, and finding the vivid, red thylacine painted high on a wall that endures more than 3000 years after its extinction from the Australian mainland. If you tackle Ubirr’s kilometre-long loop around sunset, climb another 250 metres to Nadab Lookout for expansive, golden views across the floodplains. Over the peak winter months, Ubirr opens from 8.30am to sunset, and nearby Merl Campground is the best place to spend the night with hot showers and private camping bays for $15 per person (half-price for kids).
CROC-SPOT AT CAHILLS CROSSING
It doesn’t matter how many crocs you’ve seen in your life, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the turn-of-the-tide hunt that takes place at Cahills Crossing on the East Alligator River. As the tide rapidly retreats, barramundi get trapped on the upper side of the crossing’s causeway, and the estuarine crocodiles and anglers that spar for the fish create a spectacle that’s well worth watching. Bring a fishing rod and join the fun.
4WD TO MAGUK’S ROCKY WATERHOLE
Pack a picnic, slip into your swimmers, and follow the very pleasant riverside walk to Maguk and the deep, chilly pool beneath Barramundi Falls (1km each way). Slide into the waterhole that’s big enough for a crowd and afterwards, warm up on the rocks around Maguk’s main waterhole. Although Maguk’s basic bush campground is off-limits to caravans, the 12km-long access track is easy to negotiate in any 4WD tow vehicle, so you can come for the day and return to nearby Gungurul to camp.
Gungurul is a peaceful spot, located about halfway between Cooinda and Mary River Roadhouse, and one of the least frequented camps in Kakadu. It provides just toilets, fire pits and picnic tables, but the fees are $6 per person and half-price for kids. To reach Maguk, take the signposted turn off Kakadu Highway, 53km south of Cooinda and continue 12km to the campground (4WD vehicles recommended).
4WD TO KAKADU’S BEST FALLS
Watching the last of the wet season flow pour over the edge of Jim Jim and Twin Falls’ tremendous, sheer-drop waterfalls is something I’ve longed to see. The irony is that by the time the access track dries out enough to take on traffic, the waterfalls have slowed to just a trickle. Don’t let that put you off, this Kakadu favourite is so impressive it’s worth arriving in July just for the chance to explore, even if the 50km-long access track takes two hours to tackle.
There’s plenty to do around Jim Jim Falls and top camping at Garnamarr where sites with showers and toilets cost $15 per adult and half-price for kids. Climb the rocky outcrop for views from Budjmi Lookout (1km return) or hike all the way to the top of the plateau (6km return) and allow at least two hours to enjoy Jim Jim Falls Plunge Pool at the end of a forested, kilometre-long trail.
IMMERSE YOURSELF IN ANCIENT AUSSIE HISTORY
Providing the backstory to Kakadu’s rich Indigenous heritage, the exceptional Warradjan Cultural Centre will help synthesise your Top End experience. It’s free, air conditioned and signposted en route to Yellow Water Billabong, and it’s so fascinating you’ll need a couple of hours and a stop at the cafe to see it all.
If you get inspired to experience more, book a full or half-day bush tucker hunting and tasting tour with Kakadu’s traditional Bininj/Mungguy, whose deep, spiritual connection to this region dates back 50,000 years.
Here’s a great spot that’s perfect for a late season visit. As the water recedes at Mamukala, bringing waterbirds into clear, close view, you’ll encounter comb-crested jacanas walking on the water lilies, cormorants, kingfishers and lots of finches. By late August, magpie geese congregate here in the thousands, and although you’ll spot them all day long, dawn is the best time to visit the bird hide when temperatures are cool, and the birds are active.
The 3km-long walking trail explores the paperbark and pandanus-lined wetlands and takes around 90 minutes to complete. When you go, don’t forget the mozzie repellent! Close to the wetlands, Aurora Kakadu Resort provides a pool and powered campsites, while about 30 minutes away, Malabanjbanjdu campground makes a great base, with sites priced at $6/person (half-price for kids).
STARRY NIGHT CAMPING
With price tags and facilities suited to every camper, Kakadu offers three tiers of national park campgrounds. There are six basic, 4WD-accessible bush camping locations that are perfect for hardy anglers, nine free-range, unmanaged campgrounds with pit toilets and fire pits ($6/person, $15/family), and six well-appointed camps where $15 buys you a hot shower and access to lots of ranger-led activities (half-price for kids).
I love the full-facility Djarradjin (Muirella Park) Campground for access to Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) and, close to Yellow Water Billabong, the caravan-friendly Mardukal Camp (one), both of which charge $15 per adult, $7.50 per child and $38 for families — hot showers included.
NEED TO KNOW
Kakadu National Park is located 250km south of Darwin via the Arnhem Highway.
Kakadu is at its best during the cool, dry season months (May–September).
Choose a camp with the price tag and facilities you need from remote, bush freebies to basic $6-a-night camps, or camps that come with hot showers for $15/adult, $7.50/child or $38/family. Peak season powered campsites at Cooinda Campground and Caravan Park range from $69 to $89/couple/night (from $39/couple unpowered), kakadutourism.com.
During the April–October peak season, entry costs $40/adult, $30 for seniors and concession cardholders, $20/child or $100/family (free for NT residents). Prices drop over summer’s wet season.
Estuarine crocodiles are found throughout Kakadu so obey signage and if in doubt, stay out of the water. Take care when reeling in fish, keep your limbs inside your boat, and never clean fish at the water’s edge.
Check site openings, book campsites and buy your parks pass at parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu.