Helen Davidson, The Guardian, June 29, 2015
Here’s what happens when you move to the Northern Territory: any friends and family who have “visit the top end” on their bucket list bump it up a few places, especially when that damp Sydney winter hits. We have had nine guests since January, and visited Kakadu national park four times in six weeks.
Each visit included at least one new place, so the following four-night road trip is a “true story based on actual events” to highlight the best of what we discovered.
A trip to Kakadu is best done by car and at your own pace. After driving about 4,000km through the park in a month and a half, I may be feeling a little complacent about its wonder and a little guilty about my fuel consumption, but I am convinced the locals’ “Kaka-don’t” nickname for it is more about the pun than the truth.
After leaving Darwin bright and early, we grab lunch of burgers (buffalo, beef, barramundi were all tasted – go the buffalo) at the incredibly kitsch Bark Hut Inn on the Arnhem highway.
A stop at the Mamukala birdwatching hut offers a lovely, peaceful view of the wetland, but a diagram on the wall tells us September is the time to be here – there are few birds to watch now. We head to the Bowali visitors’ centre just outside Jabiru to get the lie of the land and tips from rangers about road and waterfall conditions.
The small town of Jabiru is the hub for Kakadu and the nearby Ranger mine, and it’s where we spend our first night – at the Kakadu Lodge, a large caravan park with a variety of accommodation. Our Jayco cabin with a double bedroom and sofa bed ($270 a night) is near the excellent pool and a bar with decent but overpriced food. Barramundi is again on the menu, because this is the Northern Territory. It’s not bad, and comes with lots of chips.
Yellow Water billabong. Photograph: Helen Davidson for the Guardian
We head north to Indigenous-owned Arnhem Land. Permits ($16 each at the Northern Land Council’s Jabiru office) allow us to drive over the East Alligator river which divides Kakadu from Arnhem, and on to the community of Gunbalanya/Oenpelli to visit the Injalak arts centre.
It’s really important to check the tides to ensure your four-wheel-drive will make it over Cahill’s Crossing. Each year many drivers chance it (often in the flooded wet season) and get their car stuck in the rushing water over the causeway. It’s hairier than it sounds – this is one of the more croc-infested stretches of river in the croc-infested park.
We cross at low tide, and passengers take photos and video while I plead with the universe not to give the NT News the joy of reporting on a journalist from “down south” getting her car stuck in the river.
Each year at least one car gets stuck trying to go over Cahill’s Crossing between Kakadu and Arnhem Land. Photograph: Helen Davidson for the Guardian
It’s fine, of course, and once over the hill the scenery changes immediately. The colours are vibrant, the expanses vast and untouched. It’s wild and perfect.
Our permits don’t allow us to stop the car because of the number of sacred sites in the area, and in about 15 minutes we arrive at the arts centre, on the edge of Gunbalanya next to a large billabong absolutely teeming with birdlife.
Injalak has recently upgraded, and the shop displays stunning paintings and objects, woven items and highly sought-after screen-printed fabrics by local artists and producers. It’s a great chance to stock up on beautiful souvenirs and contribute to the community.
It’s getting late in the day so we head back to Kakadu and have a fish at the crossing. No bites for us, but others are luckier. We move on to Ubirr, a star attraction. We amble through the rock art displays before a short scramble to the top of the rock. It’s a spectacular, 360-degree view of wetlands stretching out to the western horizon and the stone country of Arnhem behind us, all bathed in the rich afternoon glow. As the sun begins to dip, the selfies start to slow and the crowd finds a perch to watch nature’s light show in awe. There ain’t no sunset like a territory sunset.
The sun sets over Kakadu national park, viewed from the top of Gunlom falls. Photograph: Helen Davidson for the Guardian
The longer walks are best done in the cooler seasons unless you enjoy boiling in your boots. There are a lot of trails but one thing we’ve noticed is the inconsistency between the park’s gradings. Our group, hovering around the age of 30, is reasonably fit, with a handful of old niggling injuries between us.
A short and easy walk around Anbangbang billabong is very accessible and relatively shaded, and the beautiful setting is a nice start to the day. Signs warn us to keep our eyes peeled for crocs.
Nourlangie rock, on the same turnoff from the highway, is the park’s best collection of Indigenous rock art and has a stunning lookout well worth the short walk, as does nearby Nawurlandja, a barren rocky plateau with expansive views.
Indigenous rock art seen during a 1.5km circular walk around Nourlangie. Photograph: Helen Davidson for the Guardian
Tomorrow the alarms will go off before dawn, so we head to our next night’s accommodation at the Cooinda lodge holiday park, visiting the Warradjan cultural centre on the way through, with exhibits put together by the Murumburr, Mirrar Gun-djeihmi, Badmardi, Bunitj, Girrimbitjba, Manilakarr, Wargol and other clans.
Kakadu contains dozens of campsites with varying levels of amenities, starting as low as $5 a night for a site with a long-drop toilet and no shower, and BYO drinking water. Cooinda is pricier, and wussier, with full amenities and a bar next to a swimming pool. Don’t judge me.
Cooinda’s unpowered campsite area ($36 a night for two, plus $10 each extra person) is at the back of the holiday park behind a sign which – no kidding – warns “crocodiles inhabit this area”. The Sydney visitors are in the regular ground tent while we pop up the rooftop tent bolted to the 4WD’s roofracks, because being a selfless host is overrated.
Although Cooinda is a well-equipped and convenient holiday park, it is next to a wetland, and if you go at the wrong time you’ll face mosquitoes in biblical proportions. If this sounds like too much for you, the lodge offers cabins (expensive) or very basic dorm-style private rooms with beds and aircon.
The alarms go off and we stumble in the predawn light to the courtesy bus which will take us to the Yellow Water billabong sunrise cruise.
We’ve done this four times and have seen crocs, snakes, brumbies, buffalo and more bird species than can be counted. I’m not a bird person, but the flocks of magpie geese skimming across the water as the sun blinks over the horizon are enough to get my camera out, as are the terrifying jabirus.
On our boat are some very committed bird people, however. While the crowd is peering at a crocodile gliding terrifyingly close by, a man cries out, having spotted a rare something or other across the water which we must go look at. I think he’s a little miffed by the giggling.
We witness something very special (and also very disturbing in a Darwinian, law-of-the-jungle type way) when the billabong’s dominant croc, Maxi, decides to take out another half his size. It’s a slow and spectacularly one-sided fight. The video and pictures go viral. Even the tour guide is impressed.
Dominant male crocodile, Maxi, about 4.5m long, attacks and kills a smaller male at the Yellow Water billabong. Photograph: Helen Davidson for the Guardian
The sunrise cruise ($99) also includes a full buffet breakfast on return to Cooinda. Cruises later in the day are $72 for adults and $50 for children, or $90 and $62 respectively for sunset, but the operators are offering a staggeringly good deal to take a second cruise for $25 ($35 for sunrise). You’d be silly not to.
After a big breakfast we definitely don’t pocket a couple of muffins, then pack the car and pile in. Windows are down, the fan is on and we are flapping towels and shirts like mad to disperse the stowaway mosquitoes lurking around our ankles.
A little over 50km down the Kakadu highway we turn off on another “four-wheel-drive-recommended” track, to Maguk.
There are very few places to swim in Kakadu – the tourist guide officially recommends the Jabiru public pool only – and most are here in the Mary river region. Gunlom Falls, which you would recognise from a thousand tourism adverts, is the star, but Maguk is a quiet achiever.
An easy and mostly shaded two-kilometre walk trails through the monsoon forest, with some slightly more difficult rock hops over the sandy creek. It’s one of the prettiest walks we’ve been on and it leads to the large and deep Maguk plunge pool surrounded by tall cliffs and bushland. A waterfall feeds into the far end and it’s an easy entrance into the cool and clear water.
A wide and deep plunge pool fed by Maguk falls offers one of Kakadu’s nicest spots for a day visit. Photograph: Helen Davidson for the Guardian
It is possible to hike up around the hill to the top of the falls but the path, a short distance back along the river, is not easy to find. If you can, you’ll be rewarded with stunning miniature gorges and deep pools gouged out of the rock by thousands of years of rushing water. We were lucky enough to time our visits to Maguk between the tour buses and had the place almost to ourselves.
Otherwise park yourself with a book on the warm slabs of rock and sand around the plunge pool, and while away the hours with nothing but the birds, the breeze and the occasional backpacker to bother you.
I could genuinely spend all day here, and it’s nice not to be rushing between sites. Maguk has a very basic bush campsite back at the carpark for $5 a night if you want to stay. There are toilets and barbecue areas, but no drinking water.
We move on to Gunlom, unsuccessfully trying to manage our high expectations. The more popular cousin to Maguk, Gunlom falls is accessible by any car that can handle a dirt road, and its natural infinity pool is the star of a million Instagrams.
It is one of the best-equipped bush campsites in the park and just $10 a person each night. We madly assemble the tents to make it to the top of the falls before sundown. It’s a short walk of about 30 minutes, but an incredibly steep and scratchy track. Remember I said we were all reasonably fit? This is testing, but we are racing the sun so the two speediest travellers (the smoker and the shortest person – how is that fair?) race ahead. The others haul arse over rocks and and trees, whingeing away the pain, and thinking of the excellent leg muscles we are surely developing in this half-hour burst.
The pain pays off, and a postcard cliche greets us. The cascading pools are so picturesque I feel like knocking on the rocks to check it’s not a plastic movie set. The dying sunlight reflects on the glassy infinity pool, until we break the surface, jumping in for sweet relief.
We perch on the eastern edge of the waterfall and watch the giant red ball drop slowly behind Kakadu’s wild expanse. A flying bird silhouettes itself across the sun, and we laugh, realising this is actually the official NT tourism logo, but in real life.
Twilight sticks around for a while, and even though we don’t rush we make it back to camp before it’s too dark.
The dry lands of Kakadu national park just before the wet season begins. Photograph: Neda Vanovac/AAP
We spend the morning around Gunlom, exploring nearby walking tracks and gorges. There’s plenty to see. The Mary river region is different from the wild wetlands further north, or the art- and animal-heavy centre, but it’s where we will come back to in the future.
We are less than an hour from Kakadu’s southern exit, and stop for a late lunch in Pine creek. The Lazy Lizard, a termite-mound mudbrick tavern, serves good pizza, barramundi (of course) and cold drinks. A sign on the pool warns patrons against “heavy petting”, the Country Music Channel blasts from the TVs, and a bearded man in a blue singlet sits at the bar with a beer in one hand and a snake in the other. In case you haven’t worked it out, this is an outback pub. And it’s the perfect way to end our trip through one of this country’s greatest wonders before the drive home.
Sunrise over Yellow Water billabong at Kakadu national park, in Australia’s Northern Territory. Photograph: Helen Davidson for the Guardian
Kakadu road tripping tips
- Passes to enter Kakadu are $25 a person (free for NT residents) and valid for 14 days. They can be bought in Darwin or in the park at a bunch of places you will probably stop at anyway.
- Take your time. Kakadu is nearly 20,000 sq km, and can take more than an hour to drive between attractions. Many of the best waterfalls are on unsealed roads or tracks restricted to four-wheel-drives, and after 90 minutes rattling across corrugated dirt you will spend more time chilling out at each slice of paradise than you anticipate.
- Fill up your car on the Stuart highway and at Jabiru. We paid $1.88/litre at one cheeky servo. Check your planned mileage to see if you’ll need spare jerry cans of petrol to save backtracking to bowsers.
- Do you know how to change a tyre? Learn how.
- Phone reception is next to nil. There is limited Telstra only in Jabiru and Cooinda. A lot, but not all, the Kakadu sites have emergency call devices in the carpark if you get into trouble and don’t have a satellite phone.
- On a future trip we will check out Jim Jim and Twin Falls, but neither was open at the time we visited. Both were highly recommended, and the return journey involves at least four hours of tough four-wheel-driving.
- Take water everywhere. Whatever you think you need, double it at least. If you have a big container (ours is 35 litres), fill it up before you camp at Gunlom, because while the water there is drinkable, it tastes terrible.
- Mosquito repellant is awful, poisonous stuff, especially the types that actually repel mosquitoes. Long pants and a shirt made of light material are your best friends in the evening, and mean you don’t have to drench your whole body in DEET.
- You are in Australia. Do I have to remind you to slip, slop, slap?
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Helen Davidson from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.