Kakadu National Park
Kakadu National Park
Kakadu National Park is known around the world as a land filled with awe-inspiring scenery, a rich cultural heritage and an abundance of fascinating wildlife.
The park lies around 260km east of Darwin and can be reached via the Arnhem Highway from Darwin or the Kakadu Highway from Katherine. At 20,000 km2 it is around half the size of Switzerland and is the largest National Park on the Australian mainland.
Flowing south from coast of Van Diemen Gulf the park encompasses estuaries, tidal flats, flood plains and widespread lowlands. 140 million years ago much of this land was under water. The escarpment that runs for 500 km along the east of the park was once the coastal outline dominated in the south by near-vertical cliffs. The outliers in the northern region were once islands extending from the escarpment line. The plateau extending eastward from the escarpment and into Arnhem Land is generally known as the ‘stone country’.
Within this immense landscape are the East Alligator, West Alligator, Wildman and South Alligator river systems. During the wet season these rivers carry vast amounts of water down from the plateau towards the coast. The Kakadu floodplains are often submerged for months on end.
Such an ecologically diverse environment brings with it over 1,700 species of plants, 74 of mammals and 280 of birds as well as a multitude of reptiles, frogs, fish and insects. Many of these species are unique to the region and due to the climate many are also nocturnal. Visitors with a sharp eye may spot kangaroos, frill-neck lizards, pelicans, geese or fresh and salt water crocodiles. Termite mounds dot the landscape in southern parts of the park. Cane toads have gradually been encroaching native habitats and endangering many species.
The aboriginal people of the Top End are the oldest continuous culture on earth having inhabited the region for over 50,000 years. Rock art within Kakadu is believed to be over 20,000 years old. There is still much evidence of their lifestyle throughout the park. Some sites are well known tourist attractions while others remain known only to tribal elders.
Today there are around 500 indigenous people living in Kakadu National Park including 19 tribes. They are known as Bininj in the north and Mungguy in the south. Most live within the park’s small townships but some live in the more remote regions. While their lifestyle has changed over the last few centuries, the aboriginal people of Kakadu proudly retain rich and deep ties with their land and culture.
Creation of the park
Early settlers from many countries valued the alluvial soil and some put it to pastoral use. From the late 19th century missions were established to ‘civilize’ the aborigines. Many of those raised in the missions went on to be employed as hunters of the introduced water buffalo and the native crocodiles.
Kakadu National Park was established in 3 stages between 1979 and 1981. It received World Heritage listing in 1991 with additional sections added in later years. The land is jointly owned and managed under an agreement between the indigenous people and Parks Australia.
Things to do
There are a number of rock art galleries throughout Kakadu. The main ones that visitors are allowed access to are at Ubirr, Nanguluwur and Nourlangie. The styles include traditional x-ray paintings, naturalistic representations of wildlife and some record early contact with Europeans (including a masted boat with sails).
Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls plunge down towering escarpment cliffs in the south east region of the park. The best way to see them in their majestic glory is from the air during the wet season. However if you prefer to get up close to the falls the 4WD tracks are generally accessible from June to November.
Fishing and boating
Fishing is one of the most popular activities in Kakadu National Park. The rivers and waterholes are home to over 50 native species including the famous barramundi. Fishing spots vary with the seasons. Bring your own boat or join one of the excellent fishing tours but either way, be sure to watch out for crocodiles and follow the local regulations at all times.
Kakadu has over 20 walking trails of varying difficulty. They include half hour graded trails to scenic lookouts, moderate half day walks and a medium/hard grade overnight hike. The walks are generally well signposted with detailed maps available. Park rangers also offer regular guided walks and activities for the whole family.
There are campgrounds and caravan sites throughout the park. Come early to grab a spot in the peak seasons as bookings are not required. Some grounds have little or no amenities so be sure to come equipped with all the essentials. Camping outside the designated areas is by permit only.
With the heat and humidity Kakadu’s waterways can look like tempting places to have a dip. However this is generally not recommended due to the ever-present risk of meeting a crocodile or two. It is much safer to use the public pool at Jabiru or the pools at many of the park’s hotels and resorts.
If you are short on time or want to learn from the locals you can join one of the many tours that operate throughout the park. You’ll be spoiled for choice with all sorts of camping, boating, cultural, 4WD and coach tours available. Tours can be booked in advance through the private operators or park offices.
Find out more
The Bowali Visitor Centre, near Jabiru, is a great place to gather all the information you need before exploring Kakadu National Park. You can also see a variety of traditional art on display at the Marrawaddi Gallery. Or for an in depth indigenous experience visit the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre near Cooindi.
The introduction and hunting of water buffalo in the early 20th Century had a disastrous impact on the fragile ecologies in the region. Crocodiles were also hunted relentlessly. The buffalo have since been eradicated and the crocodile population has greatly increased. Park rangers now go to great lengths to manage their numbers and habitats.
The rich soils of the Kakadu region are a controversial source of uranium. The Ranger Uranium Mine is now the only operational mine in the region. It commenced operation in 1980 during the same era that the surrounding land gradually became part of Kakadu National Park. Energy Resources Australia operates within strict environmental guidelines and is the largest employer of indigenous people in the Northern Territory. As a result it is both a blessing and a curse for the traditional land owners.
Uranium from the mine is used for Nuclear Power Stations in Europe, North America and Asia and represents a significant part of the economy.
Fire has been used by the aborigines for thousands of years to help the land regenerate. Today’s park rangers still use controlled burns to manage the land.
Tourism in the Top End and Kakadu in particular is one of the largest contributors to the Northern Territory economy. The park attracts over 250,000 visitors each year. Balancing the need to conserve the environment with the need to create jobs is an ongoing challenge for the traditional owners and the various levels of government.
Kakadu plays host to a fascinating assortment of festivals held during the drier months. From Kakadu Bird Week to the celebration of indigenous culture that is NAIDOC week there is something for everyone to come along and enjoy.
Facilities and access
Kakadu can be reached via the Arnhem Highway from Darwin and the Kakadu Highway from Katherine. Both are sealed roads and accessible year round (although parts may be cut off in heavy rain periods).
The town of Jabiru is home to much of the workforce both of the park and also the Ranger mine. It has a police station, service station, medical centre, shops and some accommodation. Scenic flights operate from the small airport but there are no aerial transport services.
Smaller communities with limited facilities in the area include Cooinda and South Alligator and there is a general store at Ubirr.