Outback Australia: Kakadu National Park

Kakadu National Park covers 7,646 square miles of Australia’s Top End in the Northern Territory. How big is that? Well, you could fit both Yosemite and Grand Canyon National Parks inside of Kakadu with room to spare for all of the fanny packs (that’s bum bags for you Aussies) that would be roaming around. In other words, it’s massive. It’s also the native homeland of several groups of indigenous peoples. It’s a living history of Australia’s Outback story and a great place to begin a trip to the Northern Territory.

You can drive to Kakadu from Darwin in under four hours, and that’s exactly what I did. Be forewarned, though, that once you’re a few hundred kilometers out of Darwin, you’ll probably only get one radio station (ABC) that is a combination of NPR and local news talk radio. But if you’re a travel geek like me, you’ll enjoy listening to local music and hearing about the regional political conflicts as you scan the endless horizon for any sign of a town or passing vehicle. Along the way, you won’t pass much and you’ll quickly realize that the Northern Territory is defined more by what isn’t there than what is. It’s a land of natural beauty and devoid of much man-made structure. And Kakadu is the epicenter of much of that scenic wonder.


The first thing I noticed upon entering Kakadu were the signs for the East Alligator, West Alligator and South Alligator rivers. The second thing you’ll notice is that there are no alligators in Kakadu. Or in the Northern Territory. Or in Australia. In the early 1800s, an English navigator by the name of Phillip Parker King visited the region fresh off of a trip to Florida. He mistook Australia’s crocodiles for alligators and the misnomer has stuck ever since. Just another quirk in an already quirky country.

And those crocodiles are prevalent in Kakadu. You’d be foolish to swim in any of the billabongs or rivers that you find in your travels. However, there are plenty of opportunities to safely observe these descendants of dinosaurs safely. One of the best is on the Yellow Water Cruise. Don’t let the odd name fool you. The cruise takes you through some of the most serene areas of the park and allows you to view wildlife from crocs to jabiru. It’s a great way to spend a morning and both kids and adults will be in awe of the creatures and landscapes that you witness. For the best experience, sit in the back of the boat with the guide and stand on your seat to take pictures without fear of blocking anyone’s view.

While Australia’s most famous inland natural wonder, Uluru, is several hundred kilometers south of Kakadu, the park is not lacking for dramatic rock outcrops. Nourlangie Rock (Burrunggui in the native language) features some pristine rock art and breathtaking views of the wide expanses of the Northern Territory. You can clearly notice paintings of wallabies and hunters (pictured), as well as many of the traditional spirits who are the central characters of the indigenous people’s Dreamtime or Dreaming. These are the oral traditions that make their history of the universe and their land and the art provides a window into how the native people lived thousands of years ago.

Similar to Burrunggui, Ubirr Rock has a “gallery” of art that dates back thousands of years. Park guides regularly host scheduled talks at various art sites to explain the pictures and their significance to the native people. I was beyond pleased to see several aboriginal guides working at the park and sharing the stories of their heritage as they had learned them as children.

Ubirr Rock is a popular destination for park visitors because of its breathtaking sunsets. The good news is that the view is even better than advertised. The bad news is that you’ll be sharing the experience with several hundred of your newest photo-crazed friends. Anticipating a rush of people around sunset, I elected to climb Ubirr (it’s a fairly easy walk) in the mid-afternoon. The top was nearly devoid of people during the hottest part of the day and I looked out onto the flood plains and water buffalo grazing areas in quiet solitude. It wasn’t until around 5:30 that the hordes of tourists with their cameras and boorish behavior arrived en masse. By then, I had enjoyed several hours of peaceful reflection high atop the Outback with nothing to keep me company but welcomed breezes and the occasional white breasted sea eagle.

That said, the sunset at Ubirr was phenomenal. As the evening approached Kakadu, the sun itself seemed weary after a long day. It relinquished its position high above the plains and seemed to sink meekly towards the horizon, as if conceding that the moon had once again claimed victory in this daily battle.

For a true sense of the Northern Territory’s size and scope, Kakadu National Park is a must-see. Many travelers camp or stay in camper vans while visiting. Others stay at the crocodile-shaped Holiday Inn in the mining town of Jabiru (not to be confused with the bird). No matter where you lay your head at night in Kakadu, however, you won’t wake up far from some of the most beautiful vistas you’ve ever seen.

One could easily spend several weeks in Kakadu lingering in various sections of the park and interacting with the land. Sadly, I had only a few days. Thankfully, I stayed in some incredibly unique accommodations that helped me learn about the park from the people who grew up there. And that’s what I’ll be covering tomorrow.

Mike Barish traversed the Outback on a trip sponsored by Tourism Northern Territory. He traveled alone and had no restrictions on what he could cover during his travels. That would explain how he ended up eating water buffalo. You can read the other entries in his Outback Australia series HERE.

Outback Australia: Mindil Beach Sunset Market

Before departing for the Northern Territory, I was discussing my trip with some Aussie friends. When they heard that I was going to Darwin, they raved about two things: the food and the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets. Darwin is a melting pot of Southeast Asian and Australian cultures, with immigrants from Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines making up a substantial portion of the capital’s population. As such, Darwin has more to offer than just Australian meat pies and wedges (this is not to say that I couldn’t survive on pies and wedges, because I happily could). And if Darwin is a melting pot, then Mindil Beach Sunset Market is the vortex that is produced when you stir it all up.

Every Thursday and Sunday throughout the dry season, hundreds of vendors selling everything from raw oysters to sarongs gather at Mindil Beach to peddle their wares, socialize and watch the sunset. Children run freely around the beach, frolicking with ice cream cones in hand and remnants of that afternoon’s candy still on their shirts. Tourists and locals mingle as they meander through the makeshift paths between booths filled with local musicians’ CDs and food stalls serving everything from roti to shaved ice. And since the market only operates in the dry season, you’re virtually guaranteed perfect weather throughout the evening.

As with any market, there are things worth knowing in advance. I went to the Mindil Beach Sunset Market not knowing what to expect. I left with plenty of tips for your visit to Darwin.


  • Get there early – The market opens at 5:00pm and things are relatively quiet for the first 45 minutes or so. The parking lot can become a bit chaotic later in the evening, so do yourself a favor and just head up there right when it opens.
  • Do a few laps – There’s nothing worse than buying a souvenir only to later stumble upon something significantly better. The vendors at Mindil Beach are tremendously friendly, so if you’re not sure that you’re ready to commit to that silver bracelet, ask the merchant to put it aside for you. If you don’t see anything better, go back and buy it. Just be polite and let them know if you’ve changed your mind so that they can put the product back out for others.
  • Don’t stuff yourself all at once – The plethora of fantastic and authentic food at Mindil is worth sampling tapas-style. Grab some chili crab from one vendor and a chicken satay from another. Leave room for the mind-numbingly sweet desserts created with lychee, tropical fruits and plenty of ice and syrup.
  • Don’t get the tacos – I love Mexican food as much as the next guy, but Australia is no place for Mexican food. I’ve spent enough time there to know this all too well. You’re not here for tacos. Stay focused.
  • All that glitters is not gold – Just like any street fair or market, some vendors are selling authentic local goods while others are pushing schlocky crap to make a quick buck. Look at everything carefully, ask the merchant as many questions as you’d like and don’t be afraid to walk away empty handed if you’re not satisfied.
  • Walk down the beach for the sunset – Mindil Beach is a mob scene around 6:00 in anticipation of the sunset. Nothing ruins a serene moment more than hundreds of digital cameras chiming. Around 5:45, take a stroll down the beach away from the masses and the market itself. Enjoy the sunset in solitude and then return for your next wave of curried everything,
  • Learn to use a whip – Perhaps my favorite booth at the Mindil Beach Sunset Market belongs to Mick of Mick’s Whips. He sells, well, whips (along with various tchotchkes made from crocodile skins) and teaches anyone who’s interested how to use them in his whip arena. Even this Yank from New York City was cracking the whip before the night was through.

There’s not much else to it. It’s not rocket science, it’s just one of the coolest little markets in one of the most diverse towns you’ll find in Australia. For more information on the Mindil Beach Sunset Market, check out their website. Just be sure that you arrive hungry.

Mike Barish traversed the Outback on a trip sponsored by Tourism Northern Territory. He traveled alone and had no restrictions on what he could cover during his travels. That would explain how he ended up eating water buffalo. You can read other entries in his Outback Australia series HERE.

Outback Australia: Exploring the Northern Territory

Back in June, Gadling brought you a series on Queensland that sought to expand people’s perceptions of Australia beyond Sydney and Outback Steakhouse commercials. That trip was my second Down Under and it reminded me of why I love Australia so much. Australia is home to a tremendous amount of ingenuity and pride. As you can imagine, its location has led its people, as well as its flora and fauna, to adapt to isolation and harsh climates. They’ve learned to help each other and fend for themselves. Intrigued by my visits to Australia’s east coast and Tasmania, I was eager to go deeper into that vast country. I wanted to see the Outback for myself, since it’s something that people always mention when discussing Australia but can never seem to explain. In short, I wanted to go to the Northern Territory.

The Northern Territory stretches from the Timor Sea in the Top End (where you will find the capital, Darwin) down to the country’s Red Center (home to Alice Springs). It boasts climate extremes that turn deserts into wetlands and produce some of the most dramatic electrical storms in the world. Its population has a higher percentage of indigenous peoples than any other state or territory in Australia. And, perhaps most famously, its landscapes display some of the oldest and most well-preserved rock art known to man.

To give you a sense of how large and yet desolate the Territory is, keep in mind that it is almost twice the size of Texas with a population 100 times smaller. It’s home to Kakadu National Park, which covers nearly five million acres and registers as just a small spot on a map of the NT. That scale of size and desolation requires creativity and dedication to survive, and that’s what I’ll be describing in this series.

I’ll take you from Darwin to Kakadu National Park and down to Alice Springs to see just how unique Australia’s Northern Territory truly is. I hope that you’ll follow along as I explore Outback Australia.

Mike Barish traversed the Outback on a trip sponsored by Tourism Northern Territory. He traveled alone and had no restrictions on what he could cover during his travels. That would explain how he ended up eating water buffalo. You can read future entries in his Outback Australia series HERE.