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.