‘He’s a real beauty’, says our guide in hushed tones as she gently edges the boat in closer to the muddy bank. ‘He’ is a four-metre-long saltwater crocodile lying beneath some low trees on a bed of leaf litter, and I’m not sure ‘beauty’ is the word I would have used. He’s certainly a magnificent animal. His mouth is open (which helps him keep cool), displaying a nightmarish set of chops. He seems unaware of, or perhaps completely unfazed by our presence, but then we get a lesson in why salties are such formidable hunters, as all five-hundred-or-so kilograms of him departs the riverbank and silently vanishes without a trace beneath the tan-coloured waters of the billabong. You wouldn’t even know he was there.
This wetland cruise on the Yellow Water Billabong, part of the South Alligator River, is one of World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park’s most popular activities. Situated in the north-eastern corner of the North Territory, Kakadu covers just under 20,000 square kilometres and encompasses a wide variety of landscapes. If you’re short on time, it’s possible to do Kakadu as a day trip from Darwin, but brace yourself for a big day. The drive each way is just under three hours.
Here are five of the park’s must-sees and dos.
Cruise Ngurrungurrudjba Yellow Water
Sublime Yellow Water isn’t only renowned for its salties and freshies (freshwater crocodiles), it’s also a haven for birdlife. Something like two-thirds of Australia’s bird species are represented in Kakadu and at least 60 species are found here in the wetlands. As you cruise the tranquil waters with Indigenous-owned Kakadu Tourism, you’re likely to spot eagles, herons, kingfishers, whistling ducks, magpie geese and the lanky jabiru. Yellow Water Cruises depart from Cooinda (roughly 40 minutes’ drive from Kakadu’s service town of Jabiru) and operate all year round.
Admire the art at Burrungkuy Nourlangie
There are believed to be around 5,000 Indigenous rock art sites across Kakadu, which is one of the reasons the park was granted UNESCO World Heritage status. Some paintings are as recent as the 1990s, while others date back an estimated 20,000 years. Nourlangie is one of the most accessible galleries, and can be reached by following a 1.5 kilometre circuit from the car park. It’s possible to arrange a guided tour with a park ranger, which is included in the cost of your Kakadu park pass. Bookings can be made online.
Fly or hike to Jim Jim Falls
Nowhere encapsulates the extraordinary natural beauty of Kakadu like Jim Jim Falls, which plunge 200 metres from the top of the Arnhem Land escarpment. The falls generally only flow during the wet season and at that time of the year they can only be viewed on a scenic flight. If you are visiting the park during the dry season and you have a 4WD, you can drive, then hike out to the rock pool at the base of the falls. The return walk takes around three hours, so ensure you have plenty of drinking water and protection from the sun. Saltwater crocodiles are known to inhabit these waterways, so swimming is not permitted anywhere except in the plunge pool itself (and even that is at your own risk). Obey all safety signs and advice.
Get a bird’s-eye view of Kakadu
Whatever the time of the year, it’s worth splashing out on a scenic flight. There’s no better way to get an appreciation of the size of the park or its array of landscapes and distinctive topographical features. Kakadu Air offers a range of itineraries that depart from both Jabiru and Cooinda. The 60-minute wet season Falls Flight will see you soaring over Twin and Jim Jim Falls in spectacular full flow.
Watch the sun set from Ubirr
Ubirr rock is another of the park’s most popular Indigenous art sites, and is within relatively easy reach of Jabiru. But there’s another reason visitors flock here towards the end of the day, and that’s to watch the sun set from the rock’s broad flat top. From the carpark, a circular walk of around an hour takes you past a number of rock art galleries. From there, it’s a 250-metre climb to the top of Ubirr to soak up the beauty of the setting as the sinking sun bathes the Nadab plains in a warm glow. The 360-degree views are breathtaking.
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About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has previously had the opportunity to travel the world as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten.