Kakadu National Park: The Complete Guide

Blue and golden sky reflected in the lake at Kakadu National Park

 

Thimas Shing / EyeEm / Getty Images

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Kakadu National Park

Address
Kakadu Hwy, Jabiru NT 0886, Australia
Phone +61 8 8938 1120

Most travelers to Australia stay around the big cities and pristine beaches of the east coast, but thrill-seekers and adventure-lovers are better off heading to the rainforests of the north. Located in Australia's Northern Territory about three hours from Darwin, Kakadu National Park is much closer to Indonesia than it is to Sydney. The park covers more than 12,000 square miles—about half the size of Switzerland–and is known for its stunning waterfalls and ancient rock art sites.

Since the park is so remote and there's so much to see, you should allow for at least three days to get to know Kakadu. Guided tours are available if you're unfamiliar with Australia's wilderness, or you can camp out and explore on your own the rushing waterfalls and vibrant "billabongs"—what Australians call seasonal lakes and rivers.

The traditional owners of Kakadu are the Bininj/Mungguy Aboriginal people, who jointly manage the park with the Australian government. Kakadu has been populated by Aboriginal people for more than 65,000 years and the park holds many sacred sites, ceremonial sites, and burial grounds. There are about 500 Aboriginal people living in the park today, both in towns and in more remote settlements.

Things to Do

The activities available at Kakadu vary depending on the time of year. Northern Australia is generally considered to experience two seasons: wet from November to May and dry from April to October. In the wet season, you'll find fewer fellow tourists and cheaper prices for tours and accommodation. The park's waterfalls are flowing freely thanks to the frequent rainfall and there are plenty of birds and other animals around, but the downside is that many access roads and attractions are closed due to flooding. A scenic flight to see the falls from above or a cruise on Yellow Water Billabong may be your best bet, along with some short walks in areas that remain open.

During the dry season, there is a large range of things to see and do, from hiking and birdwatching to taking a boat cruise or learning about Aboriginal art and history. The waterfalls are less dramatic in the dry season, but many of them can only be hiked to during this time. Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls are two of the most popular and you can even camp out near the bases.

Aboriginal rock paintings at Kakadu are up to 20,000 years old, recording the lives of Bininj/Mungguy people throughout history. At Ubirr, there are depictions of the extinct thylacine, as well as paintings of early contact with Europeans. At Burrungkuy (Nourlangie), you can see creation stories told through art.

The national park offers planned itinerary ideas depending on how many days you plan to spend in the park, which are helpful to get your bearings and narrow down how much you can see. If you want something even more curated, guided tours range from boat tours to walking tours to helicopter tours, depending on what you'd most like to see.

Best Hikes & Trails

In a park as big as Kakadu, there are practically endless options for hiking and countless things to see. Choose a trail based on how much time you have, your fitness level, and what you most want to explore. Most of the trails are closed throughout the wet season and some of them may be closed at other times due to weather. If you're unsure, ask at the visitor's center or a park ranger for a recommendation.

  • Kungarre Walk: This loop trail is just over 2 miles and takes about two hours, but the terrain is flat and maintained and it's considered an easy hike. It begins near the Aurora Kakadu Resort and it's especially known for its diverse display of local birds.
  • Jim Jim Plunge Pool Walk: Walk to the base of the famous Jim Jim Falls, which is just a mile and a half roundtrip but considered a moderately difficult hike because you have to scramble over boulders. This trail is only open in the dry season when the falls are at a minimum, so you'll have to visit from a plane if you're visiting in the wet season.
  • Twin Falls Plateau Walk: Experienced hikers can reach the lookout above Twin Falls, but it's a strenuous and very steep journey to reach it. The hike takes about five hours, but you'll be rewarded with a jaw-dropping view down a 500-foot gorge into the wilderness below. The creek near the falls also includes a spot that is safe for swimming to cool down before hiking back down.

Wildlife and Plant Viewing

There are more than 2,000 plant species spread across the distinct landscapes of Kakadu, including fruits like the Kakadu plum and the red bush apple, the distinctive paperbark tree, and the pretty yellow flowers of the kapok bush. Bininj/Mungguy people have extensive knowledge about the uses of these plants for food, medicine, art, and ceremonial purposes, which you can learn about on a guided tour.

The park is also home to more than 280 bird species, 60 mammal species, 50 freshwater species, and 10,000 insect species. Birdwatchers can spot brolgas, lorikeets, kookaburras, magpie geese, and cockatoos in the trees, while iconic Australian animals like wallabies, bandicoots, and quolls can be seen around the park's waterholes at sunrise and sunset.

Australia's reputation for dangerous animals applies in Kakadu, with around 10,000 crocodiles living in the park. Although both freshwater and saltwater crocodiles can be seen in Kakadu, the "salties"—as the locals affectionately call them—are known for their aggressive nature. As a general rule, swimming in rivers or other bodies of water in northern Australia is not safe unless specifically designated by park authorities.

You can see crocodiles from the safety of cruise or a viewing platform like Cahills Crossing or the Yellow Water boardwalk. You'll have the best chance of spotting crocodile during the dry season, as they are restricted to smaller bodies of water during this time.

Where to Camp

Due to the park's remote location, you will almost definitely need to prepare for an overnight stay. Camping is one of the best ways to truly immerse yourself in the park and there are several campgrounds dispersed across the park. Managed campgrounds have toilets, showers, and sometimes even a store. Bush campgrounds, on the other hand, are much more rustic and have pit toilets, barbeques, and not much else. Commercial campgrounds that are privately run are pricier, but typically have more amenities like a restaurant or a pool.

All of the campgrounds run by the park operate on a first-come, first-served basis, so you don't need to make reservations ahead of time.

  • Cooinda Campground: This campground is part of the Cooinda Resort, so all of the services of the hotel are nearby in case you need anything. It's located near the popular area around the scenic Yellow Water Billabong, making it an ideal base for exploring more of Kakadu.
  • Burdulba Campground: This bush campground feels remote, but it's not far from a visitor's center and the famous rock art at Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) and Nanguluwurr, so the location is one of the best. From here hike to the Kubara pools where you'll often find swarms of butterflies flittering around.
  • Karnamarr Campground: This managed campsite has not only breathtaking views, but it's also the best place to camp if you want easy access to trails that lead to Jim Jim Falls (6 miles away) or Twin Falls (11 miles away).

Where to Stay

If you'd rather sleep in a little more comfort, there are hotel and rustic cabin accommodation options right within the park itself.

  • Anbinik Kakadu Resort: This lodging is located in the town of Jabiru on the east side of the park, and guests can choose to stay in small cabins, bungalows, or traditional suites. You'll have access to amenities like a restaurant, store, and a pool to enjoy after exploring the park.
  • Cooinda Lodge: Near Yellow Water Billabong, rooms at the Cooinda Lodge all have en-suite bathrooms, coffee makers, and television to help make the stay more comfortable. If you're planning to take one of the famed Yellow Water cruises, then the location couldn't be better.
  • Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel: If your kids are into crocodiles, then they'll love this quirky hotel in Jabiru since the entire building is shaped and designed to look like a giant crocodile. While kids play in the tropical-themed pool, parents can enjoy cocktails at the on-site bar and restaurant. It's considered one of the best accommodations inside the park.

How to Get There

Kakadu's nearest airport is in Darwin, the capital and largest city in the Northern Territory. Daily flights arrive in Darwin from most other Australian cities as well as some destinations in Asia. Most visitors stay in one of the two towns inside the park, Jabiru or Cooinda. The journey from Darwin is about two and a half hours to Jabiru or three hours to Cooinda. There is no public transport to or within Kakadu, so if you want to travel independently, you will need to hire a car in Darwin and drive to the park. If you can, get a car with 4WD, which is necessary for visiting some areas.

A variety of tours to Kakadu are available from Darwin and Jabiru, ranging from general day trips to week-long adventures with a focus on walking, four-wheel driving, birding, or cultural experiences. For example, the Heritage 4WD Safari Tour is a 14-day expedition that begins in Darwin and ends in Cairns, giving a comprehensive tour of northern Australia.

Accessibility

Many parts of the park include uneven terrain or rocky trails, but there are areas accessible to visitors with wheelchairs. The Mamukala Wetlands Walk is a bird-lover's dream, and the part of the trail that arrives at the viewpoint to sit and watch them on the lake is accessible. The shortest loop of the Mangarre Rainforest Walk is also fully accessible and ideal for spotting wildlife in its natural habitat. The rock paintings at Ubirr, one of the biggest attractions in the park, is also an accessible site.

The boat dock to get on the Yellow Water Cruise is accessible for non-electric wheelchairs, but there is a short 3-foot ramp from the dock onto the boat that wheelchairs cannot cross.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Winter (June to August) is the most popular time to visit Kakadu, though the shoulder season of April to May and September to October are also excellent options for escaping the crowds.
  • Always check with park authorities before swimming anywhere in Kakadu due to the presence of crocodiles throughout the park.
  • Visit Ubirr at sunset for one of the most spectacular light shows in all of Australia.
  • Campers should stock up on food in Katherine or Darwin as the selection at the supermarket in Jabiru is limited.
  • Consult road closures online before setting out on your road trip.
  • Bring your insect repellant! The rivers and wetlands of Kakadu are buzzing with mosquitoes and flies all year round.
  • Cell service is patchy in the park, so make sure to download maps and other necessary information at your accommodation or a visitor center.
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Kakadu National Park: The Complete Guide