Kakadu National Park: The Complete Guide

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

 

Thimas Shing / EyeEm / Getty Images

Kakadu National Park is located a three-hour drive east of Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory. 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.

With so much to see and do, we recommend allowing at least three days to get to know Kakadu. A guided tour is a good option if you are not familiar with traveling in Australia's remote regions, as is a stop at the Visitor Centre in Jabiru or Yellow Water to learn about the culture of the Bininj/Mungguy, the park's traditional owners. Read on for all the essential information about Kakadu National Park.

History

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.

About 2,000 Aboriginal people lived in the Kakadu area before the arrival of Europeans. They lived as hunter-gatherers, moving around the region depending on the season. In the early 1800s, the British attempted to settle in northern Australia, bringing disease and forcing Aboriginal people off their lands.

These settlements didn't become permanent until the 1880s, when large populations of water buffalos (introduced by the British a couple of decades earlier) became the target of commercial hunting. Missionaries also moved into the region during the 1800s, then miners, farmers, and crocodile hunters followed in the 1900s.

Kakadu National Park was created in the 1970s to protect the unique culture, flora, and fauna of the Alligator Rivers region. The name Kakadu comes from the word Gagudju, which is an Aboriginal language spoken in the park.

Kakadu National Park was added to the World Heritage List in three stages from 1981 to 1992. It is one of only four Australian sites on the World Heritage List for both outstanding cultural and natural values, alongside as international destinations like Machu Picchu in Peru and Tikal in Guatemala.

An area called Koongarra was added to the park in 2013, after a long campaign to protect it from uranium mining led by traditional owner Jeffrey Lee. There are about 500 Aboriginal people living in the park today, both in towns and in more remote settlements.

Plants and Wildlife

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.

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, kokaburras, 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 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.

Kakadu National Park, Northern territory, Australia
Westend61 / Getty Images

Best Time to Visit

Northern Australia is generally considered to experience two seasons: wet from November to May and dry from April to October. However, Bininj/Mungguy people traditionally identify six seasons in the Kakadu region as storm frequency, humidity, and rainfall levels fluctuate throughout the year.

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.

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.

What to Do

The activities available at Kakadu vary depending on the time of year. During the wet season, a scenic flight 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.

  • Marvel at the waterfalls: You might recognize Kakadu's waterfalls from Aussie films like Crocodile Dundee and Top End Wedding. Depending on the season, you can hike, camp or take it all in from a scenic flight. Jim Jim and Twin Falls are popular choices.
  • Cruise Yellow Water Billabong: A sunrise cruise is an unmissable Kakadu experience, especially for wildlife lovers. Book in advance during winter.
  • Visit rock art galleries: Some paintings in 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.

Where to Stay

Due to the park's remote location, you will almost definitely need to prepare for an overnight stay. Most guided tours use established bush camps for guests, but if you're visiting Kakadu independently, you can set up camp under the stars or at one of the managed campsites closer to town.

If you'd rather sleep in a little more comfort, accommodation options include Anbinik Kakadu Resort, Kakadu Lodge and Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel in Jabiru, as well as the Mary River Roadhouse in the southern part of the park and Cooinda Lodge at Yellow Water Billabong.

Getting There

Kakadu's nearest airport is in Darwin, which has daily flights to and from other Australian capital cities and some destinations in Asia. (Of course, you can also fly to Alice Springs and take a road trip up north.)

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.

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 the three hours to the park.

Travel Tips

  • 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 the park.
  • 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 centre.
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