Kakadu and Arnhem Land offer stunning scenery with magnificent views and adventures for everyone. The landscapes are full of contrasts and spectacular sights. This is a place to enjoy nature and to take part of the Australian culture. Kakadu is located 257 km east of Darwin and is Australia’s largest national park and the second largest in the world. To be able to see and do everything, a four-wheel drive is required, but there are alternatives suitable for those driving a non-four-wheel drive car. Kakadu is known for its wetlands, impressive waterfalls, rock arts, incredible hiking trails and campsites in the middle of nature among wild animals. Mobile coverage is rare, this is a place to lower your shoulders, inhale the fresh air and focus on the rich animal life and the vegetation. After a day of activities, people gather around campfires to share experiences and stories.
Kakadu is listed as a World Heritage site thanks to the park’s cultural heritage but also its large number of rare species of plants and animals. The park has been inhabited for over 40,000 years and has a complex ecosystem. A large collection of paintings and rock carvings have documented what life looked like in the past. The paintings are detailed and give insight into how hunting was conducted, but also what social structures and ritual ceremonies that took place among the aboriginal people looked like. The park spans over 20,000 square kilometres and houses hundreds of different species of animals and over one thousand different types of plants. Many of these are unique for Kakadu and there is a great chance that you will see a lot of exciting things if visiting the park for a few days. There are a significant number of saltwater crocodiles in the park and it is clearly signposted where you can swim, camp and hike, but everything is done at your own risk.
Arnhem Land is a gigantic nature reserve east of Kakadu. The area is almost as large as Iceland. It is a place of great value for the indigenous people and Arnhem Land and it belongs to the Aboriginals. Therefore, permission is required to visit the area. If you manage to get one, you will be rewarded with a unique insight into the Aboriginal culture. It is one of the world’s best fishing destinations and the nature is vast and wild. Join in on a guided tour to this mysterious place to get more out of your trip to Australia. There are numerous guided tours available to boost your travel experience.
Sights and experiences
Jim Jim Falls
Cliffs up to 150 m encloses a scenic pond, its water feeding from a nearby waterfall. There is a white sandy beach for those who do not want to take the daring jump into the water from the rocks high above. To get to Jim Jim falls, you need a car with a four-wheel drive and healthy legs. It is a journey of 60 km from the main road’s parking lot in Kakadu. Since you must drive through soft sand for the last 10 km, expect about two hours per one-way trip from the main road. It is very easy to get stuck if you have not lowered the air pressure in all the tires on the car. The last bit to the waterfall is a walk on one kilometre through rugged terrain. You must climb over stone boulders and rocks, so expect that this take you between 30 to 60 minutes. It is worth it; you are surrounded by a stunning nature with crystal clear water that captures all the possible colours from the sunlight. Taking a dip in the water is a must, even if it is freezing cold and hurts like a thousand needles on the body.
Maguk, an incredibly beautiful woodland lake and a waterfall to view only twelve kilometres from the main road. It’s an easy way to drive even if a four-wheel drive is required. Here too, the walk is short but demanding and takes between 15 to 45 minutes depending on your tempo. The walk starts with a broad path through a monsoon forest, then take you over rocks and cliffs. You can choose to go to the waterfall or towards the mountain. It is a magical walk and the hiking trail has a unique flora and fauna. If you reach the lake, you can jump from rock to rock or swim to the waterfall. There are two additional waterholes above the waterfall. To get to these, choose the path that leads to the mountain. It is signposted before you reach the waterfall, so stay tuned. The view over the waterfall is magnificent and you can swim here and enjoy your packed picnic before leaving.
Gunlom Gorge has a view that will take your breath away. Gunlom is located approximately 37 km from the main road and you can get here with any type of car. But be prepared that the last bit is a walk that will turn out to be a real workout. A path and a few steps lead up a steep mountain. Most people need to stop several times to get their pulse down. On the second half of the walk you can start enjoying the view, giving your energy to continue all the way up. Once on the top you can take a cool dip in any of the waterholes and enjoy the view of southern Kakadu. Do not forget the camera. It is possible to continue through the rocks for another kilometre to reach the top of a waterfall where there are barely any people at all. If you still have energy left, this is highly recommended. Don’t let the steep path stop you from enjoying the journey’s most beautiful view.
Yellow Water Billabong
Kakadu’s most famous wetland is best visiting at sunrise or sunset. One third of Australia’s birds are in Kakadu and around 60 species are found near Yellow Water. There are also crocodiles that lurk in the water or sunbathe on the sandbank. The best way to experience Yellow Water is by boat and if you want to make the popular sunrise or sunset tours, it must be booked in advance (gagudju-dreaming.com). Otherwise, there is a boardwalk across the wetland so you can look for colourful birds and unique plants on your own.
Kakadu’s rock carvings and rock art are world-class and one of the reasons why Kakadu was listed as a World Heritage site. The paintings might be over 20,000 years old and illustrate animals, war, the love of nature and Aboriginals meeting the Europeans. Some of the main paintings can be found at Ubirr and there are two different hiking trails to choose from. The shorter one is one kilometre long and simple. During this hike you will see outstanding rock carvings telling stories about what life was like when the Aboriginals lived here. The longer trail is six and a half kilometres long and offers a wonderful view of Kakadu. In addition to rock carvings and rock paintings you also get to see the East Alligator River. Ubirr is located about 39 kilometres from the main road and you can get here with any type of car.
Nourlangie & Anbangbang Gallery
Just 13 km from the main road is a walking trail on one and a half kilometres leading to captivating rock paintings and places where the Aborigines sought shelter. You can also make a short detour from the trail and climb up a mountain to see the impressive view of Kakadu and Nourlangie. This stop is recommended for everyone because you get to experience a lot in a short time.
Arnhem Land is one of Australia’s most spectacular and inaccessible natural areas. This gigantic area of 97,000 square kilometres lies east of Kakadu and is of great importance to the indigenous people. In 1931 the area became a nature reserve, which helped preserve the nature. Permission is required to enter. If you don’t follow this, you can be fined thousands of dollars. A four-wheel drive is a must for getting around. The easiest and most rewarding way to experience Arnhem Land is by joining in on a guided tour. This way, you can be sure that you get to visit the best places and the guides are knowledgeable and know where it is safe to hike. Two examples are Davidson’s Arnhem Land Safaris (arnhemland-safaris.com) and Lords Safari (lords-safaris.com). Remember that Arnhem Land is a spiritual place for the indigenous people. Show respect and consideration when you are in the area.
Good to know
To visit Kakadu National Park, you need an entrance ticket. This costs $25 per person over 16 years of age and is valid for 14 days. Tickets can be purchased online (parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu/plan/passes/) or via the Visitor Information Centre in either Kakadu or Darwin. You can also download maps and more detailed information about roads, hiking trails and attractions in the park (environment.gov.au/resource/visitor-guid-kakadu-nationalpark). Bowali Visitor Centre along Kakadu Highway has the latest information on where to swim, drive and which attractions that are open. Or, you can travel with a travel organizer and let someone else do all the planning. For example, on wotif’s website you can find plenty of suggestions of these types of activities in and around Kakadu National Park (wotif.com/things-to-do/search?location=Kakadu%2C+Northern+Territory).
Warnings and preparations
The best time to visit Kakadu is during the dry season between May and October. If you come between June and August, the roads have dried up but the waterfalls are still impressive from all the previous rain.
Visit the park’s website (kakadu.com.au) and check out which roads are open and where to swim before you embark on an adventure in nature. Kakadu National Park has over 10,000 saltwater crocodiles but the rangers work meticulously to check and locate them so that visitors can swim safely in several places in the park. But, all activities in Kakadu are done at your own risk. It is clearly marked with signs where you should not swim. This is changed daily so be sure to be up to date with the latest information.
You can easily visit Kakadu on your own by car. To get the most out of the trip, a four-wheel drive is required. If you hired a car and drive off-road (on non-paved roads), the insurance does not apply in most cases, so be sure to check what applies when renting. If you want to improve the comfort, you can rent a vehicle with beds and kitchen equipment for up to five people from, for example, Wicked 4 × 4 Rentals (wicked4x4rentals.com).
To travel into Arnhem Land, permission is required from the Northern Land Council (nlc.org.au) or Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation (dhimurru.com.au), depending on which part of the reserve you plan to visit. Therefore, it is much easier to join in on a guided tour since the tour organizers who visit Arnhem Land already have permission. It is of course equally possible to join in on a guided tour to Kakadu or other parts of the Northern Territory (wotif.com/things-to-do/kakadu-national-park-day-tour-from-darwin.a180449.activity-details). There are bus trips for everyone, whether you are old or young, want to travel in luxury or budget, if you have children or are travelling all alone. Buses from, for example, Travel Wild (travelwild.com.au) has four-wheel drive and takes you pretty much everywhere. Another option to see Kakadu National Park is via air with Kookaburra Air (wotif.com/things-to-do/kakadu-mary-river-scenic-flight.a576084.activity-details) or via the national park’s waters (wotif.com/things-to-do/2-day-kakadu-national-park-east-alligator-river-tour.a271421.activity-details).
Kakadu has accommodation options in all price ranges. There are hotels, small cottages or camping sites and caravan parking. The cheapest variants are also those with the simplest conditions. Such a campsite has no more than a toilet and opportunities to make fire. They can cost as little as a couple of dollars per person and are a great way to meet other travellers. In Kakadu there are more than one of these simpler campsites, where you pay in cash on site. There is no reservation system, first there applies.
If you do not want to camp there are other options
In the vicinity of Yellow Water Billabong lies the complex Cooinda Lodge Kakadu (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Cooinda_Lodge_Kakadu.htm), which has nice rooms with patios. And all guests have access to the area’s facilities such as a swimming pool, restaurant and reception. There are plenty of camping sites with and without electricity only a short distance from here.
Four star Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Mercure_Kakadu_Crocodile_Hotel.htm) can be found at Flinders Street, Jabiru, not far from Bowali Visitor Centre. It’s easy to get sight of because it is shaped like a crocodile. They have rooms suitable for both lonely travellers and families. All rooms have air conditioning. There is a pool, restaurant and a bar on site. In Jabiri, near Kakadu National Park lies Kakadu Lodge (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Kakadu_Lodge.htm). They have several fully equipped cabins with air conditioning, several of which are aimed at families. Access to the pool, BBQ and bicycle rental is a plus.
A Saturday in Kakadu with your own car
07:00 – Early view
You wake up early to the chirping of the birds and eat a hearty breakfast before you pack up the car. In the backpack is the camera, water bottles and sunscreen. You kick-start the day by climbing 600 meters uphill on the Nawurlandja to take some pictures over a Kakadu that just have woken up this peaceful morning. You stay for a while and breathe the fresh air and enjoy the beautiful scenery.
08:30 – World-class rock paintings
At Nourlangie and the Anbangbang Gallery, take the short trail to view some stunning rock art. Stop and let the emotions flows. The paintings are clear, making it easy to imagine the Aboriginal’s struggle to preserve their country. Continue along the path where you see a snake hanging in a tree together with a variety of birds in all the colours of the rainbow. To get to another vantage point, take a small detour from the path that is clearly marked.
11:00 – Close encounter
Hop on a boat trip that takes you out on Kakadu’s most famous wetland. The camera is ready, and your heart rate increases because you don’t know when a saltwater crocodile might appear. The water is cloudy but specular, mirroring the birds as they fly past. After the trip, enjoy a lunch at Cooinda Lodge, located nearby. It is a genuine Australian culinary experience and you order the crocodile, barramundi or kangaroo steak.
13:00 – In a four-wheel drive
Take the route towards Jim Jim Falls. When you arrive at the access road, lower the air pressure on the tyres. Then it is time to make good use of the four-wheel drive. The first hour is not very exciting, just a little more bumpy than usual. Then you reach soft sand and the driver will face a bigger challenge. Drive slowly to get over all the big rocks and try not to get stuck in the soft sand.
15:00 – On the hunt for a waterfall
Fill your backpack with refreshments and start walking towards Jim Jim. Soon you get to climb over rocks and boulders. Stop to take photos of the surrounding nature. Finally, you will come to a cave with an opening in the ceiling. Inside the cave is a beach with white sand. The water is black as the night. You climb further and reaches the waterfall. It’s freezing cold but bathing is a must, then dry in the sun.
18:00 – At the campsite
Half an hour from Jim Jim is a forest campsite where you look for a cosy place to sleep. You put up your tent and unload some firewood at one of the fires that is already burning. You sit down to have glass of wine. Then you cook the food you brought with you. On the campsite, you meet like-minded people who are on a holiday.