Kakadu National Park is arguably the spiritual heart of Australia, and is a mandatory ‘must see’ on any visit to the Northern Territory.
Located about 170 kilometres east of Darwin and covering some 20,000 square kilometres, the park consists of six distinct landforms — woodlands, monsoon forests, hills and ridges, stone country, tidal flats, and mangroves — and encompasses coastline, floodplains, rivers and billabongs. The Bininj/Mungguy (pronounced bining/moong-gooy) people have lived and cared for these lands for thousands of years, and are among the oldest living societies on earth.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Kakadu National Park.
Watch our video of the top things to do in Kakadu National Park:
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A whopping one third of Australia’s wildlife is represented in Kakadu National Park, and you’ll see plenty of scaly, furry and feathered locals as you float quietly along the South Alligator River’s Yellow Water Billabong on a Yellow Water Cruise. See lanky jabirus and dainty comb-crested jacanas. Flocks of magpie geese and whistling ducks cause a ruckus on take-off. Solitary sea eagles and kites perch majestically on dead tree branches, and schools of small fish — breakfast for the big barramundi — can be spied in the water below. Watch in awe as saltwater crocodiles (known as gingas to the First People) up to five metres long slide silently into the water, before descending and disappearing completely.
There are some 5,000 rock-art sites within Kakadu National Park. Some are so sacred they cannot be viewed by visitors, however, at Ubirr and Nourlangie you can enjoy some seriously impressive paintings of local creation stories. Nourlangie offers a 1.5-kilometre circular walk through savannah woodlands to its rock-art galleries. Don’t miss the creation story of Namarrgon, or Lightning Man, who places his ‘eye’ in the stone escarpment to keep watch over his people. At Ubirr (pronounced Oo-beer, with a short ‘oo’) in the northern reaches of the park, a one-kilometre circular track takes you past several important sites.
Ubirr is magical for sunsets so time your visit accordingly. After browsing the rock-art galleries, head back through the park to climb Ubirr rock. It’s well signposted and requires only a basic level of fitness to reach the summit. Settle in and watch the sun set majestically over the Nadab floodplains of Arnhem Land. You might even witness a storm rolling in across the endless sky in a stunning show of nature’s grandeur. Allow at least an hour for the climb and to watch the sunset, bearing in mind that entry to Ubirr is closed at last light.
Cahill’s Crossing is a notorious causeway over the East Alligator River, which links Kakadu and Arnhem Land. It’s not for the faint-hearted. Many hungry, opportunistic saltwater crocodiles linger here patiently waiting for the turning tide to capture fish struggling across the causeway. There is a safe viewing platform to croc-spot at what is frequently a feeding frenzy. Gasp with horror as locals (and even tourists!) run the crossing gauntlet. A permit is required to enter Arnhem Land, so you should obtain one before visiting Cahill’s Crossing. Come at low tide and heed all warning signs.
A scenic flight in a helicopter or light aircraft will enable you to view many of Kakadu’s stunning landforms in one swoop. Various tour providers — including Kakadu Air, Coolibah Air and Katherine Aviation — offer seasonal options. During the wet you can witness the might and fury of Jim Jim and Twin Falls in full flood. Year round you can soar above the stone country’s Dinosaur Valley, along with sweeping floodplains, shimmering wetlands, billabongs and the East Alligator and South Alligator rivers. You’ll also be able to pick out the largest crocodile in the region — the shape of Jabiru’s Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel!
During the wet season Jim Jim Falls are inaccessible by land, but in the dry season the waterfall is often just a trickle. A hike to the falls is well worth the effort. You’ll need a 4WD to reach the start of the two-kilometre return walk, and a fit and agile body to rock-hop to the cooling waters. Choose from the beachside waterhole, or climb a few more boulders to the plunge pool and base of the 150-metre high escarpment that makes Jim Jim Falls so spectacular in the wet. Allow yourself at least two hours to hike there and back.
Gunlom Falls is hands down Australia’s best natural infinity pool. You’ll never want to leave — especially after the tough hike to the top. It’s a two-kilometre steep and slippery slog to the top and back, so make sure you take plenty of water and wear shoes with grip. As you refresh in the cool waters of Waterfall Creek, soak up the magnificent vista across southern Kakadu before seeking the plunge pools further upstream. The nearby bush camping spot is popular with locals from both Katherine and Darwin. It’s a gravel road to the Gunlom area, which is generally suitable for 2WD vehicles (but check road conditions first).
Accessible only in the dry season and by 4WD, Maguk plunge pool and waterfall calls for a relatively easy two-kilometre walk through a monsoon forest along and across a sandy creek. Its other moniker is Barramundi Gorge, but several species of fish call this waterhole home. Bring your goggles to take a peek beneath the crystal clear waters, and float on your back admiring the escarpments en route to the small waterfall at the end of the pool. The adventurous can climb up the waterfall to find more plunge pools.
Warradjan is the name for the pig-nosed turtle in the Gundjeihmi language, and the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre’s architectural design references the shape of its namesake. The centre houses several interesting exhibits about the life, culture and dreaming stories of the region’s traditional owners. Language lovers can even learn some basic words in the local dialect. You’ll also discover how the traditional owners and the Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory jointly manage Kakadu National Park using ancient land management techniques passed down through generations.
The East Alligator River is the natural border between Kakadu and Arnhem Land, and taking a Guluyambi Cultural Cruise provides a memorable view of this pristine environment. Dramatic stone escarpments flank your left and vegetation dangles into the water along the right bank. Spy the river’s salty predators lurking in the deep, and gaze skyward as kites and eagles soar overhead. Impressive natural sights aside, the highlight of this cruise is the sharing of cultural insights, myths and survival tactics by your local Indigenous guide.
For more information, visit www.parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu/.
Remember to be ‘croc-wise’ wherever you choose to swim in the Top End. Obey all safety signs and directions.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Kakadu National Park? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Monica McInnes is a keen traveller and is always on the lookout for her next big adventure — even before the current one has concluded! Having recently returned from a three-month road trip with her young family through the Red Centre, the Kimberley, the Pilbara and along the Coral Coast, Monica is convinced that Australia is the most beautiful country on earth. She blogs about her travel exploits at Jiggety Jog.