Kakadu National Park is arguably the spiritual heart of Australia.
Located about 170 kilometres east of Darwin in the Northern Territory, 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.
Awarded Best Major Tourist Attraction at the 2017 Qantas Australian Tourism Awards, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park is a mandatory ‘must see’ on any visit to Australia.
Here are ten top things to do in Kakadu National Park.
Cruise the Yellow Water Billabong
About a third of Australia’s wildlife lives 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 aboard a Yellow Water Cruise. There’ll be 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 stumps, 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’ in the local language) up to five metres long slide silently into the water, before descending and disappearing completely.
Watch our video of this experience:
Welcome to The Big Bus tour and travel guide. In this video, we take you on board a day cruise on fabulous Yellow Water in the Northern Territory’s Kakadu National Park. This signature experience is a must-do during your visit to Kakadu, and operates all year round.
Wander the world’s most ancient rock-art galleries
There are many ancient 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-bir, with a short ‘oo’) in the northern reaches of the park, a one kilometre circular track takes you past several important sites.
Watch the sun set from the top of the rock
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.
Go croc spotting (and people watching) at Cahill’s Crossing
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.
See the park from the air
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 The Scenic Flight Company – 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!
Hike to Jim Jim Falls
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.
Cool off in nature’s most glorious infinity pool
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).
Take the plunge into Maguk
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.
Visit the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre
Warradjan is the name for the pig-nosed turtle in the Gundjeihmi language, and the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre’s design represents the shape of the animal. 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.
Enjoy a cultural cruise on the East Alligator River
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.
Five tours we love
If you’re short on time, this full day tour from Darwin is the perfect way to discover the magic of Kakadu National Park. Take a cruise on the famous Yellow Water Billabong, and visit Nourlangie – famous for its ancient Aboriginal rock art.
Experience Kakadu during the spectacular wet season on this two-day adventure from Darwin. You’ll need a good level of fitness to take on hikes of up to six kilometres through remote terrain to visit little-known rock art sites and stunning waterfalls.
This small group adventure is perfect for those looking to see the best of the Top End and enjoy an Indigenous experience. Explore Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks in a 4WD vehicle, along with spectacular Arnhem Land. You’ll spend your nights in permanent tented campsites, enjoying the age-old beauty of the Milky Way.
This immersive tour takes guests off the beaten track and away from the everyday. Travel with a small group by luxury 4WD and stay in boutique retreats, lodges and resorts. This tour will allow you to shape your journey with a choice of experiences.
Visit Kakadu, Katherine Gorge, Litchfield and more on this awesome 4WD adventure. Immerse yourself in Indigenous culture and soak in everything that’s so amazing about the Top End – not least of all the array of wildlife and incredible scenery!
For more information, please visit www.parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu/.
Remember to be ‘croc-wise’ wherever you choose to swim in Kakadu National Park. Obey all signs, and if there is no sign – assume there are crocodiles present.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in Kakadu National Park? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
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 to Darwin after three months making memories with her young family on a road trip through central Australia, the Kimberley, Pilbara and Coral Coast, Monica is convinced Australia is the most beautiful country on earth. From its crisp white sand beaches, sapphire sparkling waters, rugged red mountain ranges and lush green rainforests, to dusty outback towns and skyscraper metropoles, there’s something that will make you pinch yourself at every twist and turn. When Monica isn’t on the road, she is happily chasing after her two rowdy boys or blogging about her travel exploits at Jiggety Jog.