At over 20,000 sq kms, Kakadu is Australia’s largest national Park and is UNESCO World Heritage listed for both natural and cultural values. Three full days allows enough time to visit the different ecosystems; from the billabongs and vast savannah woodlands (which are floodplains in the wet) to the rocky sandstone escarpments and of course the wonderfully cool gorges and waterfalls. Expect to be awed by Indigenous rock art, admire timeless landscapes and have fun spotting crocodiles – from a safe distance! The following itinerary is for those without a 4WD (including a tour to the waterfalls), but if you have a 4WD this gives you more options for waterholes to visit and additional camping locations.
The early bird gets the worm, and this is the best time to visit Mamaluka Wetlands – when the birds are active and it’s not too hot for walking. Mamaluka is on the road into Jabiru (about 220km from Darwin), so to get there early plan on spending the night somewhere closer than Darwin. We stayed at Mary River Wilderness Retreat and really enjoyed the peaceful surroundings, although we attracted a lot of cane toads to our cabin by leaving the lights on when we went to dinner!
Mamaluka’s main attraction is a bird hide overlooking a billabong full of pretty waterlilies and waterbirds such as comb crested jacana, plumed whistling ducks, swamphens, egrets and magpie geese. There is also a 2km walk through the savannah woodlands, where we spotted four types of finch. After this first taste of Kakadu, head to the National Park Visitor Centre, to get a better understanding of the area and its history.
Next on the itinerary is Jabiru for lunch. There is not much to Jabiru “town” which was built to service the Ranger Uranium Mine, but now also supports tourism. We took our sandwiches to Jabiru Lake, utilising the picnic tables under the trees. However, be aware that during the day the trees are also home to a huge amount of roosting flying foxes! If available, check into your accommodation for a nap in the afternoon heat, or have a refreshing swim. We stayed at the Jabiru Crocodile Hotel, which is shaped like a crocodile; reception in the mouth, the access to the rooms is via stairs in the legs and the swimming pool is the heart of the crocodile.
In the late afternoon, head to the northern section of Kakadu, Ubirr, firstly stopping at Cahill’s Crossing. This crossing over the East Alligator River is the entry point to Arnhem land and a favourite spot for giant saltwater crocodiles, who laze on the river banks after catching barramundi swimming upstream. Despite the many warning signs, it’s also a popular fishing spot – hopefully there are enough barramundi so the salties don’t need a supplementary diet of humans! If it’s still hot, call in for a refreshing drink at Border Store. The store is also open for dinner serving Thai food, which could be an option after visiting Ubirr
Urbirr is very popular for sunset viewing, so there will be lots of tourists, but the views are definitely worth the trip. A 1km circular walking track takes you past several rock art galleries with paintings of people, fish, birds, kangaroos, turtles and even a Tasmanian tiger (which gives an indication of previous animals that inhabited Kakadu). A short climb up the sandstone leads to Nadab lookout, where you can gaze out over the floodplains.
Set off for Nourlongie in the early morning, as again it’s the best time for rambling before it heats up. For those who enjoy walking and want to see some great rock art, it’s recommended to do the Barrk Sandstone Walk (12 km loop). This is an interesting hike up in the sandstone country with good views, hopefully a few chestnut quilled rock pigeons (a sandstone endemic) and halfway round the loop, the fantastic Nangauluwurr Rock Art gallery. This was less crowded than some of the other sites and we really enjoyed resting here in the shade and admiring the art.
A less strenuous option is to walk past an ancient Aboriginal shelter and the Anbangbang art galleries (1.5 km circuit). The rock art here is also good, such as the enigmatic lightning man, Namarrgon. While you’re in the area, it’s also possible to take a short detour to Anbangbang Billabong, which is a good place for lunch and bird watching.
After exploring the Nourlongie area, drive to Cooinda which will be your base for the next two nights (unless you have a 4WD and can access some of the other campsites for your third night). There are various accommodation options here, we stayed in the “Flash Camping” section. This comprised of a large canvas tent with a bed, table and chairs and a private ‘chill out’ area with sofas, tables, candles and a food preparation area. The ablutions were shared with other campers. It was lots of fun and the bed was actually very comfortable.
To escape from the afternoon heat, head to the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre. The circular design of the centre represents a warradjan or pig-nosed turtle. There is a wealth of interesting information about the traditional owners and their interactions with the plants and animals of Kakadu.
Other options in the afternoon include swimming in the Cooinda pool, doing the short walks around the Yellow River or just resting and relaxing! If you can’t fit in a Yellow Waters Cruise in the morning, then do this in late in the afternoon today.
On your third day, set off to explore some of Kadaku’s waterfalls and water holes. The options will depend on whether you have a 4WD and the timing of your visit. The waterfalls are at their best in the wet season but at that time may only be accessible by helicopter! For example when we visited in August, the road into Twin Creek Falls was only recently opened (high clearance still required for the water crossing) and the waterfall was still flowing. However, the waterfall at Jim Jim was not active although the plunge pool was very nice. Another options would be Gulomn Falls which looked great, with a lovely infinity pool to visit. We have this on the list for next time!
Since we only had a 2WD, we took a day tour out to Twin Creek Falls and Jim Jim Falls. This trip came with a disclaimer – there would be walking over uneven ground so you needed to be ‘fit and agile’. Unfortunately some people on our trip didn’t appear to understand the meaning of agile, and weren’t able to participate in the walking – so had an expensive drive near some gorges, without actually seeing them! The walking wasn’t actually very difficult, but you did need to be able to scramble over boulders in some sections.
After stopping at Garnamarr (red tailed black cockatoo) campsite for morning tea, we first visited Twin Falls. This required a deep water crossing in the offroad bus, a short boat ride through a lovely gorge and then a 1km walk to the waterfall. The gorge had very clear water and a few people were lucky enough to spot a pig nosed turtle. It was easy to see the crocodile traps set up, this was a no swimming area for personal safety but also out of respect as the Twin Falls plunge pool is a sacred Aboriginal site (the resting place of the rainbow serpent Almudj). The falls were still active and well worth coming to see.
We had lunch at the Twin Falls picnic area before heading off to explore Jim Jim Falls. By this stage it was pretty hot, but luckily the walk was shady. Jim Jim comes from the Gundjeihmi word for water pandanus, anjimjim, which is saw growing along the creek. The walk was more difficult than the one to Twin Falls, but was good fun. We swam at the ‘beach area’ and then hiked a bit further to the plunge pool. Even without the waterfall it was pretty impressive, and the water was very cool – just what was needed to refresh!
Before leaving Kakadu, make time to join a Yellow Waters cruise (we did this on the morning of Day 4 prior to leaving the national park). It’s highly recommended to take the first cruise in the morning to see the beautiful sunrise and it’s the best time for bird watching. Although this is the cooler part of the day, the crocodiles were still pretty active and we saw more than I’d expected. We had an excellent boat driver/animal spotter who found lots of animals, expertly manoeuvred the boat for good photo opportunities and had many interesting animal behaviour stories from observing them so often. The first cruise of the day includes breakfast, so is good value!