Getting the most out of Kakadu involves at least one cruel irony – the best time to see Twin Falls is during the Wet. The trouble is, the track out there is closed up tight for the season, so the only way you’ll see this magnificent, roaring spectacle is by air.
It’s a similar situation with many of Kakadu’s other attractions. Access to the various falls and plunge pools is rough going at the best of times, but the serious Top End rains between December and March create conditions that will potentially humble all but the most experienced 4WDers attempting to reach these amazing sights. And it’s not unusual for park rangers to close the tracks to Gunlom and Maguk, for example, at short notice.
The best time to visit, therefore, is during the Dry. Most, if not all, of the tracks are open, birds return to the billabongs, and you’ll have a much more complete Kakadu adventure. It mightn’t be quite as spectacular, but you’ll never forget it.
Covering around 20,000sq km, Kakadu is a land of unique cultural significance and exceptional biodiversity. More than 120 reptile species, 300 fish species and 10,000 insect species call this World Heritage-listed park home. It’s also a major staging area for migratory birds. Some of Kakadu’s wildlife is endangered, and some is found nowhere else in the world. It’s believed, too, that there are species of animal still to be discovered within its borders.
Kakadu is divided into seven distinct regions – South Alligator; Jabiru; East Alligator; Nourlangie; Yellow Water; Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls Gorge; and Mary River.
Of these seven, the two least-spectacular are South Alligator and Jabiru. This is not to say they don’t have their charms – South Alligator along the Arnhem Highway takes in the Mamukala Wetland, for example – but if time is limited your Kakadu experience won’t feel incomplete if you gave them a miss. The other five, though, are essential.
The best advice with respect to estuarine croc safety is to assume that where there’s water, there are crocs. Most of the popular swimming holes – Gunlom, Maguk, Jim Jim Falls, etc. – are ‘croc managed’ zones, meaning rangers set traps for salties and move them away if they catch them.
Should you swim? That’s really up to you. Exercise your own judgement and apply common sense. We swam only in areas where we could see the bottom, and kept the kids right next to the shore. Official policy is that visitors swim at their own risk; the authorities only recommend you swim at the Jabiru swimming pool.
All good things come at a cost, and Kakadu is no different. What’s on offer, though, makes the price of entry seem ridiculously cheap. Adult passes are $25 and kids under 16 enter free, as do Northern Territory residents. If you come in from the south along the Kakadu Highway, the best bet is to buy one at Goymarr Interpretive Centre next to the Mary River Roadhouse. If you’re entering from the north, try Aurora Kakadu resort, South Alligator, on the Arnhem Highway. Or you can grab your passes from Tourism Top End, corner Bennett and Smith streets, Darwin, if not from a range of places deep within the park itself.
Each of the main attractions in Kakadu has its own campsite, though the facilities vary considerably. The ‘managed’ campsites are far and away superior to the ‘bush’ campgrounds, with amenities that include hot and cold showers, flushing toilets, open fire/barbecue facilities and picnic tables. These sites cost $10 per night – rangers visit each evening to collect fees – and most are divided into ‘generator-permitted’ and ‘non-generator’ zones. Bore water is also available.
With composting toilets the only facility, the bush campgrounds are much more basic. The cost per night is $5 and you pay at the collection boxes.
If you prefer to stay somewhere more ‘civilised’, or don’t like the idea of taking your rig down the access tracks (and I wouldn’t blame you – they’re tough), Kakadu has an excellent array of well set-up tourist parks. In fact, most of them would make an excellent base from which to explore the national park.
BOWALI VISITOR CENTRE
Bowali (Bor-warl-ee) is a Gun-djeihmi name for the visitor centre’s surrounding area, land owned by the Mirrar clan.
The design of the centre, a short detour off the Kakadu Highway near Jabiru, is such that it blends with the natural landscape. In fact, it was inspired by an Aboriginal rock shelter.
Interesting and informative displays abound, from the skeleton of an estuarine croc to statues of local fauna – there’s even a LandCruiser display. Park staff are on hand to help you make the most of your visit. An onsite café is open from 8am-5pm.
For more information, visit www.environment.gov.au/parks/kakadu