Kakadu is a land of delirious extremes. Extreme heat, parched creeks and bushfires in the dry season. Extreme storms and miles of flooded country in the wet season. Extreme amounts of wildlife – including nearly one-fifth of Australia’s mammals, 120 species of reptiles and 300 kinds of birds. This UNESCO World Heritage-listed national park is also extremely big (the same size as Switzerland), extremely famous (made especially so by the ’80s classic Crocodile Dundee, which was filmed here), and extremely spiritual. It’s one of the most genuinely spiritual travel experiences an Aussie can ever have. So don’t postpone a visit until you’re grey and nomadic. Throw on your Akubra and your faux- croc slides, blast Yothu Yindi’s ‘Treaty’, and jump on the first northbound plane. Just make sure you get a traditional Aboriginal smoking ceremony as soon as you land to keep you safe while you’re visiting because, quite simply, there’s a lot that can kill you in these parts. But if it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger… in a philosophical kind of way. Kakadu will change you. It’ll move you. And if it doesn’t? Well geez, you probably shouldn’t bother leaving home anymore.
Sure, you’ve come to this biodiverse wonderland for nature and spiritual experiences, and to soak up some of the indigenous culture. But let’s be honest: you’re also here to meet Kakadu’s most famous local, the saltwater croc. Call them ‘salties’, or ‘Ginga’ as they’re called in Aboriginal languages, and the locals will think you’re fair dinkum.
For full immersion, head straight to the infamous Crocodile Hotel in Jabiru, which as the name suggests is a hotel shaped like a ginormous croc. The head is the lobby, the belly is the swimming pool, the legs are the rooms. Sure it’s cheesy, but like the Big Banana and the Big Merino, it’s damn fun too. Check in, take a dip, check out the Aboriginal artwork, have a snack at their restaurant. If you’re a sadist, you might want to choose the crocodile sang choy bao from the menu. Or you might want to hold off until you see a live one. Before you head out, remind yourself that croc fatalities aren’t uncommon in these parts, as the cover stories of the LOL-inducing NT News will no doubt remind you. Stay away from the water’s edge, and if a crocodile warning sign (of which there are an alarming abundance in Kakadu) says don’t swim, keep your togs in your backpack. Head to Anbangbang Billabong to see lurking salties, which can grow up to seven metres in length and can live until they’re 200. If it’s the wet season you’ll be greeted by a beautiful field of white water lilies. If it’s the dry season you’re in for more of a muddy swamp, but also more of the world’s largest living reptiles.
You might see more crocs, and you’ll definitely see indigenous rock art, at the Bardedjilidji art site walk. As you wind past shaggy paperbarks, pandanus palms and layered sandstone formations that your guide will tell you were once islands during the time of the dinosaurs, keep one eye on the freshwater swamps and billabongs for crocs. The other eye you can keep trained on the ochre depictions (some of which are 2000 years old) of the bad spirits that are believed to lurk around this area, and of the local flora and fauna.
Time your visit to Ubirr (pronounced Oo-beer) natural rock art gallery for a couple of hours before sunset. You can peruse the three main galleries (aka caves) that have served as both shelter and canvases for thousands of years, to
get a window into the Aboriginal’s rich spiritual traditions. You’ll see representations of the animals they hunted, a lone white fella, and Dreamtime ancestors like the Rainbow Serpent and the Namarrgarn Sisters, a couple of badass spirits who live in the stars and travel to earth to make people really sick. When you’ve had your fill of art, scramble up to the rocky outlook and prepare for the spectacular tropical sunset over the Nadab Floodplain.
For another great how’s-the-serenity lookout, head to Nourlangie. Here you’ll get panoramic views of the escarpment, plus X-ray-style paintings of Namarrgon, aka Lightning Man, a creation ancestor who holds lightning as a band around his body and has stone axes on his knees and elbows to make thunder, and gets Kakadu’s violent wet season lightning storms happening. Oh, and if you happen to come across any green ants on your wanderings, grab one and bite its bum off. They taste like lime.
If you’ve splashed out on getting yourself all the way to Kakadu, which let’s face it isn’t the cheapest trip in the world, then you may as well go the whole hog and take a Scenic Flights joy ride so you can see Kakadu and neighbouring Arnhemland from above. If you stick to a car, lots of the park is harder to get to than Donald Trump’s soul. Squash any feelings of claustrophobia or acrophobia into the deepest recesses of your mind, slap an awed smile on your sweaty face and soak up the winding rivers, sunburnt escarpments and gushing waterfalls – including the famous Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls – that will move you more than hearing Farnsy’s ‘You’re the Voice’ in a pub at 3am.
Going to Kakadu and not doing a cruise along Yellow Water Billabong would be like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. You’ll arrive at the wharf when the sky is still inky black, and as your flat-bottomed boat eases out onto this huge land-locked billabong you’ll see the lava lamp sun float clear of the horizon and turn the water all around you sunflower yellow. As you float through the wetlands you’ll pass wild brumbies and water buffalo, and some of the 60 species of birds found in the wetlands including whistling ducks, magpie geese, hovering eagles and dancing brolgas. Pull up by the fields of pink water lilies and if you’re lucky you’ll see the knobbly head of a saltie pop up to say hi and check if you’re worth a nibble. Keep your arms and legs in the boat. And try not to listen too closely to the captain’s tale of environmentalist Val Plumwood, who was attacked by a croc while canoeing along this very river in the ’80s.
By the time you hop off the boat it’ll be hotter than a well digger’s butt. So grab a picnic lunch, hire a 4WD, and visit one of the local swimming holes. Moline Rockhole is a bit of a secret (well it was until just now), so if you’re lucky you’ll have it all to yourself. Enormous boulders choke the stream, creating a large pool that’s fed by a waterfall pouring through a narrow chute of rock. Sit under the falls, with water thumping over your shoulders and back, and it’ll be like you’re at a wilderness day spa.
Heading back along kilometers raw, sun-beaten plains, you’ll be tempted to take a nap. But keep your eyes peeled for the regenerative fires that crackle away during the dry season, the rogue frill-necked lizards scampering up the trees, and the enormous gloopy termite mounds that can get up to six metres tall. And as you collapse at the end of the day, by the campfire under the star-choked sky with your VB in hand, remind yourself that you are, miraculously, still alive. Not only that, you’re also heading home a little bit stronger, and possibly even a little bit smarter, too.
Being a remote national park, accommodation within Kakadu is pretty limited and at times a little basic. Try Kakadu Lodge Cooinda, which has air-conditioned motel- style rooms, and a rather posh flash-camping option with bell tents, pallet-based double beds and bamboo furniture.