PLACES WE GO: KAKADU NATIONAL PARK
This wonderful park is even better than the many pictures of it convey, writes Jennifer Adams
THE air in the Top End is distinct. Heady with eucalypt, heavy with the tropics and invigorating all at the same time. The pristine wilderness of Australia’s largest national park, Kakadu, has a feeling of remoteness, but in reality it is less than a few hours ‘‘ down the road’’ from Darwin, and all on sealed highway.
Exploring the park on a driving adventure with the family, we have the caravan tacked on to the back and a high sense of anticipation as to what we will discover.
The Arnhem Highway begins just outside of Darwin, and it takes you all the way to Jabiru – the main settlement in Kakadu.
As we travel, the towns outside of the city give way to expansive bushland, and only a little way down the road, you start to catch glimpses of the many floodplains that give Kakadu unique recognition as a haven for birdlife.
Our four-year-old daughter Charli is in the back seat, and already in awe of the flocks of magpie geese and pelicans she can see outside her window.
The scenery starts to look familiar. It must be the hundreds of photographs of this area we have seen before; and the reality is so much better.
With the scorching sun beating down, you can feel the heat of the day on the bitumen as we make our way along the highway.
Just a couple of hours on the road and we arrive in Jabiru where we will camp at Kakadu Lodge for the next few nights.
Like an oasis, our campsite is lush and green, nestled in pristine bushland but right next to the town for all its amenities. The park has a pool, in which children are taking grateful refuge, and we adults set up camp and plan our adventures. High on our list is discovering the culture of this region that the traditional owners are so happy to share with us.
Kakadu is home to more than 5000 unique Aboriginal art sites, with a further 10,000 thought to exist. This is just part of the reason why the park has been recognised on the World Heritage list, with the art representing one of the longest historical records of any group of people in the world.
One of the most significant sites is Nourlangie Rock. Here, more than 20,000 years of Aboriginal occupation has been uncovered in its art, where you can see how the life and times of generations have changed and their stories have been left for us to see.
A 1.5km circuit walk takes you through the wet-season home of generations of Aboriginal people.
Between June and September, Kakadu park rangers give free guided talks throughout the day and it is well worth joining one for an incredible insight into the galleries.
Our guide Doug passionately takes us around the art sites and large rock shelter, bringing so many ancient stories to life.
Our day ends at the lookout over Anbangbang Billabong, and one of the most spectacular views of Nourlangie Rock. As the sun sets, it casts a brilliant glow on the rock and surrounding plains.
We are up early the following day for a sunrise cruise on Yellow Water Billabong, Kakadu’s most famous wetland. It is still quite dark when we climb on to the boat with our guide Dean from Gagudju Dreaming, an indigenous-owned company operating authentic Kakadu experiences.
But within moments, as we drift out on to the water, with only the sounds of the local birdlife and insects as our company, the sun starts to reveal itself at the bottom of the sky.
It lights up the entire floodplain with a golden glow unlike anything we have ever seen before. Shrouded in mist, it is magical. Not a ripple in the water, crocodiles swim alongside the boat without commotion, all the while the symphony of birds grows louder. Kakadu is home to one-third of Australia’s total bird population and we are treated to a spectacular show that reminds us of this fact. From the long-legged jabiru, to the white-bellied sea eagle and the Australian darter, they all go about their morning routines without a single glance at us, and we are totally mesmerised by their beauty in the wild.
The big drawcard for adults and children alike is the saltwater crocodile. We are all silenced by their presence.
One after another swim alongside our boat as if saying hello, leaving us to see the full spectacle of this huge, prehistoric creature.
You can’t help but be aware of the fact that there is just a sheet of metal between yourself and these awesome creatures, but that fear quickly superseded by awe.
As the sun rises higher in the sky, the wildlife surrounding us is sometimes close enough to touch.
Gagudju’s philosophy of not feeding or touching anything has huge rewards, with the wildlife not being frightened.
Dean tells us that nature paints a different picture almost every day, as the waters recede and the weather changes when they move through the six seasons that guide the traditional owners of this land.
It is a sorry goodbye when we step back on to dry land, awe-inspired by our magical start to the day. But around every turn in this ancient land there is another surprise.
We end our driving adventure by taking the cars off-road to one of Kakadu’s spectacular gorges.
The 14km 4WD trip from the highway brings us to Maguk Gorge.
Here, the sheer gorge walls reveal a natural plunge pool at the bottom, which is usually safe for swimming (check the signs). A short hike and we are welcomed by the gushing sounds of the waterfalls, and we all soak in some more Kakadu magic.
WILDLIFE WONDERS: Exploring the wetlands of Kakadu National Park.
NATURAL WONDERS: Kakadu’s impressive termite mound (above left); one of the park’s many waterholes (above right); and a not-so-friendly local (belowleft).