This won­der­ful park is even bet­ter than the many pic­tures of it con­vey, writes Jen­nifer Adams

Sunday Herald Sun - Escape - - Front Page -

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).

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