WET AND WILD IN KAKADU
TO SEE KAKADU IN THE WET, IS TO SEE IT AT ITS MOST BEAUTIFUL.
To see Kakadu in the wet, is to see it at its most beautiful.
The glossy travel brochures of the Top End and Kakadu always show raging waterfalls and brimming wetlands, but that’s not what most people see when they get there. Conventional travel wisdom – the advice you’ll find in all the guidebooks and travel blogs – is that the best time to go to the Top End is during the dry season, between May and November. That’s when all the roads are open, skies are clear and tour buses are trundling down the dry, dusty tracks.
But in the dry season, the waterfalls have stopped flowing, the wetlands have shrunk, the water lilies have shrivelled and the savannah grasses are blackened and burnt from the annual burning off. If you want to see the Kakadu of the postcards, you need to travel in the summertime wet season, from February to April.
Just because it’s called the wet season doesn’t mean it rains all day every day: showers are usually brief and sometimes it doesn’t rain for days. A better name is green season, or waterfall season, because the spear grass that covers the plains is more than two metres high and forms a rippling sea of vivid green in all directions, and the waterfalls are really thundering.
The treetops are full of plump magpie geese, dainty jacana – nicknamed Jesus birds for their ability to walk on water – pick their way from lily-pad to lily-pad and majestic jabiru, Australia’s only stork, balance precariously on the topmost branches of treetops while sea eagles ride the thermals above.
Kakadu in the green season is like a 20,000 sq. km garden full of flowers, great swathes of scarlet sandstone grevillea carpeting the woodlands, not to mention a million white and mauve water lilies in flower at every turn. The air is full of dragonflies – look closely at the pandanus tips and speargrass and there seems to be a set of tiny wings hovering on every one.
Ignore all the stories you’ve heard about being cut off by floods – the major roads in and out of Kakadu are all-weather roads and it takes some pretty extreme weather to close them. Even if the roads do get swamped by a really big storm they usually don’t stay closed for long.
Sure it’s hot, but the Top End is always hot: the maximum summer temperatures are only a couple of degrees higher than the dry season, although there’s no escaping the fact that it is humid. But the pay-off is a crowd-free experience in one of the country’s most sublime wilderness areas – there’s no need to jostle for the best spot to photograph the sunset at rocky lookouts because you’ll probably be the only one there.
Walking trails are next to deserted, you can spend as long as you like gazing upon the ancient rock art galleries without feeling like you’re holding up the queue, and you’ll see a lot more wildlife when there’s no noisy gaggles of chattering tourists scaring them away. Join a free basket-weaving workshop at the turtle-shaped Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre near Cooinda and you’ll have the undivided attention of the ladies and plenty of time to chat (and laugh) as they help you craft the ultimate take-home memento.
The Yellow Water Billabong Cruise – one of Kakadu’s must-do experiences and a highlight of most people’s
visit to the park – operates year-round and is even more spectacular when the lily-covered expanse of water stretches to the horizon and the boat winds its way between paperbarks and pandanus as it negotiates backwaters that don’t even exist in the dry season.
Although there are some things that you can’t do in the green season – most of the bush campgrounds are closed although the commercial caravan park at Cooinda stays open, and many of the 4WD tracks are out of action – there are some amazing things you can only do in the wet. It doesn’t happen every year, but in really big wet seasons when water levels are high enough to close the road to Ubirr – a popular spot to watch the sun set over the Arnhem Land escarpment – Guluyambi Cultural Cruises navigate the flooded Magela Creek. You’ll wind through a beautiful, ethereal melaleuca forest to one of Kakadu’s best rock art sites while indigenous guides share stories of living in Kakadu. If you’re lucky enough to be there when this cruise is running, don’t miss it; it’s absolutely magical.
An added bonus at this time of year is that hotel rooms in Cooinda Lodge (just a few minutes’ walk from the Yellow Water Cruise jetty) and the famous Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel are almost half price, so the money you save on accommodation you can spend on a helicopter flight over the iconic Twin and Jim Jim falls.
There’s no land access to these monumental falls in the wet, and by the time the 4WD-only road dries out enough to let you in, the falls have slowed to a trickle if they are still running at all. The 70-minute flight tracks along the edge of the escarpment, past Dreaming sites and gorges laced with ephemeral cascades, the water of the vast floodplains glinting in the sun. The pilot relates the Creation stories of the landforms below, points out brumbies and roaming buffalo, and hovers above the breathtaking falls shrouded in smokelike mist. It’s one of the most awe-inspiring things you’ll ever see. Kakadu really is better in the wet. •
Opening image: The best way to see Jim Jim Falls at their thundering best is on a scenic chopper flight during the wet season. During the dry they are little more than a trickle.Clockwise from right: Overlooking the vast flood plains from the top of Ubirr; Just one of thousands of water lilies that carpet Yellow Water Billabong during the wet season; Enjoy ancient rock art at Ubirr, without the crowds.