WET AND WILD IN KAKADU

TO SEE KAKADU IN THE WET, IS TO SEE IT AT ITS MOST BEAU­TI­FUL.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY LEE ATKIN­SON

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.

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