Natural wonders await in Kakadu National Park

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DARWIN, Australia -- Dont you understand the signs warning of crocodiles in this billabong? I called out to a young woman paddling knee-deep in the lily-covered waters near Nourlangie Rock in Kakadu National Park in Australias Northern Territory.

Yes, but they wouldnt be able to move quickly through the grass and flowers, she said.

It amazes me that some tourists at popular places in Australia, such as coastal beaches, rivers and billabongs, seem to regard warning signs of danger as a challenge.

Saltwater crocodiles are present in many northern Australia rivers and coastal floodplains, but fortunately for most visitors, the only sightings are of the creatures sunning themselves on riverbanks.

One of four places in Australia listed as a World Heritage site, protected Kakadu is indeed a national treasure. Kakadu National Park is listed for both its cultural and natural heritage, and only a small portion is open to the public.

Covering 8,000 square miles east of Darwin, the park still has aboriginal landowners from a number of clans, including those who spoke Gagudju, from which the name Kakadu comes. The language is no longer spoken regularly.

The park covers the entire catchment area of a tropical river, the South Alligator, with its amazing variety of plants and animals, as well as an extensive collection of aboriginal rock art.

Many visitors are tempted to do Kakadu in a day, but you need at least three or four days just to scratch the surface.

Although it is possible to visit Kakadu using your own vehicle (some roads require four-wheel drive), I recommend joining one of the many daily tours that leave Darwin during the dry season from April through October.

Although the park can be visited during the wet season, many roads become impassable even for four-wheel-drive vehicles. June and July are probably ideal, as nearly everything is open and there is still plenty of water to create waterfalls and vistas over the plains.

The drive from Darwin is mainly along the Arnhem Highway to Jabiru through open savannah, where the effects of burning to clear undergrowth and promote new growth (and, for the aboriginal people, to make hunting easier) is used.

Interspersed are a number of wetlands. Birds soar overhead and the ubiquitous termites create mounds in crazy shapes. At Mamukala, thousands of magpie geese congregate on the wetlands in the late dry season.

There are two main areas in the park where fine examples of aboriginal rock art can be viewed by the public. These are at Ubirr and Nourlangie Rock, and some date back as much as 20,000 years.

Hand stencils of kangaroos, fish and spears together with traditional figures such as Namarrgon, the lightning man, appear in amazing detail.

At Ubirr and Nourlangie Rock, relatively easy climbs take you to lookouts over the floodplains surrounding the countryside and to the Arnhem Land escarpment.

Close to Nourlangie, a sharp climb to Nawurlandja Lookout provides panoramic views of the rock and the Anbangbang Billabong, which is covered with white lilies.

The wet season brings enormous rainfall to Kakadu, and the floodplains are a haven for many birds, including jabiru, brolga, egrets and herons.

One of the best ways to see birds (and a few crocodiles) is the Yellow Waters cruise on the South Alligator River, close to the Gagudju Lodge Cooinda and campgrounds.

The 90-minute cruises that run throughout the day meander along the river, with people snapping shots of Burdekin ducks with an entourage of chicks, egrets, kingfishers, huge expanses of lilies and reflections of stately paperbark trees in the still water.

Some of the most spectacular sights in the park are created by the flow of water, especially at the Jim Jim and Twin Falls that cascade over the Arnhem Land escarpment.

After the wet season, the roads to the falls are usually impassable until early June, but once open, the day trip to the two falls is a must.

Jim Jim Falls in Jabiru plunges 600 feet into the Jim Jim River and is reached after a pleasant walk along the river to a natural amphitheater of bright-red, sandstone cliffs, which form a semicircle around the waterfall.

You can walk to the top of the falls (I saw a few faces peering over the rim), but it is a difficult and tiring climb.

By contrast, Twin Falls is accessible only by kayak or by swimming for a stretch of about 400 yards.

A sandy beach at the base is a pleasant place for lunch and to sunbathe.

Some areas of the park (and Arnhem Land) are only accessible if you join tours that have been given permits to areas owned by aboriginal peoples.

Magela Cultural and Heritage Tours takes you across the swiftly flowing East Alligator River (not for the faint-hearted) to explore billabongs and wetlands in Arnhem Land before returning to the Hawk Dreaming and Cannon Hill area of Kakadu to see some wonderful examples of aboriginal rock art.

The guides are experts on rock art. They also are friends of the traditional owners and knowledgeable about their lifestyle and their use of plants for food and medicines.

There are two visitor centers in the park. The Bowali Visitors Center, which is close to Jabiru, features the major habitats of Kakadu. The Warradjan Visitors Center, which is near Cooinda, provides displays and information on the aboriginal culture of the region.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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