It’s wurrkeng season, which means Australia’s largest national park, Kakadu, has reopened its famous attractions for the dry, and there’s a warm welcome waiting for visitors.
Kakadu’s landscapes are in constant flux. The wet season brings rain that fills the rivers and overflows from escarpments as majestic waterfalls. As the dry season takes hold, floodplains recede and waterbirds flock to the billabongs for refuge.
The dry, from May to October, is also when the crowds of tourists usually converge on Kakadu National Park, but the pandemic means this is not a typical year. The main accommodation options in the park still have availability and, with some of the big attractions such as the Ubirr rock art gallery and Jim Jim Falls reopening last month, it’s a good time to visit.
In the north-east of Kakadu – amongst the ‘stone country’, as it’s known – Ubirr offers a fusion of culture and country, the balance that defines the park. Within this rocky outcrop are incredible collections of Indigenous art painted on the walls of natural shelters, telling millennia of stories about life in the Top End.
Climb above the art to the lookout at Ubirr and you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views across the Nadab floodplain below. It’s a popular spot for sunset as the orange glow fills the landscape but, if you arrive early enough, you’ll also be able to explore some of the walking trails that lead along the river and through nearby monsoon rainforest.
Stone country offers some of the most dramatic vistas in Kakadu and one of the best is at Jim Jim Falls, the tallest waterfall in the Northern Territory. In the wet season, the cascade tumbles 200 metres into a deep blue pool surrounded by steep ochre cliffs. As the weather dries, the water eventually stops flowing, but this allows 4WD access for visitors and, after last month’s reopening, you can now also hike into the heart of the gorge through a 400-million-year-old forest of anbinik, a giant native rainforest tree.
An easier swimming hole to access is Maguk, its car park just 10 kilometres off the main highway along an orange dirt road. The waterfall here is smaller but it flows all year, feeding the large pristine pool beneath it. You can swim in this natural stone amphitheatre, amongst the fish, to cool off after the stunning two-kilometre walk up the river to reach Maguk.
Indigenous groups have lived on the land here for at least 65,000 years, and while some sites focus on heritage, others show the continuity of culture. Marrawuddi in Jabiru is a modern gallery, workshop and cafe where you can meet local artists. There are often creative exhibitions and demonstrations at the nearby Bowali Visitor Centre, where art, like the artists’ lives, is intertwined with the natural environment.
The Aboriginal people in Kakadu divide the year into six seasons, each with its own characteristics – and food sources. We’re now in wurrkeng, the early dry season when plump magpie geese crowd the billabongs. Soon it’ll be kurrung, the season for hunting aquatic file snakes and long-necked turtles. All of this still takes place in the park and, to learn more about it, there are tours led by park rangers. Alternatively, join an Animal Tracks Safari for a longer food experience that culminates with dinner prepared in a ground oven.
One of the meats you’ll taste is crocodile, an animal usually better encountered cooked than alive… except on a Yellow Water cruise, that is. Floating along the large floodplain of Yellow Water, you’re likely to spot pairs of reptilian eyes watching you carefully. But from the safety of the boat, this is a highlight, and it’s a superb way to get close to the predatory animals and see them in their natural habitat.
Yellow Water Cruises runs several trips a day, but the wetlands are at their most animated during sunrise and sunset, with large flocks of birds congregating around the lily pads. Kakadu is home to about one-third of Australia’s bird species and keen twitchers might consider a trip for the special activities during Kakadu Bird Week at the end of September.
Kakadu is Australia’s largest national park and you’ll need several days as a minimum. A range of accommodation offers easy bases for your trip, from the luxurious rooms at the iconic Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel to the family-friendly Cooinda Lodge, which has bungalows, glamping tents and campgrounds spread across its large site.
There is availability at the moment but, like the seasons in the park, nothing stays the same for long. There’s never been a better time to snap up a great rate and experience the wonders of Kakadu.
Take me there
Fly: Qantas flies direct to Darwin from Canberra. Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin have direct flights from Sydney and Melbourne.
Drive: Kakadu is a three-hour drive from Darwin.
Stay: Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel has spacious rooms from $329 per night and an excellent onsite restaurant. At Cooinda Lodge, standard rooms cost about $439 per night, Outback Retreats $379, and powered sites from $59 per night.
Explore more: kakadutourism.com