James Morgan points up at the painting of a black wallaroo, its dark shape contrasting with the ochre colours of the rock wall that has displayed it for generations. A park ranger and local Bininj (Aboriginal) man, he offers a suggestion as to its meaning – perhaps a trophy artwork from a hunter, “just like nowadays, you catch a fish, take a photo of it, and put it up on Instagram for everyone else to see”.
Or, who knows, maybe it’s something else. The hundreds of individual images across the Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) rock art site here in Kakadu National Park, even with their specific shapes, now create a deep but amorphous sense of history… much like the park itself. The Indigenous heritage here has been dated by scientists to at least 65,000 years ago but, as James puts it, “there’s not a big difference between 65,000 years and eternity”.
To explore Kakadu National Park, you also need to let go of your sense of time. I’ve always imagined the vast Northern Territory wilderness to be rugged and full of adventure. And, while it is, it can also be comfortable and convenient. The 400-kilometre drive from Darwin to the Burrungkuy site is on a well-maintained sealed road frequented by tour buses, and the trail up to the rock art is even accessible for wheelchairs.
But in the same area, I also hike a rough and deserted two-kilometre trail to the Nanguluwurr Gallery of even more impressive rock art, accompanied by the squawks of black cockatoos flying overhead. And, if you go for a stroll around the nearby Anbangbang Billabong, you’ll be rewarded with epic views – just don’t get too close to the water’s edge for fear of crocs!
From wetlands, through savannah woodlands, and into stone country, adventure is what you make of it here in Kakadu and you need to embrace unpredictability as part of that. In the wet season, sites are often cut off suddenly because of bad weather. Even now in the dry season, the famous rock art site of Ubirr is temporarily closed out of respect for the passing of a traditional owner, and the iconic Gunlom Falls are also closed because of a dispute between traditional owners and Parks Australia.
In some respects, I don’t think it matters too much. In Australia’s largest national park, there’s more to see than the average visitor would have time to fit in anyway. You may not be able to get to Gunlom right now, but you can reach the equally spectacular Maguk by driving 10 kilometres down an orange-dirt road and walking for 20-minutes on a rocky trail alongside a river. The waterfall at Maguk flows down the steep gorge wall at the end of an enormous sparkling pool, in which the reflection of the tall earthy-hued stone amphitheatre around it is broken only by the ripples of visitors swimming.
Although the landscapes of Kakadu teem with life, it’s not until I am out on a Yellow Water cruise one afternoon that I’m able to get a better perspective of the amount of wildlife in the national park. Kakadu is home to about a third of Australia’s bird species – 280 different types – and as the sun begins to set over Yellow Water (Ngurrungurrudjba), many of them gather on the floating carpet of lilies. Wandering whistling ducks, great egrets, magpie geese, and jabirus all preparing for a night under the bright stars.
Although you too can camp under the stars, the Yellow Water cruises leave from Cooinda Lodge, a convenient accommodation option with large rooms and glamping tents, as well as restaurants and pools. A more upmarket alternative, closer to Darwin, is the iconic Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel, shaped like a crocodile with an excellent bar and restaurant in its ‘head’.
The Crocodile Hotel is in Kakadu’s main town, Jabiru, which was built to support the nearby Ranger Mine and feels incongruous amongst the native environment of pandanus and turkey bush surrounding it. But the new Marrawuddi arts centre in Jabiru blends the urban and the natural, with a good cafe and workspaces for local artists within a gallery showcasing the creative strengths of the local Indigenous artists. It’s well worth a visit.
Everything in Kakadu is (or should be, at least) a fusion of culture and country. The Bowali Visitor Centre, with a museum focused on the nature of the park, regularly has artists working on its deck. The park’s other visitor centre, Warradjan, is about human heritage, but it’s impossible to tell that story without talking about the environment (why are there so many wild buffalo here, for instance?). As you explore the park, you see how the plants give life and how a billabong can bring death.
After James Morgan shows us the rock art of Burrungkuy, he leads the way to a lookout on a sandstone outcrop where you can see a dramatic formation in the Arnhem Escarpment in the distance, a Dreaming site for the Lightning Man, an important creation figure.
“For us, it’s not just rocks,” James tells me, as he gazes towards the escarpment. “There’s a lot of significance behind this place. So, when we look around, we see these stories and their meanings.”
A swimming hole doesn’t just have to be a swimming hole, a hike through a canyon doesn’t just have to be about the scenery. Perhaps you’ll create your own stories during your visit to Kakadu and maybe you’ll even find some from eternity… if there’s a difference.
WHAT TO DO
– Walk into Maguk and take a dip in the swimming hole beneath the waterfall
– Take a guided tour of the Burrungkuy rock art site with a local ranger
– See the crocodiles and birdlife on a Yellow Water cruise
– Learn more about Kakadu at the Bowali and Warradjan visitor centres
WHAT TO DO
– In the centre of the park, Cooinda Lodge has good family accommodation, including glamping tents and casual restaurants
– In Jabiru, the Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel has an excellent restaurant and comfortable rooms set around a tropical pool
– There are also more than 20 camping grounds spread out within the park