In the United States, there are three parks which are considered to be the crown jewels in the National Parks system: Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. If you had to make a similar list for Australia, I don’t know what two of the parks would be, one one of them would have to be Kakadu.
Kakadu is an enormous park. It is one of the largest national parks in the world, over twice the size of Yellowstone and is larger than New Jersey or the nation of Israel. Of the 850 UNESCO World Heritage sites, only 25 are recognized for both natural and cultural significance, and Kakadu is one of them.
Even if you have never heard of Kakadu, you have probably seen it on TV. Kakadu is where many of the ‘outback’ scenes in Crocodile Dundee were shot and was often frequented by Steve Irwin.
There is no one single thing in Kakadu. The park has wetlands with a wide diversity of bird life, several rivers with crocodiles, rock escarpments, part of the coast on the Arafura Sea, and savanna. Kakadu has over 280 bird species, 60 mammal species, and 1,600 plant species.
My trip to Kakadu began as almost all trips to Kakadu do: from Darwin. Kakadu within driving distance to Darwin and there are day tours you can take from the city. While there isn’t a lot you can see just taking a day trip, it is doable. Driving distance is about two hours, depending on where you go in the park. There are only two main roads in the park which are paved and a small number of spur roads to various sights. Everything else requires a 4-wheel drive (which I didn’t have). Most of the unpaved roads are not accessible during the wet season which is about October to March. I was there in May, which seemed to be the perfect time to go. Conditions were dry enough that most roads were open, yet not so dry that everything was brown.
Fire plays an important part of things in the park (and for most of Australia for that matter). While I was there I saw many brush fires in the park, all of which were started on purpose. They tend to start fires early in the dry season when the grass still has some moisture so the fires don’t get out of hand, least you have a bigger fire later in the year when conditions are really dry. Many of the plants require fire to germinate. In fact, there is one species of kite (a bird) which catches prey has it flees fire. It has learned to pick up burning sticks and embers and to drop them on the unburnt brush to spread fire to flush out more animals.
My first day in the park I visited Ubirr, which is noted for its Aboriginal rock artwork. The Aboriginal presence in the area extends back over 20,000 years (I’ve heard estimates of 40,000 years, which would put it on a par with the evidence of human settlement I saw in Mungo National Park). There are several locations in Kakadu of well-preserved examples of Aboriginal artwork, some of which is older than the cave paintings found in Lascaux, France. Unlike Lascaux, the art in Kakadu isn’t in a cave and is very accessible.
I arrived at Ubirr about two hours before sunset and managed to climb up the large outcrop to watch the sunset over the nearby wetlands. It was something like you’d see in a documentary about the African savanna, except there were no lions, zebras or elephants. A large number of tourists arrived just before sunset, so it must be one of the big stops for tour groups in the park.
I stayed overnight in Kakadu in my camper, and the next day I headed out early to explore some more of the park. One of the most prominent features in Kakadu is Jimjim Falls. Unfortunately, the road there was the only one I saw that was closed in the park, so I couldn’t take a trip in a 4-wheel drive out there.
My first stop was at Anbangbang, which is another rock art site south of Ubirr. The geologist in me noticed a difference in the rocks between the two locations. Ubirr was a fine-grained sandstone, whereas Anbangbang was a very coarse conglomerate. The artwork was surprisingly sophisticated for something done thousands of year ago. All of the art was done in sheltered areas under rock overhangs. In nearly all of the locations, you could also see holes worn into the stone, where food was prepared.
The last big thing I did was to take a boat trip on the South Alligator River. (There are no alligators in Kakadu, only crocodiles, but the first Europeans to go there didn’t know the difference). The water levels on the river vary dramatically depending on the time of year you are there. The guide we had said that just two weeks beforehand, all the trees in the area had been about halfway submerged, so the water had gone more than a meter.
Again, the time of the visit was almost perfect. The water wasn’t so high that it was just a giant lake, but it wasn’t so low that it was dried out. There was plenty of grass around and many of the bird species were giving birth. There were birds all over the place. I wish I had taken notes during the trip, but I was too busy taking photos (and after many attempts in many places, I can say with authority I suck at taking bird photos).
The big feature of the tour, and of the entire park itself, were the crocodiles. We saw three crocs during the 90-minutes of the tour, including one very large male sunning himself on the bank of the river. Everywhere in Kakadu, on every body of water, you can see warning signs about crocs. Don’t swim, don’t fish, don’t clean fish, don’t stop, don’t do anything, please stay the hell away from the water. Crocs are dangerous, but so long as you don’t do anything stupid, they aren’t a problem. I heard a news report while in Australia that local Australians are attacked at higher rates than tourists, usually because they don’t tend to take warnings as seriously. In 2002 a German tourist was killed by a croc in Kakadu.
If a person was going to Australia and could only see one thing, I think I’d have to recommend Kakadu. It is probably the quintessential Australian experience where you can see most of the things which makes Australia, Australia.