An egret at Yellow Water Billabong in Kakadu National Park, which is home to about one third of Australia's bird species.
An egret at Yellow Water Billabong in Kakadu National Park, which is home to about one third of Australia's bird species. Seanna Cronin

Kakadu magic found in every corner of the park

WATER, or the lack of it, rules life in Kakadu.

While the region, and indeed the entire Northern Territory, suffers from the stereotype of being insufferably hot, Kakadu actually has six distinct seasons.

Three of those - the pre-monsoon storm season (Gungmeleng), the monsoon season (Gudjewg) and the "knock 'em down'' storm season (Bang Gereng) - are all wet to varying degrees.

When I arrive, via Darwin, Kakadu is green thanks to a much-needed soaking after an unusually dry wet season.

The many waterfalls cascading down the sandstone escarpments in Kakadu National Park come roaring to life, saltwater crocodiles have the freedom to move around more freely and the wildlife is busy filling up on the bounty while it lasts.

While the big wet is a vibrant growing period, it has its downsides too. Roads may be closed due to flooding and some areas are off limits because rangers are unable to reliably track croc movements. This is why the high season for tourists is during the drier, and cooler, months of May to October.

Clear skies and high water levels make for a magical experience aboard the Yellow River Cruise. The award-winning operation takes visitors on a boat tour of Kakadu's Yellow Water Billabong - a haven for wildlife including an estimated one-third of Australia's bird species.

During our two-hour cruise we see everything from brilliant white egrets and whistling ducks to a pair of majestic white-bellied sea eagles and comb-crested jacanas using their large feet to elegantly navigate large fields of water lilies - living up to their nickname of the Jesus bird.

Long-necked and pig-nose turtles prove elusive but we do spot three crocs, one guarding a nest and two others moving through the water close to sunset.

Cruising these tranquil waterways - wetlands cover more than one-third of Kakadu National Park - is a peaceful way to immerse yourself in nature.

But it is important to note this still relatively pristine environment is under threat from the invasive cane toads and noxious weeds.

Kakadu National Park is Australia's largest terrestrial national park, covering almost 20,000 square kilometres. Achieving World Heritage status in 1981, Kakadu is the only national park in the world to have a joint-management arrangement between the government and traditional owners.

Jabiru is the only town in the park and is the first port of call for many visitors arriving by car from Darwin. With operations already slowing down at the Ranger Uranium Mine, which is due to close in 2021, it is a town in transition. Tourism will need to become the lifeblood of the mining town - named after a species of stork - where scenic flight-goers are already replacing fly-in-fly-out workers at the local airstrip.

Last year the Northern Territory Government committed in-principle support to the traditional owners' (the Mirarr people) vision for Jabiru to become a tourism and government services hub.

Now it looks like the $446 million master plan will become a reality, with both the Federal Government and Opposition pledging support.

 

Kakadu is just as rich in Aboriginal culture and history as it is in wildlife and jaw-dropping landscapes.

The Bowali Visitor Centre covers the plants, animals and landscapes of the park while the Warradjan Cultural Centre features an extensive interactive exhibit on Aboriginal stories and art, as well as weaving workshops using traditionally dyed pandanus leaves.

Home to Aboriginal people for more than 65,000 years, Kakadu has some of the oldest indigenous rock art sites on the planet.

Ubirr and Nourlangie are the most visited and easily accessible of the park's 5000 rock art sites. The 1.5km walking trail at Nourlangie can easily be done in a few hours. White, yellow and red ochre figures are still easily visible on Nourlangie's dramatic rocky outcrops, which have been occupied for more than 20,000 years.

Standing in the cool shade of towering boulders at the Anbangbang shelter, it's easy to see why people would have taken refuge here during the monsoons thousands of years ago.

The Gunwarddewarde lookout offers stunning views of the Namarrgon djardjang, or lightning dreaming, escarpment, which is even more impressive when seen from the air. If you're a keen photographer, or just short on time, then a scenic flight with Kakadu Air is the easiest way to take in the sights of Nourlangie Rock, Jim Jim Falls and Jabiru's iconic Crocodile Hotel.

KAKADU

Stay

Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel

1 Flinders St, Jabiru

Cooinda Lodge

1 Kakadu Highway, Jabiru

kakadutourism.com/accommodation

See

Kakadu has a starring role in the new Aussie rom com Top End Wedding, in cinemas now.

The writer was a guest of Tourism NT.