To fully appreciate the scale, diversity and grandeur of Kakadu you have to take to the air. Even if you drove every road and track, you would see less than 1 per cent of its 20,000 square kilometres.
We are airborne with Kakadu Air in a light plane doing two laps of Jim Jim Falls and two laps of Twin Falls. The flight is smooth but is still too much for one passenger who makes full use of the paper bag provided as the pilot dips to give us a closer look at the pool at the base of Jim Jim Falls.
After heavy rains the pool is the size of five average house blocks.
We fly over areas completely inaccessible by road, over waterholes and along snaking waterways ruled by crocodiles. Even from the pilot’s lofty perch he is able to spot one sunbaking below.
This beautiful northern land of ours appears so inhospitable, yet in many areas here people still live a traditional lifestyle hunting buffalo and wild pig.
Our hour-long flight takes us along part of the Arnhem Plateau, which is a staggering 500 kilometres in length. It was part of a sea cliff shoreline above a shallow sea 140 million years ago.
At one point our visibility is reduced by smoke haze as a result of control burn fires lit by helicopters. Conservation managers are now using the traditional patch burning practised by Indigenous people in the cooler months to prevent bushfires, repair country and encourage the recovery of biodiversity.
Locals tell us it’s like pruning your roses.
We look down on the scar that is the Ranger uranium mine. The company is not mining new uranium at the moment and the mine will close in 2021. What will happen to the township of Jabiru, built to house mine workers, is still unknown.
Back down on ground level we drive to nearby Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) where we meet up with Victor Cooper, a former park ranger and traditional owner.
Victor is the perfect person to reveal the stories behind this famous site with its stunning rock paintings because after Kakadu National Park was declared in 1979, he spent nearly 30 years working all over Kakadu before establishing Ayal Aboriginal Tours Kakadu in 2008.
Nourlangie’s World Heritage rock art documents life in the region from 20,000 years ago to the first contact with European explorers.
Here you’ll find some of the world’s oldest and most impressive rock art. Victor helps us isolate representations of creation beings, such as Namarrgon (lightning man), intriguing depictions of European sailing ships from first contact with white people, and x-ray art of animals and fish.
Nourlangie’s other attractions are its abundant birdlife and easy walks and lookouts. The area is home to a number of species found nowhere else in the world such as the chestnut-quilled rock pigeon and the bark – or black wallaroo – which can often be seen foraging for plants in the early morning and late afternoon.
You can do an easy, quiet loop through savanna woodlands and paperbark forest around a billabong teeming with birdlife or walk up to Nawurlandja Lookout for views of the escarpment, Burrungkuy Rock and Anbangbang Billabong.
A cruise along one of Kakadu’s many billabongs is one of the best things to do in any season, but particularly during the wet.
Next day we take an early morning Yellow Water boat cruise with a handful of other guests from Cooinda Lodge.
In March the water is dropping at a quarter of a metre a day; but on this day, it is high enough to close off the adjoining boardwalk and the water is covered with glorious waterlilies.
It is so peaceful and quiet that the only sound is the gentle lapping of water against the boat. Even the crocodiles are sleeping, barely opening their eyelids as we cruise within metres of them along channels only slightly wider than the boat.
Most of the time our guide cuts the engine and lets the boat drift, allowing us to simply sit quietly among the 150-year-old paperbark trees and take in the beauty of this billabong.
The “knock-em-down” storms will be here soon, our guide informs us, but for the moment everything is perfectly still.
“Embrace the rain, it’s going to get you."
Formations of magpie geese fly overhead and we watch jacanas, (the so-called Jesus Bird because it seemingly walks on water) delicately pick their way across the lily pads barely creating a ripple in the water. We are even lucky enough to see a sacred kingfisher among the myriad of kites (also called “bully birds” because they annoy other birds until they surrender their catch).
Our guide points out a sea eagle’s nest and tells us the parents use the same nest for 30-35 years. The nests can become so heavy they collapse, necessitating a rebuild. “It’s called renovating the baby’s room,” he says wryly.
That night we get our first taste of the Territory’s famous “wet” when torrential rain pounds on the roof and against doors and windows of our hotel.
We have only been in Kakadu for a few days but one of the first things we’ve learnt is that rain is not the enemy in the Territory. When you have gone 155 days without a drop, a downpour is something to be celebrated.
The next morning the heavy rain is gone, replaced by light showers. There aren’t even puddles to be seen around the Mercure Crocodile Hotel.
The plan is to travel by small boat and 4WD all-weather, all-terrain vehicle to Ubirr, believed to be the oldest occupied site in Australia with evidence of life dating back 65,000 years. With 15,000 individual rock art sites, it boasts the densest population of rock art painting in the world.
We join the small crowd in the hotel lobby waiting to go on tour. One woman hesitates when she hears reports of a swollen creek one metre and rising and the prediction of further heavy rain.
The guide speaks bluntly: “Embrace the rain, it’s going to get you,” and she abandons her misgivings and climbs aboard.
The Ubirr Combo Tour is the most unique tour I’ve experienced in Australia. February/March is the time of year when the vast wetland floods cut off the road access to Ubirr.
There is just a narrow window of opportunity during the seasonal flooding and that is to cross the swollen Magela Creek by boat. You’re literally boating on top of the flooded road – yes, there are crocodiles – through floating lily ponds and pandanus trees and out into the connecting billabongs on the Ubirr side of the creek. From there a sturdy all-terrain vehicle awaits for the rest of the way to Ubirr.
Because this is the only way to reach Ubirr at this time of year, we have this magnificent treasure trove of early Aboriginal rock paintings completely to ourselves. There’s ample time to wander and see the artwork and take in the view of the flooded plains from Ubirr Lookout before it’s time to head back to civilisation.
What you need to know to get there...
WHEN to visit: The Bininj/Mungguy calendar recognises up to six seasons. Although the most popular time to visit is May to September when temperatures are cooler, Kakadu is lush and green during the wet season when the heat and humidity generate an explosion of plant and animal life. Bear in mind, though, that some unsealed roads may be closed due to flooding and humidity is high.
ESSENTIALS: All visitors to Kakadu National Park must buy a Park Pass, which contributes to the cost of running the park – www.parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu. Prices vary according to the season ($25-$40 or $19-$30 for Senior Card holders). You can buy online before you go or at a visitor centre when you arrive.
Bowali Visitor Centre, located in a building inspired by an Aboriginal rock shelter, will help you make the most of your trip. It has friendly staff, an air-conditioned theatre screening informative documentaries, a gallery of Aboriginal fine art and a cafe serving inspired Indonesian cuisine.
The Warradjan Cultural Centre, shaped like a pig-nosed turtle, offers cultural activities during the dry season.
Both centres are open year-round and provide an invaluable insight into the culture and story of Kakadu’s traditional owners, the Bininj and Mungguy people.
STAY: The famous crocodile-shaped Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel is in Jabiru, the only town inside the national park, and serves as a gateway to all parts of the park and Arnhem Land.
The indigenous-owned hotel offers four-star accommodation and its in-house art gallery showcases the largest range of Kakadu and Arnhem Land art in the country. Its Escarpment Restaurant offers beautiful food inspired by bush tucker ingredients – (08) 8979 9000, www.kakadutourism.com
Cooinda Lodge Kakadu has a choice of motel rooms, budget accommodation, tent and powered van sites, all supported by a store, bistro and pool. A sign at the Cooinda Store proudly proclaims, “We’re sorry there’s no Wi-Fi service at Cooinda Yellow Water but we promise that you will find a better connection to Kakadu without it.” – (08) 8979 1500, www.kakadutourism.com
Indigenous owned and operated Anbinik Kakadu resort has bush bungalows, cabins, suites and air-conditioned rooms. The enclosed outdoor shower in the suites and day beds on the verandah are a nice touch – (08) 8979 3144, www.airbinik.com.au
Darwin: Your gateway to Kakadu has many accommodation options. Hilton Darwin in Mitchell Street is close to the vibrant harbour area and shopping, dining and entertainment – (08) 8982 0000.
TRANSPORT: You can either take a tour of Kakadu – there are plenty to choose from – or self-drive.
The roads are good but you do need to be aware that some roads will be closed during the wet. There is a daily update of road conditions at www.parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu/access
PACK: Water bottle, hat, sunscreen and mozzie spray, rain poncho, sturdy walking shoes and a sense of adventure.
Sue Preston was a guest of Tourism NT
This article first appeared on www.thesenior.com.au