Consider these eight amazing activities your Kakadu bucket list (Jac Taylor).
1. Cruise Yellow Water
The most famous of Kakadu’s many billabongs, Yellow Water Billabong is your postcard shot: regular boats cruise across its great swathes of floodwaters, half-submerged paperbarks, pandanus and water lilies, while Kakadu’s famous crocs cruise beneath. The birds here are out of this world: jabiru, sea eagles, magpie geese and egrets. Cruises operate all year round; in the dry season you can also explore the billabong on foot, via boardwalks.
ACCESS: Via 2WD in the dry (you can drive virtually up to the boat ramp); in the wet you simply drive to nearby hotel and hub Cooinda Lodge and hop on a shuttle bus.
2. Swim at Gunlom Falls
You’ve probably seen Gunlom’s top pool before; it resembles a resort-style infinity pool, though of course it’s even more special since it is entirely made by nature. The plunge pool is located at the bottom of the falls at Waterfall Creek, but you can also take the moderately steep, 30-minute walk to the top of the falls for even better views overlooking the southern hills of the park, and more freshwater pools to swim in. Facilities for campers include solar hot showers and shaded picnic areas.
ACCESS: Via 4WD in the dry (occasionally you can make it in a 2WD, but check the road report); then it’s a short walk to the plunge pool (with wheelchair access) or a moderate 30-minute climb to rock pools above the falls. NB: inaccessible in the wet.
3. Swim at Maguk
This is one of Kakadu’s hidden gems. It’s only an hour’s drive south of Cooinda, but you’ll need to turn off the sealed highway and drive a 14-kilometre, 4WD-only track, then walk a kilometre to get here. The effort required makes this one of the Park’s lesser-visited natural plunge pools, but it’s absolutely gorgeous to swim in, and the walk in, via a beautiful creek and classic pandanus forest, really is lovely. A short, but steep, climb will get you to the top of its waterfall, where more pools await you.
ACCESS: Via 4WD in the dry; then it’s a two-kilometre, easy to moderate, return walk. Maguk is inaccessible in the wet.
4. Admire Ubirr
Ubirr is one of two popular Aboriginal rock art galleries – though really, it’s not so much a gallery, but a collection of them. A kilometre-long circular walk from the carpark takes in the Main Gallery, the Namarrgarn Sisters gallery, and the Rainbow Serpent gallery, with the dates of art ranging from over 15,000 years old to as recent as 150 years ago. Ubirr’s most famous pieces include X-ray paintings of animals, Dreamtime folklore and ‘contact art’, showing local impressions of contact with white explorers. Make sure you take the extra 30-minute moderate climb to Nardab Lookout for sunset views so excellent.
ACCESS: Via 2WD in the dry (though check road conditions early in the season). The circular track is partly wheelchair accessible. In the wet, only 4WDs can drive here; if 4WD access is also closed due to flooding, you might be lucky enough to access the site via boat, on a wet season Guluyambi Cultural Cruise.
5. … and Nourlangie
The second of Kakadu’s most famous rock art sites, the red rock cliffs of Nourlangie offer not only spectacular views across the wetlands, but a fascinating window into local Aboriginal culture. You’ll need 90–120 minutes to tour the multiple art sites, along a 1.5-kilometre circular walk that also includes the Anbangbang Shelter, providing refuge from the weather for 20,000 years for locals who whiled away the time by decorating the walls with their stories. The sites feature highlights like the amazing Nayombolmi frieze, Dreaming figures and remarkable views from the top lookout, Nawurlandja. Catch a ranger talk several times a day during the dry season; entry to the site is free.
ACCESS: Via 2WD, year-round. The 1.5-kilometre walk is easy; the 600-metre climb to the lookout is moderately steep.
6. Check out Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls
No visit to Kakadu is complete without seeing these beautiful waterfalls – they’re key to the massive movement of water that marks the seasons. However close to each other geographically, they’re actually very different. Jim Jim Falls features vertiginous 150-metre-high cliffs surrounding a beautiful, deep plunge pool, and flows only after the wet season. You can swim there in the top pool during the dry season and admire the unexpected presence of silica sand – this area was once an inland sea. The Twin Falls are in spectacular flow all year round, continuously gushing over a 220-metre drop onto the beach below.
ACCESS: You can get to Jim Jim Falls via 4WD in the dry season. From the carpark, take a moderately difficult 45-minute walk over boulders to the top plunge pool where you can swim. To get to Twin Falls you’ll need a snorkel on your vehicle to get through an 0.8m water crossing. You then board a shuttle boat from the car park, which takes you up the gorge, before a short walk to the falls themselves. Twin Falls has a very pretty plunge pool at the bottom, but you can’t swim here; saltwater crocodiles do occasionally make their home here. Scenic flights are also available from Jabiru airport.
7. Take one of the Yurmikmik Walks
Time to get your rugged on! The Yurmikmik walks are a series of interconnected trails exploring the wilds of the park’s southern region, and they are underutilised, underrated and local favourites. The two-kilometre-return Boulder Creek Walk runs through monsoon forest and woodlands; the five-kilometre return walk to Yurmikmik Lookout takes you to the ridge for fantastic views over Yurmikmik country (pack your camera). The 7.5-kilometre return Motor Car Falls Walk journeys along a historical track through to shady creeks and rainforest; and the ultimate Kakadu walking experience, is the 14-kilometre overnight Motor Car and Kurrundie Creek circuit, with some sections best navigated by GPS and compass (you’ll need a permit to camp here). For full details and a complete list of walking trails throughout the entire park, visit parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu.
ACCESS: Via 4WD year-round. The area may be closed due to flooding in the wet.
8. Visit Mamukala Wetlands
A hugely important part of Kakadu is its birdlife, and Mamukala has a bird hide shelter where you can have some quiet time and really enjoy the sight of thousands of magpie geese (particularly from September–October) coming together to feed, undisturbed. Walks nearby range from one to four kilometres; the three-kilometre walk alongside the wetlands is ideal to enjoy the paperbarks, pandanus and water lilies. Beautiful and accessible for most of the year, it’s most dramatic in the late wet season when birds congregate in their thousands.
ACCESS: Via 2WD year-round; although the area may be closed due to flooding in the wet. The bird hide is accessible by wheelchair, 500-metre return; the three-kilometre loop walk is rated easy.
And before you go anywhere…
The Kakadu Guide: Everything you ever wanted and needed to know about Kakadu