While Darwin in the Northern Territory is a fabulous place to visit to get a taste of Australia's top end, a trip to Kakadu National Park will satisfy the desire for northern wildlife, open spaces and outback nature.
Kakadu is the country's largest national park and has dual world heritage status. Its 20,000 square kilometres are known for their outstanding natural and cultural values. Kakadu is Aboriginal land and today the traditional owners work in conjunction with Parks Australia to manage it.
Kakadu is an easy 2.5-hour drive from Darwin along the Arnhem Highway.
The first town you'll come to is Jabiru. Home to about 1200 people, it is national park headquarters and also home to the Mercure Crocodile Hotel, an ideal launchpad for some Kakadu exploration.
Once you're settled in, make your first stop in town the Bowali Visitor Centre. Here you'll be able to get your Park Pass and find out what attractions are open and what experiences are available for the time of year you are visiting. Check out the daily ranger guided walks which are free (with your pass) and a great way to get to know Kakadu.
Pack your walking shoes as well as long cotton or linen pants and a long-sleeved shirt. These will keep you sun smart in summer, come in handy if you are visiting in cooler months and will fend off the friendly mosquitoes.
"Our land has a big story. Sometimes we tell a little bit at a time. Come and hear our stories, see our land. A little bit might stay in your hearts. If you want more, you come back."Jacob Nayinggul from the Manilakarr clan
Someone who knows Kakadu well is park ranger Ollie Scheibe. He first moved to the area in 1980 and started work as a ranger for Parks Australia in 1985. To him, Kakadu is all about the magic of nature.
"When you've spent any length of time in Kakadu you can't help but come under its spell. There is a certain magic about the place and the connection you gain with nature," he said.
"The animals and the trees here are like family - well to me they are. We need to keep that special connection with nature and Kakadu really does that. It's a way of securing the area in its natural and cultural state for future generations to enjoy.
"We have to look after the land, learn from our elders and people with knowledge."
You will soon discover that Kakadu has several different regions.
In the northern part of the park you can take in ancient rock art and stunning views at Ubirr, a 50-kilometre drive along a sealed road from Jabiru. There's some clambering up rock pathways to get to the lookout, so good walking shoes are needed and a decent level of fitness is required.
Sunset is the busiest time and many flock to witness the red orb disappearing over the floodplains below. Or just do the walk below, where some of the greatest rock art sites in Australia show the unique x-ray style of Aboriginal art synonymous with the region.
If you are a bird-watcher, visit Mamukala Wetlands but be prepared to sit for a while and take in the environment. There might be more avian action in the car park than in the bird hide, depending on the time of day. There's an easy three-kilometre flat walk you can take near the billabong. Allow one to two hours.
Heading to the more central part of the park, Nourlangie Rock is another location that highlights Aboriginal culture and there is a good, medium-level walk here. You can really feel the spiritual nature of Kakadu in Nourlangie.
Further south you'll find Cooinda and the lovely Cooinda Lodge. General manager Benjamin Brown came to the area 10 years ago and worked three seasons at the property. He returned in December 2018 as the boss and said there were many memorable experiences to be had in the park.
"One of my favourite times of the day here at Yellow Water is the very early morning. Even with the thousands of animals waking up there is still a peace and quiet to be found," he said.
The Cooinda area is home to the Yellow Water Cruise, Jim Jim Falls, Maguk Gorge and the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre. Allow at least an hour at the cultural centre if you've got the time and you'll walk away with a wonderful insight into the Aboriginal heritage of the area.
To take in all the "must-see" locations within Kakadu you'd need at least a week. But if you have to choose one experience, make it the Yellow Water Cruise, out of Cooinda. It operates up to six times a day in the busy season and showcases wildlife and the environment in the remote outback.
If you fancy a swim you can visit Gunlom Falls in the very south of the park, or Maguk Gorge, which is probably the most easily accessible swimming hole. It's 10 kilometres off the highway - a dirt road - but you don't necessarily need a 4WD, a good SUV with clearance will do it. From the car park it's a one-kilometre walk to the main waterhole. There is some clambering over rocks, but nothing too strenuous if you take your time. The walk up is beautiful.
Like many places in the Northern Territory, Kakadu is at the mercy of seasonal conditions and what you experience can depend on the amount of rain that has fallen over the wet season (generally November to March). Some attractions may not open until June, July or even August if the rain has been heavy. To avoid disappointment, you must do your research, check in with the Parks Australia website or call the info lines.
If you are going
Call Bowali Visitor Centre on 08 8938 1120