Kakadu National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Northern Territory of Australia. The name itself derives from an Aboriginal floodplain language called Gagudju (Ga-gud-dju -> Kak-uh-doo), one of the two main languages spoken in the north of the area in the early 1900s, the other language being Limilngan. Sadly, both these languages are among the many dying Australian Aboriginal Languages; no longer regularly spoken. However, descendants of these language groups are still living in Kakadu, including Kunwinjku from north-east, and Gun-djeihmi from the centre and Jawoyn from the south.
Although it may seem a sidetrack to talk about language when speaking about an area of land, to the Aboriginal people there is no such distinction. According to the traditional owners of this vast unique country, it was shaped by their spiritual ancestors with their words and their physical passing during the Creation Time. These "first people" created landforms, plants, animals and Bininj/Mungguy1 (Aboriginal people). They taught laws, ceremony, language, kinship and ecological knowledge.
The park itself is 20,000 square kilometres2 of coastal fringes, wetlands, woodland plains, rainforest, rolling hill country and elevated rocky outliers, bordered by the Arnhem Land tablelands and the Wild Man River to the east, to the north by Van Diemen Gulf and to the west by the East Alligator River (the Alligator River was named by Phillip Parker King in 1820 who mistook the crocodiles in the area for alligators!). Kakadu gained much international publicity when it featured prominently in the two Crocodile Dundee movies which starred Paul Hogan3.
Although parts of the park are visually stunning, and it does contain a large number of that perennial drawcard species Crocodylus porosus or the huge saltwater crocodile4, it should be noted in passing that the reason for its World Heritage listing has little or nothing to do with the areas that we humans find so attractive. The listing is largely for the importance of the area to the huge numbers of bird species who shelter in the wetlands in the dry season. That said, Kakadu has five main areas:
The Plateau is a huge, rugged sandstone formation which rises sharply to a height of 250 m from the lower lands to the north and produces some of the most spectacular scenery in the park. The dramatic escarpment extends for over 600 km and is the site of the major waterfalls (including Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls) and deep gorges in the park. The escarpment caves are a natural shelter for the traditional owners of the region and are filled with Aboriginal art. The massive tropical storms have created honeycombing in the rock surfaces and exposed ancient rock formations.
The Lowlands are a vast eroded plain (nothing to do with humans in this case!) with a few rocky outcrops which lie to the north of the escarpment.
The Floodplain which lies to the north of the plateau receives the full force of the monsoonal rains which arrive in November and last until March and thus in the wet season is basically a huge lake. In the dry season it is characterised by the permanent billabongs so beloved by birds and other wildlife. The area is famed for its waterlilies and lotus lilies which are edible. It has largely recovered from earlier depredations by the Top End's two main introduced species, the water buffalo and the wild pig.
Tidal Flats is a typical tropical wasteland, saline soil making it survivable only by mangroves and saltwater rainforest.
Southern Hills and Basins near Fisher Creek. This is an area of woodland where the headwaters of the South Alligator River run through harsh stony country.
These areas combined contain over 1000 plant species, a quarter of all the freshwater fish species and over one-third of all the bird species found in Australia.
The park is jointly managed by the staff of Parks Australia, and the traditional owners through their elders. In a park leaflet entitled "Kakadu National Park Holiday Planner", the rangers identify three distinct seasons, to help visitors plan what kind of park they would like to see, and thus what time of the year to travel to the area.
Dry Season (April to September) As the land starts to dry out, many grass fires are lit by the park management and the traditional owners. The wet areas begin to shrink and concentrate the wildlife into fewer areas. The days are mostly above 30°C (90°F), but the air is very dry, making it by far the most pleasant time of the year. Its also the most popular time to visit the park (the wildlife is relatively easier to find) so expect the hordes.
Build Up (October to November) The humidity starts to build, the weather is stinking hot. Occasionally relief comes in the form of huge (and I mean massive) electrical storms - often dry. This is the best time to see the crocs, and the tourist numbers will be way down.
Wet Season (December to March) Green and wet. Monsoonal rains quickly overflow the regular drainage systems of rivers and estuaries, however humidity is uncomfortably high and many roads are utterly impassable. Tourist numbers are at their lowest. Personally, I think the very start or end of The Wet is the time to come if you can stand the climate, as the plants add a whole extra palette of colours to the landscape.
In summary, whatever time you come, or indeed if you just visit the park through the myriad of television programs about the area or featuring the area, you are in for a very special treat in a truly unique location. Hire a 4WD
vehicle in Darwin5
, stock with appropriate supplies, buy one of the many excellent maps available, ask some advice, plan a "circle trip" that takes in at least three of the five areas above, and go exploring. Highlights include (from the literature - your best bet is to ask locals for the secret
- Bowali Visitor Centre Start here - it's the best place to get info and plan the rest of your trip. There are excellent displays about the various areas.
- Maukala Wetland If you're coming the "standard" way from Darwin, this is one of the first big tourist areas you'll see on your right. It's essentially a really large covered walkway or hide that lets you get right up close to the wildlife.
- Warradjan Centre Another must-visit. An excellent way to get information on the Aboriginal Culture of the area.
- Yellow Water Boardwalk in The Dry, boatride in The Wet - this location is in itself an illustration of the dramatic nature of this park! Yellow Water is the one you see on the TV shows with the flatbottomed boats flying across the glassy floodplain, surrounded by partly submerged grass and plenty of lovely crocs. Look at that one! What a liddle bewdy!
- Maguk (dry season only)6 Monsoon forest walk - culminates in a beautiful swimming hole. Bring your togs!
- Gunlom Plunge Pool & Waterfall View a waterfall from the deep cool pool at its base! This is a must in The Dry, can sometimes be inaccessible in The Wet.
- Yurmikmik Walking Tracks A variety of waterfall, lookout, and creekbed walks. Make sure you will be able to get there if you try this one in The Wet.
No writeup on Kakadu would be complete without a mention of the recent controversy over (possibly) the world's most feared resource, uranium. Kakadu sits on top of one of the world's richest deposits of uranium, and when a conservative government was elected in 1996, both plans to mine it and opposition to any mining effort in Kakadu sprang up. To quote from the Greenpeace site:
In 1998, more than 3000 people blockaded the Jabiluka uranium mine site and over 500 people were arrested. The campaign to protect Kakadu has generated news and attention all around the world. It has also sent a clear message to the Federal Government that the Australian community will not sit back and watch one of our most precious natural and cultural treasures be dug up without the permission of the region's traditional owners, the Mirrar people. Mining was set to begin at Jabiluka on 1 January 1999. Community opposition has set this date back, the mine is still not open (as of this writing) and the issue of mining in Kakadu continues to be the subject of national and international condemnation and community protest.
The corporate entity most involved in the Jabiluka effort7
is the uranium mining company Rio Tinto
. See the Jabiluka uranium mine
writeup for more details.
For my part, as a child I lived just over the non-existant fence on a large cattle station called Ban Ban Springs. Although the Southern Hills are described above as harsh stony country, there is a certain series of pools and waterfalls, the location of which is one of those secrets known only to locals. I would ride there on weekends, I was almost always alone. This is the place that comes to my mind whenever someone asks me to think of the most beautiful place I have ever been. I like to think that when I close my eyes for the final time that my thoughts will fly there, to rest amongst the quiet pools and boastful waterfalls, the freshwater crocodiles and the rock wallabies.
Noded in response to Suggestion 13 of This place needs more actual content. Let's begin.
- Bininj (pronounced bin-ing) is a Kunwinjku and Gun-djemhi word, Mungguy (pronounced mung-goy) is a Jawoyn word. Both are similar to the English word "man" and depending on the context can mean man, male, person or Aboriginal people.
- 20,000 sq.km. is 0.5 Switzerlands in metric and 1 New Jersey in Imperial!
- Although the park was heavily featured in these films, many of the key scenes were filmed elsewhere.
- Kakadu is home to both "freshies" and "salties", however only the big mean saltwater crocs are partial to tourist meat.
- Actually, a 4WD is pretty mandatory equipment whatever time of year you come. It's a rough area.
- Seriously, if any sign in the Top End says "Dry Season Only" then believe! You will get seriously bogged if you continue. No, the Top End does NOT care that you outlaid the price of a small house on your "offroad" vehicle, nor that it has all the "gear". You will sink in mud up to your axles, and there will be no convenient big trees to help you winch yourself free. You have been warned.
- Your faithful correspondant is not opposed to mining just because, however this one does seem a particularly bad idea.