John Borthwick shares his experience travelling to the World Heritage listed site
Kakadu National Park seems to have more creatures per metre than anywhere since Noah’s Ark. With its 50 species of mammal, 280 types of bird and 75 kinds of reptile – not to mention over 1300 plant varieties – I sometimes think of this as Kakadu National Ark.
Road directions for reaching Kakadu from Darwin, 250km away, are simple: drive down the Stuart Highway, turn left at the Humpty Doo pub, pass the “Hard Croc Café” and the giant termite mounds, and – three hours later – you’re in Australia’s largest national park, one of the crown jewels of its World Heritage list.
Kakadu is forests, rivers and floodplains. It is waterfalls at midday, billabongs at burning dusk, galleries of rock art five times older than the Egyptian Pharaohs and two million magpie geese and crocodiles in the river anytime you’re silly enough to risk swimming. It also has scores of serviced camping sites, well-marked trails and “civilised” places to stay. All of which is impossible to cram into a one, or even two-day visit. Indeed, a friend from Darwin advises me: “Kakadu in a day? No way!” At 19,800sq km in area, Kakadu is about the size of Wales or Israel, but its sealed roads allow the hire car I’m using to access all the major sites. Only the famous Twin Falls are beyond its reach.
I join a four-wheel drive day tour to the Falls. After 65km of rutted roads we reach a pandanus-shaded riverbank. Our driver – a friendly, sandy-haired bloke named Geoff – hands out inflatable mattresses and flippers. Soon our little armada of eight adults and kids is splashing along between the soaring walls of a gorge. This is the only way to reach Twin Falls. The river is placid, warm and guaranteed crocodile-free. Kicking easily, we wind between the canyon walls. Half an hour later, we round the last bend and there, tumbling into a wide, sand-fringed plunge-pool are the silky cataracts of Twin Falls.
It’s like a vision of Eden. It’s like Jurassic Park without the digital dinosaurs. The two hours we spend here swimming, picnicking (Geoff has floated a cooler full of lunch along on his mattress), snoozing on the warm sand, entranced by the irreducible elements – white water, green jungle, red rock, blue heavens – are for me the highlight of Kakadu.
The park’s name comes from the Aboriginal Gagadju clan, one of the area’s traditional owners. Human settlement started here at least 40,000, perhaps as long as 120,000, years ago. To its Aborigines the whole domain is a stone Genesis, a living body of language. It is replete with ‘Dreaming’ sites from their creation myths and with extraordinary galleries of art that document heroes, humans and beasts. The paintings at the easily-visited Ubirr Rock and Nourlangie Rock sites are up to 25,000 years old. Often done in the “X-ray” style, unique to Australia’s Top End, the artwork depicts barramundi, turtles, goannas and wallabies. The images span from the mythical “Dreamtime” to European “machine-time”: from Namarrgon the Lightning Man (more lightning strikes here, it is said, than anywhere else on earth) to pictures of early European buffalo hunters with guns and boots.
The next day I join a flat-bottomed boat that cruises the Yellow Waters wetlands. Even in this, the dry season, Kakadu’s foliage is still as brilliant as a peacock’s tail. Black and white magpie geese rise like a thousand startled handkerchiefs, while elegant, long-legged brolgas pick among the giant water lilies. Sleek brumbies (feral horses) graze beneath the paperbarks with little white egrets perched on their backs like tiny circus acrobats. But it’s always the saltwater crocodiles that steal the show. One sinister saurian lies along the grassy banks, as patterned and prim – and primed – as a killer handbag. A beady eye fixed upon nothing but an ancient feeding instinct has noted us. “Make my day,” it seems to say.
One way to take in Kakadu’s vastness (this is the third largest National Park in the world) is on a scenic flight from Jabiru airfield. Our six passenger Cessna climbs over the controversial Jabiru uranium mine and out towards Arnhem Land’s 300-km long escarpment. Permanent billabongs, the fantastic erosions of the Arnhem Land plateau, deep gullies of primordial monsoon rainforest and the East Alligator River winding through yellow sands and silver gorges towards the sea. And, visible even from this height, the dark slivers of crocodiles beside the river, sunning themselves as these last of the dinosaurs have done for 240 million years on the sands of time.
On my final afternoon, I take a boat trip on the South Alligator River (misnamed by early British explorers – Australia has no alligators). Our driver, Barry, knows the nooks and crannies of the tidal riverbanks in extraordinary detail. What is to me a long, caramel coloured bank is to him a place where he can pull the vessel right up to the mangrove roots and, pointing at a camouflaged squiggle, say, “There’s one.” And indeed, there is a baby crocodile, no longer than a big lizard and deceptively cuter. Barry explains how male “salties” are such nice guys that they even eat their own young, so mother croc has much work to do in preserving her offspring. She is always somewhere nearby, standing guard. I look around to see, watching me, two glass bead eyes stitched onto the mother of all killer handbags. I stay securely on the boat.