We continued our road trip through the ‘Never Never’ (one of Australia’s more romantic names for the Top End) to the famous Kakadu National Park.
Is the Good Book that great?
Some travellers refer to the Lonely Planet guide as ‘the Backpacker Bible’ – a comprehensive source of information on how to manage any travel scenario as you wind your way around any country. But like the Bible, there are some statements in there that really test belief. For example, when you open up to the Kakadu National Park entry in the 2014 edition of Australia it says ‘Litchfield-do, Kaka-don’t’ – assigning this punny piece of advice to local Northern Territory wisdom. All we can say is please please ignore it – you might gain some hipster points by only visiting indie little Litchfield NP, but you will definitely regret dissing Australia’s Disneyland.
Welcome to Outback Disney
This isn’t just clickbait kids, we see World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park as akin to (and much better than) Disneyland for the following reasons:
- It’s HUGE – 20,000 square kilometres broken up into seven different ‘lands’ jointly managed by the Government and traditional indigenous owners
- It’s very well funded, organised and marketed to Australians and foreign visitors alike – it even has its own TV series
- It has a famous cast of iconic Australian characters – from crocodiles to buffalo, jabiru, Lightning Man, Cheeky Yam and the indomitable Rainbow Serpent
- It’s a bit pricey, but still good value if you stay a while – $40 per person entry fee for up to a week, however, you will need to pay for accommodation on top of this
- There’s always an exhibit that’s ‘out of order’ as the six different seasons affect the region differently, so visiting once is never enough
We arrived towards the end of the hot dry season known as ‘Gurrung’ as the park gods began to make preparations for the monsoon season by ending hot dry days with a dramatic display of thunder and lightning but very little rain. Late September is the end of high season tourism-wise; while the park was pretty busy, we didn’t have to pre-book to find camping sites.
Approaching from Darwin, we came in at the west entrance from the Arnhem Highway, driving through the billabongs of the South Alligator region, with a quick detour up north before winding our way southwest toward Katherine. It’s a big circuit at almost 1,000 km (see the Darwin and Litchfield bits here). As with most of the Northern Territory, there are limited sealed roads, so we could only access some of Kakadu’s attractions in our 2WD campervan Moby.
Unboring exploring – understanding Ubirr’s ancient rock art
We arrived at Ubirr in the East Alligator region for a 9 am guided walk through several fascinating Aboriginal rock art sites. It was well worth the early wake up as without the knowledge of our guide Annie, we wouldn’t have been able to make out half of the paintings or grasp their significance. The rock art at Kakadu represents one of the longest historical records of any group of people in the world. In one gallery we could see the diets of the local people across thousands of years, as they painted the changing contents of their ‘supermarket’ across the wall. The guide spoke of one local elder who remembers the painting as a menu – his family would ask him which creature he would like for dinner. Depending on the season, this could be wallaby, barramundi or turtle. From this ancient rock art, indigenous children are also taught important moral stories and allegories. Different stories are explained at different sites, and some sites are forbidden to those to whom the stories don’t apply – for instance, some stories are too complex for young children to understand, and some relate to secret women’s business that needs to be kept from uninitiated men and women, less Rainbow Serpent rear her ugly head.
Locals maintain that the oldest paintings were made by Creation Ancestors known as Mimi, while the later ones were painted by the local Bininj people. Some of these Mimi paintings were in the most out-of-reach places, underneath steep overhanging rock thirty metres up, and to this day experts can’t work out how they were put there.
We of the Never Never
After checking out the rock art galleries we climbed up an outcrop for our own Mufasa moment. We surveyed the Nadab floodplains, trying to imagine what the vast expanse of land must look like in the wet season as the crocodiles and waterbirds creep in. Our guide related a funny but pertinent story about the filming of Crocodile Dundee. In the original script for the scene that was shot here, Paul Hogan takes in the panoramic view and pronounces ‘This is my country’. One of the indigenous runners then yelled out ‘No it’s not!’ This resulted in the script change to the now famous line ‘That’s Never-Never Country.’
Heading south from the small township of Jabiru, we hit up the Visitors Centre to get some relief from the midday heat. It was one of the best visitor centres we had seen on our Australian road trip, hosting a detailed exhibition explaining the culture and history of the area, including a spinning wheel that explained the moiety or ‘skin’ system of the Northern Territory tribes (minds blown) as well a mini-cinema and extensive range of dorky crocodile skin hats. Gaz couldn’t resist.
At Nourlangie, home of Lightning Dreaming, we were treated to more views and amazing indigenous rock art.
Too hot for crocs
Throughout the Northern Territory, at almost every swimming hole, we’d seen Crocodile Safety signs, advising us to swim at our own risk. Unfortunately, it was so bloody hot that we couldn’t resist swimming at the gorge pools at Kakadu and Edith Falls near Katherine. One of the most picturesque (and safest) was the series of secret rockpools hidden at the top of Waterfall Creek near Gunlom in the Mary River Region. The natural infinity pool looking over the southern part of the park was definitely worth the hour off-road drive and 2km steep climb.
Crocodiles aside, the most dangerous part of our Top End trip turned out to be a simple hike through Katherine Gorge. Short on water, and walking in 34-degree heat, we struggled to complete the 8km scramble.
The views for Gorges 1,2 and 3 were spectacular, but as we looked down we saw several people exploring in canoes and decided that looked like a much better option for our next NT visit.
Lows: Deathly hallows – drinking hot, bug-filled water from a tank in the middle of the bush and burping up the chlorine
Highs: Joie de vivre – enjoying a rain dance in a 3 am downpour after days of suffocating heat