Have you ever turned up somewhere wonderful and thought, “how could I not have visited here before?” or “why has it taken me so long to come to this place?”.
Well, that’s exactly what it was like for me the first time I visited Australia’s Northern Territory.
Back in 2017 Dave and I took a month-long road trip from Brisbane, through Queensland, across to the Northern Territory and then explored all around Alice Springs, Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon.
Since that epic trip to the Northern Territory we’ve visited some incredible countries and yet throughout that time I carried a yearning to return to the NT. There’s just something about the place that draws me in and I’ve always wanted to go deeper.
Our busy housesitting calendar offered up a 3-week gap during July and we couldn’t resist the opportunity to head north and delve further into the Territory’s mystique.
Flying into a Darwin winter is very different to leaving a Queensland winter, by about 8C. Perfect weather for a Northern Territory road trip, and with our terrific little hire car we took off along the Arnhem Highway to Kakadu National Park, about 3 hours away.
There’s a popular tourist spot along the way to Kakadu where people get to see jumping crocodiles.
Operators hold chunks of meat in the air and crocs jump up out of the water to get their prize. We decided to bypass this busy place in favour of a more leisurely cruise through natural croc and wildlife habitats of Yellow Water, on the Alligator River.
When you tell people you’re going to visit Kakadu, they will all insist that you take a Yellow Water cruise. Listen to that advice.
Once we boarded our little boat we soon found out that Crocodiles abound in the billabong and straight away we passed a big fella chomping down on what was once a wallaby.
We also learned that there’s so much more to Yellow Water than crocs. About one third of Australia’s bird species are represented in Kakadu National Park, and at least 60 species are resident in the wetlands, including jacana, egrets, jabiru, sea eagles and magpie geese. Follow this terrific link to a Government website that shows all the birds of Kakadu.
Being “winter” the daytime temps hovered around 28c. Well actually, Kakadu’s traditional owners recognise six different seasons based on thousands of years of local knowledge. You’ll find references to the six different seasons throughout much of the Northern Territory.
With 4 full days to play with we had plenty of time to slowly make our way around a portion of Kakadu National Park – with slow being the operative word because some of the hikes are steep and graded medium to difficult, although plenty were easy enough for us.
My tactic on steep walks is to stop for a minute to admire the scenery before heading on up again.
There are some really brilliant hikes in Kakadu, and we did our best to cover those accessible to us. Unfortunately our hire car conditions precluded us from driving on unsealed roads so we did miss out on some hikes that we had been recommended.
The best place for information about how to get around Kakadu is at the Bowali Visitors Centre, just outside of Jabiru.
The folk there will give current advice about road conditions and best places for hiking, swimming and camping, as well as providing some terrific maps.
You can buy your Parks Pass at the office there as well, $40 each & includes free Ranger talks and guided walks. Being oldies we got ours for $30 (has to be some benefit to aging), or you can buy online before you go.
I actually didn’t realise we needed a pass until Dave said we should buy one. I don’t know what would happen if we didn’t have a pass and were asked to produce it. Anyway we were happy to pay up, the funds raised from the sale of passes go directly towards managing the National Park and assisting the local indigenous communities.
Kakadu has one of the world’s highest concentrations of Indigenous rock art sites and some of the paintings in the National Park are up to 20,000 years old. Can you even fathom that? To just stand there and be able to witness such ancient human activity is an incredibly moving experience.
Each art piece has cultural meaning and throughout the walks there are information posts explaining the history and meanings of the art and some background on the people that have inhabited the region for all this time.
And if rock art doesn’t grab you there’s always croc spotting. There’s a place called Cahill’s Crossing, where Kakadu borders with Arnhem Land. In fact it is the only access road between Jabiru and the Gunbalanya community. The narrow concrete causeway becomes submerged with the tides and during the wet season it is often completely unpassable.
Cahill’s Crossing is renowned as Australia’s most dangerous water crossing, being notorious for its croc-infested waters with multiple croc attacks and even fatalities.
Crocs are known to hang around the crossing waiting to catch fish that head upstream and some say up to 40 crocs have been seen in the area. We were also told that for every croc you see, there are possibly 10 below the surface that you can’t see until they strike.
On the day we were there we watched a man and woman fishing in knee deep water right on the causeway and a few vehicles made the short drive across to the other side. Then we noticed a 4 metre croc floating nearby and then another and another.
When we hiked along a marked path near Cahill’s Crossing we got through in quick time and back to the relative safety of our car. Even though we felt “pretty sure” we were far enough away from the river, it had our hearts racing.
Being winter, and the Territory’s peak tourist season, we half expected to be caught up with throngs of visitors to Kakadu but that wasn’t the case at all.
During most of the hikes we were the only humans around and at key sites only a handful of others were in the same area as us.
Kakadu truly is a wonderful place, it exceeded every expectation I had and presented me with magic I had not even considered.
I’m so glad we were able to spend 4 full days there, it meant that we could take the time to settle and absorb the feeling and spirit of the place. We weren’t rushing from one site to another to fit everything in. Sure, there are some places we missed, but that’s always the case wherever we travel. It means there will be something left for next time we visit.
From Kakadu we drove a few hours down the road to Katherine. We were not sure what to expect and wondered if 4 days would be too much time with not enough to do . . . . in fact, we found plenty to keep us out of trouble.