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Kakadu National Park, NT

Culturally and ecologically important World Heritage listed National Park.

There are so many reasons why Kakadu National Park is of huge cultural significance and vital to an understanding of Australia. However it is essential to brush aside any romantic preconceptions before visiting this huge 19,804,000 ha National Park and World Heritage Area which is bounded to the north by Van Diemen Gulf and to the east and west by the Wild Man and East Alligator Rivers. If your only images are those created by the Crocodile Dundee movies and by Northern Territory Tourism promotion then you will be surprised to learn that it is essentially an area of flat tropical savanna woodland with a typical eucalypt monotony produced by a low scrubby vegetation and large tracts of undifferentiated flat terrain. The reasons Kakadu National Park, which was established as recently as 1979, is so important have more to do with its culture and its remarkable fauna than its physical beauty. Kakadu can claim to be the site of some of the earliest tropical settlements in Australia and as such is of great archaeological importance. The Aboriginal art galleries, which have been in existence for at least 25,000 years (although some of the galleries have been repainted relatively recently), are an expression of a culture which was more artistically and industrially advanced than its ancient counterparts in Europe and the Middle East. The local First Nation people had developed grinding stones for crushing seeds and were preparing ochre for painting on cave walls long before Europeans. Equally the fauna and flora living in the wetlands around the edges of the East and West Alligator Rivers is of international importance. Kakadu contains over 1000 plant species, a quarter of all the freshwater fish species found in Australia, and over one-third of all the bird species. Visitors come to Kakadu for the rock art, the wildlife and the unique opportunity to experience the full power of the tropics.


Jabiru, which is the administrative centre of the park, is located 255 km east of Darwin via the Arnhem Highway. The western edge of the park is 152 km east of Darwin.


Origin of Name

It is believed that "Kakadu" was the generic name given to the First Nation people of the Alligator River region by the anthropologist, Sir Baldwin Spencer. Spencer got his information wrong. Kakadu is the language of the First Nation people who lived in the north western section of the park. As such it probably doesn't have a specific meaning. There are alternative spellings: "Kakudju" or "Gagadju" and, officially, "Gagudju".


Things to See and Do

There is a logic, and natural sequence, to exploring Kakadu. Most visitors come to the park from Darwin and, if they are systematic, they can complete a round trip (with diversions off to Ubirr gallery and Jim Jim Falls) and depart from the park heading towards Katherine and Pine Creek. They will view the attractions as follows:

1. South Alligator River and Aurora
2. Jabiru
3. Ubirr
4. Nourlangie
5. Yellow Water
6. Jim Jim and Twin Falls
7. Mary River

Background to the Park
Kakadu National Park has five natural geological sub-regions.
1. The Plateau - The plateau of the park is a rugged sandstone formation which rises to a height of 250 m from the lower lands to the north and produces the park's most impressive scenery. The main Kakadu escarpment runs for over 500 km and is characterised by waterfalls and deep gorges. The caves along the escarpment have been shelter for the traditional owners of the region who have painted many of the caves with pictures of great antiquity and beauty. The plateau has been subjected to severe tropical weathering which has created honeycombing in the rock surfaces and exposed ancient rock formations.
2. The Lowlands - The lowlands lie in the northern section of the park and are a vast eroded plain with a few rocky outcrops. They lie to the north of the main Kakadu escarpment.
3. The Floodplain - The floodplain of the three Alligator Rivers and their tributaries lies to the north of the plateau and experiences the monsoonal rains which occur between November and March. During "The Wet" the floodplain turns into a vast expanse of water. In the dry season this flooded area is reduced to a series of permanent billabongs.
4. The Tidal Flats - The tidal flats lie at the edge of the Arafura Sea and at the mouths of the three Alligator Rivers. It is an area saturated by salt water which means it is characterised by mangroves and small areas of hardy rainforest which can survive in sandy saline soils.
5. The Southern Hills and Basins - The southern extremity of the park is characterised by undulating hills and basins covered in low lying woodland with large areas of harsh stony country.

The Best Time To Visit
It is generally accepted that the best time to visit the park is at the end of the dry season when the birds are forced to congregate in the ever-diminishing wetland waterholes. This makes visits to the waterholes an unforgettable experience for bird watchers. During the dry season there is still selective burning off of the bush in Kakadu which can mean that parts of the park are smudged by smoke. In the wet season large areas of the park are closed to the public.

1. South Alligator River and Mamakala Observation Point and Nature Walk.
The South Alligator River is the first river visitors experience when they enter the park from Darwin. The river is rich with local wildlife and it is common to see buffalo, jabiru, cockatoos, white egrets, magpie geese and whistler ducks. The South Alligator River is home to nearly all the magpie geese in Australia during the dry season. One survey found over 100,000 birds in a relatively small area of the floodplain.
Mamakala Wetlands Observation Point and Nature Walk.
Near the park entrance on the Arnhem Highway is the Mamakala Observation Point. It is a bird hide and is located only 100 metres from the car park.  The Observation Point has a shaded platform from where it is possible to observe the birdlife on the edge of the wetlands. The observation point has wall charts to help the visitor identify the bird species on the lake. There is also a 3 km (1-2 hours) easy walk beside the wetlands. This, too, is ideal for observing the birdlife.

2. Jabiru
Jabiru, a mining settlement, is the one town in Kakadu National Park. It is named after the First Nation word for a large native bird sometimes known as the black-necked stork or the 'policeman-bird'. In 1970 uranium was discovered at Ranger in Arnhem Land. The following year more uranium was discovered at Jabiluka. For the next decade a debate raged over whether the uranium should be mined. In 1975 a Commonwealth Commission of Inquiry into mining at Ranger was established. In 1978 it was agreed that mining could go ahead with substantial royalties being paid to the Northern Land Council. The following year the Northern Land Council approved uranium mining at Jabiluka however the Commonwealth Government was not happy about the situation. Today only the Ranger Uranium Mine is in operation. The town was created in 1982 to house workers at the Ranger Uranium Mine. Today the town has a range of services, the famous Gagadju Crocodile Inn (a hotel in the shape of a crocodile), a busy town plaza, extensive leisure facilities for the residents (most of whom are mine workers) and even a Community Cyclone Shelter. The area is prone to some of the wildest and worst of the weather during "The Wet". In 2006-2007 it experienced nearly 2000 mm of rain in a three month period and the road to Darwin was cut off for weeks.

3. Ubirr
There is an excellent downloadable brochure on Ubirr. Check out http://www.parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu/pub/ubirr.pdf. There used to be a sign at Ubirr which explained very clearly the attitude of both the National Parks Rangers and the traditional owners: "Ubirr is an Aboriginal rock art site of international status. Its also of great significance to its Aboriginal owners with whose advice and approval material in this display has been prepared. We ask you to observe two simple rules: (i) follow directional signs and keep to defined walking paths and (ii) do not touch painted surfaces under any circumstances. Penalties may be imposed for interference with such sites." Ubirr is open from 1 April to 30 November from 8.30 am to sunset and from 1 December to 31 March from 2.00 pm to sunset. The indigenous rangers give talks during the day and explain the paintings.
Ubirr is one of the finest displays of Aboriginal rock paintings available to the public anywhere in the Northern Territory. You can walk around Ubirr in about an hour. It has five art sites on public display (there are apparently over 120 sites in the area) as well as some excellent views over the wetlands from lookouts and vantage points on the rocks.
It is now recognised that Ubirr has some of the finest examples of X-ray art in the world. They are estimated to be around 1500 years old. The paintings of barramundi in the main gallery are recognised as masterpieces of the X-ray style. This style of art is particularly interesting because the artist not only paints what he can see from the outside but also depicts what he knows exists on the inside. The interpretation of these paintings is difficult. Some people have assumed that they were done for pleasure but others have argued that they were partly to assist the success of hunting. The concentration on food sources like fish, birds, animals and reptiles is said to suggest some kind of success over the animal. The sequence of events may have been that a man saw a large barramundi in the river but couldn't catch it. He returned to the gallery where he painted it. By painting it he was ensuring power over the animal which would result in him seeing it again and spearing it. The gallery also includes a painting of a pipe-smoking European whose body is X-rayed through his clothing. It is thought this was probably painted around 1880 and depicts a buffalo hunter who was working in the area.
The track winds around to the lookout. On the way there are two galleries - one is located underneath a rock overhang and the other depicts the Namarrkan Sisters. The last section of the walk around the Ubirr gallery depicts the Rainbow Serpent on a cliff wall above an occupation site. The notice at this point outlines the importance of the site by pointing out that "the dark mounded soil at the base of the cliffs is evidence of Aboriginal occupation on this site. The deposit accumulated over time from fires and organic remains which were left on the site as First Nation people utilised the rich resources of Ubirr - its waterfowl, fish, reptiles and mammals. Though the site was used for day-to-day shelter it has also been extensively painted. Scientific investigation of occupation deposits in this region has yielded evidence for man's presence in Northern Australia dating back some 23,000 years. First Nation people believe however that they and their ancestors have occupied the land forever, since the landscape assumed its present shape in the era of creation which they sometimes refer to as the Dreaming."

4. Nourlangie
Located south of Jabiru, Nourlangie Rock is part of the area known as the Mt. Brockman Massif. There are over 100 sacred sites in this area, some dating back 20,000 years. Some of the sites are designated sacred-dangerous (and therefore not open to the public). The area has a number of cave sites and there is evidence of quarries where the local First Nation people made their stone implements. Interestingly some of the caves include drawings of thylacines, Tasmanian tigers, which presumably lived in the area at the time the paintings were done. There are a number of walks at Nourlangie Rock including walks to the lookouts at Gunwarrdehwarde and Nawurlandja and a walk around Anbangbang Billabong.
Anbangbang Gallery
It is only a short walk (a 1.5 circuit from the car park) to the Anbangbang Gallery where images of Namarrgon the 'Lightning Man' and Nabulwinjbulwinj, a dangerous spirit who eats females after striking them with a yam, make it one of the most interesting galleries in the park.
Namarrgon the Lightning Man.is a fascinating character who wears his lightning as a band connecting his arms, legs and head. The stone axes on his knees and elbows make the thunder. The story of the Lightning Man, as explained by the local First Nation people, is that Namarrgon, his wife Barrginj and their children, Aljurr, came from the north coast searching for a good place to settle. Namarrgon now lives at Lightning Dreaming which can be seen from Gunwarrdehwarde Lookout. When Namarrgon wants to make lightning he strikes his stone axes on the ground or against the clouds. The actual lightning is his children - Aljurr - which means 'little lightning'. Both the Lightning Man and Nabulwinjbulwinj were actually repainted in 1964 by Nayombolmi (Barramundi Charlie) of the Badmardi clan in the style of the earlier works which were fading due to the weather. The area also includes the Anbangbang Shelter which was used as a shelter during the wet season for at least the last 20,000 years and the Nanguluwurr Gallery, another art site, which is a 4 km return walk through the woodland.

5. Yellow Water
Located 57 km south of Jabiru, the Yellow Water billabong is one of the most famous areas within the park. The accommodation at the Cooinda Lodge gives access to the walks along the river and the regular boat trips, Yellow Water Cruises (see http://www.gagudju-dreaming.com/Cruises/Yellow-Water-Cruise.aspx for details and prices) travels across the billabong six times a day (starting at 6.45 am with the dawn cruise) and, as the the website explains, "About one third of Australia's bird species are represented in Kakadu National Park, with at least 60 species found in the wetlands. Whistling Ducks and Magpie Geese are the most abundant. Our guides run a competition between themselves on who can find "the big five" on one cruise - all five species of kingfisher that can be found in Kakadu. One species is only 2 cm tall. There are plenty of crocodiles in their natural habitat, and buffalo on the floodplains. A huge Jabiru's nest is nearby, and depending on the season, Brolgas can be found dancing."

6. Jim Jim and Twin Falls
Jim Jim Falls
The challenge with both the Jim Jim and the Twin Falls is that they can dry up in the winter and they are inaccessible, apart from by air, during "The Wet". There is no simple solution. In the 'dry', access is possible via a difficult 60 km road (the last 11 km are 4WD only), the water dries up and the falls often don't fall. In the 'wet' when the falls are at their most spectacular it is impossible to drive any vehicle into the area. However, if you fly over them, you will see spectacular falls dropping 140 metres. In the winter months it is possible to swim in the plunge pool below the falls.

Twin Falls
In the case of the Twin Falls, which cascadel 44 metres from the plateau, not only does the visitor have to travel the 60 km dirt road to the Jim Jim Falls but when reach the falls they have to swim or canoe around to the Twin Falls. There is no land access. The effort, for the enthusiastic, is rewarded by the sight of a double cascading waterfall with a small beach at the bottom. Kakadu National Park has a useful map showing the way to access both the falls. Check out http://www.parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu/map/jim-jim.html. There is a 4WD tour to the falls - Kakadu Adventure Tours - from both Cooinda Lodge and the Kakadu Crocodile Hotel. For more details check out http://www.gagudju-dreaming.com/Tours/Spirit-of-Kakadu-Adventure-Tours.aspx.

7. Mary River, Gunlom and Waterfall Creek Nature Park
At the southern end of Kakadu, near the southern entry to the park and off the Kakadu Highway 37 km on a gravel road, is the small (236 hectare) Waterfall Creek Nature Park. Apart from being a very pleasant stopover point the Gunlom plunge pool became internationally famous when it featured prominently in Crocodile Dundee where Paul Hogan, having cooked a goanna, decides to eat baked beans. Apart from the great advantage of being away from the crowds, there is an excellent plunge pool for swimming and the Gunlom Lookout Walk (only 1 km return but steep) offers excellent views over the surrounding countryside. There is useful and detailed information at http://www.kakadunationalparkaustralia.com/gumlon-waterfall-creek.htm.



* Prior to the arrival of Europeans (and Chinese and Macassans) the area had been occupied by diverse Aboriginal groups (the people from Murumburr, Mirrar Gun-djeihmi, Badmardi, Bunitj, Girrimbitjba, Manilakarr, Wargol and other clans) for at least 40,000, and possibly, 60,000 years.

* In 1623 the Dutch explorer, Jan Carstenz, travelled to what is believed to be Groote Eylandt.

* By 1644 Abel Tasman had travelled along the coast from Batavia.

* In 1802-1803 Matthew Flinders circumnavigated and surveyed Australia and passed along the coast of Arnhem Land.

* In 1820 Phillip Parker King sailed along the coast and, sighting the three Alligator Rivers, he named them incorrectly when he mistook the crocodiles for alligators.

* In 1845, on his epic journey from Queensland to Port Essington, Ludwig Leichhardt crossed both the South and East Alligator Rivers.

* In 1862, on his successful crossing of the continent, John McDouall Stuart passed through the south-western section of the park.

* By the mid-1870s pastoralists had moved into the drier country to the south of Kakadu. This was difficult country and pastoralists were happy to abandon it when the Commonwealth Government offered to take it over for a National Park.

* By the 1880s the wild buffalo in the area were being hunted for their hides.

* By the 1910s there was a sawmill, run by Chinese, processing local cypress pine near Nourlangie.

* By 1912 the anthropologist, Walter Baldwin Spencer, had visited the area.

* In 1925 a mission to the local Aborigines was established by the Church of England at Oenpelli.

* Another anthropologist, N. B. Tindale, travelled through the area in 1928.

* In 1948 the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land was established.

* In 1953 uranium was discovered at the headwaters of the South Alligator River.

* By 1954 UNESCO had published a book of rock paintings from the area in a series on world art.

* By 1971 saltwater crocodiles were protected throughout the Northern Territory.

* In the early 1970s substantial deposits of uranium were discovered and the Ranger mine and Jabiru township were developed to exploit the resource.

* On 5 April 1979, as part of the Commonwealth Commission of Inquiry into the Ranger Mining Proposals, 6000 sq. km of Arnhem Land was set aside for a park under the National Parks and Wildlife Act.

* Kakadu gained international publicity when it featured prominently in the two Crocodile Dundee movies.

* In 1989 Kakadu National Park management board became predominantly Aboriginal.


Visitor Information

Bowali Visitor Centre, Arnhem Highway, Kakadu, tel: (08) 8938 1120. Open from 8.00 am - 5.00 pm every day.


Useful Websites

The official site, which is hugely useful, is at http://www.parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu/. For tours and travel check out http://kakadutoursandtravel.com.au.

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