Kakadu to the Kimberley – Highlights of the Top End of Australia
Kakadu to the Kimberley is one of our favourite driving routes in Australia and with the monsoon or ‘green season’ ending in the tropical Top End and the dry season starting, this is the time to do it or to at least start planning a trip this season.
Australia’s northern tropical Top End has a similar climate and seasons to Southeast Asia, which is explained in the simplest terms as having two distinct seasons – ‘the wet’ and ‘the dry’. For the indigenous Australians of the region, things are a little more complex and the seasons broken into six distinct periods.
During the wet monsoonal months, many roads become impassable, with tracks turning into raging rivers and creeks, and whole swathes of the area are underwater. The only way to reach many places is by helicopter.
Once the rains end and ‘the dry’ starts, roads are repaired and opened and the tourist season begins, giving you about six good months of clear blue skies and ideal conditions for driving, walking, hiking, camping, and swimming (where it’s safe to swim, of course).
This means the next six months are the perfect time of year to explore one of our favourite routes, the epic Kakadu to the Kimberley, starting out in Darwin and finishing in Broome – although you could also undertake it in reverse of course.
The Kakadu to the Kimberley was a route we drove in four wheel drive vehicles and camper vans a number of times writing and updating guidebooks for Lonely Planet, Dorling Kinderley and Rough Guides. And we’d do it again in a heartbeat.
While you could hire a 4WD camper van from a rental company such as Britz and drive yourself (and if you do, this is our advice), we highly recommend that if you haven’t driven 4WDs or you haven’t driven the rough and tumble corrugated red-dirt tracks of the Australian outback before, you opt for an escorted 4WD tour with regional specialists, such as Charter North 4WD Safaris, who we consulted for local tips, below.
These were the highlights for us of the ruggedly beautiful country from Kakadu to the Kimberley.
Kakadu to the Kimberley – Highlights of the Top End of Australia
The Northern Territory was the first to adopt the ‘Top End’ moniker, though many Australians use it to refer to the northern part of Australia, which has a tropical climate and diversity of terrains that in some parts are similar to Southeast Asia, where we live.
It’s an enormous area of remote rugged beauty, with striking rock formations secreting away pockets of rainforest, cascading waterfalls and cooling waterholes, stupendous stone escarpments carved with chasms and gorges, with dry savannah, steamy forests, lush wetlands, mangroves teeming with birds and wildlife, and arid plains peppered with spinifex.
It’s also a land that is spiritually rich. Home to Aboriginal Australian tribes that have lived here for 40,000 years and speak hundreds of languages in which they pass on ancient Dreamtime legends through stories, rituals, cultural traditions, and wonderful art – much of which decorates rock walls – indigenous travel experiences are a highlight.
Our Kakadu to the Kimberley route kicks off in sultry Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory and the departure point for Kakadu National Park and Litchfield National Park, before travelling southwest from Katherine to the border of Western Australia and Kununura.
From Kununura west to Broome, the options are myriad, from gawking at the monumental rock formations of Purnululu National Park to hiking spectacular stone gorges such as Geike, Wandjina and Tunnel Creek, to discovering the secrets of Gibb River Road – best done on a tour with a guide experienced in driving rough and tumble outback roads
Litchfield National Park
Litchfield National Park is home to numerous natural swimming holes and thundering waterfalls, and fields of enormous termite mounds. Highlights include Wangi Falls, Tolmer Falls, Buley Rockhole, and Florence Falls. Buley Rockhole is a fab spot for a swim for kids and non-swimmers and there’s a 3km walking track that follows Buley Creek to the 20m-high twin Florence Falls, two of the most dramatic waterfalls at Litchfield.
Even more spectacular are lofty Tolmer Falls, which plunge down rocky escarpments to pools of water below. Litchfield’s most photographed cascades, they are best admired from the lookout but if you’re with an experienced guide you can do a cliff-top clamber to see ancient cycads. Wangi Falls are perhaps the most beautiful with handy stairs and ladders to access the massive swimming hole, and wooden platforms for picnicking, barbecues and a boardwalk that leads to stairs so you can hike up to the escarpment above the waterfall.
Mary River National Park
Mary River National Park and Mary River wetlands offer one of the best opportunities to experience wetlands recreationally, and are popular with Darwin locals who come here to fish. The Park is also popular with twitchers with an abundance of birdlife, from black-necked storks to elegant Jabirus.
However, it’s the opportunity to see crocodiles up close in their natural habitat that draws a lot of visitors here, particularly to Mary River Crossing, a popular fishing spot off the Arnhem Highway. There are two types of crocodiles, the ‘freshie’ or freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus johnstonii), which grows to some three metres, and the ‘saltie’ or estuarine crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), found in both salt and freshwater, which can grow to some six metres in length.
In the heart of the wetlands, Point Stuart Wilderness Lodge is a great base and offers a wetlands cruise. Shady Camp, another popular fishing spot, is not far away.
Kakadu National Park
With even more to see and do, World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park is even more compelling than Litchfield and Mary River. The 20,000 square-kilometre area hosts a mind-boggling diversity of plant- and wild life, including over 2,000 different plants, more than 10,000 species of insects, a quarter of Australia’s freshwater fish, some 120 different reptiles, and around 70 mammals, along with an array of landscapes and habitats – savannah woodlands, lush wetlands, paperbark swamps, and stone escarpments and.
Operated jointly by the Northern Territory’s National Parks and the traditional owners, the Bininj-Mungguy peoples, the park offers wonderful opportunities to experience indigenous Australian culture at impressive interpretive centres, such as Bowali Centre, and transformative experiences and tours hosted by Aboriginal guides, from wetland cruises to hikes to see ancient rock art.
There are two dozen camping grounds with facilities that vary from no-frills (free) to good (a small fee) and most are only open during the dry season.
The monumental Nourlangie Rock is home to several significant indigenous sites, including Anbangbang Shelter, where archaeological evidence shows that the indigenous people have been visiting the site for some 20,000 years, and Anbangbang Gallery, where fascinating rock art represents the dangerous spirit Namondjok, ‘Lightning Man’ Namarrgon and his wife Barrginj, and Guluibirr.
There are a number of hikes that can be done, including a steep climb up to Gunwarddehwardde lookout, which offers spectacular views of Nourlangie Rock and the Kakadu escarpment, a walk to Anbangbang Billabong, and hike up to Nawurlandja lookout that’s only possible from May to September.
There is more impressive ancient art at Ubirr Rock, in the form of Aboriginal X-ray style paintings on rock walls that provide an insight into the wetland’s wealth of food sources, including fish, reptiles, marsupials, and the now-extinct thylacine or Tasmanian tiger. The stick-like Mimi spirits or Creation Ancestors are thought to have been the first painters of the art.
Time your visit for early morning (only possible during the dry season) or late afternoon when you can do a hike up to a 250m stone outcrop for panoramic vistas of the Arnhem Land escarpment, lush Nardab floodplain, and East Alligator River. It’s a breathtaking scene in the golden light.
Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls
Cascading some 150m off the escarpment, the majestic Jim Jim Falls are breathtaking when in full flow during the Wet, when the spectacle of thundering water cascading over the sheer cliffs of stone country can only be seen from a plane or helicopter. They are still impressive from the ground after the roads open in the dry, but note that they usually stop flowing in August.
Reached through a dramatic gorge, Twin Falls are also spectacular when flowing. Both are accessible by high clearance 4WD on a rough track during the dry season, although there’s still a creek crossing, meaning it’s best to go with an experienced driver who knows the local terrain. Jim Jim Falls are a 1.5hr drive from the highway and Twin Falls a further 30-minute drive on a sandy track.
While you’ll be desperate for dip after clambering the rocks to the reach the falls, swimming is not advised due to the presence of crocodiles. Note that it’s a tough climb covering about 3kms and taking 4-6 hrs to the cliff-top.
Maguk – Barramundi Gorge
You’ll need a high-clearance 4WD for the bumpy 12km drive to gorgeous Maguk or Barramundi Gorge. This is another track that’s best driven with an experienced local driver behind the wheel.
From the car park, follow the shaded path through verdant bushland to reach an alluring natural pool. This deep swimming pool beckons with its crystal clear waters, which are cooler than many of the waterholes in Kakadu thanks to the high rock walls.
Hike up the hill above the waterfalls, and you’ll find more beautiful natural swimming pools but make sure you check the warning signs before dipping your toes in – crocodiles have been found here before at the end of the wet season.
Jarrangbarnmi – Koolpin Gorge
Jaw-dropping Koolpin Gorge or Jarrangbarnmi hosts several tranquil natural swimming holes with sandy shores and shady spots that are ideal for picnics, but once again it takes some effort to reach and you’ll need a high-clearance 4WD.
You’ll also need to obtain a permit from Bowali Visitor Centre as visitor numbers to this serene spot are strictly controlled to ensure it stays that way. Continue some 7kms and you’ll come to Gimbat Picnic Area, yet another tranquil spot with shaded picnic grounds.
Gunlom – Waterfall Creek
Gunlom or Waterfall Creek is a wonderful place with a massive natural swimming hole at the base of stunning waterfalls. You can also climb to an even more secluded spot at the top of the falls in about 20 minutes for more swimming and even more spectacular vistas. It’s possible to camp here as well and there are grassy areas that are great for picnicking.
Mirima National Park
Mirima National Park looks like a mini Bungle Bungles with its striking landscape of 350 million year-old sandstone rock formations that have taken shape over the past 20 million years. The atmospheric gorges of Hidden Valley are home to hills dotted with spinifex and boab trees.
There are wonderful bush walks that offer the chance for those with eagle eyes to spot bird- and wildlife galore. The area is home to black kites, finches, honeyeaters, and rare white quilled rock pigeon, dingoes, wallabies, echidnas, monitors, dragon lizards, and snakes.
It takes around half an hour to cover each of the two well-marked walking tracks. Time your visit so that you arrive a few hours before sunset to take in magic hour.
Purnululu National Park – Bungle Bungle Range
Playing host to the monumental, ochre and black striped, ‘beehive’ rock domes of the World Heritage listed Bungle Bungle Range, the Purnululu National Park protects some 3,000 square kilometres of ancient country and is the highlight of the Kakadu to the Kimberley route for many.
Purnululu means ‘sandstone’ in the local indigenous Kidja language while ‘bungle bungle’ is thought to be a misspelling of ‘bundle bundle’, a common grass found in the area. While the Kidja people have always known about the rocks, bewilderingly, white Australians only ‘discovered’ them during the 1980s. The national park was created in 1987, and then in 2003 it was added to the World Heritage list.
The striking curved formations are made of sandstone and rough conglomerates – rocks comprised of pebbles and boulders – that millions of years of rainfall have moulded. The stripes are thanks to layers of different clays and porosity of those layers, the dark stripes being more permeable and therefore allowing algae to flourish, while the lighter layers are due to oxidised iron compounds.
Highlights in Purnululu National Park include splendid galleries of Aboriginal rock art on the stone walls, more jaw-dropping gorgeous, and even more alluring natural swimming pools. Add to that, an array of wildlife and bird-life, including some 130 bird species.
In the north, Echidna Chasm, and in the south, Cathedral Gorge, are around an hour’s hike from each of their car parks, while the towering Piccaninny Gorge requires more time, effort and planning – an 18km round trip, it requires a full day’s hiking, but it’s worth it.
Once again, now is the time to go, or to start planning a trip, as the park is only open from April to December, when rangers are based here. And, as usual, in this part of Australia, you’ll need a high clearance 4WD to negotiate the man deep creek crossings.
Gibb River Road
Only open during the dry season, closed after rain, and covering some 660km from the Kununurra start to the Derby end, the Gibb River Road is the very reason that many travellers undertake the epic Kakadu to the Kimberley journey.
While it looks like a more direct route than the highways when you’re looking at a map – and indeed, it’s several hundred kilometres shorter – it’s 4WD only, a rough corrugated dirt road that shouldn’t be attempted by an inexperienced driver, and is best undertaken with a local expert at the wheel.
The Gibb River Road is on every outback travellers bucket list thanks to the dramatic landscapes of vast empty terrain of scorched earth, carved with magnificent gorges, and awesome riverbeds that surge with water during the wet season and parched during the dry.
Highlights include the majestic Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek in the Devonian Reef National Parks, and, in the million-acre El Questro Wilderness Park, bush walking gorgeous Emma Gorge to a lovely natural swimming hole and waterfall, and boat cruises through beautiful Chamberlain Gorge to absorb indigenous art.
Before it became the most iconic stretch of road on the Kakadu to the Kimberley route, the Gibb River Road was primarily a ‘beef road’ to transport stock to and from surrounding cattle stations, so if you’re driving the Gibb River Road independently and plan to leave the main road you will need to get permission from landowners, including Aboriginal communities and private cattle stations.
Kalumburu Road offers more adventurous driving and jaw-dropping sights on theKakadu to the Kimberley. The first fuel stop after crossing the Gibb River and Plain Creek, Drysdale River Station is a popular stop for meals and supplies, and in the dry, scenic flights to Mitchell Falls, below.
While Kalumburu Road can be in better condition than Gibb River Road in some parts, in others it can be severely corrugated and covered in rocks or bull dust. During the wet, Kalumburu Road also transforms into a river, while after the wet season, locals discover parts of it have disappeared altogether, so it might not open again until May or June. You will also need permits to visit the indigenous owned Kalumburu community.
Mitchell Plateau and Mitchell Falls
The reason for driving this route for many travellers, is the awesome Mitchell Falls, which can be enjoyed after a long drive and hike. During the dry season, the water spills prettily down the terraces, while in the wet, when the spectacle can only be witnessed from a scenic flight from Kununurra, it thunders across and over the escarpments.
Devonian Reef National Parks
For many travellers, the West Kimberley’s three national parks are the highlights of the Kakadu to the Kimberley route. Home to three spectacular gorges they were once part of a western ‘great barrier reef’ in the Devonian era a whopping 350 million years ago.
You can reach Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek National Parks from the Fairfield Leopold Downs Road which links the Gibb River Road to the Great Northern Highway while Geikie Gorge National Park can be accessed from Fitzroy Crossing.
The walls of wonderful Windjana Gorge tower 100m above the Lennard River, which once again surges in the wet season but is a series of tantalising pools in the dry months. A highlight for historians are the ruins of Lillimooloora homestead, formerly a police outpost dating to 1893, where the legendary Aboriginal tracker Jandamarra shot Constable Richardson, while wildlife lovers get excited by the freshwater crocodiles that can often by spotted sunbaking on the banks and lurking in the water.
The 750 metre-long and 3-metre by 15 metre-wide passage of Tunnel Creek was formed by the creek forcing its way through a spur of the Napier Range. In the dry season you can hike all the way to the end but be prepared to wade through chilly, knee-deep water in places and meet bats along the way. You’ll be rewarded with indigenous art on the rock walls at the end.
Majestic Geikie Gorge, one of our favourite spots on the Kakadu to the Kimberley route, hosts an abundance of wildlife that includes crocodiles and bull sharks. Unfortunately that means there’s no swimming here, however, you can do an entertaining boat cruise tour and fascinating bush walks with local Aboriginal guides.
Local Tips for Travelling Kakadu to the Kimberley
We asked local experts Alina Baldrich and Greig Taylor of Charter North 4WD Safaris to share their best tips for travellers exploring the Kakadu to the Kimberley route. Here are their recommendations:
Essential packing items include cross trainers or similar shoes for walks and hikes; a small back pack to carry water, snacks and swimming gear on hikes; a large refillable water bottle; comfortable, loose fitting and breathable clothing (nothing too fancy as the Kimberley dust can stain your clothes); a travel towel; lip balm and moisturiser (it’s very dry out there); and a torch or head lamp for getting around campsites at night. And if you are visiting Tunnel Creek, bring submersible shoes as you will be wading through water and over rocks and sand.
A broad brimmed hat and sunglasses are essential. We recommend long, loose cotton clothing, such as long-sleeved collared shirts, rather than sunscreen, which pollutes the pristine waterways of Kakadu and the Kimberley once you hop into those refreshing swimming holes.
Always have at least a 1.5 litre water bottle on you. In the Top End heat (30+deg) drinking a litre of water per hour while you are active is the recommended minimum. This is not always possible, but try to drink at regular intervals from sunrise to sunset to consume a total of approximately 4-5 litres per day. Just as importantly, you should continue to drink water right up until bedtime or you run the risk of dehydrating overnight.
Estuarine crocodiles can inhabit some areas of Northern Australia, although fortunately, most of the terrestrial Kimberley areas are ‘croc free’, which is one of the major attractions of the region. However, crocs can still inhabit rivers and creeks. If you are unsure, don’t swim, or seek local advice. If swimming in water holes, always be mindful of loose rocks and submerged debris, and don’t climb and jump off rocks and cliffs unless you are absolutely certain that it’s safe. Remember, this is a natural environment that experiences seasonal changes, not a swimming pool.
Walking and Hiking Etiquette
Due to the characteristics of the region, hikes in Kakadu and the Kimberley often lead you over rocky, sandy or loose terrain. Rock hoping and scrambling are necessary on some walks. Err on the side of caution and always ensure you know the length of the walk and fitness required before you start. Always carry plenty of water, and wear a hat and sunglasses. Walking in groups is always safer than alone.
Do you live in the region or have you travelled from Kakadu to the Kimberley? Feel free to leave your tips in comments below. And if you’re planning a trip we’re happy to answer questions too.