Driving from Darwin to Kakadu National Park in the Top End of Australia’s Northern Territory Top End is an easy three-hour drive on good bitumen roads, but you can break up the journey with stops on the way at Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve, Windows on the Wetlands, Adelaide River Jumping Crocodile Cruises, and Mary River National Park.
Driving from Darwin to Kakadu National Park in the Top End of Australia’s Northern Territory to do some of the country’s best indigenous guided experiences, absorb ancient Aboriginal rock art, swim in serene waterholes, cruise through mangroves teeming with wildlife, go birdwatching or barramundi fishing, and hike up stone escarpments to savour sunsets over spectacular landscapes, will form some of the most meaningful memories of your Australia trip.
And now is the time to plan your trip with the cool dry season starting soon. People talk of the Top End having two seasons, the Wet and Dry, however, the Aboriginal people use a more nuanced calendar of six seasons: Gunumeleng (pre-monsoon season, mid-October to late December); Gudjewg (monsoon season, January–March); Banggerreng (knock ’em down storm season, April); Yegge (cooler but still humid season, May to mid-June); Wurrgeng (cold weather season, mid-June to mid-August); and Gurrung (hot dry season, mid-August to mid-October).
While many foreign travellers to the Northern Territory will do a tour from Darwin to Kakadu National Park, Australians prefer to take their time and drive. Why not do what the locals do and rent a car to drive from Darwin to Kakadu National Park. Allow a minimum of three days, but five to eight days is much better. While you can see a lot in a 2WD, you’ll experience far more with a 4WD.
Driving from Darwin to Kakadu National Park is an easy three-hour drive on good bitumen roads, but you can break up the journey with stops on the way at lush Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve, Windows on the Wetlands, Adelaide River Jumping Crocodile Cruises, and Mary River National Park.
Driving from Darwin to Kakadu’s main township of Jabiru is an easy 254-kilometre drive of two hours and 45 minutes along good sealed roads – or around three hours with a quick food and fuel stop. You can leave Darwin in the morning and be at Jabiru for lunch. From Darwin to the Kakadu National Park entry it’s 152 kilometres, which will probably take you about one hour and 45 minutes.
Then from the Kakadu National Park entry – which is really just a border post, where you’ll probably want a photo op – it’s another 100 kms and an hour-long drive to Jabiru. Jabiru is Kakadu’s main township – really just a hamlet – where you’ll find some accommodation with bistros, ATMs, a supermarket, petrol station, post office, and offices for tour companies and aerial flights. But what’s your hurry?
Driving from Darwin to Kakadu is much more fascinating with a few stops along the way at Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve, Windows on the Wetlands, and a Jumping Crocodile Cruise at Adelaide River and you can still do the journey in a day. If you can spare a night or even two, you can also spend some time at Mary River National Park.
For foreign travellers who prefer not to self-drive from Darwin to Kakadu National Park, we tested several tours to Kakadu and Arnhem Land when we updated Australia guidebooks and loved the award-winning Lord’s Safaris led by owner-operator Sab Lord, who grew up with the traditional owners, and uses indigenous guides on his private 4WD trips.
Various other companies also offer small-group 3-day, 4-day and 5-day 4WD camping safaris from Darwin to Kakadu and Arnhem Land, which include the Mary River Region and Litchfield National Park. At the time of writing this, Luxury Escapes has an offer for a 4-day ‘Outback Adventure’ including three nights in a bush bungalow at Mary River Retreat (see below) with all meals, two wetlands cruises, and a tour Litchfield National Park for A$799 per person, valued up to A$1,799.
The advantage of tours like these is that you’re led by expert guides who know the area, you don’t have to drive, and everything is included, from national park fees to all meals.
But if you’re not bothered by the driving and you like the idea of having the freedom to explore on your own, we highly recommend driving from Darwin to Kakadu and this is how to do it.
Driving from Darwin to Kakadu National Park – Where to Stop on the Way
Driving from Darwin to Kakadu National Park is a truly memorable drive, especially when you break up the journey at spots like Fogg Dam, Windows on the Wetlands, Adelaide River, and Mary River National Park.
Darwin to Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve
Driving from Darwin to Kakadu is a cinch in terms of directions as the route is so well sign-posted. Leaving Darwin, follow the signs for Palmerston, Katherine and Alice Springs. You’ll be heading southeast along the Stuart Highway for 35 kilometres, passing market gardens growing tropical fruit such as mangoes and dragonfruit, before turning left onto the Arnhem Highway for Kakadu National Park and Jabiru.
Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve is 22 kilometres from the Stuart Highway turn-off, and then 1 kilometre off Arnhem Highway, and it’s a favourite stop for most travellers driving from Darwin to Kakadu. It was established in the 1950s to irrigate an experimental rice project at nearby Humpty Doo, with the aim of boosting the local economy. It was unsuccessful for numerous reasons, but mainly because migrating birds ate the rice crops. The abundant birdlife is the reason to visit this lush wildlife sanctuary.
Amble across the barrage to Pandanus Lookout where there’s a bird hide, which offers sweeping views of the wetlands and the birds, including the cheeky comb-crested jacanas or ‘Jesus birds’, along with geese and egrets. It’s a 2.5-kilometre return walk. If you linger for a while, it can take an hour.
Other easy sign-posted strolls include the Monsoon Forest Walk (2.7 kilometres return and take an hour to 1.5 hours if you take your time) through several natural habitats from floodplains to paperbark forests, and the Woodlands to Waterlily Walk along a boardwalk through mangrove forests skirting the lagoon (2.2 kilometres return and will take no more than an hour and closer to 45 minutes if you take your time).
Note the warning signs: saltwater crocodiles inhabit the dam, so take care. Don’t leave the boardwalks and keep away from the lagoon’s edge.
From Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve to Window on the Wetlands
Don’t get too settled, as it’s just a 2-kilometre drive along the Arnhem Highway from Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve to the Window on the Wetlands, which will be on your left. It’s a fairly steep walk up to the visitor’s centre on Beatrice Hill from the car park, however, there’s a drop-off area for passengers if needed.
Another popular stop for travellers driving from Darwin to Kakadu, the impressive Window on the Wetlands visitor’s centre (open 8am–7.30pm; off Arnhem Highway, 21kms east of Stuart Highway) provides a fantastic introduction to your time in the region. The Windows on the Wetlands observation tower’s upswept lines reflect the contours of the hill, which the local Aboriginals, the Limilngan-Wulna people, call the Ludawei as it represents Lulak or ‘turtle dreaming’ and has a great deal of spiritual significance.
The Window on the Wetlands offers sweeping views across Adelaide River floodplain and its exhibitions provide an in-depth overview on the ecology of the wetlands. If you’re travelling with kids, they’ll adore the interactive elements, which cover subjects such as the Top End seasons, the environment, wildlife, and feral animals.
If you enjoy birdwatching, then the best time to visit is between December and July for the largest number of birds, although keep in mind that December to March is the Wet season, when the area experiences monsoonal rains. While the Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve has all-weather access and is open all year, you may not enjoy it if your idea of a holiday is a dry one.
From the Window on the Wetlands to Adelaide River
It’s just a 1-kilometre drive along the Arnhem Highway to the Adelaide River, which is clearly sign-posted and you’ll quickly spot the turn-off on your right just before the bridge to the designated car park. Adelaide River is best known for its ‘jumping crocodile cruises’ and it’s another popular spot for travellers driving from Darwin to Kakadu, even if they don’t do a cruise.
The Original Adelaide River Jumping Crocodile Cruises (1hr cruises 4 times daily at 9am, 10am, 11am, 1pm, 2pm and 3pm; entry fee) is considered by many to be the best. For many visitors, a highlight of their Top End trip is seeing crocodiles up close, especially saltwater crocodiles, in their natural habitat.
We’re reluctant to encourage you to do this, as it’s not natural for ‘salties’ to rise two metres out of the river to snap ferociously at raw meat. However, the experts are divided on whether it’s dangerous behaviour to encourage or not and this jaw-dropping spectacle is hugely popular, so we’ll leave it at that for you to decide whether to stop for a cruise or not.
Crocodiles are a presence in the Top End and you’ll have other opportunities to see them in their natural habitat. There are two types of crocodile found in northern Australia: the freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus johnstonii) or ‘freshie’, growing to around three metres, and the estuarine crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) or ‘saltie’, found in salt and freshwater, and often growing six metres in length. While ‘freshies’ are generally shy, ‘salties’ are aggressive and take one to two lives a year in northern Australia.
Which means it’s important to look for crocodile warning signs and not to be as complacent as some of the locals we’ve seen, especially fishermen, who have walked knee-deep around their boats in crocodile-infested waters at spots such as Shady Camp Reserve and Rockhole.
There are few rivers in the area that saltwater crocodiles don’t inhabit, so don’t assume that all natural waterholes are safe for swimming. When the water rises during the wet season, crocodiles can swim from rivers into waterholes and if they don’t swim out again before the water subsides they need to be trapped and removed by rangers before they’re ‘safe’ again, although some swimming spots are never entirely safe.
From Adelaide River to Mary River National Park
From Adelaide River, continue to drive 29 kilometres southeast on the Arnhem Highway and you’ll arrive at the Mary River Crossing and Mary River National Park. A popular fishing spot with locals, it’s also another must-do stop for travellers driving from Darwin to Kakadu, as it provides a chance to see some crocs up close.
Just after the river, you’ll spot the turn-off to Mary River Wilderness Retreat, which is the closest lodgings to the Arnhem Highway for Mary River National Park if you’re planning to stay overnight.
If you’re keen on birdlife and fishing, then you could continue along the Arnhem Highway for another 21 kilometres to the turn-off on your left for Point Stuart Road. There’s an abundance of birds in the area, too, everything from elegant Jabirus or black-necked storks. This route takes you along a sealed road through Mary River National Park to Mary River Wetlands Cruise for the birdlife, and to Rockhole, a popular fishing spot, with camping at Couzens Lookout.
The next turn-off leads to Point Stuart Wilderness Lodge, 36 kilometres away, where you can fish or do a wetlands cruise. If you continue straight ahead you’ll eventually come to the turn-off for Shady Camp, another popular fishing spot where you can hire boats, although there’s little to interest anyone other than fishing lovers. This is 40 kilometres from the Arnhem Highway, so it’s a bit of effort unless you plan to throw a line in.
Although the barrage here divides the fresh water and sea’s tidal reach, saltwater crocodiles have been known to access both sides so do take care. If you have a pre-arranged your pick-up for Bamurru Plains, continue along Harold Knowles Road to be met at Swim Creek Station gate. The road remains sealed for 25 kilometres and then turns into a sandy dirt road.
Accommodation in and around the Mary River National Park includes Wildman Wilderness Lodge, Point Stuart Wilderness Lodge, and Bamurru Plains, which must be booked in advice; you cannot drive to Bamurru Plains without a reservation.
While accessible from May to September in the Dry season, much of this region consists of flood plains and from October to April roads are subject to flooding and can be impassable for months when much of the area can be underwater.
A rather special experience of Mary River National Park allows you to see it all from air and water. This Mary River Airboat, Safari Cruise and Helicopter Tour includes a breathtaking helicopter flight to and from Corroboree Billabong over lush floodplains, an exhilarating 45-minute airboat adventure, and a 90-minute safari cruise on the Mary River Wetlands. You’ll spot wallabies, jabirus, sea eagles, kites, kingfishers, jacanas, brolgas, and buffaloes. If you’re driving from Darwin to Kakadu you can arrange to meet at Mary River
This Culture and Wildlife Tour with Pudakul Aboriginal Cultural Tours also includes a lunch cruise on the Mary River Wetlands and Corroboree Billabong, spotting saltwater crocodiles and native flora and birdlife, however, you’ll also get to engage with local indigenous people, learn basket weaving, try your hand at throwing a spear, have a go on a didgeridoo, learn about local bush food and medicine, and taste bush damper and billy tea.
If you decide against driving from Darwin to Kakadu, this Mary River Wetlands Cruise from Darwin takes in Fogg Dam Nature Reserve, the Window on the Wetlands, Adelaide River, and a 2.5-hour cruise on the wetlands, where you’ll see an abundance of birds (some 30 species!) and wildlife, including the largest concentration of saltwater crocodiles in the world.
From Mary River National Park to Kakadu National Park and Mamukala Wetlands
From the Arnhem Highway-Point Stuart Road turn-off it’s around 120 kilometres to Jabiru, but just 18 kilometres or a 15-minute drive to the Kakadu National Park boundary for that photo op. If you stayed overnight at Mary River Wilderness Retreat then it’s 140 kilometres or an 80-minute drive to Jabiru, the main hub for Kakadu National Park.
En route you can visit the Mamukala Wetlands, 110 kilometres from Mary River Wilderness Retreat and another essential stop for travellers driving from Darwin to Kakadu. You’ll see the turn-off on your right, 7 kilometres east of South Alligator River.
This lush Mamukala Wetlands wetlands are home to thousands of magpie geese, especially in the late dry season, from September to October, when they congregate en masse. There’s an observation platform offering expansive views although an easy 3-kilometre walk enables you to get closer. Allow one hour.
From Mamukala Wetlands it’s just 32 kilometres along the Arnhem Highway to the gateway to Kakadu National Park, the Bowali Visitor Centre. It will be on your right and there’s always plenty of parking.
If you didn’t buy your Kakadu National Park passes online, this is where you can buy them.
There are some terrific tours taking in Mary River National Park, too, such as this excursion with Pudakul Aboriginal Cultural Tours where you’ll get to engage with local indigenous people, learn basket weaving, try your hand at throwing a spear, have a go on a didgeridoo, learn about local bush food and medicine, and do a lunch cruise on the Mary River Wetlands and Corroboree Billabong, spotting saltwater crocodiles and native flora and birdlife.
Do let us know if you have any questions on driving from Darwin to Kakadu and see our next post on Kakadu National Park, which we’ll follow with a guide to driving from Kakadu National Park to Litchfield National Park via Pine Creek and Adelaide River.
Image courtesy of Luxury Escapes
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