Our Kakadu National Park guide gives you a taste of the many things to do at Kakadu – from swims in refreshing waterholes and cruises on serene rivers and mangroves teeming with wildlife and birdlife to hikes through dramatic gorges up to rocky escarpments to absorb ancient art and awe-inspiring views.
Spending a week driving from Darwin through Kakadu National Park, bumping along the many 4WD tracks to scramble rocky escarpments, gawk at thundering waterfalls and ancient Aboriginal rock art, and cool off in icy waterholes, then loop back up via Pine Creek to Litchfield Park and back to Darwin is one of the best Australian road trips.
This guide to things to do in Kakadu National Park in the Top End of Australia’s Northern Territory picks up from where we left you, at Bowali Visitor Centre, in our guide to driving from Darwin to Kakadu National Park and where to stop along the way.
If you thought there was plenty to do on that three-hour drive from Darwin to Kakadu, which can easily take a day if you bring a picnic and snacks and stop off at everything there is to see en route – Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve, Windows on the Wetlands, Adelaide River Jumping Crocodile Cruises, and Mary River National Park – then you’re in for a surprise.
The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park is even more compelling than Mary River and Litchfield National Parks, with even more things to do, from hiking through dramatic gorges and admiring ancient rock art to gazing at gob-smacking waterfalls and swimming in natural rockpools. You could easily spend three days here but you’ll get so much more out of the experience if you take five days to a week.
Note that while Northern Territory borders have opened and mandatory quarantine ended on 17 July for visitors coming from all Australian states and territories, those of you living in hotspots still need to quarantine for 14 days, as do international arrivals. This situation can change at any time so check the NT Government COVID-19 site before making bookings.
Here’s our guide to Kakadu National Park and next we’ll share a post on the drive via Pine Creek to Litchfield National Park, back to Darwin. We’ll follow that up with a post on the route heading south via Katherine and Nitmiluk Gorge to Alice Springs and Uluru and the Red Centre of Australia.
Kakadu National Park Guide – When to Go, Where to Stay and Things to Do at UNESCO World Heritage Listed Kakadu
The 20,000 square-kilometre Kakadu National Park hosts a mind-boggling diversity of flora and fauna, 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.
Operated jointly by the Northern Territory’s National Parks and the traditional owners, the Bininj-Mungguy peoples, Kakadu National Park also offers wonderful opportunities to experience indigenous Australian culture at impressive interpretive centres, such as Bowali Centre and Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre and on transformative experiences and tours hosted by Aboriginal guides, from wetland cruises to hikes to see ancient rock art.
If you’re considering doing any indigenous guided tours, which we highly recommend you do, pack a copy of Welcome to Country: A Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia by Dr Marcia Langton and reading it before you go for insights into Aboriginal Australia’s 50,000-year-old culture, history, languages, customs, religion, ceremonies, dance, and arts, as well as invaluable tips on etiquette and cultural awareness, and a directory of Aboriginal tourism experiences.
When to Go to Kakadu National Park
Now is the time to plan your trip. In July, the Northern Territory opened to domestic tourists from most states and it’s currently nearing the end of the cold weather season, called Wurrgeng (June to August) and the start of the warm dry season, called Gurrung (August to October), before Gunumeleng, the pre-monsoon season (mid-October to late December) and Gudjewg (monsoon season, January to March). The indigenous Australians of the Top End use a calendar with six seasons: April is Banggerreng, the “knock ’em down storm season” and May to mid-June is Yegge, the cooler but still humid season, before the cold season starts again.
How to Get to Kakadu National Park
To get to Kakadu National Park, you could rent a car or hire a 4WD campervan or motorhome to drive from Darwin. While 2WD is fine for the sealed Arnhem Highway and Kakadu Highway and the main bitumen roads, many of the best waterfalls and swimming holes are only accessible on dirt 4WD-only tracks, meaning you’ll get to do a whole lot more with a 4WD.
If you don’t want to drive at all and prefer to have an expert local guide show you Kakadu, there are also plenty of tours available. Various companies offer small-group 3-day, 4-day and 5-day 4WD camping safaris from Darwin to Kakadu and Arnhem Land, some of which include Litchfield National Park and the Mary River Region, as well as a stop at the Adelaide River Jumping Crocodile Cruises.
Where to Buy Your Kakadu National Park Pass
We recommend you call into Bowali Visitor Centre, the gateway to Kakadu National Park, where you can pick up a map and find out what’s open and what’s not, depending on the season, weather and road conditions. You can also buy Kakadu National Park passes online.
Where to Eat, Drink and Stay at Kakadu National Park
There are two dozen camping grounds with facilities scattered around Kakadu National Park that vary from no-frills (free) to good (a small fee), however, most are only open during the drier months. You should take enough food and drinks, especially water, for the duration of your stay.
If you prefer to stay at a Kakadu hotel with good facilities, including a restaurant, bar and swimming pool, then make a beeline for the township of Jabiru, the main hub for Kakadu National Park, where you’ll find services such as a petrol station, supermarket, newsagent, and post office. Jabiru is also the best base for visiting Ubirr Rock and joining cruises and tours into West Arnhem Land. The best Jabiru accommodation is at the 4-star crocodile shaped Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel.
If you don’t mind more basic accommodation, but you don’t want to camp, then opt for lodges with simple cabins and units, where you can also park your caravan and camp. The lodges also have casual restaurants and bars, along with barbecue facilities, and swimming pools.
The Aurora Kakadu Lodge is on the Arnhem Highway and is a good place to stop if you’ve spent a long day driving from Darwin to Kakadu, calling into various spots along the way. You can then rise early the next morning and stop at the Mamukala Wetlands, which are home to thousands of magpie geese, especially in September and October, when they congregate en masse. From Mamukala it’s only 32 kilometres along Arnhem Highway to the Bowali Visitor Centre, the gateway to Kakadu National Park.
Southwest of Jabiru, Cooinda Lodge Kakadu is just 1km from the Warradjan centre, off the Kakadu Highway, and makes a great base for doing the nearby Yellow Waters Cruise and the 4WD excursions to Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls, and doing the many hikes to waterfalls and swimming holes in the area and in the southern part of Kakadu National Park, such as Maguk and Gunlom. From there it makes more sense to continue southwest to Pine Creek and onto Darwin or Katherine, rather than backtracking.
Things to Do at Kakadu National Park
Make a beeline to one of the star sights of Kakadu National Park, Ubirr Rock, northeast of Jabiru, for impressive ancient art in the form of Aboriginal X-ray style paintings on rock walls. These 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.
East Alligator River, West Arnhem Land
Cruise the East Alligator River, which divides Kakadu National Park from West Arnhem Land, on the informative yet incredibly relaxing Guluyambi Cultural Cruise, ran by Kakadu Cultural Tours and the indigenous guides of the Djabulukgu Association.
Through their informative and often very funny narrative, the guides explore the life of the river and surrounding environment, how it changes with the seasons, the waterway’s incredible food chain and fauna and flora, and its many traditional uses, along with bush survival skills. They also offer an excellent Arnhemlander Cultural and Heritage Tour.
Injalak Hill, Oenpelli, West Arnhem Land
At nearby Oenpelli in West Arnhem Land, you can hike up Injalak Hill with a local Aboriginal artist from Injalak Arts Centre to see more ancient rock art. We highly recommend going with Sab Lord of Lords Safaris, undoubtedly one of Australia’s finest guides. Whilst not Aboriginal, Sab was raised in Kakadu, speaks local languages, has gone through secret ceremonies, and has access to Aboriginal communities because of his lifelong friendships with the people.
On Sab’s private 4WD tours, you’ll discover magnificent landscapes and learn bush skills from Sab, but once over the border in Arnhem Land, Sab will hand you over to a local indigenous artist who will take you up to Injalak Hil to see the rock art, as well as introduce you to local artists at Injalak Art Centre and explain their methods and techniques. This is also a fantastic place to buy indigenous art and craft
Back in Kakadu National Park, south of Jabiru, the monumental Nourlangie Rock is home to several significant indigenous sites. These include 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 a hike up to Nawurlandja lookout (only possible from May to September).
Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls
Further south and cascading some 150m off the escarpment, the majestic Jim Jim Falls is another star attraction of Kakadu National Park. They are absolutely 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. The Falls are still impressive from the ground after the roads open in the dry season, but note that they usually stop flowing by late August.
Reached through a dramatic gorge, Twin Falls are also awe-inspiring when flowing. Both are accessible by high clearance 4WD on a rough track during the dry season, although there’s still a creek crossing. If you’re not experienced driving a 4WD, it’s best to go with an experienced driver who knows the terrain or join a tour. 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 a 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.
Yellow Waters Wetlands
Another Kakadu National Park highlight is the Yellow Waters Cruise. The turn-off to Yellow Waters Wetlands is just south of the turn-off to Jim Jim and Twin Falls. Yellow Waters teems with wildlife and birdlife and the best way to learn about it, and about the wetlands of the Kakadu World Heritage Area more generally, is from an Aboriginal perspective on Kakadu Tourism’s wonderful Yellow Waters billabong cruise. The final late afternoon cruise is recommended for the gorgeous light.
Indigenous owned Kakadu Tourism also offers brilliant 4WD tours to spectacular escarpments, lush waterfalls and refreshing swimming holes and that include a visit the Warradjan Cultural Centre to learn about the culture of the Bininj people.
Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre
The nearby Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre is an educational highlight of Kakadu National Park, developed and curated by the traditional owners of Kakadu as a place for visitors to learn about Aboriginal history, culture, traditions, languages, customs, crafts, and arts through its excellent interactive exhibits.
They included compelling displays, videos and audio sharing personal stories and histories related to everything from bush tucker to marriage rights. The centre also offered an opportunity to see artisans weaving and painting. As at 25 August 2020, the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre remains closed for renovations so check at Bowali Visitor Centre when you arrive to see if it’s open yet.
Maguk – Barramundi Gorge
Maguk is another Kakadu National Park highlight for us, however, 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 driver of off-road vehicles 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, particularly at the end of the wet season.
Gunlom – Waterfall Creek
Gunlom or Waterfall Creek is another star attraction of Kakadu National Park and a serene spot for a cooling dip 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.
Jarrangbarnmi – Koolpin Gorge
Lastly, jaw-dropping Koolpin Gorge or Jarrangbarnmi is your final highlight of Kakadu National Park. It 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.
Back on the Kakadu Highway, it’s just a short drive to the Mary River Roadhouse where you can refuel before pushing on to Pine Creek and then turning right and heading northwest to Litchfield National Park and Darwin, or turning left and heading southeast to Nitmiluk and Katherine.