Travel feature on Kakadu National Park published in 2020 by Lonely Planet Magazine. Photographs by Chris Chen.
Check out my related feature on Darwin, Australia’s northernmost state capital.
Kakadu, Australia’s largest national park, is a land of giant termite mounds, ancient rock art, secret swimming holes – and crocodiles
No one is quite sure how Kakadu got its name.
According to one tale, it’s due to a hard-of-hearing English explorer by the name of Philip Parker King, who misunderstood the word for the local language, Gagadju, in 1818. Listen to another story, however, and you’ll be told it comes from the German word for cockatoo. Ask the local Bininj and Mungguy people, who have lived here for round about the last 65,000 years, however, and they’ll politely inform you that actually, there’s really no such place at all. Which is rather inconvenient, given that Kakadu sprawls over 19,804 square kilometres of the Northern Territory – an area approximately half the size of Switzerland.
To indigenous people, the land now known as Kakadu is actually a patchwork of tribal territories, whose extents are marked on no map, and whose boundaries are recorded only in memory. But since 1979, this vast area has officially been home to Australia’s largest national park: a land of red rock, sandstone, bushland and billabongs, not to mention termite mounds taller than the tallest man. It’s the essence of the Australian outback cranked up to eleven.
Buffalo hunting, cattle farming and uranium mining have all been tried here; all have failed. Kakadu is simply too wild to be tamed. For half the year, the land is swamped by monsoon rains; for the other half, it’s parched to the point of dessication. Appropriately for the place that provided the backdrop for Crocodile Dundee, every river is crawling with crocs. Snakes, scorpions and nightmare spiders lurk in the bush. There are few roads, even fewer hotels, and only one town worthy of the name: tiny Jabiru, home to a handful of shops and a solitary gas station, as well as the national park’s main headquarters.
And according to the rangers, if I want to experience a day in the life of Kakadu, there’s only one logical place to begin – and that’s with sunrise on the billabong.
6.30am – Yellow Water
The orchestra strikes up at first light. At first, it’s just a whine: a keening buzz, like interference on a badly-tuned radio. Gradually, other instruments join in: croaks, trills, hoots, drones, booms, chatters and whirrs, building to a crescendo as the first stripe of pink streaks the sky above Yellow Water. But for river guide Greg Patterson, the sounds are more than a dawn chorus: on Yellow Water, they tell him when a croc’s on the prowl.
‘Crocs are devilish to spot, especially at dawn and dusk,’ he says, as his boat slips through the milky morning mist. ‘They’re perfectly adapted to the environment. And they’re crafty. Often you won’t see them till they’re real close. Sometimes I’ll be looking out front, and there’s a croc round the back looking right at me. But things always go real quiet when a croc’s nearby.’
Greg has been guiding tours on Yellow Water for years, but even he remains wary of its crocs. Since hunting was outlawed in the early 1970s, Kakadu’s crocodile numbers have boomed: the current population is around 10,000, one for every two square kilometres.
‘There,’ Greg says, nodding toward a hollow in the riverbank. To inexperienced eyes, it looks like a gnarled old log floating amongst the water-lilies – but Greg points out the telltale signs: a double ridge of dinosaur-like spines, two m-shaped nostrils, and a pair of green, lizard-like eyes. ‘He’s watching us,’ Greg says. ‘But he’s only a little fella: 3 metres or so. I’ve seen five-metre crocs in this creek. Now the sun’s up, he’ll come up onto the bank to get warm. Then he’ll get peckish. And then he’ll go hunting.’
The dawn mist burns off, and the billabong’s wildlife wakes up. The rising sun lights up the wetlands, pan-flat and acid-green. White egrets flutter their wings in the treetops. Jesus lizards skitter across the ponds, splayed feet flapping. Giant-billed jabiru birds strut along the banks on gangly stilt-like legs. And as we near the jetty, a ripple breaks the water’s surface, followed by a thrash of a tail, an explosion of spray, and a swift snap of jaws – then nothing but water.
‘Someone’s just had breakfast,’ Greg says, gliding in beside the dock. ‘Which reminds me. It’s about time I had mine.’
9.00am – Burrungkuy
Thirty miles east, under a sandstone escarpment the colour of brick, park ranger Adrian Buman is beginning his first tour of the day. Dressed in khaki shirt, hiking trousers, stout boots and a broad-brimmed bushman’s hat, he greets his visitors, checks everyone has enough water, then tramps off into a forest of eucalyptus, pandanus and green plums.
After ten minutes, he emerges from the canopy. Ahead, a fissured sandstone wall rises into the blue morning sky, like a stack of paving slabs piled two hundred feet high. It’s only 9.30am, but the sun’s heat is already fierce, so Adrian leads his group into the shade of a rocky overhang. But shelter isn’t the reason he’s chosen this spot. Inside, the walls are emblazoned with artworks: x-ray fish, impressionistic animals and strange human-like forms, etched on the rock face in a palette of ochre-browns, yellows, oranges, crimsons and whites.
‘Amazing, eh?’ Adrian says, craning his neck to take in the gallery. ‘Some of these paintings date back long before contact.’ He points to a white figure with two feeler-like appendages behind his head. ‘This chap is Namarggon, the Lightning Man, a creation ancestor believed to bring the monsoon storms. He made thunder and lightning by clapping together those axes behind his head.’
There are thousands of rock art sites like this scattered across Kakadu. They were made by the Bininj people, the indigenous inhabitants of northern Kakadu. The paintings served multiple purposes. Some recount family history or mark sacred sites. Others deal with the songlines, the intricate tapestry of oral history and creation legends which indigenous people used to record their past. Often, the paintings are multi-layered, creating cross-generational canvases that span centuries: the oldest in Kakadu were painted at least 20,000 years ago. Only a handful are open to balanda, or non-indigenous people. Most remain taboo, hidden away in a labyrinth of caves and valleys.
‘Every time I come here I see something new,’ Adrian says, casting his torch over the cavern’s walls. ‘But I can only guess at all the meanings these places have for Bininj people. They’re mankind’s oldest artworks – and we know almost nothing about the artists who made them.’
He switches off his torch, giving the paintings back to the darkness.
11.00am – East Alligator River
There’s a traffic jam at Cahills Crossing. A line of trucks, cars and 4x4s are queued five-deep on either side of the river. The cause? A ute has got stuck halfway, having mistimed its crossing when the water was too deep. The driver is leaning anxiously out of the window, spinning his wheels to get free of the mud. He looks worried, on the ragged edge of panic. He should be. The river’s already up to the wheel arches. In half an hour it’ll be roof-height.
Cahills Crossing is the only road link between Kakadu and the autonomous, indigenous-governed region of Arnhemland. It spans the East Alligator, the tidal river that tracks Kakadu’s eastern edge. Even in the dry season from May to October, it’s only open for a few hours a day around low tide; but during the monsoon from December to May, the river-level is too high to cross, effectively cutting off Arnhemland for half the year. To make matters worse, the East Alligator is notorious for crocs: every few years, there’s a tale of a driver or fisherman who’s been carried off, never to be seen again.
‘My friends and I swam here when we were kids,’ explains Robert Namarnyilk, a member of the Bulaja clan, who runs boat tours and fishing trips along the East Alligator. ‘But it’s too dangerous now.’ He nods towards a vortex of deep water on the far bank. ‘A truck sank there just last year. The driver had to swim for it. I wasn’t sure if he’d make it.’
It takes ten minutes for the truck to coax itself free. On the far side, the driver steps out, leans against the tailgate and sparks up a cigarette, relief etched onto his face. He knows he caught a break today. Next time, he might not be so lucky.
1.00pm – Gunlom Falls
By lunchtime, the temperature in Kakadu has ratcheted up to 35˚C, and the eucalyptus-lined track to Gunlom Falls is busy with people looking for somewhere to cool off from the heat. Sipping water from their canteens, sweat streaming from their brows, they trudge up the rocky path beside the falls until they reach their goal: the swimming pools of Gunlom.
Carved from the sandstone by natural erosion, these clam-shaped ponds were made famous by Crocodile Dundee, when bushman Mick Dundee takes journalist Sue Charlton to his favourite spot for an al fresco dip. Since then, they’ve become one of Kakadu’s most popular wild swimming spots. Throughout the afternoon, people splash around in the terraced pools, plunging into the water or wallowing in the shallows as they listen to the thunder of the falls a hundred feet below. In Kakadu, this is as close as they’ll get to an infinity pool.
4.00pm – South Alligator Country
By late afternoon the searing heat of midday has eased, and a strong breeze has picked up, as it often does at this time of day in Kakadu. For Victor Cooper, that means it’s time to start a bush-fire.
‘People are afraid of fire,’ Victor says, piling up a heap of dry grass as he gauges the wind’s direction and strength. ‘But that’s because they don’t understand it. It’s a part of life here. The thing is to know how to use it right.’
Content with his preparations, he sets light to the tinder. There’s a crackle, then a whoosh: the undergrowth ignites, and in seconds has bloomed into a head-high wall of flame. Smoke plumes skyward, and the fire races away into the trees. But Victor’s not worried: he knows he’s set the fire right. It will burn till nightfall, when a combination of rising moisture, falling temperatures and lessening wind will combine to snuff it out.
Fire management has been practiced by indigenous people in Kakadu for thousands of years. Using small, frequent burns to clear the land of scrub actually lessens the probability of a major conflagration – many endemic trees have evolved natural fire resistance, so as long as the flames never burn too fast or too fierce, they take a long time to catch light. Amazingly, some of Kakadu’s plants actually rely on fire for germination, and within days of a burn, the blackened land starts to regenerate, promoting a burst of new greenery. Regular burns are now officially park policy in Kakadu, with indigenous owners working alongside rangers to identify the correct areas to clear.
‘No-one knows this country like us,’ Victor explains, steering his 4×4 onto Kakadu’s main highway. ‘We know how to look after it. In return, it looks after us.’
As he drives back towards Jabiru, fires are burning all along the highway, and pillars of smoke are twisting into the evening sky.
6.30pm – Nawurlandja
For most of the day, Kakadu’s skies are painted a uniform shade: blue. Sunset brings out a subtler palette – peaches and tangerines, pinks and puces, yellows, plums and burgundies. This evening, however, above the great slab of rock known as Nawurlandja, the skies have a special show in store. A bank of black cloud has rolled in, bringing with it a rare rain-shower, and the appearance of something very unusual indeed: the rainbow serpent.
Known by many names in Kakadu – Almudj to Gundjeihmi speakers in the north, Bolung to Jawoyn speakers in the south – the rainbow serpent was among the most important creation ancestors for Aboriginal people. It was believed she created Kakadu’s valleys and waterholes, and her appearance often marked the changing of the seasons, and symbolised the lifecycle of all living things. Appropriately enough, the rainbow serpent also features in the national park’s official logo.
9.00pm – Hawk Dreaming, near Kakadu
Darkness settles over Kakadu, and Rana McChesney stokes up the campfire, then removes the lid of one of her cast-iron cooking pots. Inside, a meat stew is bubbling away. Lifting another lid, she checks on her damper, the soda bread traditionally eaten by settlers and bushmen travelling through the outback. She tears off a piece and chews it like a connoisseur: the perfect damper should be crusty, she explains, but doughy and yeasty on the inside. ‘Damper is the staple food of the outback,’ she explains, gazing into the orange flames. ‘Without it, the early settlers would starved. It kept them alive. So I think it’s important that our guests get to taste it.’ While she cooks dinner, a wallaby ambles out of the bush, nuzzling against her leg in hope of a titbit. ‘This is Jilly,’ Rana says. ‘We rescued her when she was just a joey. She always shows up for dinner.’
Along with her partner Ian, Rana runs Hawk Dreaming Wilderness Lodge, a bush-camp located near the remote rock outcrop of Cannon Hill. With its safari-style tents and rustic outdoor kitchen, the camp sets out to give its guests an authentic glimpse of outback life: there’s no wifi or mobile signal, showers are solar-powered, and back-up electricity is supplied from a rickety generator that often gives out without warning. Rana makes all the camp food from scratch, favouring old bush recipes wherever possible, and after dinner, guests congregate around the campfire, swapping stories like the settlers of old.
After an hour or two, everyone retires to bed. The generator shuts off and the camp goes dark. Stars, planets and constellations carpet the black sky overhead. Crickets chitter like static, and once, a dingo yowls in the darkness. According to aboriginal people, night-time was the time of day when the spirits of the ancestors walked abroad. I wait quietly by the campfire, wondering who I might meet before the new day dawns.