Kakadu is truly a magical place. The dirt is the richest red, the trees are the brightest green and the swimming holes the clearest of blues. Perfect for nature lovers and adventure seekers, this special land provides the ultimate Australian experience and the chance to completely immerse oneself in World Heritage listed natural beauty.
Easy to get to by car, it is only a few hours either from Darwin or Katherine. It’s a good idea to refuel as frequently as possible – I’m always amazed how quickly we get through diesel on the road. Although it’s really not that surprising considering all the equipment we run off the car, the air con we have blasting to beat the heat and also the need to use it in 4WD. There is petrol and diesel available within the park but don’t expect the lowest prices.
Top Tip: Although a 2WD will get you to most places within the park, to really explore all Kakadu has to offer a 4WD is essential. If you’re hiring a car, bear in mind that even the four-wheelers are not allowed to be taken off road as you’ll void the insurance.
Kakadu is massive, approximately 20,000km². To put it in perspective for my fellow Europeans, that is around half the size of Switzerland. It is home to some of the most beautiful waterfalls and gorges as well as 280 types of bird (a third of all bird species in Australia). It is also home to 10,000 crocodiles. There are two types of crocodile found in Kakadu, “freshies” and “salties”. Freshwater crocs grow up to 3m long and tend to have narrower snouts and are less aggressive (unless feeling threatened). Salt water crocs – don’t be deceived by the name, they inhabit fresh water too – can grow up to 6m and you really don’t want to meet one, either on land or in water. With crocodiles on the mind and my dad’s warning about not swimming in NT, I wasn’t expecting to find many opportunities to get in the water, but the Mary River Region in South Kakadu is home to numerous stunning waterfalls and swimming holes. So sorry dad, I definitely swam in NT. Even in June/July, day temperatures were as high as 33C, so a cool dip is exactly what you need.
First swim stop – Maguk Gorge. This lovely 2km return walk through monsoon forest and then along a rocky creek leads to a beautiful waterfall and crystal clear plunge pools at the base of steep gorge walls. Part of the track was still flooded from the wet season but to be honest, with several creek crossings you’d be best to keep your shoes off anyway. Maguk is a great place to visit in the dry season, as it’s one of the falls that doesn’t dry up straight away and even towards the end of the season, although it gets smaller it still flows. We headed straight in and swam across to the waterfall. The amazingly clear water gets dark pretty quickly and halfway across the thought struck as to what may be hiding in the deep…and I probably wouldn’t have been so relaxed if I’d known that a large saltie was caught there a few weeks prior.
Top Tip: Remember, where there’s water, there may be crocs. Be croc-wise and stay safe when swimming. Any swimming in Kakadu is at your own risk – although rangers do their best to remove salties from popular swimming holes, they have been known to move into these areas undetected.
Don’t miss: Yurmikmik Walks. Often overlooked for the more well-known spots these are a series of interconnected walking tracks, which lead you to some great and secluded swimming holes. A 7.5km return track takes you to Motor Car Falls, an incredible turquoise pool and waterfall packed with freshwater turtles and shrimp. And the best thing is you’ll likely have the place to yourself. Amazing in the dry, it must be seriously impressive in the wet season with water thundering down the cliff face.
Spectacular Jim Jim Falls is another option for a swim. A deep pool at the bottom of a waterfall and 150m high cliffs, it is accessed via a 60km dirt road (4WD only) and a walk through a monsoon forest. Jim Jim is only accessible in the dry season and opening dates are somewhat unpredictable depending on seasonal rains. Unfortunately the road was impossible to travel down while we were there. The NT had a record-breaking rainfall this year so things are a little slow in the clear up. Don’t get caught out like we did assuming that just because it’s the dry season, all roads will be open. Check the Kakadu Road Report for latest details on access, updated daily.
Our swimming favourite was Gunlom – a popular camping area near a clear plunge pool and waterfall. 40km down an unsealed road and you arrive at the campground, complete with solar panel heated hot water showers – outback luxury! If you so wish, you can also recreate scenes from Crocodile Dundee at the plunge pool at the bottom, where it was filmed over thirty years ago, catapulting Kakadu into the international spotlight. Alternatively, a steep climb takes you to a natural infinity pool at the top of the waterfall with great views over Southern Kakadu. With Gunlom, early starts are your friend. Beat the tours and the backpackers by getting up before the sun. Plus you can’t beat an outback sunrise over a cup of coffee.
Top Tip: Don’t take a 2WD down the dirt road to Gunlom. Yes, I’m talking to you, couple in the blue Toyota Yaris. The road may look inviting, flat and red but it is unsealed the whole way and gets worse the further you progress. Particularly after a busy weekend it can be really corrugated. So save your car (and the insurance claim, and the need to rely on a friendly passing car to tow you out) and take a ride down in a 4WD.
For me, camping is all about the fires and stars and just being in nature. It’s about embracing the lack of phone reception – we all need a good digital detox every now and then to make us appreciate the quieter moments. There are numerous options for camping in Kakadu, both managed sites and more basic (and less busy) bush sites. I’m always so impressed with the massive rigs and extensive gear people seem to have in the NT but I’m a simple gal at heart, give me a swag any day so I can fall asleep looking up at the Milky Way.
Top Tip: Picking up the eye-shine of animals in the light of your torch can be a good way to know what’s around you when camping. However, if you’d prefer not to know how many spiders are hanging out around your tent maybe give this one a miss…
It always strikes me how easy it is to get up before dawn when you’re not getting up for work. Leaving the tent and hiking up the Gunlom track in the dark, with nothing but the light of the moon and head torch to guide me and wild dingoes howling nearby, I’ll admit I was pretty scared. I never outgrew being afraid of the dark, and every time the dingoes cried, my brain became a jumble of panicked thoughts: did they steal that baby? Am I big enough that they won’t try and eat me? and soon I was almost running up the sheer rocky path, trying to put as much distance between me and them as possible without twisting an ankle. Every branch that grabbed me, every rustle in the bushes and every rock I tripped over, my heart beat faster and my breath got shallower (although this was possibly due to my poor cardio fitness – the track is steep!) Finally emerging at the top, looking over the pools just as the sun started to colour the land gold, as quickly as it started, the fear was gone. I walked right to the edge and stood there in silence with the waterfall at my feet watching the sun come up.
That is the sunrise magic.
So what are you waiting for? Head out for your own NT adventure and we’ll CU in the NT!
Text and images by Natalie Hardbattle.
Brit in Australia. Weekend Warrior. Working the daily grind so I can go out and chase waterfalls and explore this world. After all, life is one awfully big adventure.