Whether you’re a professional photographer or an snap happy amateur, it’s handy to know the insider knowledge on where & when to take the best photos in one of the most picturesque locations in the world. From waterfalls to native flora and fauna, Kakadu National Park has it all. We’ve enlisted Heath Whiley to share his real life travel story with you… the ultimate guide for photographers travelling to Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory.
‘A furious black cloud loomed on the horizon as I trudged towards the waterfall. After a week of hiking in the rain, humidity and clouds of mosquitoes; I was ridiculously keen to photograph Twin Falls in full flood. I scrambled to set up my tripod and attached my camera gear. After quickly wiping off the water droplets from my lens, I snapped a few long exposure shots just before the heavens unleashed. I was drenched once again but that couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as I had just captured the image that I had been dreaming of for years.’
So you have heard about Australia’s largest terrestrial National Park; Kakadu, now your wondering how and when to photograph it at its best? Well first up, you need to get your head around the wet season and the dry season. The wet season runs from around Nov-April and is amazing for cloud porn, lightning storms, pumping waterfalls, very few pesky tourists and unique wildlife. The dry season is between May-October which is peak tourist season, the temperatures are pleasant, all of the attractions are generally open, plenty of wildlife, however most waterfalls stop flowing, it’s mainly cloudless skies and you will have to share a lot of the popular spots with a European backpacker, grey nomad or local Territorian. In saying that, the park is large enough to get off the beaten track and find some beautiful landscapes which don’t require people to be photoshopped out. At the end of the dry season, Kakadu is a wonderful place to photograph birds as they congregate in thousands around the last remaining waterholes. There are so many birds, even a non bird nerd will get secretly excited.
Let’s begin with my wet season recommendations. So I will assume most of you will prefer NOT to hike in the rain, heat and mosquito infested park for weeks on end, like I did to capture the above shot of Twin Falls. Luckily for you, since the invention of the airplane, you can take a scenic flight over the biggest waterfalls during the wet season (not possible in the dry season) here is a sample of what you can photograph from a plane;
Waterfalls galore as well as the stone country of the Arnhemland Escarpment.
HOT TIP: you have the option to charter a plane with a flip out window preventing any reflection from glass, this is a much better option for high quality photos.
Now let’s get to the colourful stuff. If there is not a massive monsoonal trough or cyclone dumping copious amounts of water on the top end, many sunsets, sunrises and storms in the wet season will be amazing in Kakadu. Here is a list of locations which may be accessible over the Wet or during the shoulder seasons.
- Nawurlandja Lookout
- Nourlangie Lookout
- Yurmikmik Lookout
- Nadab Lookout, Ubirr (shoulder season)
- Top of Gunlom (shoulder season)
Waterfalls and creeks which may be accessible still by 4WD in the Wet Season;
- Gubara Springs
- Motorcar Falls
- Boulder Creek
- Moline Rockhole
Hot Tip: watch out for flash flooding; rivers rise fast. It’s not uncommon for visitors to be stranded on the wrong side of river crossings. Always carry dry bags for your camera gear in case you get stuck in a sudden downpour.
Kakadu is home to many species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and insects. All of which make fantastic wildlife and macro photography.
Leichhardt’s Grasshopper- an endemic animal to the top end, this grasshopper has a annual life cycle and is found in the wet season. It exclusively eats pityrodia Jamesii, if you find this plant, you might find the grasshopper.
The frilled neck lizard- such a bizarre animal which is much more active in the wet season, increasing your chances of finding one to photograph.
In my experience, you will have more chance spotting the endemic Black Wallaroo in the wet season. This may be due to less tourists in the park to scare them away.
If you still want to see more, you can join a bushwalking tour company like Willis Walkabouts who gain permits to do extended hikes across the Arnhemland Escarpment, to waterfalls such as Jim Jim and Twin Falls.
Now let’s check out the Dry Season. It’s no wonder it’s a popular time of year, 30 degree blue sky days in winter, can’t complain about that. The partying bogans sinking tinnies and yahooing at midnight when your alarm is set for a sunrise photography shoot, well that’s something you may have to put up with. The bonus is; nearly everything in the park should be open, so you have a wide variety of sights to photograph.
Popular places for sunset and sunrise include;
- Yellow waters pontoon/cruise
- Top of Gunlom
Hot Tip: the controlled burning is during the Dry Season, so even if there is a cloudless sky at sunset, the smoke haze can make for great color.
Off the beaten track sunset/sunrise locations;
- Sandy Billabong Sunrise
- Jim Jim Falls Sunset/sunrise
- Budjimi Sunset
If you want to photograph waterfalls, it’s better to visit Kakadu earlier than later in the Dry Season. Aim for May, June or early July and there should still be a little water flow off the escarpment for your photography. Popular waterfall destinations include;
- Jim Jim Falls
- Twin Falls
- Gunlom Falls
Off the beaten track Waterfalls;
- Koolpin Gorge (Permit Required)
- Graveside Gorge (Permit Required)
- The top of Twin Falls
- The top of Jim Jim Falls
Hot Tip; You can get a 24 hour permit for Koolpin gorge which means you can arrive in the afternoon, camp the night then spend the next day exploring the gorge.
You can also take a scenic flight in the dry season, but instead of going south over the waterfalls the flight path will head north following the East Alligator River as it carves its way through the stone country then bursts out onto the flood plains.
Now let’s look at what wildlife is around in the dry season. As the season progresses, the water recedes and crocodiles become more concentrated. During the cooler months, crocodiles must bask in the sun on river banks to regulate their temperature, which makes fantastic photo opportunities. Don’t miss a cruise on Yellow waters.
HOT TIP: Cahills crossing on the East Alligator River is a unique location to spot crocodiles, when the mullet migrate upstream usually in August or September, you can witness a huge concentrations of crocodiles feeding on the fish as they cross the causeway at certain tides.
Kakadu is home to over 280 bird species, the variety is astounding. The birds will start to flock to the last remaining billabongs in September and October which is an incredible spectacle to witness. The perfect place to photograph thousands of Magpie Geese and whistling ducks is from the bird hide at Mamukala wetlands.
Well that’s enough information to start you on a photography adventure through Kakadu. As you can see, you need to choose the right time of year to visit depending on what type of photos you wish to capture. Drop me a line if you have any more questions about taking photos in Kakadu. And remember if you are using any photos for commercial purpose, you will need to obtain a photography permit from Bowali Visitor Center. Happy photographing.
About Heath: My name is Heath Whiley and I grew up in the country side of Victoria, Australia. I have a love for Australian nature therefore I have worked as a tour guide in the Northern Territory for the last 8 years of my life. I pursue my other passions of photography and travel in the off season.
To check out more of Heath’s work check out www.heathwhileyphotography.com as well as his Facebook and Instagram
If you’re interesting in buying prints his work is being printed, framed and hung at Art Decor – 5/33 Cavenagh St Darwin.