- Bininj/Mungguy, the Aboriginal people of Kakadu, have continuously inhabited this land for at least 50,000 years one of the longest historical records of any group of people found anywhere in the world.
- About 5,000 rock-sites have been recorded in Kakadu, and a further 10,000 are thought to exist in the area.
Australia’s Timeless North is like nowhere else in Australia. Tropical and lush in some places, red and rocky in others – this is a landscape of ancient Aboriginal culture, great roaring rivers, towering sandstone cliffs, plunging gorges and rich wetlands. It is a place where the stories of the Creation Ancestors are written on cliff-face art galleries, creating the greatest and oldest collection of rock art in the world.
It’s no wonder that this iconic destination is part of Australia’s National Landscapes for its outstanding natural and cultural values. The landscape includes Kakadu National Park, Nitmiluk National Park, Mary River and Garig Gunak National Parks, Arnhem Land, and the townships of Katherine and Jabiru. A journey through this ancient landscape should not be rushed. Take the time to explore and appreciate the diversity of the different landscapes as each one is truly unique. Slow down and explore and you’ll discover so much more wildlife in this exceptionally rich region of Australia. A good way to make sure you see all the major attractions is to follow the driving route, ‘Nature’s Way’.
From Darwin, head towards the Arnhem Highway. Stop at the Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve to see the multitude of waterbirds from the boardwalks and vehicle tracks. At night, the Reserve comes alive with nocturnal birdlife and reptiles. Learn about the wildlife that inhabits the wide river floodplains of Djukbinj National Park at the Window on the Wetlands Visitor Centre.
Mary River National Park protects the Mary River wetlands, which are renowned for their bird life. At least a day should be set aside to explore it fully, which can be done by airboat or on foot. Make sure to take a croc-spotting tour at Shady Camp, which claims the highest concentration of saltwater crocodiles in the world and a great opportunity to see less common freshwater crocodiles.
The jewel in the crown of Australia’s Timeless North is Kakadu National Park, an ageless living natural and cultural landscape so vast that it is divided into seven distinct regions and has six separate seasons. From high stone plateaus and savannah woodlands to monsoon rainforests and open floodplains dotted with billabongs, it is one of the most ecologically and biologically diverse places in Australia and has been inscribed on the World Heritage list three times.
Jabiru is the main township and gateway to Kakadu National Park. Because there are six seasons in Kakadu, the activities you undertake will depend on the time of year. Visit the award-winning Bowali Visitor Centre for an overview of the wildlife, culture and geology of the park.
Take a magical dawn or dusk cruise on the wetlands of Guluyambi and Yellow Water and be awed by the lotus lilies, blue-winged kookaburras, jabirus and hundreds of other bird species. Jim Jim and Twin Falls are among the most spectacular sights in Kakadu and can only be reached by four-wheel drive in the dry season. However, the wet season is when the thunderous falls are in full flow. They’re best seen from overhead on a scenic flight.
Kakadu's traditional owners maintain a strong connection to the land, demonstrated through their culture, spiritual beliefs and the management of their country. It is these connections that make this landscape over powering, over whelming and extreme. Around 15,000 rock art and sites of cultural, archaeological and historic significance give testimony to the longest continuous surviving human culture, dating back at least 50,000 years. Ubirr, the most famous of Kakadu’s 5,000 recorded art sites is not to be missed at sunset. It includes the famous paintings of Mabuyu, the Rainbow Serpent and the Namarrkan sisters with amazing views as the sun sweeps across the Arnhem Land escarpment onto the Nadab floodplain.
Kakadu is also a biological wonderland teeming with mammal, reptile, bird and insect life. Around 60 species of mammals and more than 280 bird species, about one-third of Australia's total, are found in the park. Its wetlands are recognised under the Ramsar Convention as being of international importance. It is also famous for its reptiles, notably salt and freshwater crocodiles, creating spectacular opportunities for keen photographers.
A visit to Nourlangie is also a must with ancient Aboriginal shelters, rock art, billabongs and escarpment lookouts - an entire day can easily be spent in this region. Nourlangie offers visitors the famous spiritual painting of Namarrgon, the Lightning Man. Not far from Nourlangie is Cooinda, home to the famous Yellow Water Billabong cruises and also the turtle-shaped Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre where you can learn about the languages, laws and creation myths of the Gagudju people or camp at Djarradjan Billabong (Muirella Park), which is run by a local Aboriginal family. During the day they will teach you basket weaving, how to throw a hunting spear or play a didgeridoo, and at night they’ll take you spotting for crocodiles and other wildlife. To continue on a longer journey, travel from Cooinda to Pine Creek, dropping in at Gunlom and other waterholes for a cool dip.
To the east of Kakadu’s borders lies Arnhem Land, a 91,000 square kilometre region of wild coastlines, deserted islands, rivers teeming with fish, rainforests, soaring escarpments and savannah woodland. Its small population is predominantly made up of Aboriginal Australians, whose traditional customs remain largely intact.
From Jabiru, take the 50-kilometre drive into west Arnhem Land to Gunbalanya (or Oenpelli as it is also known) – a small Aboriginal township close to the East Alligator River. Gunbalanya is home to the Injalak Arts and Crafts Centre which provides a unique opportunity to view Aboriginal artistry of a very high standard. Tours at Injalak Hill run from June to September.
At the southern tip of Kakadu and Arnhem Land sits Nitmiluk National Park with its rugged sandstone landscapes, dramatic waterfalls and lush rainforest pockets. The town of Katherine offers museums, art galleries and historic sites. It is a good place to buy authentic Aboriginal art and artifacts or create your own dot painting to take home. Just south of Katherine, take time to explore the Cutta Cutta Caves, which are limestone rock cave formations formed more than five million years ago.
The spectacular Katherine Gorge is a series of 13 sandstone gorges carved over millions of years which stretch for 50 kilometres along the Katherine River. Here, you can camp by a billabong and fish for barramundi in the clear waterways or enjoy a sunrise breakfast aboard a cruise through the ancient gorges.
The best way to explore the grandeur of the gorge is to tour it with one of the Jawoyn people, who own Nitmiluk National Park and run it in conjunction with the Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory. The more challenging five-day Jatbula Trail is a 59-kilometre trek which follows the song line of the local Jawoyn people. Aboriginal culture is strong in the area and there are many significant rock art sites throughout the park which are easily accessible.
Note: Anyone wanting to venture into Arnhem Land needs to apply for a permit through the Northern Land Council. In most cases, tour companies can arrange a permit on your behalf and at least 10 days is required for permit processing. Some roads may be impassable during the wet season so check with local authorities for the latest road conditions. Camping is only in designated areas within National Parks, there are fishing restrictions within National Parks and care should be taken around waterholes, respecting signs and being croc-wise.
Written by Kris Madden on behalf of Tourism Australia. This article is copyright free and may be reproduced.