Kakadu Park History and Ecology
Kakadu National Park is a culturally and environmentally sensitive region in the Northern Territory of Australia. With more national parks than any other country, Kakadu is just one of 650 national parks in Australia, covering 20,000 km of land. It was first named an Aboriginal Reserve in 1964 and a wildlife sanctuary in 1972. Finally, in 1979, it became an official national park, and then in 1981, UNESCO designated the region as a World Heritage and Biosphere Reserve.
Kakadu is derived from the Gagudju Indigenous language that was historically spoken in the park. However, as one of our Indigenous guides mentioned, Kakadu is not a place name but a misinterpretation of an abstract concept. Though he seemed to be okay with the name, considering the many clans and languages (over 200 at one point) spoken in the region refer to parts of the park differently, making it a complex place to name, and Kakadu seems to fit nicely.
Kakadu’s Rich Biodiversity
Kakadu is a biodiversity hotspot. It is home to rare monsoon forests, ancient sandstone mountains, savanna forests, wetlands, 2,000 different plant species, ⅓ of Australia’s total bird life, and ⅕ of its mammals. One of the most iconic species in the park is the magpie goose. These boisterous waterfowl are found only in N. Australia and S. New Guinea. The goose is considered a keystone species, providing a critical role as a grazer of wetlands and a food source for both the Indigenous People and crocodiles. While their population is stable, they are restricted to a small habitat range. They are threatened by habitat loss from rising sea levels that could flood their nesting grounds. Read about how the Indigenous community is involved in understanding rising sea levels to protect magpie geese and other vital species. Watch for some of Australia’s most iconic species, including Kookaburra, wallabies, frilled-neck lizards, black cockatoos, and saltwater crocodiles, as you explore.
Invasive Feral Buffalo and Pigs
While I don’t want to dive too deep into this topic, as it is an incredibly complex and nuanced issue involving local and Indigenous stakeholders, I want to touch on it. In the 1800s, water buffalo were introduced to the region by colonizing settlers as a source of meat. The population got out of control and currently wreaks havoc on the local environment, threatening species such as the magpie geese, ruining cultural sites, spreading invasive plants, and destroying wetland habitats.
Thousands are in the wild, and some are on ranching stations. Local ranchers raise and collect the species from the wild before live transporting them to SE Asia primarily for meat. The buffalo are alive when they are shipped in a very traumatic and unethical experience where many of them die. Campaigns to end this practice in Australia encourage ranchers toward a local butchering process.
Most people, including many traditional owners, agree that feral and invasive species damage the environment and must be controlled. However, it is crucial to consider that many have come to rely on the species as an essential food source or a revenue stream over the years, and a transition plan, if the species were to be eradicated, is critical. One key element includes the Traditional Owners in management practices such as culling, monitoring, and conservation work.
As you explore Kakadu, remember that pigs and buffalo are not native to the region and bring many complex issues. While I saw them, I did not photograph or glamorize them to not set a precedent for other tourists to expect them.
Culture and People
The land’s traditional owners have inhabited the region for at least 65,000 years, making it one of the planet’s most culturally significant regions.
The Bininj, Mungguy, and Gagudju are the traditional owners of the land that includes Kakadu National Park. Outside of Kakadu, many additional clans exist in a region known as Arnhem land. The Indigenous people have inhabited the region and acted as stewards of the land for millennia. They documented their pre-historic life history and Dreamtime stories painted on rock cliffs hidden in the nooks and crannies of ancient sandstone cliffs.
But Kakadu’s traditional owners are not just people of ancient stories; they remain as caretakers with a rich culture today. After generations of abhorrent treatment by Australian colonizers, many died or were forced to relocate to mission-run communities that contradicted their ancestral and clan-focused way of life. During a period that started in the 1970s, the homeland movement began with many returning to small rural communities based on family and clan dynamics and more traditional life.
Many Indigenous people live in Kakadu and are involved in tourism, while others reside outside the park and live more traditional lifestyles off the land. Others seek employment in ranching or conservation as paid bush rangers, park rangers, or controlling invasive feral buffalo.
Sustainability and Cultural Ecotourism
Sustainable Indigenous-led ecotourism is a critical source of revenue to maintain Kakadu’s cultural and environmental integrity. Even though Kakadu is a national park and UNESCO site, right smack dab in the middle of the park was a uranium mine. The Ranger Mine was controversial, environmentally detrimental, and opposed by most local residents, including the land’s traditional owners. To the relief of many, the mine closed in 2021. However, one uncertainty remained: funding for maintenance in the park and livelihood for the remaining residents. In a historical event, the mining town of Jabiru was given back to the Indigenous people of Kakadu to develop as a cultural and tourism hub in a post-mining landscape.
Cultural ecotourism to the rescue! I am one to be cautious about over-advertising the benefits of tourism, but Kakadu is genuinely remarkable for regenerative and community-led tourism in action. The tourism model benefits biodiversity, upholds traditional cultural values, and is community-led to support residents economically.
The national park is co-managed by Parks Australia and local Indigenous community members who receive lease payments for their land and manage and develop most of the tourism in the park. That’s right, Tourism Kakadu is an Indigenous-owned and led tourism group of hotels, activities, restaurants, bush ranger programs, and more!
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That means engaging in culturally respectful tourism that benefits the natural environment is super easy – which is how it should be if you ask me! But, of course, we must be active participants as we explore the park, so remember to:
- Respect all cultural and sacred sites – do not cross fences, trespass, touch, deface, or mark any rock paintings.
- Learn about the lands’ traditional owners and engage in meaningful cultural exchange – book tours with Indigenous guides and visit art and cultural centers.
- Respect the natural environment. Do not litter, go off trail, touch or feed wildlife, or collect or harvest natural resources.
- Learn about nature with ecology tours, guided nature walks, reading signposts, and educating yourself on local conservation issues and concerns.
- Even if traveling on a budget, budget to support Indigenous art, culture, tours, and excursions.
- Stop the spread – Clean your boots and clothing before entering Kakadu, and as you hike around the park to prevent the spread of invasive plants. Keep things seed and dirt-free. Avoid glamorizing the existence of invasive feral animals.
- The ecosystem is very flammable. Do not smoke in the park.
- Learn the cultural nuances – posting photos of Indigenous people can sometimes be taboo. Drinking alcohol can also be a sensitive issue in some communities. Some experiences prohibit alcohol.
- Conserve Water – the region can have water shortages, especially during the dry season.
The 6 Seasons of Kakadu
Before we get into all the incredible things you can do to enjoy cultural ecotourism in Kakadu National Park, we need to cover the 6 seasons of Kakadu. The landscape of Kakadu and nearby Arnhem land changes dramatically with the seasons. Cracked and drying muddy banks along shrunken billabongs eventually give way to thunderclouds and monsoons, bringing new life and expansive flooded wetlands.
The 6 seasons of Kakadu are essential to planning weather-appropriate activities that may be available only at certain times of the year. Dirt roads may flood during monsoon season, making places like Jim Jim Falls inaccessible by land – but incredible to view from the air. At the same time, the dry season is better for off-roading adventures. While there is somewhat of an ideal window of time to visit Kakadu, there are things to do year-round. Understanding the 6 seasons can help you plan your activities and the best time to visit.
The seasons of Kakadu don’t have specific start and end dates like our Western calendar. Instead, it is based on temperature, weather patterns, and animal behavior. However, they are generally consistent enough to plan around.
Kudjewk – Monsoon Season
- Kakadu’s tropical summer
- Thunderstorms, flooding, and heavy rains dominate the weather
- Vast expanses of wetlands emerge
- Massive levels of growth for vegetation with everything turning lush and green
- Magpie geese return to the wetlands to nest.
- Average temps 25-34°C
- Most back-country roads closed
- Usually, December to March
Bangkerreng – Windy Season
- The season opens with strong winds
- Heavy rains subside, and blue skies emerge
- Floodwaters recede
- Kakadu is alive – plants are fruiting, and baby animals learn the ropes
- Average temps 23-34°C
Yekke – Cool and Humid Season
- A relatively calm season with cooling temperatures and infrequent storms
- Wetlands and billabongs are still full of water and blooming lilies
- Indigenous land stewards often begin their controlled patch burns to bring new life
- Average temps 21-33°C
- Usually May – mid-June
Wurrkeng – Cold Season
- Cool temperatures at night with low humidity
- Floodplains, billabongs, and creeks quickly dry
- Most waterbirds gather at the shrinking billabongs – great for birding
- Average temps 17-32°C
- Mid-June to mid-August
Kurrung – Hot and Dry Season
- Most water sources are dried up, save for a few year-round billabongs and wetlands.
- Reptiles, such as goannas, sea and long-necked turtles, lay eggs
- Dry and brown landscapes
- Some seasonal birds begin to return leading up to the monsoon seasons
- Average temps 23-37°C
- Mid-August to mid-October
Kunumeleng – Pre-Monsoon Season
- Humidity and temperatures increase, building up to increasing storms.
- Afternoon rain is common – bringing some new life to the region
- Animals and people begin to move – Barramundi head to estuaries for breeding, birds spread out with expanding billabongs, and the Indigenous people would migrate to shelter from storms
- It can last for a few weeks to several months
- Average temps 24-37°C
- Mid-October to December
The Best Time to Visit Kakadu
Each of these 6 seasons has pros and cons for visiting, but to make things easier, we can divide them into 2 broad categories – dry and wet.
Dry Season – April/May to October
The dry season is the peak season and when most people visit. Most attractions, accommodations, and roads are open, making it a great time to see the best of Kakadu. That also means you may encounter crowds, and hotels and experiences may book quickly.
However, within this window, you will have lots of variety.
If you visit in the shoulder season of April or May, there will still be a lot of lush green landscapes and water, making jet boat experiences memorable. However, some roads may still be closed depending on the current state of ongoing flooding.
If you visit the shoulder season of October (like we did), you will encounter fewer crowds but hotter weather. The landscapes are much drier, and billabongs are much smaller (but still there with many birds). October is between Kurrung (Hot and dry season) and Kunumeleng (Pre-monsoon season). While it was hot, we enjoyed minimal crowds at most locations. While we avoided the intense heat of mid-day, we still managed to get some hikes in, visit Billabongs, go birding, flightseeing, visit cultural centers, rock paintings, jet boating, and river cruising.
All roads were accessible. This is a great time to visit waterfall sites, go birding, go off-roading, take cultural tours, and do almost everything else in Kakadu.
I want to return to visit during the wetter May shoulder season to see the landscape in all its lush green glory!
Tropical Wet Summer – November to March/April
The wet season is, well, wet. With all that rain and flooding, most backcountry roads are closed, meaning waterfall access to places like Jim Jim Falls is off-limits. However, flightseeing tours to see the roaring falls from a bird’s eye view are supposedly incredible at this time. Animals are active during this time of plenty, making activities like Yellow Water cruises an exciting adventure.
The main road through the park, easy-to-access sites like the Ubirr paintings, Yellow Water Cruises, and most hotels inside the national park remain open now. However, specific luxury accommodations outside the park, like Bamurru Plains, close during the extreme wet season.
Make sure you pack all your rain gear and clothing that is breathable, quick dry, and still protects you from the sun.
Cultural Things to Do in Kakadu
Kakadu has one of the best models of cultural Indigenous-led tourism I have personally encountered. Because of the rich cultural heritage and history, engaging in cultural activities fosters meaningful cultural exchange. To know and appreciate the beautiful landscapes, you must first get acquainted with the people connected to the land and remain today as stewards. While most of the tourism operators are Indigenous-owned, you will ideally go one step further and talk to and learn from the Traditional Owners.
Get Your Park Pass at the Visitor Center
Picking up your Kakadu National Park Pass should be the first thing you do in Kakadu. This mandatory permit is required when traveling through and visiting sites in Kakadu National Park. The pass varies in price depending on age and season (it’s cheaper during tropical summer). For us, it was $40 per adult during the dry season. Depending on your itinerary, you may need a special permit. For example, if you plan on camping, exploring the backcountry, filming, or photographing for commercial purposes (drones never allowed), you must contact the visitor center for a permit.
I love how transparent Parks Australia is about where the fees collected from permits go, with nearly 40% going directly into paying the land’s traditional owners’ lease payments for operating a national park on their land. The rest goes towards funding infrastructure, maintenance, conservation work, bush rangers, educational programs, operations, and cultural heritage.
You can buy most Kakadu permits online, which is the easiest option, or pick them up in person from the Bowali Visitor Center. Make sure you have the pass on you at all times.
What to Eat in Kakadu? Try Bush Tucker Food, Drinks, and Spirits.
The Bininj and Mungguy have spent tens of thousands of years honing their survival skills in one of the harshest environments. They excel in hunting and gathering to create meals in what is now called bush tucker food. Bush Tucker cuisine uses traditional ingredients consumed by the Indigenous people of Kakadu. The food options include crocodile steak, barramundi, magpie goose, root tubers, native fruits, and green ants.
You can enjoy bush fruit, vegetables, and bread made with waterlily flour as a vegetarian. Ganesh and I are both vegetarians, but I believe that the future of sustainable nutrition is insects and Indigenous-led land management, so we did sample Indigenous items made with native green ants.
My dietary preferences aside, Indigenous-sourced bush tucker food is probably the most sustainable and ethical cuisine you might find on this planet. If you are going to try the barramundi, croc, or goose, then I encourage you to do so at an Indigenous-owned establishment or while supporting Indigenous-owned businesses for a cultural and ethical experience.
There are several places, events, and ways to sample bush tucker food.
Kakadu DIRD (Moon) Feast
To celebrate each of the six seasons of Kakadu and the rising moon, Indigenous-owned Cooinda Lodge partners with Bininj chef Ben Tyler of Kakadu Kitchen for an exclusive dining experience. Enjoy several courses of bush tucker cuisine (not always veg-friendly) and bush-infused mocktails (most events are alcohol-free). The dinner will have traditional stories, music, and cultural highlights.
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These events are popular and book up quickly. If you manage to be in Kakadu for the DIRD feast, then make sure you grab tickets because this is probably the best way to sample sustainable, ethically sourced, Indigenous foods.
Cooinda Lodge & Crocodile Hotel
If you can’t make the Dird Feast, the Cooinda Lodge has a restaurant serving bush tucker foods such as wallaby shank and barramundi. The menu always prioritizes locally sourced or foraged foods when possible. They have plenty of vegetarian alternatives, which unfortunately don’t feature many bush-tucker ingredients, but there is enough variety to eat something different each night as a vegetarian.
Manjmukmuk Restaurant at the Crocodile Hotel also has a selection of bush tucker cuisine featuring cuts of crocodile and invasive feral buffalo. Vegetarian options are also available but are more Western-focused.
The Taste of Kakadu
The Taste of Kakdu or Karrimanjbekkan An-me Kakadu in the local Kundjeyhmi language is a week-long culinary and cultural festival in the heart of Kakadu. The event usually occurs in May and features dozens of daily foodie events throughout the week. Some culinary highlights include a Yellow Water cruise with canapes and non-alcoholic bush-inspired drinks, cooking demonstrations, guided walks to forage for bush tucker food, and a cocktail night featuring native-ingredient spirits.
Support Local Foodie Businesses
There are several ways to support Indigenous foodie businesses as you explore Kakadu. Kakadu Kitchen is a non-alcoholic drink company founded by Bininj Ben Tyler. You’ll find his drinks at various hotels, restaurants, and food events around Kakadu. He is also a featured chef for many special events around town. Try the signature An-marabula (peach) bellini and the non-alcoholic spirit infused with green ants.
Looking for something with a kick? Indigenous-owned distillery Seven Seasons uses bush tucker ingredients to create gins with green ants and bush apples. They also distill a vodka with bush yams and brew a lager infused with waterlily seedpods. Seven Seasons bush apple gin was our go-to for sundowners while exploring Kakadu.
For perishable sustainable souvenirs to take home, check out Indigneous-owned Kakadu Organics for their line of teas, jams, and bath and body products.
Finally, Maningrida Wild Foods is a part of the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation. While most of their foods are harvested and collected by their members for other members, you can often find their seasonings, such as plum powder, available to purchase.
Visit the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Center
The Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Center is a must-visit in Kakadu. It is ideally one of the first things you do in Kakadu as it provides critical context into the life history of the many Indigenous people and clans. Photos were not allowed in the center and one of the reasons for this you’ll learn as you visit. Images of deceased people are taboo for most clans, and the center does not want certain images appearing online.
Along with cultural taboos, you’ll learn more about the complicated skin groups that dictate how clan members interact and who they can marry. The center also features a film, exhibits, art, ancient history, colonial encounters, and modern life. The gift shop is a great place to buy authentic gifts.
I recommend visiting during the hottest part of the day, as it is air-conditioned and offers an educational and insightful way to learn about the region and stay cool. Admission is free, making the cultural center an accessible and budget-friendly option for everyone visiting Kakadu.
See the Historic Rock Paintings
The pre-historic rock art sites are probably some of the most notable things to do in Kakadu. I’m happy to say that they are 100% worth the hype. The rock art painted in yellow and red ochre mixed with blood is some of the best preserved and impressive petroglyphs I’ve ever encountered in all my travels. One of the best aspects of the paintings is that the direct ancestors of the people who painted them are alive and able to share many of the stories and meanings behind the images and scenes.
The images were the First Nations’ way of communicating through generations, passing along vital information, such as where to shelter during the monsoons, how to hunt and prepare fish, what species were edible, and documenting their Dreamtime stories. As you explore these sacred sites, you’ll have an opportunity to view images of the changing landscapes as billabongs were created and brought freshwater species to the region, their first contact with colonizers, and stories passing down moral code – such as how not to get eaten by a croc.
The art primarily covers three distinct periods:
- The pre-estuarine period (50,000 – 6,000 BCE) shows a time of low sea levels and arid land. The images are simple and depict handprints, now-extinct megafauna, and the rainbow serpent.
- The estuarine period (6,000 – 500 BCE) shows extreme flooding and rising sea levels that created mangrove swamps. Art shows fish, crocs, and wallabies in an X-ray style that reveals their bone structure and how to prepare and kill these animals.
- The freshwater period (500 BCE – 500 years ago) reveals the creation of freshwater billabongs. People are depicted with goose spears, cultural regalia, and more complex stories and narratives.
Ideally, you will visit at least one of these sites with a guide to help you understand the images and their meaning. There are several options for guided experiences at Ubirr during the day, Ubirr in the evening, and Nanguluwurr.
The most famous and visitor-friendly site is the Ubirr Rock Painting site. Ubirr has about 2km of accessible trails, with an alternative 150m elevation hike to a viewpoint. The main images here show animals and cultural insights. There are plenty of signposts and information. The other two locations are located next to each other at Anbangbang and Nanguluwurr Rock Painting Sites. The images at these locations are more modern, revealing images of colonial ships and human-centric paintings.
Buy Indigenous Art and Jewelry
I recently attended a purposeful travel summit in Banff, Canada. On the first day, I wore the colorful Pandanas Leaf earrings that I purchased from the Marrawuddi Arts and Cultural Center. These Indigenous-made earrings are my favorite jewelry staple, and they were great icebreakers at the conference, with multiple people commenting on them. An insightful conversation followed about the importance and value of Indigenous-led tourism.
The Marrawuddi Center is located in downtown Jabiru. The center is owned and governed by the Mirarr Traditional Owners and features unique and traditional art from over 500 artists across Kakadu and Arnhem Land. Aside from my earrings, Ganesh and I also went home with a traditional painting created on natural bark from a paper-bark tree.
Whether you are looking for paintings, screen-printed clothing and bags, woven pieces, photography, sculptures, or jewelry, the center has something for you. We bought smaller pieces we could easily carry home, but there are certainly larger statement pieces that would be great conversation starters for your home.
My favorite part about the Marrawuddi Arts Center is that the art is unique to the region. Often, when I think of Indigenous art from Australia, I think of the dot art that is more authentic from southern clans near Uluru. These pre-conceived expectations can cause artists to change their style to appeal to tourists’ expectations. Arnhem Land and Kakadu artists have their own styles featuring cross hatches and materials sourced locally. It was nice to learn about art from different regions and purchase a unique statement piece for our home that reminds us of Kakadu and the incredible artists from the region.
You can also stop by for a cup of coffee at their cafe while you enjoy shopping for ethical and Indigenous-made art.
Join an Indigenous-led Hand-crafted Workshop
If you prefer to make your own art with the guidance of an Indigenous mentor, there are plenty of interactive and educational art and cultural workshops throughout Kakadu.
If you are inclined to try painting, join Jacqueline, a Ngombur and Mukurkala woman, at a painting workshop. As you learn to paint in a traditional art style, Jacqueline, a bush ranger in the national park, shares stories of life growing up in Kakadu. The Bowali Visitor Center has painting workshops with Jacqueline most Saturdays for morning and afternoon sessions, which you should book in advance.
The six seasons of Kakadu often dictate what natural resources are available and the daily activities of the land’s traditional owners. Naturally, many of the activities related to creating art are dictated by the seasons. Join Patsy, a Daluk woman, to learn how to strip fresh pandanus branches. Prepare them for weaving and jewelry making by learning how to dye them with natural colors using flowers, seeds, and roots for various colors. This is an activity traditionally done during the Kunngobarn. To honor the Kunmadj season, Patsy shares her traditional knowledge regarding weaving using traditional materials. The Pandanas branches are used to weave baskets, bags, jewelry, fans, and mats. You can take your creation home at the end of the event.
The dying and the weaving activities are outdoor and accessible events at the Bowali Visitor Center. Both activities are for all genders, most Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, with dying at 10 a.m. and weaving at 1 p.m.
For women, the women’s only weaving workshop is on Thursdays at 1:30 at the Merl Campground. This activity is hosted by a group of women to align with the clan’s social norms and to create a positive space for women.
Finally, if you are in Kakadu for the weekend, check with the Cooinda Lodge or the Warradjan Cultural Center for a weaving event hosted by traditional owners on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Try Other Cultural Workshops & Experiences
If art isn’t your thing, I get it. Thankfully, Parks Australia and Kakadu’s traditional owners host many other cultural activities. If you find yourself struggling with the pronunciation of the place names around Kakadu, then sign up for a language workshop. One of my favorite things about traveling is learning local phrases such as greetings, thank yous, and other pleasantries. Join Bininj speakers to hear and learn their language and stories.
Enjoy a Cultural Boat Cruise
The Guluyambi Cultural Cruise is a must-experience for an immersive cultural guided experience through Kakadu and Arnhem Land. We loved our time on the water with Hilton, a Guluyambi Indigenous Guide.
The cruises operate along the E. Alligator River with the opportunity to step foot on Arnhem Land. To visit this land independently, you would need a special permit and permission from the traditional owners. With the Guluyambi River Cruise, your guides invite you to visit their traditional lands alongside them.
As you slowly cruise with a small group of fewer than 25 people, your guide will point out species such as crocodiles, barramundi, eagles, egrets, paper-bark trees, and other incredible species. This cruise is unique because your guide discusses these species from an Indigenous perspective regarding their importance for their traditional and modern way of life. Crocodiles are discussed, referencing Dreamtime stories and mythology, and paper-bark trees are discussed for their importance in grilling barramundi and wrapping infants. In the middle of the tour, you’ll have the opportunity to disembark and visit Arnehm land for a traditional spear-throwing demonstration and to see the native ecosystem along the river.
The cost is $84 per person, and you’ll have plenty of time on the water and with your guide, making it an unforgettable experience. The tours depart near Cahills Crossing and operate daily during the dry season (May – November), with multiple departures. Tours should be booked in advance.
Visit Arnhem Land
If you are on an independent off-road 4WD adventure through the N. Territory, you can visit Arnhem Land on your own. Arnhem Land is home ot the Yolngu People. Of course, you must first get a permit via the Northern Land Council. These permits can be obtained in Darwin or Jabiru. Once in Arnhem Land, you can curate a unique cultural itinerary, such as visiting rock art sites at Injalak with a guide or exploring rural areas and camping independently.
Kakadu Cultural Tours also operates cultural experiences in Arnhem Land and overnight packages to a wilderness lodge.
Outdoor Adventures and Nature-Based Things to Do in Kakadu
Kakadu’s stunning landscapes and incredible opportunities for ethical wildlife viewing make it one of the top places in Australia for nature-based and ecotourism activities! If you can, sign up for guided outdoor experiences to gain deep first-hand knowledge about conservation, nature, and how that connects to the Indigenous clans.
Attend Kakadu Bird Week
You probably expected birding to be first on this list if you know me. In fact, you know this twitcher is going to mention birding twice! We were fortunate enough to visit during Kakadu’s annual bird week; let me tell you, it was a treat! Kakadu is home to ⅓ of Australia’s bird biodiversity, with hundreds of species thriving in this region, making it an excellent place for birding. During Kakadu Bird Week – usually the end of September – early October- your Park Pass gives you access to dozens of bird-themed events.
Ganesh and I signed up for a guided birding experience at The Bubba Wetlands. A local ecologist and an Indigenous bush ranger took our small group on a walk through a forest and then along a billabong to spot, listen, and learn about the forest birds and waterfowl. We learned about the conservation efforts of birds, particularly against climate change, and the bird’s importance to Indigenous culture. We saw two dozen or so different birds, including the elusive Jabiru!
Other weekly events include lectures, guided birding tours, and cultural events like painting workshops – but bird-themed!
If you’re not in town for Kakadu Bird Week, I want to ensure you know Kakadu is an incredible place for birding year-round! Do not forget your binoculars, monocular, and zoom lens! We did several guided tours, including the Guluyambi Cultural Cruise and the bird week guided walk. While these were great for local insider knowledge, the best place for independent bird watching is the Mamukaka Wetlands. This accessible Billabong is a birding haven. We spent more than an hour here during the dry season just watching the whistling ducks, magpie geese, egrets, jacanas, and more interacting. There are plenty of informational signposts at this spot to help you identify birds and understand their behavior during the 6 seasons.
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Other great spots for birding are on water cruises or other billabongs, such as the appropriately named Bird Billabong, Mary River Billabong, and the Bubba Walk.
Book a Scenic Wildlife Boat Cruise
Yellow Water Cruises is another slow river cruise offering something slightly different. While the Yellow Water Cruises have a cultural element, they focus more on the natural experience. Yellow Water is entirely within Kakadu and UNESCO Park. With more than 60 bird species in the area and crocs in the water, the wildlife opportunities on the Yellow Water Cruises are incredible. They operate year-round during the wet and dry seasons and run several cruises daily. They are known for their sunrise and sunset cruises, where the changes in wildlife activity are vast. We talked to several people who had done morning and evening tours and saw completely different animals.
The Yellow Water Cruises are part of the Cooinda Lodge compound and depart from their local Billabong. 1.5-hour cruises cost $105, with 2-hour cruises costing $129. Book in Advance, as spots can fill quickly.
Experience a Bush Safari With an Indigenous Guide
With the traditional owners running many art and cultural workshops, there are also opportunities for the nature nerd to get outside and explore Kakadu National Park with a traditional owner. Animal Tracks is an 8-hour open-door safari tour through Kakadu for the adventurous traveler. You’ll spend almost the entire day with an Indigenous guide as you look for wildlife, bush tucker food, plants used for medicinal purposes, and more. The Indigenous guide may harvest or hunt traditional foods on their land with you as their helper.
The great thing about this tour is you go to places most tourists cannot access. Only with your local guide can you visit Gindiala Wetland, Australia’s largest gathering of birds during the dry season.
The tour completes with a sunset campfire in another exclusive location, where your guide will prepare a meal using some of the foods you harvested (not veg-friendly, and you may be harvesting turtles and other animals – but it is sustainable and ethical with your Indigenous guide!). You can even help them prepare the meal by learning traditional techniques.
If I were to write a definition of sustainable, ethical ecotourism, this tour would hit ALL of the notes. The tour is $220 for a full day with a personal guide.
Embrace Indigenous Stewardship
Part of learning about local ecology is understanding how Indigenous people have cared for our planet for thousands of years. In Kakadu, many of the land’s Traditional Owners are employed as bush rangers. Part of their job is engaging in their annual controlled burns. Much of Kakadu’s biodiversity relies on low-intensity fires. These fires stimulate new growth, activating seed pods and keeping the ground clear of debris that builds up to spark intense, extreme fires.
As you explore and drive around Kakadu, especially at the tail end of the wet season, look for these low-intensity fires. Talk to your local guides about how this stimulates healthy biodiversity and why it is essential to conservation work.
You will also notice the feral buffalo and pigs as you explore Kakadu. These species were introduced to the region and have catastrophic impacts on the natural environment. They destroy nesting grounds for bird species, dig holes, and damage vegetation. To manage them, many Traditional Owners hunt them in an act called mustering. Their role in controlling the invasive species is critical as few know the land as they do, and they have come to rely on this species for meat. Learn about invasive species’ impacts and the Traditional Owners’ role in managing them.
Additionally, many of the Indigenous clans are helping scientists and Western land managers map rising sea levels, the spread of invasive aquatic plants, and climate change impacts on magpie geese. Learn about the role of technology and Indigenous land management in Kakadu.
Enjoy A Scenic Flight
This might sound counter-intuitive to enjoying nature. However, flying over Australia’s Top End shows an elaborate ecosystem network that shapes one of the world’s most culturally and environmentally precious landscapes. The wetlands give way to ancient mountains worn by time but ever-preserving prehistoric rock art. Saltwater crocodiles line muddy river banks as magpie geese fly in chaotic flocks overhead. The hooves of invasive and feral water buffalo mark the jarring white strips of sand, a reminder of their devastating impact on native biodiversity. A dark blight looms on the horizon – a uranium mine scars the native savanna woodlands in the heart of Kakadu National Park and UNESCO site. During the wet season, when road access to many waterfalls is closed, a flight-seeing tour can help you see the falls at their peak glory.
To fully appreciate the incredible natural beauty of Kakadu, the bird’s eye view allows you to see how all the microclimates fit together. We flew with Gunbalanya Air as part of a pre-booked excursion with our accommodation. Our pilot and co-pilot lived in the rural community of Gunbalanya. While they were not traditional owners, they had training in the cultural and historical context of the landscape. So, as we flew overhead, we learned about Dreamtime stories relating to the environment. Our flight-seeing tour was an incredible experience that allowed me to put the many things I learned on the ground into perspective and context.
Indigenous-owned Kakadu Air also offers fight-seeing tours. If I were to return, I would book with Kakadu Air for more flight options and to support an Indigenous-owned tour company.
Swim in a Croc-Free Billabong
As amazing as all the billabongs throughout Kakadu are, they are unsafe for swimming. I repeat they are not safe for swimming. You might be cued in by now with the countless croc signs surrounding every body of water. Hidden in every body of water or mud pit, there are potentially fat Crocs lying in wait.
Naturally, we were in disbelief when we heard there was a billabong safe for swimming. In all that disbelief, we asked numerous sources to ensure that Maguk Swimming Hole was safe for swimming. The park ranger at the visitor center assured us, our local tour guide, and the front desk at our hotel. All that being said, it is still important to be aware that while this is the only managed swimming hole to rid Crocs from the area every season, there are still signs saying to swim at your own risk.
Now that I have thoroughly scared you, Maguk is probably the most amazing natural billabong or swimming hole I have ever seen. The water is so refreshing during the hot seasons. The Maguk waterfall tumbles into a vivid green watering hole. Brave souls will scramble up the rocky outer areas for exciting cliff jumping. We spent about 2 hours at this location, and it was hard to leave.
After driving down a packed dirt road (our AWD was perfect), you will park (don’t forget your park pass). From the parking lot, you must hike about 2 km (there and back) over rocky terrain and sometimes in extreme heat. So, pack water, sun protection, a snack, a towel, your swimmer, and good shoes. A pair of Keens, Tevas, or something similar would be ideal, or regular trail shoes you can leave at the water’s edge.
Sunset Hike at Nawurlandja Lookout
One of our favorite experiences from Kakdu was an evening hike to Nawurlandja Lookout. This is a very short hike up a sloping sandstone hill. But the views are incredible. Once at the top, you can settle in and enjoy the westward-facing scene as the sun sets. Straight ahead is an expanse of gum forest, as far as the eyes can see. Slightly to your left, there is an impressive sandstone mountain, the very same that houses the ancient rock paintings of Nawurlandja.
We brought a small picnic, and as the sun sank, vivid purples and fuchsias exploded over the sky. Somewhere in the distance, a storm was building. Dramatic clouds billowed out, expanding over the sky while flocks of cockatoos played in the distant trees. When the moon began to rise over Nawurlandja, it appeared larger than life over the darkening and moody sky.
Once, we witnessed the most fantastic sunset of our lives – seriously, this was in my top 2 best evenings, with only the sunset from Cafe del Mar in Ibiza coming close – we began our descent. Packaging headlamps and good shoes were necessary, as it was pitch dark when we reached the car. The drive home can also be challenging, as you drive down an unpaved road, and animals such as wallabies may suddenly cross the road.
Do a Nature Walk
Kakadu is a great place for a nature walk. Most Billabongs areas have boardwalks or developed trails, making it easy to enjoy a nice walk through nature, enjoy wildlife, and end at a watering hole. Most of Kakadu’s wildlife congregate in these billabongs and watering holes, especially during the dry season when water is a precious resource. Other walks take you through the forest or around sandstone cliffs. These walks can be through intense temperatures and ecosystems, so ensure you are prepared with the appropriate clothing, water, and sun protection. I would also suggest you bring your camera and binoculars.
The Mamukaka Wetlands is a 3km loop walk that circles my favorite wetland area. About 500m will get you to a wildlife viewing platform. From there, you can continue along a trail to extend the walk and for chances to see more wildlife.
The Anbangbang Walk is probably the best bang for your buck. You’ll start with a relaxing walk through a forested region, pass sandstone cliffs with rock paintings, and eventually come to a billabong teaming with life. This is a 3.5km track. You can join a Bininj bush ranger on Tuesdays and Thursdays for a guided ecology walk.
Bubba Walk starts with a nice stroll through the forest, where you can observe birds and forest vegetation. The walk emerges to a vibrant billabong. The walk wraps around the Billabong and through some open savannah before returning to the car park. I think we walked about 4-5 km.
Barrk Sandstone Walk is one of the longer walks, but it is still easy to access without too much offroading. The trail is 10 km, so you must pack a lot of food, water, good shoes, and sun protection. Expect scrambling and scratchy vegetation- so bust out your full safari gear. You’ll see plenty of rock art, stunning sandstone formations, and incredible views.
Kubara Walk is a 7km there and back hike that takes you to stunning rock pools (no swimming allowed – CROCS!). This hike is great even in the wet season, making the pockets of monsoon forests and the pools much more interesting. Prepare yourself for a longer bush walk.
Gunlom Falls is a short and sweet, well-maintained waterfall walk. In less than 2km and 100 m elevation, you can have great views of the waterfall and surrounding ecosystem. Another great short waterfall hike is to Maguk billabong.
Explore All the Native Ecosystems
Kakadu is home to several incredible ecosystems, some of which are quite rare. Indigenous people have been living and shaping the land for centuries, so the dynamics here are unlike those elsewhere.
Savanna woodlands are the most common ecosystem, and it is the majority of the forest you see as you explore Kakadu. You’ll see plenty of swamp bloodwood in these forests, a type of eucalyptus. The woodlands have plenty of space between the trees, and you might notice termite mounds thriving off the ample amount of leaf litter on the ground. This ecosystem includes wallabies, songbirds, frilled-neck lizards, and bush apples. You can see this ecosystem on a safari or while driving in the park.
Floodplains are full of paperbark trees and spear grasses. During the wet season, these areas completely flood, and you can enjoy activities such as the airboat experience. During the dry season, these ecosystems still exist and shrink considerably. Many waterfowl, dragonflies, crocs, and magpie geese nest and thrive in these habitats. We saw floodplains on an airboat experience with Barmurru Plains.
Mangrove forests line the shores of rivers and coastal areas. These are brackish ecosystems with muddy banks. You’ll spot many egrets stalking the banks, looking for mudfish and other critters hiding in the mud. Kingfishers are often perched on the outskirts of these forests, waiting to hunt insects and small fish. These forests are critical for carbon sequestration and preventing excessive flooding. We say this on a river cruise in the Mary River National Park just west of Kakadu.
Monsoon forests or seasonal rainforests are incredibly rare ecosystems, and you are fortunate to walk through one. In Kakadu, the monsoon forests exist in small pockets among the dryer gum forests and wetlands. Because the forests are fragmented and declining due to forest fires, climate change, and desertification, they rely on fruit bats and birds to transfer seeds between the fragments. You’ll often spot goannas, birds, and lush vegetation like sand palms. You’ll see this on the walk to Maguk Falls.
Other ecosystems you’ll see are open forests, tidal mudflats, and coastal habitats.
Head Off-Road to See Waterfalls
If you are visiting with your 4×4, you can visit some more remote areas like Jim Jim Falls during the dry season. We only had an AWD SUV hybrid, and while it got us to most of the accessible and even some off-the-beaten-path experiences, driving too long off-road was uncomfortable. Outer areas like Jim Jim Falls are only for 4×4 overland vehicles due to road hazards, river crossings, and other dangerous obstacles.
If you have a snorkel on your car, then head out to visit Twin Falls Gorge, which requires crossing Jim Jim Creek.
You can gear up for a true backcountry adventure if you are prepared and savvy with outdoor survival and car knowledge. Most backcountry is only open during the dry season.
Join a Croc Tour/Talk
If you are croc obsessed, then make sure you take advantage of croc sightseeing tours! While there are a lot of gimmicky shows outside of Kakadu where the bait crocs get them to jump, I would suggest sticking to seeing them in their natural environment. There is little research on these experiences’ impacts, but if I learned anything from my master’s, it is how tours like this can alter animal behavior, and it is always best to see them in their natural setting.
Thankfully, there are many opportunities to see crocs with guides and experts. I recommend booking one of the river cruises with an Indigenous guide. During the Guluyambi River Cruise, Hilton was an expert at spotting crocs the rest of us would have never seen! The Yellow Water cruise is another opportunity to spot them. Bamurru Plains also offers jetboat tours to see them in the wild.
Cahills Crossing is another great place to see crocs and watch 4×4 explore Arnhem Land. Cahill Crossing is known to have a large consolidation of crocs. During high tide, you might see up to 40 crocs feeding at this point from a safe vantage point and boardwalk.
Cahill’s Crossing is also the meeting point for a croc talk, where a bush ranger will talk about all the fascinating things that make crocs so cool and what makes them apex predators that have survived since the Triassic period.
Enjoy an Airboat Tour
You might stop at Mary River National Park on your way into Kakadu. This is an excellent location for airboat tours to see the wetlands. This is also offered at luxury lodges like Bamurru Plains. While jetboats can be loud and disruptive, we asked our guide for some quiet time on the water to let the wildlife settle. As we enjoyed tea and biscuits, dozens of bird species, dragonflies, crocs, and fish appeared. I would suggest you do the same for a more mindful experience.