Kakadu is a massive national park about 280km east of Darwin. When we say massive, we mean it; its the largest National Park in Australia, and is home to some of the most incredible water holes, flora and fauna in the world. Kakadu has dual world heritage listing, which puts it up there with only 35 other places in the world. Let that sink in for a second!
On the other hand, you may have heard people refer to it as Kaka-don’t, as in don’t waste your time and money going there. It’s too big. It’s too hard to access. You can’t swim anywhere. It’s too expensive. Blah blah.
Like normal, we decided to check it out for ourselves, and make our own mind up. You see, we’ve proven time and time again you can’t rely on what other people tell you about locations; its all in the eye of the beholder, and what one person loves another might hate. Only one way to find out for sure, eh?
Getting to Kakadu National Park
Kakadu can be accessed from Darwin, or from Pine Creek. Simply take the Arnhem highway, or the Kakadu highway, and you’ll end up at the park. If you come from Pine creek you’ll enter via the southern entrance.
If you are a local Northern Territorian, entry is free. If you aren’t, you’ve got to pay the entry fee’s. Adults are $25 each, families are $65, kids under 5 are free, concessions are $19 and kids over 5 are $12.50
Your entry fee buys you a book and map with information about the region, along with a quick chat with those at the visitor centre to answer any questions you might have. The visitor centre is up the northern end, not too far away from Jabiru.
Driving around the National Park
The park itself requires a fair bit of driving to see the various attractions. Majority of the National Park is bitumen, with many of the side tracks gravel and the occasional 4WD track around the place too.
If you don’t have Wikicamps, you should get it. The maps alone are worth while, but being able to see current information on what people think about different attractions and camp sites is gold.
Do you need a 4WD?
You can see a fair bit of the park without a 4WD. However, like always, being able to get off the bitumen and gravel roads is advantageous to see all of the spots, and a 4WD will get you to places further away; Jim Jim Falls, Maguk, Koolpin Gorge etc. A 2WD will take you to a fair few places, and depending on how much you care about your vehicle, some people do the gravel roads with them too.
If you are stuck with a 2WD and really want to get somewhere, there are a variety of day trips and tours offered at the Cooinda lodge, where they will take you in a 4WD truck to the attractions. Of course, you pay for the privilege, but after seeing some 2WD vehicles getting absolutely hammered on the corrugations it can be well worth it.
What’s there to do?
Kakadu has a strong aboriginal history and culture, and there are a lot of art sites to check out, along with a huge number of billabongs, water holes, waterfalls, rivers and rocks.
There are a number of tours that can be done, along with fishing, boating and bird watching. In 2017 the national geographic awarded Kakadu National Park first place for the best place in Australia to see birds.
People have died at Kakadu National Park from crocodiles. There are a huge number of them, and swimming where they could be is nothing short of stupid. A few people have been attacked and survived, but its not worth the risk in any way you look at it.
There are a LOT of signs around the place showing where its not safe to swim. However, if there’s no sign, that doesn’t automatically mean its safe to swim! Use your intuition, talk to others and if you aren’t certain, don’t jump in the water.
We noticed that the policy around Crocodiles is very different at Kakadu National Park to Litchfield in the way that they manage them, and say what is safe to swim in, and what isn’t. Obviously the geography may play a role in this, but the rangers will very clearly direct you to safe places to swim at Litchfield, and you won’t get that at Kakadu.
There are a huge number of places you can stay at in Kakadu National Park. Some are very comfortable caravan parks with pools, green grass and everything you’d ever want. Others are just a patch of dusty dirt out in the middle of nature, and you can pick what you prefer (and want to pay for!).
Mary River Roadhouse, Cooinda Lodge, Anbinik Kakadu Resort and Kakadu Lodge
Kambolgie, Gunlom, Koolpin (permit required), Jim Jim Falls, Maguk, Gungurul, Giyamungkurr, Alligator Billabong, Bucket Billabong, Red Lilly Billabong, Mardugal, Jim Jim Billabong, Sandy Billabong, Djarradjin, Burdulba, Malabanjbanjdju, Two Mile Hole, Karnamarr, 4 mile waterhole, Merl Camp ground, Pococks Beach, Waldak Irrmbal, West Alligator Head and Middle Beach.
If you aren’t into camping, there are a few places in Kakadu where you can rest your head. The more luxurious options include Bamurru Plains and Wildman Wilderness Lodge. From there, you have Aurora Kakadu, the Kakadu Lodge, Anbinik Kakadu Resort, Kakadu Crocodile Hotel and Cooinda Lodge.
Where can you get fuel and food?
Jabiru is a small town that has the cheapest fuel, and some basic supplies at the supermarket. Beyond that, you can get fuel at Cooinda, Mary’s road house and Pine Creek. Please take a look at the distances between things though, as this national park is next level huge, and you don’t want to be running out of fuel in the middle of it!
How long do you need to stay?
If you want to see a decent amount of the park, and do it without rushing too much, you want at least 4 nights. We had 7, and could have easily stayed longer (although 2 of those were at Koolpin Gorge)
Most of the attractions at Kakadu National Park have tours that run to them. Beyond this, you can do fishing tours, the yellow water cruise, Guluyambi cruise, scenic flights, a number of ranger talks, cultural tours, safari’s and heaps more. You can spend a huge chunk of money doing these too, so pick wisely.
What’s there to see?
Jim Jim Falls
What can I say; I was absolutely gobsmacked by the size and beauty of Jim Jim falls. Most people do the 2km return walk to the bottom of the falls, which they say takes 3 hours. Its not long, but it is a fair bit of effort, especially carrying a toddler in your backpack! The walk is relatively flat, but has a lot of rocks around the 50 – 90cm mark that you have to step up and down over.
When you arrive, the path on the left takes you to the bottom of the falls, and the path on the right takes you to a little ‘beach’ not far from the bottom of the falls. You can get between them if you are prepared to get wet.
They have a crocodile management plan here, and it would seem extremely unlikely for a croc to get to the bottom of the falls and the small pool just beyond that. A lot of people were swimming, and if you can brave the cold, its a beautiful place.
It is recommended that you don’t swim, like most of Kakadu, and you have to make that call for yourself. The falls themselves are massive, and the cliffs hanging around are truly awesome as well.
Its a 50km drive in off the bitumen drive on fairly good condition gravel, and then a further 5km of ‘4WD’ track. We saw a Ford Territory out there, and anything with a bit of clearance should be fine. You cross through a few small sections of water, but nothing to be concerned about.
The 50km drive in suggests 2 hours one way on the map, which is absolutely ridiculous given the speed limit is 60, and you can very comfortably sit on that the whole way in. We followed a tour bus out who was sitting on around 85 – 90km/h the whole way out.
If you want to see Aboriginal paintings, and get a feel for more of their incredible culture Ubirr is the place to go. Sunset is hugely popular for climbing Ubirr and watching it disappear, and the region is completely spectacular.
Yellow River Water Cruises
We spent a decent chunk of money on a Yellow Water Cruise in Kakadu National Park, and don’t regret it at all. From huge crocodiles through to Jabiru’s and some of the most amazing bird (and snake) life you’ll ever see, it was quite a privelidge.
For us, one of the most scenic locations was Maguk. The hike wasn’t too bad, and the water pool at the end is absolutely amazing. We debated for some time about swimming, but decided against it due to the potential of crocodiles. Others did swim though!
Gunlom is one of the most well known attractions in Kakadu National Park, and for good reason. The climb to the top is pretty tiring, but swimming in the infinity pool makes it all worth it.
Alternatively, just walk 50 metres down a boardwalk to the plunge pool below!
For those who want to get away from the crowds, fill out your paperwork to get a permit and head to Koolpin Gorge. It is quiet, scenic, and truly amazing. We rate this as our best destination in Kakadu National Park purely on this basis.
You need a 4WD, and nothing larger than a compact Hybrid Camper is going to make it in.
There are heaps of other amazing places to see in Kakadu National Park, and we didn’t even scratch the surface. We really enjoyed Mamukala Wetlands, the visitor centre, Cahills Crossing and a few other places around the tracks.
Our favourite things to see
Jim Jim, Ubirr, Maguk, Koolpin and Gunlom were all fantastic, and highly recommended. I’m sure there are plenty of other amazing places, and we’d love to go into Arnhem land (on the other side of Cahills Crossing), but that’s for another trip.
How does it compare to Litchfield?
I’m not sure why people have such a fascination with comparing places to each other; they are both totally unique and beautiful in their own way.
If you’ve gone to Litchfield National Park first, you will probably be expecting more of the same, and you won’t get that. The walks are longer, harder and the travel times and distances in Kakadu are much longer. You can’t swim in as many places, and the camping is totally different too.
If you have to pick between the two, then that’s fair enough; pick what is going to suit your arrangement best, but seriously, they are both amazing and absolutely worth the visit.
If you are short on time, and want more swimming, then head to Litchfield. If you want to see bigger, and more impressive sights and can handle further distances and harder walks, Kakadu is the place to go.
Kakadu costs too much (does it?)
Kakadu is unique in the fact that it pays lease fees to the traditional owners, is largely developed and well marketed. The fact that there is bitumen roads to many attractions and camp grounds within such a massive national park is the perfect example of this.
You pay $25 per adult (I’m sure it was $40 when we went in 2018!) to enter, and then you have to pay for camping. However, how many national parks have you been to that have 3 caravan parks where you can stay, as well as a myriad of bush camping options?
The bush camping sites are all very reasonable – $6 per adult per night for just a toilet, $12.50 if you want hot showers and $15 at Gunlom as it has a few other niceties.
We spent 7 nights in Kakadu, and you know what we spent? A whopping $399 excluding fuel.
$80 on park passes
$15 on a crocodile teddy for Oliver
$30 for a new pair of thongs for Aaron
$36 for 3 nights camping at Sandy Billabong
$24 for 2 nights camping at Maguk
$24 for 2 nights camping at Koolpin Gorge.
$190 for a 2 hour boat cruise at Yellow River Waters
Remove the thongs and teddy, and its $354 plus fuel. $50 per day, for a family of 3. Remove the river cruise (as you don’t have to do this, but it is amazing), and it takes it down to $23 per day. It costs too much? Seriously?
Actually, I did knock a stupid bollard at Maguk Camp ground and smashed my front quarter panel, so there’s another $250.
Obviously, if you do a number of tours, and you stay at the expensive camp grounds, then yes, you can spend a fair chunk of money. However, to say its too expensive is not true in the slightest; you choose how much you spend.
If you have the time, make Kakadu a part of your Northern Territory visit. We loved, it, would highly recommend it and vehemently argue that its well and truly worth the visit.
If you are looking for a Kakadu Map, and comprehensive guide, you can download it here.