If you’ve ever dreamt of exploring the land before time (friendly dinosaur babies not guaranteed), boy, is there a place out there for you: Kakadu National Park. It's a World Heritage Site and Australia's biggest national park. Tucked into the Top End of the Northern Territory, just a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Darwin, Kakadu is a powerful place with a powerful history. The traditional land of the Bininj and Mungguy people and home to 19 different clan groups, Kakadu has been a sacred place of living and ceremony for Indigenous people for 65,000 years. Covering 20,000 square kilometres, Kakadu is a wild land rich with tiny yellow butterflies, rolling lightning storms, ancient rock art galleries, immense red gorges and deep blue pools, and its primordial wealth of life is something that has to be felt to be truly believed. A trip to Kakadu is one that makes you fall deep, and it will stay firmly within you long after you leave.
Here are the coolest things you can do, the best places you can stay, and the most delicious things you can eat while you throw yourself into the adventure of a lifetime.
What's the best time to go?
In this far northern part of Australia there are six seasons, with each one bringing something wonderful to the table. The dry season is the most popular (and arguably the best) time to hit up Kakadu, with most of the attractions open and free from the big floods that come through in the wet. If you like cooler weather and low humidity head north from mid-June to mid-August in Wurrkeng, the cold weather season. While the rest of Australia is gripped by big-time winter shivers, Kakadu is still balmy, with daily temps averaging 30 degrees by day and 17 degrees by night. The floodplains are dry, visitor sites are open for business, and bird lovers can see thousands of rare water birds frolicking in the shrinking billabongs. If you like yourself a bit more heat, go in Kurrung – the hot dry season. Spanning from mid-August to mid-October, this is the busiest time of year in Kakadu, when the average temperature ranges from 23 to 37 degrees. The days are tropically hot, with the land overflowing with colourful wildflowers and sparkling waterfalls that you can (sometimes) swim in. Big yes.
What are the coolest things to do?
First, get acquainted at Bowali Visitors’ Centre
Make this your first stop before plunging into the wilds of the national park. Kakadu is a pretty massive place, so getting the ropes before tackling it head-on is a good idea. Located off the Kakadu Highway in Jabiru, this is an excellent place to refresh after a long highway drive, with lush greenery and a café welcome sights for weary travellers. Head into the gorgeous visitor’s centre to chat to the friendly staff, get an idea of where you’d like to go on your trip, and wander through the very cool resident museum, where you can squiz a crocodile skeleton and a giant olive python (spoiler: not a live one).
You’ll also need to buy a national park pass before entering Kakadu.
Peruse art and sip coffee at Marrawuddi Arts & Culture Centre
A seven-minute drive from Bowali you'll find this not-for-profit Aboriginal art centre in Jabiru. This beautifully restored bakery painted in various shades of pink, with a pretty epic mural out the back, features an air-conditioned exhibition area and workspace that showcases the work of more than 400 artists from in and around Kakadu. You can peruse and/or purchase all the paintings, weavings, printed shirts and jewellery on display, meet the artists as they work on their works, and (if the caffeine craving calls) pick up a bloody good cup o’ joe from the resident café. It's owned and governed by Mirarr Traditional Owners, and all proceeds here go towards contributing to Gundjeihmi’s community development initiatives.
Gaze at ancient rock art and watch the sunset at Ubirr
A 30-minute drive from Jabiru down the Arnhem Highway/ Oenpelli Road, you’ll be blessed with a front-seat row seat to some of the most incredible rock art on the planet, as well as a pretty mind-blowing place to watch the sunset. Ubirr is home to two ancient Indigenous rock art galleries that can be explored via an easy one-kilometre loop track, and the best time to visit during the dry season is around 4pm, when the light is golden and the heat of the day is gone. For the best experience, definitely go with an Indigenous guide. We recommend the incredible Victor Cooper, a Bininj man who runs Ayal Aboriginal Tours Kakadu. A former Indigenous ranger in Kakadu, Cooper specialises in translating the significance of the rock art and historic sites at Ubirr. Keep your eyes peeled for etchings of a Tasmanian tiger, the ethereal mimi spirits, and a musket from the 1800s. After you’ve had your art fill, clamber up the rocks to find a prime spot to sit and watch the sunset drench the stretching flood plains. It is always spectacular and never the same twice.
Bask in the wonders of Jim Jim Falls
These majestic 200-metre cascades at Jim Jim are renowed for their power and jaw-dropping splendour. In the wet season, getting up close by foot is basically impossible, which is why (if you've got a bit of dough in the bank) you can do a pretty incredible scenic flight overhead. If, however, you'd rather go in for free and also go for a life-changing swim in the process, then we suggest you hit Jim Jim up in the dry for maximum bang for your buck. Just 43 kilometres down the Kakadu Highway from Bowali, this is a four-wheel-drive-only trip over 10 kilometres of soft sand – so make sure you're equipped. However, once you clear this almighty adventure, you're in for a treat. Clamber across a 900-metre track until you get to the plunge pool. Swim beneath the deep red Arnhem Land escarpment in heart-rendingly clear water, bask on the white sandy beaches, and bathe in the pure light. Magic.
Feel the silence at sunrise (or sunset) at Nawurlandja Lookout
If you want another good sunrise (or sunset) spot, look no further. The lookout is a 30-minute drive from Jabiru, so you don’t need to get going too early to catch an epic look at first light. Get on the one-way walking track and clamber up a slight rocky incline (it is a little steep in parts; you’ll need to be of moderate fitness) and head up to the rock platform that overlooks an impossibly wide stretching view across a bright green savannah, the Anbangbang Billabong and the ochre cliffs of the Arnhem Land escarpment. Keep your eyes peeled for rock wallabies and let yourself dissolve into the soft pastel silence.
Take a crystal clear plunge at Maguk Gorge
Perhaps one of the most spectacular things to do in Kakadu, this incredible natural gorge is one of the only places you can swim in Kakadu. Despite having a few ‘Beware: Crocodile' signs scattered around, this gorge is an incredibly popular swimming spot, and for good reason. Only accessible by four-wheel-drive and an hour's drive from Cooinda, it is at the end of a short monsoon rainforest walk that requires a low to moderate level of fitness. Walk past rainbow pittas, emerald doves and tiny yellow butterflies that dart over the tropical track. Soon you will arrive at the main event: a crystal-clear plunge pool and massive sparkling waterfall, all set within a dazzling stone amphitheatre. Swim in the glittering turquoise water, sunbake on the smooth rocks, and lie under the fresh tumbling cascades. This place is, by all definitions, 100 per cent paradise.
Explore the golden rocks and 22,000-year-old paintings at Burrungkuy (Nourlangie)
Once the traditional land of the Warramal people who have now all passed on, this deeply sacred and ancient site is now cared for by neighbouring clans. A 30-minute drive from Cooinda Lodge, this place is home to intricate rock art and human artefacts that date back more than 22,000 years. Filled with heritage-listed art, including the world-famous Lightning Man, this extraordinary place is steeped in primordial history, stories and unique wildlife that you can soak up at your leisure. Either amble through the Nanguluwurr art site walk, clamber up a moderately steep track to the Kunwarddehwardde lookout to gaze out at the wild ridges of the Kakadu escarpment or walk around the shady Anbangbang Billabong. To maximise your viewing experience of these intricate rock galleries and the stunning natural formations surrounding them, we recommend Victor Cooper from Ayal Aboriginal Tours, whose deep knowledge is unparalleled.
Drift down the river with Yellow Water Cruise
A 10-minute drive from Cooinda Lodge, this incredible river cruise on the Yellow Water Billabong along the heritage-listed South Alligator River takes dreamy adventure to a whole new level. There are six departures per day, and the most popular times are sunrise and sunset, this being the best time to see wildlife. We recommend going at dawn, when the air is soft and oceanic and all the animals are starting their day. See colossal crocs swimming through fields of pink water lilies, sea eagles diving for fish, and tiny bird lovers hopping across gigantic floating lily pads. With one of the dynamic and hilarious Yellow Water guides driving the boat, you can be confident that not a single animal fact, sneaky croc or colourful story will pass by unaccounted for.
Where are the best places to stay?
There are many places to lay your head in Kakadu. Camping aside (and trust us, the options here are plentiful), you have the choice of a few more luxe accommodation options that are a rich Kakadu experience in themselves.
Sleep dangerously at Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel
Shaped like a gigantic saltwater crocodile, this wild hotel is a quintessential embodiment of the Northern Territory’s irreverently irresistible spirit. Situated in the township of Jabiru, this croc-shaped paradise (spoiler: there are absolutely no real crocs here) is an excellent base from which to explore Kakadu, with it within an hour's drive of Ubirr, Nawurlandja Lookout and Burrunkuy (Nourlangie). All the comfy rooms face outwards into an internal courtyard and shady oasis of a pool. Guests get the choice of a standard room (one queen, or two doubles), a superior (a queen and a single or two doubles) , or a courtyard superior (a big double or queen bed and seating outside in the courtyard area). All rooms have big white beds, comfy pillows and easy courtyard and pool access. With an on-site restaurant, big private pool, shaded seating areas and lovely bright rooms, this (slightly) wacky accom is a comfortable place to retreat to after a day of adventuring. Plus, you can play the fun game of where exactly within the big croc your room is located. We got lower belly. It's pretty cute.
Glamp in glamour at Cooinda Lodge
An oasis of glamping tents, cabins and shady lush campground, this village-like property is tucked away right by the Yellow Water Billabong. In a national park as vast as Kakadu, the need for petrol, food, water and shelter is more pressing than most. At Cooinda Lodge, you can find all of the above in one space, and there is a variety of accommodation options available. Whether you glamp in one of the elevated outback retreats, sleep in one of the luxe air-conditioned lodge rooms that accommodate up to four people (and come with a mini-fridge, squishy pillows and TV) or camp in a luxury tent, you’re in for a simply gorgeous time.
Where are the best places to eat?
Food options are a little scarce once you dip into the wilds of Kakadu. You can either come along fully stocked with your own extensive provisions, or, you can rely on the few foody establishments that are scattered throughout the park for sustenance. Here, we’ve gathered some of em’ together for you.
Located in Jabiru, this fresh Thai restaurant is the only one of its kind in Kakadu. Serving up zesty pad thais and divinely thirst-quenching lime juice frappes, this sleek timber joint is a delicious and shady nook providing a yummy variety of foods. You can get yourself a classic toastie and a wedge of cheesecake, as well as a delightful variety of zingy Thai options, with them doing dinner every night during the dry season, and breakfast, lunch and coffee from Tuesday to Sunday. We recommend.
Barra Bar & Bistro
Cooinda Lodge’s on-site restaurant, this cosy timber paradise is full of golden light and good times. In the morning, you can get stuck into a succulent breakfast buffet and swill back delicious barista-made coffees in ‘Mimi’s Restaurant’, while at lunch you can snaffle down a proper pub lunch, with all the classics up for grabs, alongside ice-cold schooners. For dinner, get involved with the ‘Taste of Kakadu’, a tasting platter featuring smoked and marinated crocodile, seared buffalo and chargrilled kangaroo with Kakadu plum chilli sauce and bush tomato chutney on the side. The food is tasty, the service is on-point, and the vibes extraordinarily comfortable. Note: the platter is best when shared.
Escarpment Bar & Restaurant
The Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel’s resident restaurant, all the main meals are covered here. You can guzzle your way through a breakfast buffet, a rather pricey cold lunch buffet (just salads, bread and cut meat), or, the star in this particular crown: dinner. With an emphasis on locally sourced flavours and produce, you can eat your way through buffalo, crocodile balls with aioli, seared barramundi steak and finger lime panna cotta in the cavernous formal dining room.