Ten years ago I travelled to Japan and Australia for the first time. Here’s an article I wrote at the time about my trip to Australia’s Kakadu National Park. It’s still, all these years later, one of the most beautiful and most memorable places I have visited.
A pair of beady eyes watched us, clocking our every move as we slowly motored along the river. Their owner lay basking in the mud on the river bank, barely moving as the occupants of the boat crowded around the side to take his picture. We were in crocodile country, otherwise known as Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory, home to the highest number of saltwater crocodiles in the world, and we were on a cruise through the Mary River wetlands.
A large swampy river, the wetlands are home to a wide variety of plants and animals, not least of all the crocodile. Journeying up the river, we passed large, flat plains, savannah woodlands and swathes of lilies. Even the odd jabiru, a large stork-like bird, made an appearance. But it was the deadly saltwater crocodile or salties, as the Aussies call them, that captured our imagination.
The ancient reptiles have been known to kill people in the park, so at the beginning of every dry season the park’s rangers remove any salties that have taken up residence in the plunge pools and creeks that are popular with visitors. Needless to say, with the risk that these fierce creatures will move in at a later date, there are crocodile warnings all over the park urging visitors to be on their guard.
Situated to the east of Darwin, at the top of the Northern Territory, Kakadu National Park covers an impressive 4.9 million acres, roughly half the size of Switzerland. First declared a national park in 1979, thanks to its diverse ecology and rich cultural history, Kakadu was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1981.
With its exceptionally beautiful scenery, the park boasts a wide range of habitats, from savannah woodlands to monsoon forests and sandstone escarpments. Kakadu is also home to some of the world’s oldest rock art. Some 210,000 people flock to the park each year, usually during the dry season between April and September, and I was joining them, heading into the park on a three-day safari tour.
The Mary River wetlands was our first port of call and already we had seen plenty of the beasts which were to be an ever present feature of our tour. Our first encounter with the crocs out the way, we left the wetlands and turned on to a long, dusty road and soon happened upon an unexpected delight as tall, strangely shaped red mounds appeared to rise out of the ground.
Stopping the truck, we got out to take a closer look at the phenomenon, paying particular attention to their tiny yellow creators. The 3-metre high termite mounds, known as the Cathedrals of the North by the locals, were extraordinary, especially when considering the size of the insects that built them.
The next day we headed over to Twin Falls Gorge, a stunningly beautiful ravine culminating in a sandy beach, plunge pool and two trickling waterfalls. We took a boat ride up the river, gazing in awe at the spectacular towering chunks of orange rock, which loomed down upon us. Once the short boat ride came to an end, we made our way over a mountain of giant boulders and narrow slivers of rock to a metal gangway, which led us to the bottom of the falls. Its close proximity to the water, however, was somewhat alarming.
Bathing is strictly prohibited at Twin Falls because of the salties that roam the waters, and walking across the gangway I was sure I spotted a bobbing head in the water, which looked remarkably croc-like. “The risk of getting eaten by a crocodile just adds to the experience” was my friend’s way of soothing my jittery nerves. But the fear of being just metres away from an enormous reptile that was capable of crushing a human in its jaws would not go away, and on the return journey I sped across the gangway at a rate of knots.
Making our way to another part of the rock, we climbed up a steep, woody path, which snaked its way upwards and over the rock to the Twin Falls Plateau. The climb was hard, not least because the rocks under foot were uneven and the sweltering temperatures of 32oC – despite being the middle of winter – only added to the difficulty.
The heat was such that I was drinking 5-6 litres of water a day, topping up my bottle in the freshwater creeks as we passed. Having reached the top, the arduous climb was soon forgotten as we surveyed the scene before us. Amid the smooth, flat rocks, which looked out over the beautiful park below, was a small beach and a very inviting, croc-free beach. It was time for a swim.
After two days of clambering over death-defying boulders, mingling with the wildlife and splashing in the pools, it was time for a spot of culture. So we headed over to Ubir, home to an abundance of aboriginal rock art, for a chance to appreciate the cultural and religious significance of Kakadu. Aboriginal people have lived at Kakadu for some 23,000 years and around 50% of the park is owned by its aboriginal residents, with much of the rest of the park also under claim.
At Ubir, we looked on in fascination at the rock faces that were painted with a variety of barramundi, turtles and wallabies in commemoration of a prestigious catch. Some of the paintings at Kakadu are thought to date back 20,000 years, with the most recent artwork painted in 1985.
We then made our way to the top of the giant rock to take in the views. An easier climb than our hike at Twin Falls, the rock was made up of a series of layers, which acted as flat, giant steps. Having reached the top, which was a plateau of smooth stone, we caught our breath. Before us were panoramic views of Kakadu’s diverse landscapes, which unfolded beneath our eyes in spectacular fashion. Having spent the last few days admiring some of the most beautiful sights in the world, it was hard to believe we would find anything to top them, but we had and it was the perfect end to our trip.
Kakadu is subject to monsoon weather conditions. The dry season runs between April and September, the wet season between January and March, while the in-between period is from October to January. The best time to visit is during the dry season when most of the park is open to the public. The park is prone to flooding during the wet season.