If you’re planning a trip to the Top End of the Australia, here’s the truth about Kakadu: No trip to the Northern Territory is complete without visiting Kakadu. If Kakadu is not already on your list, here’s why you should put it on now!
Perhaps you have limited time and you’re wondering how long to spend in Kakadu? Maybe you’ve heard that you need a 4×4 to visit Kakadu (not true!). In this post we will give you all the truth about Kakadu, and why it’s a Kakadu, not a Kakadon’t!
We have visited Kakadu National Park twice in the last 2 years. In 2022 we did a week long stay in our campervan, and in 2023 we did a 2 day Kakadu self-drive tour from Darwin. We have visited in both the dry season (August 2022) and the wet season (March 2023). In this post we will give you the pros and cons of visiting Kakadu in the wet season and the dry.
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About Kakadu National Park
Kakadu is one of only four places in Australia with dual UNESCO world heritage listing – for both natural and cultural significance. (There are only 29 such places in the whole world). You will experience aboriginal culture that is over 65,000 years old, see prolific wildlife including estuarine crocodiles and over one third of the bird species in the whole of Australia.
The landscape in Kakadu ranges from the wetlands in the north to the stone country in the south. This is some of the most ruggedly beautiful country we’ve ever seen.
Kakadu National Park is HUGE – at around 20,000km2 it is one of the largest national parks in Australia. Kakadu is located around 200km to the south east of Darwin and around the same distance north of Katherine.
When is the best time to visit Kakadu?
If you’re wondering when is the best month to visit Kakadu, there are two distinct seasons here. The “tropical summer” wet season lasts from November to April, and the dry season from May to October
The most popular time to visit is in the cooler winter months between May and September. Even during the “cold” winter months of July and August, the weather in Kakadu is almost always hot.
The maximum daytime temperatures in July and August average 33C (91F) with the nights dropping to 19C (66F). The hottest months in Kakadu are October and November. The average maximum temperature is 37C (99F) and nights are 24C (75F).
Most visitors choose to come to Kakadu in the the dry season, when most of the attractions are open. The unsealed roads out to the waterholes often aren’t opened until June or July, so keep that in mind when planning your trip.
You’re also likely to see more wildlife during the dry season, as the water levels recede. We did the Yellow Water Cruise during March and only saw birds. Friends who have done the same cruise in July or August report seeing many crocodiles, buffalo and other land animals.
However, if you visit Kakadu during the wet season you will be rewarded with seeing the park in all its natural glory. Everything looks so green, and there is water – so much water!
The wet season is by far the best time to do a scenic flight over Kakadu. Seeing those waterfalls from the air is one of the highlights of our entire trip around Australia.
How to get to Kakadu
From Darwin you will take the Arnhem Highway towards Jabiru, passing Humpty Doo, the Adelaide River, and Mary River National Park.
If you’re coming from the south, leaving Katherine drive around 90km north and turn off just before the town of Pine Creek.
If you don’t have your own vehicle or rental car, you can take a Kakadu tour from Darwin.
Getting around Kakadu
While it is possible to do a day trip from Darwin to Kakadu, there is so much to see and do here. You’ll enjoy the park best if you have 3 days to explore. If you spend a week in Kakadu you can do more of the hikes and waterfalls and really get to know the park.
The best way to get around Kakadu is a self-drive trip. While a 4×4 will mean you can get to places like Jim Jim falls, it isn’t necessary to see the main sights.
If you’re flying into Darwin, you can rent a car from the airport or the city. Check the rental agreement to ensure your insurance covers you if you go on unsealed roads.
Where to stay in Kakadu
If you’re looking for hotel or cabin accommodation in Kakadu for your self-drive tour, the two centres are Jabiru and Cooinda. We stayed at the very comfortable Cooinda Lodge in one of their safari tents in March. The Outback Retreat safari tents are air-conditioned, but do not have an en-suite bathroom.
If you really want luxury in Kakadu, check out the brand new Yellow Water lodge. Only 5 of these rooms were built. They are up on stilts to minimise the impact on the environment. These villas were under construction when we visited in March 2023. We can’t wait to go back and stay there.
You’ll also find lodge rooms at Cooinda, which do have private bathroom facilities. Cooinda Lodge also has accommodation for caravans, campervans and tents.
You will find a variety of accommodation in Jabiru, including the Kakadu Crocodile Lodge, Aurora Lodge and Anbinik resort.
Camping in Kakadu
If you’re travelling with a caravan, camper or tent, there are plenty of places for camping in Kakadu. In addition to the commercial caravan parks at Cooinda and Jabiru, there are also National Park Campsites throughout Kakadu.
Camping in Kakadu National Parks sites is on a first come – first served basis. There is currently no online or pre – booking facility. You have a choice of managed sites, which have showers and toilets, and “bush camps” which have basic facilities, just long-drop toilets.
At the managed camps the camp host will collect your fees. At the bush camps payment is by an honesty box system.
TIP: Make sure you carry cash – in 2023 the campsite fees range from $6 to $15 per person, so you’ll want to have some coins as well as notes.
What to pack for Kakadu
The weather in Kakadu is almost always hot, so pack loose, cool clothing. Sturdy walking shoes are a must for visiting the rock art sites and the waterfalls. You should take a wide brimmed hat and consider a fly net.
Other things to put on your Kakadu packing list:
- Mosquito repellent – particularly in the north of the park, the mozzies can be ferocious
- Portable charger for your devices
- A good water bottle or bladder for your day pack
- Cash – if you’re staying in the National Parks campsites you’ll need to pay cash. $5 and $10 notes will be best
And lastly, don’t forget your Travel Insurance!!
The best things to do in Kakadu
This list of the best things to see in Kakadu is organised from north to south.
Cahill’s Crossing is THE place to see large estuarine (saltwater) crocodiles in the wild. As the tide rushes across the river crossing the crocs wait with mouths open to catch barramundi and other fish. There are a series of viewing platforms where you can stand in safety to watch the crocs.
As the dry season progresses, and the waters recede, more and more crocs call this stretch of the river home. Surprisingly, a large number can co-exist here. Perhaps this is due to the prolific numbers of fish washing over the causeway with the tide.
You’ll want to be there for the incoming tides. You can check the tide times online, or ask at the Bowali Visitors Centre.
*Please be croc-safe and watch these predators from the safety of the viewing platforms. Please don’t attempt to cross over the causeway on foot.
You can also view the crocodiles from the Gulayambi Cultural cruise.
Guluyambi Cultural Cruise
The 90 minute Guluyambi Cultural Cruise on the East Alligator River is owned and operated by the Traditional Owners. Your indigenous guide will teach you about their culture and mythology, and you’ll learn a few words in the local language.
A highlight of the cruise is crocodile spotting. We lost count of how many HUGE salties we saw. You also take a short walk on the Arnhem land side of the river. While you’re off the boat the guide will show you their traditional hunting implements and how to throw a spear.
The Gulayambi cultural cruise operates from 1 May to 30 November. The cruise leaves from the Upstream Boat Ramp on the East Alligator River, four times daily (9am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm).
TIP: We recommend doing the 3pm cruise, and then heading to Ubirr Rock for sunset.
Ubirr is one of the two most famous Aboriginal Rock Art sites in Kakadu. The art here depicts Aboriginal life, with images of wildlife including fish and turtles. Interestingly, there is a painting of a Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger) here. These animals are believed to have gone extinct on the mainland around 2,000 – 3,000 years ago.
Most of this art is believed to have been created up to 1,500 years ago, though some is obviously more recent. There is a painting of a “white man” wearing shoes, hat and boots.
There is a 1km loop trail which passes the rock art galleries, and a further 250m climb to the lookout. This lookout is a very popular sunset spot. Please remember that alcohol is not permitted here, so no wine with your sunset picnic. Access to Ubirr may be limited in the tropical summer months, check the Kakadu Access Report for up-to-date info.
Bowali Visitors Centre
The Bowali visitors centre is the ideal first stop on your visit to Kakadu. There are displays on the natural environment, landscapes, flora and fauna that you’ll see in the park.
If you haven’t purchased your Kakadu Park pass online, you can pick one up here. The Bowali Visitors Centre is open 8am to 5pm every day except Christmas and New Years Day.
Jabiru is the town in Kakadu. You will find a small shopping centre, medical centre, and a service station with workshop here. There is a range of accommodation in Jabiru and many tours depart from here.
TIP: The picnic area at the lake has good phone/internet reception and makes a great spot to stop if you need to check email or catch up on social media!
Marrawuddi Arts Centre
While you’re in Jabiru, pop into the Marrawuddi Arts Centre. This gallery is owned by the Mirrar people, and supports over 500 artists from the Kakadu and West Arnhem land areas.
If you purchase artworks from this gallery you will also receive a certificate and bio of the artist you are supporting.
There is also a café here at the gallery. The gallery is open Monday to Friday 8am-4pm and 8am-2pm on weekends.
Here’s another truth about visiting Kakadu. The best time to do a scenic flight is during the tropical summer wet season. The reason is that this is the most spectacular time to see the waterfalls in all their glory. Kakadu Air offers both fixed wing and helicopter flights over Kakadu
We did a 60 minute helicopter flight on our last visit to Kakadu (March 2023) and this was the highlight of our trip to the Northern Territory. Our pilot was very experienced and knowledgeable about Kakadu and the traditional culture.
The Anbangbang Billabong is a great place to spot Kakadu’s birdlife. You’ll see magpie geese, egrets and cormorants. You’ll find more plant and animal species here than anywhere else in Kakadu.
There is an easy 2km walk around the billabong, passing through the paperbark forests. There is also a picnic area (with tables) which is wheelchair accessible.
Burrungkuy (Nourlangie Rock)
Burrungkuy is the other most well-known Rock Art site in Kakadu. Also called Nourlangie Rock, this site has some great interactive signage telling the stories of the art.
Some of the art at Nourlangie is 20,000 years old. For the aboriginal people, the act of painting and telling the story is more important than the picture that is left. For this reason, you’ll often find paintings over the top of one another.
Often the art was painted to teach a lesson, and one of the main lessons here is about “right marriage”. You’ll also see Namarrkon, the lightning man. Our favourite depicts Nabulwijnbulwijn, the evil spirit who kills and eats women. It’s forbidden to photograph this piece of art. When we visited with an indigenous guide he would not even look at the painting.
There are several rock art “shelters” at Burrungkuy. The main gallery is accessible to wheelchairs and prams, and then a series of steps will take you on a loop walk around to the other galleries.
While you are here you may like to walk up to the Gunwarrdewarrde lookout for spectacular views over Nourlangie Rock.
Nanguluwurr Art Site
This site was an important stopover for Indigenous people walking from the escarpment to the floodplains of the East Aligator River. There is a range of art here in the “x-ray” style, where the insides of the fish and turtles are painted as well as their outlines.
While some of the art here dates back 20,000 years, some of this art was painted as recently as the 1960s.
This site is accessed by a 1.7km walk from the car park.
TIP: if you’re doing the Barrk Sandstone hike, this gallery will be a short detour off the main trail
Nawulandga Lookout is another great place to view the sunset. From here you look over the savannah past Nourlangie Rock to the West Arnhem land plateau in the distance. The lookout is reached by a short 300m moderate climb.
Jim Jim and Twin Falls
Jim Jim Falls is one of the most impressive sights in all of Kakadu – when it’s flowing! At 200m Jim Jim is the tallest waterfall in the Northern Territory and the fifth tallest in Australia.
Jim Jim is best seen during the wet season, from the air. We were lucky enough to see Jim Jim thundering down the escarpment in March 2023 on a helicopter flight with Kakadu Air.
During the dry season the waterfall slows to a trickle. Many visitors chose to come out here for the challenging 4×4 drive, and to see the towering cliff walls. While you may swim in the pool at the base of the waterfall, it’s not recommended.
At the time of writing (September 2023) the 50km road out to Jim Jim Falls is open only to high clearance 4×4 vehicles. From the carpark you will need to rock-hop across the boulders for 2km to get to the plunge pool at the base of the falls. Beware! The water in the pool is very cold.
Access to Twin Falls Gorge is currently closed, so you can only visit the top of Twin Falls on the 6km Twin Falls Escarpment walk.
If you’re unsure about driving out to Jim Jim Falls, chat to other visitors who may have been recently. When we visited Kakadu in the dry season in 2022, travellers reported the road was very bad and we chose not to drive out here.
Yellow Water Cruise
The Yellow Water Cruise departs from a jetty right near the Cooinda Lodge. This 90 minute cruise takes you deep into the wetlands that Kakadu is famous for. If you do this cruise in the dry season, you’re almost guaranteed to see a wide variety of wildlife – everyone we know who did it in the dry saw crocodiles and buffalo.
We did the cruise during the tropical summer (wet) season, and sadly, didn’t see any crocodiles. We did see hundreds of birds, and were lucky to see a jabiru (or, the bird formerly known as a jabiru – its now known as the Black Necked Stork – how boring!)
TIP: The best time to do the Yellow Water Cruise is for sunrise or sunset.
Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre
What the Bowali Visitor Centre is to the natural significance of Kakadu, the Warradjan Centre is to the cultural significance. The Warradjan Cultural centre is full of displays about the lives of the traditional owners of the Kakadu region. These displays include bush tucker, hunting and gathering tools, and all about Aboriginal art.
You will find many displays relating to the creation stories of the Binninj/Mungguy people, along with descriptions of their kinship rules for marriage, and how their knowledge is passed down through the generations.
If you’re visiting Kakadu after being in Central Australia, you will notice the different style of the art here. The northern style incorporates a lot more lines and a lot less dots! Artists around Kakadu also paint in the “x-ray style” where you see the insides of the animals as well.
Maguk (Barramundi Gorge)
Maguk is the most accessible swimming hole in Kakadu, though you will still need to drive down a 10km dirt road. This road can be very corrugated at times – it was when we drove down there in August 2022.
At the end of the road you will need to walk around 1km to get to the waterfall and swimming hole, including across a series of rocks.
TIP: Just before you get to the rocky creek crossing, take the little path and stay on the left side of the creek, which will take you to another access point to the waterhole, which was much less crowded when we visited.
There is also a path leading up to the top of the waterfall, although when we walked up there we did see a sign saying access prohibited.
The Yurmikmik area is at the southern edge of Kakadu, and has several walks and waterfalls. We walked out to the Boulder Creek falls in August and there was no water at all. However we went back to this waterfall in March 2023 and it was flowing beautifully, there were places to swim, and go underneath the waterfall.
From the Yurmikmik carpark you can also walk to Motor Car Falls, which is a 7.5km return hike. This is another popular waterfall to visit in the tropical summer when the larger falls are closed.
This waterfall, and the plunge pool at the bottom were made famous in the Crocodile Dundee movie. At the time of writing (September 2023), all access to Gunlom is closed until further notice.
Hiking in Kakadu
If you’re interested in walking, there are plenty of Kakadu hiking trails for all levels of fitness and ability. From short walks on boardwalks, to long challenging trails, hiking in Kakadu is one of the best ways to explore this amazing natural environment.
Some of our favourites include:
The Bardedjilidji Walk (also known as the “B walk”) is a 2.5km easy graded loop walk. The trail leaves from a small carpark near the East Alligator River Upstream carpark (where the Gulayambi Cruise departs).
You will see wetlands, paperbark forests, monsoon vine forest and sandstone outliers. For us, the highlight of this walk was finding a couple of caves with evidence of human habitation, grinding stones and rock art.
Barrk Sandstone Walk
The Barrk Sandstone walk is a tough 12km loop walk but one of the most spectacular we’ve ever done. The trail leaves from the Burrungkuy (Nourlangie Rock) carpark, passing by the Anbangbang Rock Art Gallery and heads up and over Nourlangie Rock.
You’ll see some incredible views from the lookout at the top of the rocky outcrop, before walking through sandstone outcrops. This hike also passes the Nanguluwurr Rock Art Gallery. The loop finishes with a flat walk through the woodland floor.
In the dry season you can walk the perimeter of the Anbangbang Billabong. This is a 2.5km, flat easy loop walk, which leaves from the Anbangbang parking area.
This is a beautiful walk where you will see the varied bird life in Kakadu, as you look across the billabong towards Nourlangie Rock. We also saw wallabies as we walked through the paperbark forest.
There are several walks in the Yurmikmik area, which all leave from the Yurmikmik carpark, which is 23km down a dirt track. These are great walks for the tropical summer wet season, as there will be water in the falls here, which are dry in the dry season.
You can also walk to the Yurmikmik lookout, and see out over the southern hills and ridges.
Essential Information for Kakadu National Park
Kakadu Park Pass
All visitors to Kakadu National Park (except NT residents) require a valid Kakadu pass. This is separate to the NT Parks pass. You can purchase your Kakadu pass online or at the Bowali Visitor Centre or Cooinda Lodge.
Passes are $40 per adult during the dry season (15 May – 31 October) and $25 in the Tropical Summer season (1 November – 14 May). Concession and family passes are also available.
Phone and Internet
You will be out of range in most of the park. We recommend downloading maps before you go, or using an offline map service like maps.me. Phone and internet reception is available in Jabiru and Cooinda.
Driving in Kakadu
Roads can become impassable during periods of prolonged rain, and many of the unsealed roads are closed throughout the Tropical Summer. Check the Kakadu Access Report before your trip to familiarise yourself with closures.
The speed limit in Kakadu is 80km/h. You should avoid driving in between dusk and dawn as there is often wildlife straying onto the road.
Food and Water
There is an IGA supermarket in Jabiru where you can stock up on groceries. They also have a takeaway food section here. Cooinda Lodge also has a small range of grocery items in their store.
There are restaurants at the Anbinik, Aurora and Crocodile resorts in Jabiru. There is a good bistro restaurant at the Cooinda Lodge also. The popular cafe at the Manbiyarra Border Store is currently closed until further notice.
You will find water taps in Jabiru and also within the campground at Cooinda. There is no drinking water available in the bush camps.
Fuel is available at Jabiru and Cooinda. The closest fuel station outside the National Park is at Pine Creek. Please note that the Mary River Ranger Station and Roadhouse at the southern end of the park is now closed.
You’ll need to bring all your alcohol into Kakadu, as you can’t really buy takeaway alcohol here (unless you’re a member of the Golf Club, and then it is limited). Alcohol is available over the bars in the resorts in Jabiru and at Cooinda. Alcohol is prohibited in all public areas in Kakadu, and all the campsites except Murdakul.
Watch our Truth about Kakadu Travel Film
This film was produced during our visit to Kakadu in August 2022. There is also a section on Kakadu in our Top End Road Trip travel film from March 2023.
Can I fly my drone in Kakadu?
Unfortunately you can’t fly your drone in Kakadu without a special permit. These permits are only granted in special circumstances. Even when we visited on a promotional trip with Tourism NT we were not permitted to fly our drone.
Can I bring my dog into Kakadu?
Dogs are not allowed in Kakadu. The only exemption is for service dogs, and then they must be kept on a lead under 3m long.
Are there crocodiles in Kakadu?
The entire Top End of Australia is crocodile country. Crocodiles were widely hunted from 1945 to 1970 and their numbers dwindled to around 3,000 in the whole of the NT. Crocodiles have been protected since 1971 and their population has grown back to around 100,000. It is estimated that 10,000 crocodiles live in Kakadu.
I visited Kakadu in the 1990s and I don’t remember seeing a single crocodile in the wild. On our Gulayambi cruise in 2023 we lost count of how many we saw around Cahill’s Crossing. A gentleman on the cruise told a similar story – he’d been here in 1996 and said he’d only seen 2 crocodiles.
Is it safe to swim in Kakadu?
Here’s another basic truth about Kakadu – assume that in any body of water there may be crocodiles. You will see warning signs in places where crocodiles are known to inhabit.
There are several waterholes where it is deemed safe to swim, including Jim Jim falls and Maguk falls. Rangers monitor and remove estuarine crocodiles from these areas to keep them safer for visitors. Having said that, the official advice is that the only safe place to swim in Kakadu is your resort swimming pool.
Do you need a 4×4 for Kakadu?
You will need a 4wd vehicle if you wish to visit some of the more remote parts of Kakadu, and those along unsealed roads with 4×4 only access, like Jim Jim Falls. However, the main sites of Ubirr, Burrungkuy and Yellow Water are all on sealed roads and accessible with a 2wd vehicle.