Some 150km east of Darwin lies KAKADU NATIONAL PARK, one of the most spectacular and varied wilderness areas in Australia, and World Heritage listed for both its natural and cultural riches. Kakadu derives its name from the Bininj/Mungguy people, the area’s traditional owners, who jointly manage the park with the Australian government.
Covering over 20,000 square kilometres, Kakadu is a challenging place to appreciate in a short visit; allow a minimum of three days, either rent a 4WD or join a 4WD tour, and consider a river cruise to get to more remote areas. The dry-season months are the most popular times to visit, with little or no rain, acceptable humidity and temperatures, and fairly conspicuous wildlife. Towards the end of the Dry, birdlife congregates around the shrinking waterholes, while November’s rising temperatures and epic electrical storms herald the onset of the Wet. To see Kakadu during the Wet, which sees up to 1600mm of torrential rainfall between December and March, or the early Dry is, many argue, to see it at its best. While some major sights are inaccessible and the wildlife dispersed, the waterfalls are in full flow and the land possesses a verdant splendour that can be quite breathtaking.
Kakadu’s 20,000 square kilometres encompass a huge range of habitats from sandstone escarpments topped with heathland to savannah woodlands, wetlands and tidal mangroves all changing throughout the seasons. Within these habitats an extraordinary diversity of wildlife thrives, including 2000 different plants, over 10,000 species of insect, 68 mammals, and 120 different reptiles including thousands of saltwater and freshwater crocodiles (the park’s main watercourse, the South Alligator River, was misnamed after the prolific croc population on its banks). You’ll also find a third of Australia’s bird species within Kakadu, including the elegant jabiru (black-necked stork), the similarly large brolga, with its curious courting dance, and white-breasted sea eagles, as well as galahs and magpie geese by the thousand. Mammals include kangaroos, wallabies, wallaroos, 26 species of bat, and dingoes.
With so many interdependent ecosystems, maintaining the park’s natural balance is a full-time job. Burning off has long been recognized as a technique of land management by Aborigines who have a safe, effective process that involves lighting small, controllable fires in a patchwork quilt-like pattern to stimulate new plant growth. Today, rangers imitate these age-old practices, burning off the drying speargrass during Yegge, the indigenous “cool weather time” season from May to June. Managing introduced species, from water buffalo to troublesome grass species and cane toads, is also a major priority in order to preserve the park’s environment.Read More
There are an estimated 90,000 estuarine or saltwater crocodiles in the Top End, far more than other tropical areas of Australia, and they continue to present a real danger to humans. “Salties”, not to be confused with the smaller and much less threatening “freshies” (freshwater or Johnston crocodiles), can live in both salt and freshwater and grow up to 6m long. They have superb hearing, can see in the dark (and underwater) and are able to stay submerged for over an hour waiting for dinner to walk by.
Most of the Top End’s crocodile-infested waters are already well signposted, with two types of warning signs essentially saying “don’t swim here” or “swim at your own risk”. Unfortunately, many visitors ignore this advice, running the risk of becoming a statistic. Sadly, one such statistic was 23-year-old German backpacker Isabel von Jordan, who was killed by a 4.5m saltie in 2002 at Kakadu, after her tour guide, ignoring the warning signs, took his group for a midnight swim in Sandy Billabong, near Nourlangie Rock. More recently, in 2009, an 11-year-old girl was killed by a crocodile while splashing about with friends at Black Jungle Swamp in the Litchfield area. This tragedy prompted many to ask for the reintroduction of culling and hunting of crocs. So far, the Territory Government has resisted the idea, relying on a policy of education and removing “problem crocodiles”. Its “crocwise” campaign includes the following advice:
- only swim in designated safe swimming areas and obey all crocodile warning signs
- always stand a minimum of 5m from the water’s edge when fishing and camp a minimum of 50m away
- never prepare food or wash dishes at the water’s edge; dispose of all food scraps and waste away from campsites
Aboriginal rock art
Aboriginal rock art
Over five thousand known Aboriginal art sites cover the walls of Kakadu’s caves and sheltered outcrops, ranging in age from just 30 years old to over 20,000. Most of the art sites are of spiritual significance to Aborigines who live in the park, and only a few locations, such as Ubirr, can be visited by tourists. The paintings include a variety of styles, from handprints to detailed “X-ray” depictions of animals and fish from the rich Estuarine period of six thousand years ago. At this time, rising sea levels are thought to have submerged the land bridge by which Aborigines crossed into Australia. It’s not unusual to see paintings from successive eras on one wall. Contact period images of seventeenth-century Macassar fishing praus and larger European schooners might be superimposed over depictions of ancient Mimi spirits or creation ancestors. For the indigenous people, the art sites are djang (dreaming places), depicting Dreamtime stories, and the images serve as prompts to communicate valuable lessons that are still passed down from generation to generation.
Kakadu’s yellow gold
Kakadu’s yellow gold
The land around Kakadu’s border with Arnhem Land contains fifteen percent of the world’s known uranium reserves, and mining and refining the ore produces millions of dollars in royalties for the park’s traditional owners. Environmentalists have long campaigned against mining in the park, arguing that it’s impossible to contain the low-level radioactive waste produced. There have been over 150 leaks and spills at the Ranger Uranium Mine near Jabiru since it opened in 1981. In 2010 Aboriginal traditional owners said they would oppose plans for a large expansion of the mine, owned by Rio Tinto, unless the company upgraded its environmental procedures. Despite this, mining continues at two sites within the park and one in Arnhem Land and exploration continues across the Territory, notably around Alice Springs. Ironically, environmental issues, specifically global warming, may see a turnaround in uranium’s image. Many see the mineral as a catalyst for carbon-neutral power generation, though the impact of recent nuclear accidents in Japan has further damaged the industry’s reputation.