Kakadu National Park

Aboriginals believe huge Kakadu National Park was created in “Dreamtime” when godlike ancestral beings lived here. A look at this dramatically beautiful reserve in the Northern Territory with its ancient land forms (over two billion years old), unearthly solitude, and splendid wildlife makes that entirely understandable.

Kakadu’s 8,000 square miles (20,000 km2), one-third owned and leased back by Aboriginal peoples and covering virtually the whole South Alligator River system, was designated a U.N. World Heritage Site for both its wildlife and cultural history. The oldest known human artworks are here, along with wallabies and kangaroos, ferocious and occasionally man-eating saltwater crocodiles up to 33 feet (10 m) long (Crocodile Dundee was filmed here), Elizabethan-ruffed frilled lizards speeding along on upright was filmed here), Elizabethan-ruffed frilled lizards speeding along on uprighthind legs, and a rainbow of kingfishers and bee-eaters. Some 64 species of mammals include endangered dugongs (like manatees); 280 bird species include rare red goshawks, Gouldian finches, and hooded parrots; 128 kinds of reptiles include endangered loggerhead, green,and hawksbill sea turtles, ten dragons, and four legless lizards; with 77 fish and up to 100,000 kinds of insects.

Habitat ranges from coastal tidal flats with mangrove salt marsh to dry and rain forest, riverine wetlands and near-desert with spectacular waterfalls along a stunning sandstone escarpment 300 miles (500 km) long and 800 feet (250 m) high.

Wedge-tailed eagles—large aggressive raptors able to bring down small kangaroos—circle with whistling hawks and black kites on thermals overhead. Jabiru storks preen seven-foot (2-m) wingspans and forage along watercourses.

Magpie geese gather by tens of thousands around lush billabongs (waterholes) carpeted withwhite and blue water lilies. With them can be up to two million other waterbirds: green pygmy geese and burdekin ducks—major refuges for these rarities—plus plumed and wandering whistling ducks, pelicans, spoonbills, darters, herons, egrets, ibises.

Sulfur-crested and crimson-tailed black cockatoos squabble in fruiting trees. Brolga cranes with bare scarlet heads reaffirm pair-bonds with high-leaping dances—staid-seeming compared with Australian bustards, which roar and throw their heads back as they inflate feathery throatsacs before they drop, vibrating, to the ground. (Bustards must attract new mates each year.)

Silver barramundi a yard (l m) long swirl the water’s surface. Harmless freshwater crocodiles get a wide berth due to resemblance to dangerous cousins. Shy black wallaroos seldom seen outside Kakadu survive on semidesert by drinking little water, even when available, so their bodies can make the most of scanty nitrogen- and protein-poor vegetation.

Kakadu has over 5,000 sites with Aboriginal rock paintings dating back 25,000 to 40,000 years, continuing up to the 1960s—considered the world’s most important rock art and longest unbroken record of any culture. Two of the finest are at Ubirr (aka Obiri Rock) and Nourlangie, spectacular rock structures of red sandstone dropping off to cliffs, striped orange, white, and black. Paintings on rocks along trails and in cave galleries are in styles evolved over eons, including graphic “x-ray” paintings of internal bone and organ structure depicting wallabies, possums, lizards, tortoises, fish, humans, and long-extinct marsupial tigers. The world’s oldest evidence of edge-ground axes was found here.

Threats include government-backed uranium mining on Aboriginal parkland, a continuing controversy, anathema to environmentalists—a U.N. report cited its dangers and polls showed two-thirds of Australians oppose it. Also gold mining is proposed in the ironically-named “conservation zone” at river headwaters with potentially disastrous mercury runoff.

Kakadu has trails, guided walks with rangers, and though it can be rough underfoot and extremely hot, it’s fine hiking country for the hardy and well-shod (the Darwin Bushwalking Club, Tel: (+61) 089-85-1484, has walks here and elsewhere). Hats are essential, also water, sunblock, and insect repellent (mosquitoes here are said to wield cutlery).

Jabiru township, built to accommodate mine workers, has lodging, stores, restaurants, andan airport. So does Cooinda near the Yellow Water wetlands with large waterbird populations.The park has a number of campsites with varying facilities. Roads, best for 4WD, go to most interesting sites including Jim Jim and Twin Falls. With permission, tours also go into neighboring Aboriginal Arnhem Land..

Some 50 inches (130 mm) of rain fall annually, mostly December–April, deeply flooding lowlands—good for breeding birds and other fauna, as well as vegetation. Grasses then can grow six feet (2 m). Visitors are advised to go in drier May–August, especially toward the latter when wildlife gather around shrinking watercourses and billabongs.

International flights go to Darwin. From there, busses, including tour busses, go to Kakadu (including Jabiru and Cooinda), or rent a vehicle (best 4WD) and drive the 155 miles (250 km) to the park where headquarters just outside Jabiru township can advise on almost any park related question.

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