The best things to do in Kakadu National Park

At a whopping 20,000 square kilometres, Kakadu is one of Australia’s largest national parks. Full of dramatic landscapes, abundant wildlife and important Aboriginal sites. Bird lovers will love the magpie geese living in the treetops, the dainty jacana – nicknamed Jesus birds for their ability to walk on water –and the black-necked stork, Australia’s only stork.

Kakadu is open year-round and you can enjoy a spectacular natural light show on many evenings.

Kakadu at sunset © Karl Hedin, Unsplash

The best things to do in Kakadu

Yellow Water Billabong Cruise at sunrise or sunset

Yellow Water Cruises‘ Yellow Water Billabong Cruise is one of Kakadu’s must-do experiences and a highlight of most people’s visit to the park.

On a morning cruise in Kakadu, I witnessed a brutal encounter between two male crocs. We were visiting toward the end of the dry season, as the waterways and billabongs dried up. This meant that the 10,000 crocodiles were ready to fight for their territory against impudent young interlopers as they prepared for the mating season.

It was savage but our guide said that this is the law of the jungle. They’ve been doing it for millions of years. I did feel squeamish watching the ruthless meeting at such close quarters, but even Sir David Attenborough would have advised us to take a back seat and view nature as it was meant to be.

Take the tour during wet season and you can explore lily-covered backwaters that don’t even exist in the dry season.

Yellow Water Billabong © Tourism NT/Matt Cherubino

Kakadu Bird Week

The incredible Kakadu Bird Week happens at the end of September each year. Kakadu has over 150 bird species that make it such a must-see destination for nature lovers. During Bird Week, vast colonies of geese provide a spectacular visual and audio soundtrack for visitors.

On a Yellow Water Cruise with NT Bird Specialist’s ‘Hawk Eye’ Luke Paterson, he spotted birds that the naked eye wouldn’t have normally seen. My favourite was the tiny but vivid azure kingfisher. It was more obvious when it was pointed out, but this is where having a knowledgeable guide can really help tame this wild frontier.

Yibekka Tours

The 65,000 year cultural heritage of Kakadu is also best explained through local Bininj (Aboriginal) guides.

James Morgan, owner of Yibekka Tours, opened up my eyes to the stories behind Kakadu’s remarkable rock art on a visit to Nourlangie. Which has two must-see rock-art collections, plus two landmarks – Burrungkuy Rock and Anbangbang Billabong – that featured prominently in Crocodile Dundee, the film that introduced Kakadu to the rest of the world. Mind you, watching the sun go down from the adjacent Nawurlandja Rock, with the light turning Nourlangie golden, beats any film version.

The Million Dollar Fish competition

Fish for barramundi in the Million Dollar Fish competition, held from October to March. One hundred prize-tagged barramundi are released into five fishing regions in the Northern Territory. The fish will be in the waterways of Darwin, Kakadu, Arnhem Land, Katherine and the Tiwi Islands. So you never know, throw in a line and you may be heading home one million dollars richer.

The Yellow Water Billabong is a great fishing spot in Kakadu. Barramundi are plentiful from February to April but they can be fished here right up to November.

Taste of Kakadu

Visit in May for A Taste of Kakadu, a cultural food festival 65,000 years in the making. The food festival showcases Indigenous food and cultural experiences amid the beauty of Kakadu National Park.

Kakadu by air

Take a helicopter or scenic flight along the snaking waterways and down Kakadu’s waterfalls with North Australian Helicopters or Kakadu Air.

One tour will take you past Dreaming sites and gorges laced with cascades. Pilots tell Creation stories of the landforms below, then hover the helicopter over breathtaking falls. It’s one of the most awe-inspiring things you’ll ever see.

A scenic flight over Kakadu's Twin Falls
A scenic flight over the Twin Falls © Tourism NT

Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre

The turtle-shaped Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre near Cooinda is a must-visit. Head here for local artworks, aboriginal artefacts that tell the stories of the traditional owners, and videos to explain kinship laws and educate you on a range of topics from bush tucker to Traditional Owners’ stories.

Join a basket-weaving workshop to chat (and laugh) with Traditional Owners and the local Murumburr family as they help you craft the ultimate take-home memento.

Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre
Artist painting a didgeridoo at Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre © Tourism NT

When to visit Kakadu

In Kakadu, the local Gagadju people define six seasons because the seasons are not as straightforward as ‘wet’ and ‘dry’. However, for your ease, I have broken it down into the two sections below.

Dry Season – April to October

While the dry season from April through to the end of October is generally considered the peak season. All roads are open, skies are clear and tours are in full swing. Four of the Gagadju people’s seasons occur during this time.

Bangkerreng – ‘Knock ‘em down’ storm season – Early April

Yekke – Cooler (but still humid) season – May to mid-June

Wurrkeng – Cold weather season – mid-June to mid-August

Kurrung – Hot dry weather – mid-August to mid-October

While hot and dry, Kurrung is a great time to visit if you want to see wildlife at its most prolific. The waters have receded, offering the best viewing of crocodiles, buffalo, brumbies, wild pigs and even giant snakes. It is also the time when millions of magpie geese arrive to feed on the pretty-as-a-picture blue lily.

Wet Tropical Summer – November to March

Kakadu’s raging waterfalls and brimming wetlands are pumping during the wet season. Water lilies, wetlands and the savannah grasses are lush and verdant. Travel during wet season to see the Kakadu of the postcards.

Kunumeleng – Pre-monsoon storm season mid-October to December

Kudjewk – Monsoon season – December to March

Just because it’s called the wet season doesn’t mean it rains all day every day: showers are usually brief and sometimes it doesn’t rain for days. A better name is green season, or waterfall season, because the spear grass that covers the plains is more than two metres high and forms a rippling sea of vivid green, the air is full of dragonflies, and the waterfalls are really thundering. The waterfalls are at their most spectacular during February and March.

Ignore all the stories you’ve heard about being cut off by floods – the major roads in and out of Kakadu are all-weather roads and it takes some pretty extreme weather to close them. Even if the roads do get swamped by a really big storm they usually don’t stay closed for long.

Jim Jim Falls from above during a wet season helicopter tour over Kakadu.
Jim Jim Falls in Kakadu National Park © Tourism NT/Jarrad Seng

Getting to Kakadu

Kakadu is an easy two and a half hour road trip from Darwin. Most roads are accessible throughout the year, but a 4WD vehicle will enable you to explore even more of Kakadu National Park.

From the south, Kakadu is 150 kilometres from Katherine, via the Stuart and Kakadu Highways.

Getting around: Most tours will pick you up from your Kakadu accommodation. Although having your own set of wheels gives you the freedom to get to secret sunset spots like Nawurlandja Lookout, near Nourlangie. The main roads in Kakadu (especially those that are open in the wet season) are sealed.

Kakadu accommodation

The famous crocodile-shaped inn, the Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel, is in the middle of Jabiru and is a very comfortable four-star hotel with all the mod cons.

Sister property Cooinda Lodge is 40 minutes from from the Crocodile Hotel with lush resort gardens, two resort pools and two restaurants. It offers hotel accommodation, glamping, camping and caravan options.

Luxury lovers are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Yellow Water Havens in April 2023.

Cooinda Lodge Kakadu
Glamping Tent at Cooinda Lodge Kakadu © Tourism NT

Where to eat

Both hotels have licensed restaurants. Don’t go home without trying Escarpment Restaurant’s lemon myrtle beer-battered local barramundi, dukkha-dusted kangaroo fillet and Gunbalanya beef. The beef is grown in west Arnhem Land with a distinctive flavour thanks to the cattles’ wetlands diet.

Kakadu Full Moon Feasts

Kakadu Kitchen’s Ben Tyler and Cooinda Lodge Executive Chef Phil Foote are teaming up to offer the best of Kakadu bush food and local Binij culture in monthly Kakadu Full Moon Feasts. The dinners allow visitors to completely immerse in the oldest living indigenous culture in the world in the heart of Kakadu National Park.

Celebrating Kakadu’s six seasons, each Full Moon Feast features native foods of the season. For the latest feast on Saturday 8 October, the food explores Floodplain Flavours from the Kurrung Season, the end of the dry season. The events provide an opportunity to enjoy authentic local Bininj cuisine, with ingredients foraged on-country. The night will explore Kurrung Season floodplain flavours and includes a four-course fully indigenous menu and beverages, an Indigenous star interpretation and didgeridoo playing.

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