Highlights En Route to Kakadu
En route to the park, stop in at the Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve (tel. 08/8988 8009 is the ranger station), 25km (16 miles) down the Arnhem Highway and 7km (4 1/3 miles) off the highway. You'll get a close-up look at geese, finches, ibis, brolgas, and other wetland birds from lookouts over ponds of giant lilies, or by walking through monsoon forests to viewing blinds. There are two lookouts on the road and three walks, two that are 2.2km (1.5 miles) round-trip and one that is 3.6km (2.3 miles) round-trip. Entry is free. Crocs live here, so don't swim, and keep away from the water's edge. To take a ranger-guided walk, reserve by calling tel. 08/8999 4555.
Four kilometers (2 1/2 miles) down the Arnhem Highway at Beatrice Hill, you can stop at the Window on the Wetlands Visitor Centre (tel. 08/8988 8188), which offers views across the Adelaide River flood plain, as well as displays and touch-screen information on the wetlands' ecology. It's free and open daily from 8am to 7pm.
Just past Beatrice Hill on the highway at the Adelaide River Bridge (look out for the statue of a grinning croc), Adelaide River Queen Cruises (tel. 1800/888 542 in Australia, or 08/8988 8144; www.jumpingcrocodilecruises.com.au) runs the jumping crocodiles cruise. From the relative safety of a restored paddle steamer (or a smaller boat in the Wet), you can watch wild crocodiles leap out of the water for hunks of meat dangled over the edge by the boat crew -- but don't lean out too far! It's an unabashed tourist trap, with a souvenir shop that sells all things croc, including crocodile toilet-seat covers. It may not be to my, or your, taste, but because crocs typically move fast only when they attack, it may be your only chance to witness their immense power and speed. The cruises depart at 9 and 11am and 1 and 3pm daily year-round (except on Dec 24-25 and Sundays from Nov-Feb). The cost is A$35 adults and A$20 for children 5 to 15 for all cruises. If you need transport, Darwin Day Tours (tel. 08/8924 1111) and Goanna Eco Tours (tel. 1800/003 880 in Australia) both run tours from Darwin that include the cruise.
One of Kakadu's biggest attractions is Yellow Water Billabong, a lake 50km (31 miles) south of the Bowali Visitor Centre at Cooinda (pop. about 20). It's rich with freshwater mangroves, Paperbarks, pandanus palms, water lilies, and masses of birds gathering to drink -- sea eagles, honking magpie geese, kites, china-blue kingfishers, and jaçanas (called "Jesus birds" because they seem to walk on water as they step across the lily pads). This is one of the best places in the park to spot saltwater crocs. Cruises in canopied boats with running commentary depart near Gagudju Lodge six times a day starting at 6:45am in the Dry (Apr-Oct) and four times a day in the Wet (Nov-Mar). A 90-minute cruise is A$64 for adults and A$45 for children 4 to 15. A 2-hour cruise is A$82 for adults, A$57 for children (or A$95 adults and A$68 children for the early morning cruise, including breakfast). Book through Gagudju Lodge Cooinda (tel. 1800/500 401 in Australia or 08/8979 0145; www.gagudju-dreaming.com).
Fair warning: In the Wet, when the Billabong floods and joins up with Jim Jim Creek and the South Alligator River, the bird life spreads far and wide over the park and the crocs head upriver to breed, so don't expect wildlife viewing to be spectacular.
Another good cruise is the Aboriginal-owned and -operated Guluyambi Cultural Cruise on the East Alligator (tel. 1800/895 179 in Australia, or 08/8979 2411; www.guluyambi.com.au). The East Alligator River forms the border between Kakadu and isolated Arnhemland. Unlike the Yellow Water cruise, which focuses on crocs, birds, and plants, this excursion teaches you about Aboriginal myths, bush tucker, and hunting techniques. The cruise lasts about 1 hour and 45 minutes, starting at 9 and 11am and 1 and 3pm daily May through October (tours sometimes operate in the Wet too, so check the website or call for details). A free shuttle will take you from the Border Store, at Manbiyarra just before the river, to the boat ramp. It costs A$45 for adults and A$25 for children 4 to 14. It takes only 25 people.
Aboriginal Art & Culture
There are as many as 5,000 art sites throughout the park, though for cultural reasons the Aboriginal owners make only a few accessible to visitors. Dating the rock art is controversial, but some paintings may be 50,000 years old. The best are Nourlangie Rock and Ubirr Rock. Nourlangie, 31km (19 miles) southeast of the Bowali Visitor Centre, features "X-ray"-style paintings of animals; a vivid, energetic striped Dreamtime figure of Namarrgon, the "Lightning Man"; and modern depictions of a white man in boots, a rifle, and a sailing ship. You'll also find rock paintings at Nanguluwur, on the other side of Nourlangie Rock, and a variety of excellent sites at Ubirr Rock, which is worth the 250m (820-ft.) climb for the additional sites higher up, and for views of the flood plain.
Ubirr Rock can be cut off in the Wet, but the views of afternoon lightning storms from the top at that time are breathtaking.
Unlike most sites in Kakadu, Ubirr is not open 24 hours -- it opens at 8:30am April through November and at 2pm December through March, and closes at sunset year-round. There is a 1.5km (1-mile) signposted trail past Nourlangie's paintings (short trails to the art sites shoot off it), an easy 1.7km (1-mile) trail from the parking lot into Nanguluwur, and a 1km (.5-mile) circuit at Ubirr. Access to the sites is free (once you have your park permit, available from Tourism Top End or the Bowali Visitor Centre).
Displays and videos about bush tucker, Dreamtime creation myths, and lifestyles of the Bininj Aborigines can be found at the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Cooinda (tel. 08/8979 0145). This building was built in the shape of a pig-nose turtle at the direction of the Aboriginal owners. It has a quality gift shop selling such items as didgeridoos, bark paintings by local artists, and baskets woven from pandanus fronds. The center is open daily from 9am to 5pm, and admission is free. A 1km-long (.5-mile) trail connects it to Gagudju Lodge Cooinda and the Yellow Water Billabong.
If you are taking a tour to Arnhemland, check if it goes to Injalak Arts and Crafts (tel. 08/8979 0190; www.injalak.com) at Gunbalanya (Oenpelli). This small Aboriginal township, about 300km (186 miles) east of Darwin, draws its inspiration from Injalak Hill, a site rich in rock paintings. Since it opened in 1989, the center has gained a reputation for producing fine indigenous contemporary art, carvings, and weavings. This is the place to buy them at their source and to meet the artists, some of whom are likely to be working on the veranda when you visit. Injalak is a nonprofit, community enterprise, and you can be sure that all artists are paid in full, upfront for their work. Injalak is open weekdays from 8am to 4:30pm. From June to October, it may also be open on Saturdays from 8:30am to 2pm, but it is advisable to check first. Tours of Injalak Hill, taking about 3 hours, run from the arts center from June to September in the mornings only. It is only possible to drive to Gunbalanya in the Dry, May to November. Unless you have a 4WD, ensure you check road conditions before setting out. You will need to drive across a flooded causeway on the East Alligator River, so check tide times and seek advice from the Northern Land Council (tel. 08/8920 5100 in Darwin, or 08/8938 3000 in Jabiru). You will also need to buy a permit (A$13 adults, children free) from the NLC. Between December and April, in the Wet, it is not possible to cross the East Alligator River at all and access is by air only. Permits are required whether driving or flying. The permit is to visit Injalak only. Once you cross the East Alligator River you may not stop anywhere until you arrive at Injalak. It may sound difficult, but if you are fascinated by Aboriginal art and culture you will find it very rewarding.
Scenic flights over the flood plains and the rainforest-filled ravines of the escarpment are worth taking if the strain is not too great on your wallet. They're much more interesting in the Wet than in the Dry, because the flood plains spread and Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls swell from their Dry season trickle to a flood. Viewing it from the air is also the best way to appreciate the clever crocodile shape of the Gagudju Crocodile Holiday Inn. North Australian Helicopters (tel. 1800/898 977 in Australia, or 08/8979 2444; www.northaustralianhelicopters.com.au) operates flights from Jabiru from A$195 per person, but to see Jim Jim and Twin Falls, you must take the flight costing A$495 per person. Kakadu Air Services (tel. 1800/089 113 in Australia, or 08/8941 9611; www.kakaduair.com.au) runs 30-minute fixed-wing flights from Jabiru and Cooinda for A$130 adults and A$104 children, as well as heli-flights from A$195 per person for 20 minutes. Airborne Solutions (tel. 08/8972 2345, or 0437/254 121 mobile; www.airbornesolutions.com.au) runs a Kakadu helicopter day trip from Darwin for A$1,995 per person (minimum two people), in which you will cover nearly 700km (435 miles) and see places inaccessible to most people. The tour includes a stop at the Injalak Art Centre at Gunbalanya (Oenpelli) in Arnhemland and isolated rock painting sites. It's expensive, but worth every cent in my book!
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.