Kakadu National Park is Australia’s largest park, covering more than 20,000 square km. It’s over 2 BILLION years old and has been continuously inhabited by more than 52,000 years – making it one of the few places World Heritage listed for both it’s cultural and natural values. The landscapes represented in it include savanna woodlands, monsoon vine forests, broken ridges, stone country, tidal flats, mangroves, coastline, floodplains, rivers and billabongs – with incredibly rich biodiversity filling in every nook and cranny. We spent 5 days here, and barely scratched the surface!
One of the most famously photographed locations in the park is Gunlom Waterfall, or rather the infinity pool at the very top with views of the South Alligator River (misnamed by some explorer who had spent time in the southern US and thought the immense reptiles lurking about were alligators—not crocodiles). As you’ll see most things were named quite haphazardly, even the name “Kakadu” was created when they in misheard the aboriginal word “Gagudju” (one of the languages spoken in the region… gotta love the lazy arrogance of colonizers… Anyway, the hike was straight up a rocky mountainside, and completely worth it!
The upper pool was actually more fun to play in, it had a narrow little canyon to swim up, with huge boulders and water-carved rock holes all along it. After scrambling around some rocks we got to another tiny waterfall, and a watery cave with a giant orb weaver spider (size of my hand) with a web spanning clear across the entrance! No pictures, since we were swimming the whole time, but quite memorable 🙂
After being in crocodile territory for about a month, we still had not seen a single one. So we splurged on a sunset boat cruise to spot the elusive beasts. The South Alligator River is the only river in the world protected from source to mouth, and is the jewel of Kakadu with marvelous wetlands teeming with wildlife. We ended seeing at least a dozen crocs, which made me one very happy camper.
Ubirr & Nourlangie
One of the main attractions of Kakadu is the ancient rock art. We learned a lot about native culture from some free ranger-led walks at these sites. Aborigines have lived there so long that their oral histories and dreamtime creation stories literally recount geologic history. I’m talking about 52,000 years worth of changes in climate and ecology. As the oceans rose and fell, the vegetation and wildlife changed with it, and the local people had to adapt by switching methods for hunting and gathering, which was all recorded in their stories, with incredibly accurate detail. One of the major creator beings is the Rainbow Serpent, who passed through the landscape creating rivers and waterholes, split the rock faces and made hills and mountain ranges, helping form the habitat for all beings. There’s also Namarrgon, the Lightning Man, a very important being in this landscape created and managed by fire.
When the first archeologists and anthropologists came to study the rock art and shelter sites, they would find a piece of something 10,000 years old and instead of spending years trying to find out what it was, what it was used for, etc, the local aborigines would wander by and tell them exactly what it was. This living archeology is virtually unheard of anywhere else.
Tragically, most of the tribes have been wiped out and driven off their land, something more heartbreaking than I can possibly imagine. Even worse, there is still plenty of racism, which we casually overhear on hikes and at campsites (often times not so casually). I hope most of it will die off with the previous generations, as all the school curriculums now emphasize cultural understanding and a less biased history, and all the young australians we meet are just as disgusted as we are at the antiquated attitude. The white rangers who gave the tours (there are aboriginal rangers, too, but many of them were at a funeral the day we went) were so incredibly passionate and respectful of Aboriginal culture and did a great job of telling their stories with utter humility and with the acknowledgment that they knew just a tiny fraction of aboriginal culture and could never do it justice. Out with the old, in with the new—the better.