The Northern Territory’s Kakadu National Park is roughly the size of Belgium, or a little smaller than Fiji.
You could spend weeks hiking the trails, fishing its rivers, spotting the myriad birdlife and bathing in its waterfalls – but for most of us, time is the barrier.
So how on earth do you “do” Kakadu in three days? Here are some ‘must do” suggestions to make the most of your trip.
It’s worth taking to the air to appreciate the vastness and majesty of this landscape. An hour-long scenic flight takes in the mighty Jim Jim Falls (there had been a lot of rain when I visited) and skirts Arnhem land and outlying Aboriginal settlements. Not only that, it’s great to see the quirky crocodile-shaped Mercure hotel near the airport with its yellow “eyes” when you’re airborne – also a good spot for lunch when you’re back on terra firma.
In the afternoon, stop off at the nearby Bowali visitor centre (5km from Jabiru airport) where there are great displays and videos on the flora, fauna and geographical makeup of Kakadu, as well as an on-site cafe and gift shop.
You will now be hankering to get into the bush itself. Don your hiking boots, pack a swimsuit and book a guided walking tour. Tours cater for all fitness levels. Our group, booked through Kakadu Lodge in Cooinda, spanned ages 22 to a sprightly 82 year old. We headed south into the park, stopping off to view giant termite mounds before walks to several different waterfalls where we could swim (be a little cautious: there are signs warning of crocs, everywhere). The more you get up close and personal in Kakadu, the more rewarding and revealing the place becomes.
The wetlands of Kakadu are home to a third of Australia’s birdlife not to mention the infamous crocodiles. There are several ways to see crocs in their natural habitat while maintaining all your limbs. You could, on the way to Kakadu, stop off at the Spectacular Jumping Crocodiles cruise on the Arnhem highway. You get to look the crocs in the eye as they make a beeline for the boat, attracted by hunks of chicken being dangled over the side. Propelling themselves upwards by the strength of their tails, the crocs jump for the dangling bait to a chorus of camera clicks! Alternatively, in Cooinda, Yellow Water cruises steer their way gently through the billabongs where crocs are regularly spied, particularly during the dawn and dusk cruises when, along with all the other wildlife, they are at their most active.
No visit to Kakadu is complete without a visit to one of the sites of Aboriginal rock paintings. Before you go, stop in at the Warradjan Cultural Centre where fascinating artefacts and historical photographs of Aborigines relationship to this land will help you better understand the rock art. Nourlangie rock, about 15 minutes from Cooinda, is easily accessible and a gentle roundtrip under the escarpment to see beautiful hunting scenes or the terrifying Lightning man.
DINING OUT IN DARWIN: Our top five
Darwin sits closer to south-east Asia than it does to Australia’s other major cities, so it’s not surprising that the cuisine has always had a strong Asian influence. Factor in the creative use of bush tucker ingredients so typical of the Northern Territory, and it adds up to truly unique dining experiences.
- THE FOODIE’S FAVOURITE: Wharf One
As an example of the intimate, community vibe in Darwin, the manager at Wharf One waterfront restaurant, likes to tell the story of how she impressed some diners one evening by getting the convention centre next door, usually lit up in neon purple, changed to a different colour, after a swift phone call. “Everyone in Darwin knows each other,” she laughs.
Service at Wharf One is like that, too. Nothing is too much trouble. Informality is a feature of dining out in Darwin, but don’t mistake this for a lack of quality or attention to detail. Our table for four was encouraged to share – and the consensus was that the homemade seafood pasta and lamb shank with creamed potatoes were the standout dishes. Wharf One has great views of the harbour and the cruise ships, whether you choose lunch or dinner, inside or on the terrace.
- THE LOCAL’S HAUNT: Hanuman
I can understand why this restaurant is a local’s favourite. One of the oldest Indian eateries in the city, it mixes dishes from the sub-continent with Sri-Lankan, Thai and Singaporean favourites. Take your pick: there’s an airy outdoor seating space, decorated with Thai artefacts that contrasts with a scarlet coloured, cosy interior. Nice touches come in the form of individual, beautiful hand-painted plates and the kind of service borne of long experience – attentive without being interfering. And as for the food? The crispy tandoori-style fish was as fresh, spicy and delicious as anything I’ve eaten in India.
- THE HIPPEST: PM Eat and Drink
A more hip and intimate locale, giant, graphic murals of fish and octopus swim across one wall of this prosaically-named restaurant. A tapas menu with the emphasis on seafood, that includes locally-sourced dishes such as grilled sardines, Sashimi, pickled fennel salad and pan-fried calamari.
- THE BEST VIEWS: Pee Wee’s at the Point.
A tranquil and beautiful spot, set on four acres of absolute waterfront, Pee Wee’s at the Point is a little out of town and looks back across Fannie Bay to the city. Go for the sunset and the high-quality food, such as kangaroo carpaccio stuffed with truffle mushrooms or the crocodile with chilli, ginger,coconut and lime.
- THE BEST COFFEE: Laneway
If, like me, your biggest concern when visiting a new city is finding a great cup of coffee, then Laneway is your answer in Darwin. A good place for breakfast or brunch, with large wooden tables to share and an open plan kitchen serving up delicious hotcakes, burgers and tempting sweet treats. There are also plenty of healthy options: the watermelon, apple and mint juice was particularly good.
Post Picture Credit: Twin Falls (Aerial) : Sam Earp/Tourism NT