There's nothing quite like escaping for a long weekend in the wilderness when you've been working in the city for so long. I always get a bit antsy and stressed out when I'm in the city for long periods without a chance to escape into nature. So after working flat out for months in the city, when my work suddenly gave me four days off in a row I grabbed the opportunity and planned to make the most of it. A very last minute plan - as in, we woke up and decided to take a three/four day trip around the national park exploring all the waterfalls and hikes along the way. This was a trip I had waited two and a half years to finally experience and I was so excited to finally see Kakadu National Park with my own eyes - and now I can't wait to share my experience with you all. This post will cover everything you need to know, from car hire and what to pack, to which sights you don't want to miss and a good schedule for your trip.
Planning your trip and car hire
Now Kakadu is one you can plan as much or as little as you want - you might need to hire a car, find a tent and all you camping gear - or you might want to book somewhere nice to stay. We have spent a lot of time camping the whole way up the West Coast of Australia so we already knew exactly what we would need. We called round a few hire car companies knowing we would need to get a 4x4 for the trip and made sure to compare prices and what access we were allowed with each vehicle - the best deal at such short notice ended up being with Advance Car Rentals who charged around $700 for three nights of car hire and allowed us full access to the whole park except Twin Falls. Our 4WD was just big enough for us to sleep in the car with the back seats down - it wasn't super comfortable but with a few duvets in there and pillows it was enough for three nights. We were glad not to have to put up a tent each night because we always arrived at our campsites in the ark after watching the sunset somewhere beautiful.We already had bedding, a stove and cooking equipment, an eski and camping chairs, so we loaded up the car then headed to the supermarket to stock up on food. Lots of fruit and nuts, bread for sandwiches, pasta and some treats to barbecue for dinners. Make sure you take enough food because there is nowhere to buy anything unless you want to pay a small fortune, also take plenty of water or stock up at the Visitor's Centre just off Arnhem Highway near Jabiru- this is also where you can purchase your Park Pass which costs around $40 per adult. Most importantly, make a quick stop at Darwin Visitor's Centre before you leave - tell them you are off to Kakadu and the amazing women in the centre will tell you everything you need to know without wasting your time and they will even give you a whole bag of information. From a campsites guide to facilities, prices and free ones, to maps of the park, ranger's activities and information about every single attraction and countless other walks and activities to check out. This pack is invaluable for your trip and if you pick it up in Darwin, you'll have the few hours in the car to plan - that's all it took us to work out our entire trip.
Don't forget to pack
I packed in a matter of minutes and I had pretty much everything I needed while we were there - make sure you pack using this list and you should be all set for an adventure:
- trainers and flip flops
- shorts, vests, hat, sunglasses and swimwear for the days
- leggings or sweatpants for the evenings to protect against mosquitoes, and a jumper for the chilly nights
- lots of sunscreen and bug spray
- wet wipes
- antibacterial hand gel - when you're dusty, dirty and using bush toilets it is a lifesaver!
- a sarong or light towel for the waterfalls
Where to camp
There are a lot of different places to stay to suit all budgets - from the lovely lodges and eco-rooms available for those needed a few luxuries, to the bush campsites where you can experience the real wilderness. I can't recommend going full bush enough - it really is the only way to do Kakadu - watching the stars at night as we warmed ourselves by a campfire and even the drop loos were all a huge part of the experience. Across all seven sections of the park there are managed campsites with showers and toilets, full on caravan parks and completely basic bush campsites to choose from depending on what you prefer. But don't let the idea of no showers and rustic toilets put you off - that's the only way to camp Aussie style and you quickly fall in love with the lifestyle.
We spent our first night at this boutique campground for those who want the remote outback camping feel while staying close to the action. It was basic with just fire pits, picnic tables and fire pits, but it was also beautiful, quite and felt remote while not having to drive too far after watching the sunset at Ubirr. Plus we were close to the Visitor's Centre for stocking up on water the next morning. This was a perfect first campsite for us and we enjoyed spending hours watching the stars through the trees as our campfire sent sparks up into the atmosphere.
Sandy Billabong and Jim Jim Billabong Campgrounds
The second night we were aiming to stay at Sandy Billabong which is known as the prettiest camping spot in heart of the World Heritage-listed national park. However, driving in the dark, we missed the turning and decided to carry on driving until we reached Jim Jim Billabong Campground. This stunning campsite is a lovely fishing spot and a great place to catch barramundi, so it proved not to be the worst wrong turn in the world. The campsites are not too far apart and are some of the most beautiful to stay in - they're particularly convenient if you're planning on exploring Jim Jim Falls the next day, or heading down to Gunlom and Maguk like we were.
Our final night was spent at Kambolgie Campground, which as one of the quietest campgrounds located nearer the edge of the park is known for boasting an abundance of wildlife. After spending our last day exploring Maguk and Gunlom Falls, and knowing we had a big drive back to Darwin via Pine Creek the next morning - we were keen for a quiet night somewhere on the route out of the park. It was a lovely campsite with fire pits and picnic tables just waiting for us, and our campsite neighbours were lovely, waking us up with coffee in the morning.
All of these campsites were fitted with honesty boxes and asked a small fee for the upkeep of the park, however if you are arriving and leaving in the dark these were pretty hard to find.
Highlights of Kakadu
Sunset Spots & Aboriginal Rock Art
My absolute highlight of Kakadu was without a doubt watching the sunset and discovering Aboriginal artwork up to 20,000 years old, still clearly painted on the rocks telling stories of the people who lived then. Both Ubirr and Nourlangie provide beautiful walks to discover the art at your own pace and be wowed by the details included in the paintings, before heading up to a high point at which to watch the sunset. These are the best sunset spots in the park so I definitely recommend doing one each evening, picture views straight out of The Lion King. Ubirr shows an incredible sunset over the vast open plains, while Nourlangie shows the gradually changing colours of the sunset projected on Nourlangie Rock. There is also a longer 2 hour art site walk at Nanguluwur if you have the time.
Walking & Lookouts
We tried to cram in as many of the short walks, hikes and climbs to lookouts as possible during the trip, but there were so many that we couldn't manage all of them. However, we did try to make sure we completed some of the best, most interesting ones. We did the lookout walks at Mirrai, Bukbukluk and Gungurul which provided sweeping panoramic views across the landscape and are both worth the uphill struggle. We also enjoyed what is described as one of Kakadu's most interesting short walks, the 2.5km track at Bardedjilidji before heading to Ubirr for the 1km bush walk around the artwork and up towards the sunset spot. The next evening you should check out the Nourlangie region which boasts some beautiful walks. We only had time for the 1.5km walk to art sites and the 300m steep slope climb to the sunset spot with views of the escarpment, but there are also other longer art site walks available plus the Gubara Pools Walk which sounded really nice - we just didn't have time to complete the 6km before dark.
Swimming & Chasing Waterfalls
Jim Jim Falls Plunge Pool
If you love swimming in waterfalls as much as me, you're in for a treat at Kakadu, despite the crocs there are several places where it is safe to swim and enjoy the water in the intense heat. The 2km walk at Jim Jim Falls from the car park to the base of the falls is a must do - although just a short walk, it includes rock scrambling through the cool canyon and is a lot of fun. This is one you definitely need a 4WD to access and it is only accessible during dry season - plan a lot of time for this one as it takes 1-2 hours to drive there one-way and it takes a further 1-2 hours to reach the waterfalls, swim and relax. Although the waterfall wasn't really flowing when we were there, it was still a beautiful spot and well worth the journey.
Another incredible spot you don't want to miss - this 2km return steep climb is an intense, but short hike up the side of the cliffs to find natural infinity pools and a lookout with amazing views of the park. At the bottom of the cliffs you will also find a clear plunge pool and a waterfall, a perfect spot for a picnic. This really is one of the most beautiful places I have seen in Australia, perfect for getting those perfect Instagram shots and for relaxing in the sunshine, go late afternoon to avoid the heat of the day and to have the place to yourself. Access is via a gravel road.
Maguk Plunge Pool
A tropical treat, Maguk definitely made up for Jim Jim's waterfall running dry. This one was in full flow and we finally arrived after a very hot 2km walk through a sandy, rocky creek and monsoon forest, to find a beautiful waterfall and plunge pool just perfect for cooling off in. The water is so clear and full of fish, it really is a hidden paradise and we were glad when everyone else left so we could enjoy having the place to ourselves. It is recommended to have 4WD to drive there on the gravel road, this one is dry season only so be sure to check road conditions before you drive.
Our schedule for the long weekend
- Drive the three hours to Bowali Visitor's Centre in Kakadu National Park
- Pick up Park's Pass and stock up on water at the Centre
- Bardedjilidji Walk, 2.5km, near Ubirr, allow 1-2 hours
- Ubirr 1km walk around Aboriginal rock art sites, then 250m uphill climb to sunset spot, allow 1-2 hours
- Camp at Malabanjbanjdju
- Stop off at Mirrai Lookout, 2km steep climb to lookout on top of Mount Cahill, allow 1 hour
- Drive two hours to Jim Jim Falls along 4WD track
- Jim Jim Falls Plunge Pool, 2km walk to falls and allow time for swimming, 1-2 hours
- Drive two hours back to main road
- Head to Nourlangie for an impressive 1.5km walk past an ancient Aboriginal shelter and several outstanding rock art sites, there's also a short, steep climb to Gunwarddehwardde Lookout
- Then just in time for sunset, complete the Nawurlandja Lookout Walk, a steep 300m climb which offers amazing views of the escarpment, Nourlangie and Anbangbang Billabong.
- Camp at either Sandy Billabong and Jim Jim Billabong Campgrounds
- Drive down to Maguk, take the 2km walk to the plunge pool and allow a few hours to swim and enjoy
- Continue to Gungurul where a 4km return walk leads you up to a lookout with views over the South Alligator Valley, allow 1-2 hours
- Carry on to Bukbukluk Lookout, where a 400m return walk awaits with lookout views of old Goodparla Station
- Off to Gunlom Falls next for a tough climb that is more than worth it. A clear plunge pool and waterfall at the bottom, or take the 2km steep hill climb to the top with natural infinity pools and a lookout over Southern Kakadu
- Camp at Kambolgie bush camping site
- If awake early enough, check out Yurmikmik Walks - various lengths at 2km, 5km and 11km
- Start driving home to Darwin via Pine Creek - despite looking a longer journey, it is quicker than driving back through the park
My trip to Kakadu was absolutely magical, it was the perfect, romantic weekend of swimming in waterfalls and camping under the stars with someone special and whether you go as a group or just the two of you, I'm certain you're for a treat. A must-do while in Darwin, if you're stuck looking for people to do it with, try reaching out via the backpacker Facebook pages, or even book a tour. However you choose to experience Kakadu National Park, prepare to be amazed.
What was your Kakadu highlight? Have you got any tips for planning your trip?