Kakadu National Park, Australia: What to See and Do

Kakadu National Park is a protected area located in the Northern Territory of Australia, about 171 km southeast of Darwin. This park is recognized worldwide as a World Heritage Site and is also considered a locality with the same name, where 313 people resided according to the 2016 census.

Located in the Alligator Rivers region of the Northern Territory, Kakadu National Park spans 19,804 km², stretching almost 200 km from north to south and more than 100 km from east to west. This vast park is comparable in size to Wales or one-third of Tasmania and is the second largest in Australia, after Munga-Thirri-Simpson Desert National Park. The region is mostly owned by traditional Aboriginal people, who have inhabited these lands for about 60,000 years and currently co-manage the park with Parks Australia. Kakadu stands out for its rich ecological and biological diversity, offering a variety of habitats, as well as an abundance of flora and fauna. Additionally, it is famous for its valuable Aboriginal rock art heritage, with important sites like Ubirr. The park is fully protected under the EPBC Act.

Regarding its recent history, the Ranger uranium mine site, which was one of the most productive uranium mines in the world until its closure in January 2021, is located within the park. Moreover, invasive species such as Asian water buffaloes, feral pigs, cats, red foxes, and rabbits, introduced by settlers and missionaries, pose a threat to its sensitive ecosystems. These animals compete with local species and disrupt the ecological balance of the park and all of Australia. In the past, missionaries, pastoralists, and crocodile hunters have used the area, which began to receive legal protection from the 1970s.


History of Kakadu National Park in Australia

The history of Kakadu National Park dates back to Aboriginal times, receiving the same name as the park "Kakadu", from the adaptation of "Gaagudju", the language spoken in the northwest of the Australian park. This name was misinterpreted by explorers like Baldwin Spencer, who initially associated it with a "Kakadu tribe."

Kakadu National Park

Aboriginal History

Aboriginal people have continuously inhabited Kakadu for around 60,000 years. This park is celebrated for its numerous rock art sites, with more than 5,000 records reflecting Aboriginal culture over millennia. Archaeological findings suggest an Aboriginal presence of at least 20,000 years, with evidence possibly extending up to 40,000 years back.

Non-Aboriginal History

The first non-Aboriginal explorers believed to have reached the north coast of Australia include the Chinese, Malays, and Portuguese, although the first written records are from Dutch explorers in 1623. Abel Tasman in 1644 and Matthew Flinders in 1802 and 1803 are some of the first documented explorers to visit this region.

Aboriginal Rock Art Site at Ubirr

During his exploration between 1818 and 1822, English navigator Phillip Parker King named the three Alligator Rivers, mistaking them for crocodile habitats. Ludwig Leichhardt in 1845 was one of the first European land explorers to visit the region.

Rock Painting at Ubirr

John McDouall Stuart in 1862 also explored the region without finding inhabitants. The Macassans from Indonesia, who visited northern Australia to collect trepang and other valuable items, had contact with the Aboriginal people of Kakadu from the last quarter of the 17th century.

Buffalo Hunters

In the 1880s, the introduced water buffalo began to be commercially hunted in Kakadu, taking advantage of their hides and horns. This activity provided employment to local Aboriginal people during the dry season


Missionaries had a significant impact on the lives of the Aboriginal people in the region. The Kapalga Native Industrial Mission was established in 1899 near the South Alligator River, followed by the Oenpelli Mission in 1925, which operated for 50 years.

Saltwater Crocodiles in Kakadu

Crocodile hunters often used Aboriginal techniques to lure and capture crocodiles, turning this activity into a source of income before protection laws came into effect in the 60s and 70s.


Uranium mining has been a significant activity in Kakadu, especially since the discovery of major deposits in the 1950s. Controversy surrounded these developments, particularly at sites like Coronation Hill and Jabiluka, culminating in environmental and social campaigns that eventually led to the closure of the Ranger uranium mine in 2021.

Declaration of Kakadu as a National Park

On April 4, 2007, the Northern Territory Government officially designated the area occupied by the National Park as a locality named Kakadu. This locality is part of the local government area of the West Arnhem region.

According to the 2016 Australian census, conducted in August of that year, Kakadu had 313 residents living within its boundaries.

The struggle for Kakadu extended over several years, from its proclamation as a National Park in stages between 1979 and 1991, a few years after the declaration of Kosciuszko National Park. During this time, there was opposition to mining exploration and extraction in areas like Coronation Hill and El Sherana by BHP.

The Kakadu Action Group (KAG) was formed in Victoria under the leadership of Lindsay Mollison, who advocated against the mining proposal. The group organized public meetings and contributed to refuting arguments in favor of mining through letters to local newspapers.

In a campaign to influence public opinion and government decisions, the excluded sections within the proposed stage 3 were gradually reduced and finally completely eliminated after the mining proposal was vetoed by Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1991. These actions were crucial for its replacement that same year.

Although the exclusion zone in Jabiluka raised another concern with the proposed uranium mining, it was ultimately discarded, and this part of Kakadu was incorporated into the park in 1996. Precedents set with Coronation Hill played an important role in this decision.

Local First Nations Gaagudju leader Big Bill Neidjie played a crucial role in the campaign against the Jabiluka mine and advocated for the inclusion of the area into the park. In 2011, the Koongarra area, where a proposal for another uranium mine still existed, was added to the World Heritage Region.

Expansion of the Protected Area of Kakadu

Kakadu National Park extends over a vast area of 19,804 km², encompassing mighty landscapes that stretch nearly 200 kilometers from north to south and more than 100 kilometers from east to west. It is approximately the size of Wales, one-third the size of Tasmania, and almost half the size of Switzerland. This is the second-largest national park in Australia, hosting diverse river systems, including the East Alligator River, West Alligator River, Wildman River, and the entire South Alligator River. Among its highlights is the towering Jim Jim Falls.

Recommended Tours and Activities

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What to See and Do in Kakadu National Park

Visit the Nourlangie Rock Shelters

Walking through the ancient Nourlangie shelters is captivating, where generations of Aboriginal people found home during the rainy season. Follow the 1.5 km circular path that takes you through this fascinating landscape. Explore the wide rock shelter and enjoy views from the lookouts towards one of Australia’s most outstanding Aboriginal rock art sites. Here you can contemplate the ancient connections between the people and their land, depicted in the rock paintings.

Nourlangie Rock, Australia

If you visit between May and November, do not miss the opportunity to explore the nearby Anbangbang Billabong. Enjoy views of Nourlangie and the natural beauty of this region.

Aboriginal Rock Art at Ubirr

Rock paintings at Ubirr, in Kakadu National Park Australia

The most outstanding Aboriginal rock art in Australia at Ubirr, another of Kakadu’s incredible sites. Take a walk through Ubirr, observing the different prehistoric artistic styles that make Kakadu famous, with paintings depicting regional plant and animal life such as fish, waterfowl, wallabies, and goannas.

Aboriginal rock art at Ubirr

In Ubirr’s main gallery, there are many examples of rock art that constitute one of the oldest historical records in the world. Afterwards, you can also enjoy the landscape from the lookout with panoramic views that leave no one indifferent, filled with floodplains surrounding the area. There is no better place to witness an impressive sunset.

Boat Ride on the Yellow Water Billabong

Boat ride on the Yellow Water Billabong

Yellow Water Billabong offers a boat ride near Cooinda, where you can witness the sunrise or sunset all year round. Recognized with several awards, this cruise provides the opportunity to see countless birds inhabiting the area, including approximately one-third of all bird species in Australia, totaling around 280 species. Additionally, the birdsong can be heard throughout the trip.

Besides birds, you will have the chance to spot crocodiles, kangaroos, wild horses, and buffaloes inhabiting the lily-adorned billabongs. If you visit between July and November, you can also venture on a 1.8 km return walk through the floodplains to a viewing platform at Home Billabong.

Hiking and Swimming at Motor Car Falls

Motor Car Falls, Australia

Motor Car Falls boasts incredible natural beauty, with options for hiking and taking a refreshing dip in the waterfall located in the middle of the monsoon forest. Motor Car Creek has shaded space overlooking the waterfall, ideal for enjoying during the hot tropical summers when larger waterfalls may be inaccessible or very crowded.

The return hike is 7.5 km, traversing the landscapes of the area. It is an activity to be enjoyed calmly, observing the surroundings while taking in the nature of the forest. The best time to visit Motor Car Falls is early in the morning when you can enjoy the fresh air and tranquility.

Flight for Panoramic Views of the Waterfalls

Experience Kakadu’s waterfalls from the air, gaining a unique perspective on an exciting and safe flight.

During the tropical summer season, when the waterfalls are at their fullest, you can witness the spectacle of water roaring over Jim Jim and Twin Falls. From the air, watching the water plunge from a height of 200 meters amid lush green foliage is breathtaking.

4×4 Route to Jarrangbarnmi (Koolpin Gorge)

The 4×4 route to Koolpin Gorge is another recommended activity in Kakadu National Park. It is an off-road excursion to Jarrangbarnmi, also known as Koolpin Gorge, located in the southeastern corner of the park.

4x4 route to Jarrangbarnmi (Koolpin Gorge)

This trip takes you through challenging terrain, with waterholes and waterfalls surrounded by sandy beaches. It is advisable to be in good physical condition as reaching some sites requires a good hike, but it is worth it to enjoy landscapes that few places possess.

Before departing, check road conditions by contacting the Bowali Visitor Center or visiting Kakadu’s official website to ensure a safe and trouble-free trip.

It is recommended to prepare the permit in advance, as only a limited number of people are allowed entry at a time. This makes it even more special by being less crowded.

Natural Pools with Clear Water at Maguk (Barramundi)

Natural pools with clear water at Maguk (Barramundi)

The lush monsoon rainforest with rock pools filled with refreshing clear water. This place is also known as Barramundi Gorge, a secluded natural waterhole perfect for swimming, located in the stone country of Kakadu at the southern end of the park.

Maguk (Barramundi), Australia

After swimming, it is ideal to start the hike to the top of the waterfall, where there are rocky platforms and another clear, deep pool surrounded by high cliffs. Additionally, it is possible to spend the night at the Maguk campground. However, a 4×4 vehicle is required to reach this location.

Hiking Trails in Kakadu

Kakadu’s trails consist of over 30 routes for different levels. From short and easy walks for everyone to challenging multi-day trekking hikes with varying difficulty levels.

On these hiking trails, you can discover world-renowned rock art sites, climb to waterfall summits, and enjoy waterfalls and natural pools. Walk through steep slopes and observe birds and wildlife around the billabongs.

It is important to always follow the designated paths, carrying water, a hat or cap, and sunscreen.

Birdwatching in the Mamukala Wetlands

The Mamukala wetlands can be visited by taking a simple walk that leads to the viewing platform. It is hidden among bark to keep the birds undisturbed.

Located about 30 km from Jabiru, it is one of the best places for birdwatching in Kakadu.

You can see kites, comb-crested jacanas, cormorants, purple swamphens, finches, and kingfishers feeding and flying around. There is also information explaining the complete life cycle in these wetlands. Although the wetlands are beautiful year-round, they are at their peak at the end of the dry season, from September to November, when tens of thousands of magpie geese cackle and forage for water chestnuts.

Kakadu Visitor Centers

There are several visitor centers in Kakadu National Park, one of which is Bowali, which is accessible on foot. Here, you can learn about the flora, fauna, and habitats of this protected area of the Australian region, as well as its geology.

You can also gain deeper insights into Aboriginal art and crafts by visiting the official gift shop and the Marrawuddi Gallery.

Another option is to visit the Warradjan Cultural Center from Cooinda, where you can learn about the Aboriginal way of life in Kakadu over thousands of years.

Aboriginal Rock Art Sites in Kakadu National Park

The artistic sites of Ubirr, Burrunguy (Nourlangie Rock), and Nanguluwur are internationally recognized as outstanding examples of Aboriginal rock art. Some of the paintings date back up to 20,000 years, making them one of the oldest historical records in the world. The local Aboriginal word for rock art is "kunbim." These sites are located on rocky outcrops that have served as shelters for Aboriginal inhabitants for millennia.

Motivation of Australian Aboriginals to Create the Paintings

  1. Hunting: Animals were painted to ensure successful hunting and to increase their abundance by connecting people with the spirit of the animal.
  2. Religious Importance: Some paintings depict aspects of particular ceremonies.
  3. Stories and Learning: Stories associated with Creation Ancestors, who shaped the world, were painted.
  4. Sorcery and Magic: Paintings could be used to influence events and manipulate people’s lives.
  5. Fun: There were also paintings made for playful and practical purposes.


Ubirr, located in the northeast of the park, offered shelter to Aboriginal people thanks to its rocky outcrops and proximity to the East Alligator River. The paintings here reflect the abundance of food in the area, with depictions of various animals and mythical figures such as the Rainbow Serpent and the Mimi spirits.

Burrunguy (Nourlangie Rock)

This large outcrop in the Arnhem Land Escarpment contains several shelters with impressive paintings that tell stories of the creation ancestors. Some of these stories are known only to certain Aboriginal peoples and are kept secret.


Near Nourlangie, Nanguluwur showcases various styles of rock art, including hand stencils, dynamic figures with large headdresses, depictions of Namandi spirits, and mythical figures such as Alkajko, a female spirit with four arms. There are also representations of "contact art," like a two-masted sailing ship with an anchor chain and a boat behind it.

Flora of Kakadu

Flora of Kakadu National Park, Australia

The diversity of plants in Kakadu is remarkable, with more than 1,700 recorded species due to the park’s varied geology, topography, and habitats. The notable absence of weeds makes it one of the most weed-free national parks in the world.

Each geographical region in Kakadu hosts its own specialized flora. In the "Stone Country," resilient plants like resurrection grasses thrive, adapted to withstand high temperatures and long periods of drought followed by heavy rains. Monsoon forests are found in cool, moist gorges. The southern hills and basins are home to endemic species like Eucalyptus koolpinensis. The lowlands are mainly covered by open forests dominated by eucalypts, with a variety of grasses on the ground, including spear grass and sedges. The Kakadu plum, Terminalia ferdinandiana, is common in the area.

The floodplains, flooded for several months each year, host sedges and freshwater mangroves, pandanus, and Melaleuca. The estuaries and tidal flats are home to a wide variety of mangroves, important for coastal stability and as fish habitats like the barramundi. In the intertidal flats, hardy succulents, herbs, and sedges grow, while along the coast and rivers, monsoon forests with impressive trees like the banyan fig and the kapok bush are found.

Fauna of Kakadu

Fauna of Kakadu National Park

Kakadu National Park is home to a rich diversity of wildlife, including:

  • More than 280 species of birds
  • Approximately 60 species of mammals
  • More than 50 species of freshwater fish
  • More than 10,000 species of insects
  • More than 1,600 species of plants
  • About 117 species of reptiles

The different habitats of the park provide shelter and food for a wide range of animals, some of which are rare, endemic, or endangered. The wildlife in Kakadu has developed adaptations to cope with the park’s extreme climatic conditions, and many animals are active only at certain times of the day or year in response to these conditions.


In Kakadu, there are around 74 species of mammals, most of which are marsupials and placental mammals. Most of these creatures are nocturnal and prefer to live in open forests and wooded areas, making them difficult to observe. However, species like wallabies and kangaroos are more active during the cooler parts of the day and are therefore easier to spot. Common mammals include dingoes, antilopine kangaroos, and various species of wallabies, as well as northern quolls, brush-tailed phascogales, and brown bandicoots, among others. Despite their historical presence, recent studies have revealed a concerning decline in the mammal population in Kakadu, including species that were once abundant, like the northern brushtail possums.


Kakadu hosts more than 280 species of birds, representing approximately one-third of all bird species in Australia. Each of the varied habitats in Kakadu is home to a unique diversity of birds. Some specific areas have been recognized as Important Bird Areas due to the presence of endangered or vulnerable species, such as the Gouldian finch, red goshawk, partridge pigeon, and chestnut-backed button-quail, among others. Additionally, the park is visited by numerous waterbirds, including geese, ducks, storks, and herons, which take advantage of the different bodies of water found within.


Kakadu is home to approximately 117 species of reptiles, all adapted to the region’s climatic extremes. Most snakes are active at night to avoid the heat of the day, while many other reptile species have also been affected by the introduction of the cane toad, leading to a decline in their populations. The park is home to two species of crocodiles: the freshwater crocodile and the estuarine crocodile. The latter, in particular, is known for its mighty size and potential danger to humans.


About 25 species of frogs inhabit Kakadu, adapted to the seasonal changes in water availability. Many of these frogs are more active during the wet season when billabongs and swamps fill with water, providing an abundant food source for other species within the aquatic ecosystem. In addition to being found in wetlands, frogs also inhabit the lowland forests, showing adaptations to various habitats within the park.


In Kakadu’s rivers and waterways, 53 species of freshwater fish have been identified, many with restricted distributions. Notably, unlike other regions of Australia, no introduced fish have been found in the park. This fact suggests the presence of a relatively healthy and balanced ecosystem in Kakadu.


Kakadu is a special habitat for invertebrates, with more than 10,000 species of insects, including grasshoppers, beetles, flies, termites, butterflies, bees, and ants, among others. Termite mounds are a notable feature of the landscape, and there is a wide variety of these insects due to the diversity of habitats and warm temperatures year-round.

Geology of Kakadu

About 140 million years ago, much of the Kakadu area was submerged under a shallow sea. The emerging land was characterized by a steep escarpment, now known as the Arnhem Land Escarpment, rising up to 330 meters above the surrounding plateau and extending for about 500 kilometers. Kakadu features six main geographical formations, from the Arnhem Land plateau to the floodplains and tidal flats. The topography includes sinkholes and gorges, ancient islands that were once part of the plateau, volcanic hills, floodplains, and extensive areas of coast and river systems influenced by tides. These diverse habitats support a rich variety of plant and animal life, highlighting Kakadu’s wetlands, internationally recognized for their exceptional biodiversity and unique ecological characteristics.

Climate of Kakadu

Kakadu, situated in the tropics between 12° and 14° south of the equator, experiences a monsoonal climate with two main seasons: the dry and the wet. During the dry season (April/May to September), dry trade winds prevail and humidity is low, with rare rainfall. The "build-up" (October to December) brings high temperatures and humidity, with spectacular thunderstorms. The wet season (January to March/April) brings heat and rainfall, mainly associated with monsoonal lows from Southeast Asia, although tropical cyclones occasionally bring heavy rains. Annual rainfall ranges from 1,565 mm in Jabiru to 1,300 mm in the Mary River region.

Most non-Aboriginal people tend to divide the climate into wet and dry seasons, but the Bininj/Mungguy people recognize up to six distinct seasons in the Kakadu region.

Kunumeleng: Pre-Monsoon Storms

During this season, which lasts from mid-October to late December, the weather in Kakadu is characterized by afternoon thunderstorms and warm conditions.

Kudjewk: Monsoon Season

From January to March, the monsoon season arrives with heavy rains, thunderstorms, and high temperatures, generating a burst of plant and animal life.

Bangkerreng: Knock ‘em Down Storms

In April, during the "knock ‘em down storms" season, the floods recede, but violent storms and winds topple the vegetation.

Yekke: Cooler but Still Humid Season

From May to mid-June, Yekke brings relatively cool and less humid weather, a time when controlled burns were historically started to promote vegetation growth

Wurrkeng: Dry Season

From mid-June to mid-August, the weather becomes cold and dry, with most streams ceasing to flow and floodplains drying rapidly.

Kurrung: Hot Dry Season

From mid-August to mid-October, Kurrung brings hot and dry weather, with billabongs (small lagoons) becoming increasingly reduced.

Best Time to Visit Kakadu National Park

The best time to visit Kakadu depends on your preferences and planned activities. During the dry season, from April to September, you’ll find pleasant temperatures and sunny days, perfect for hiking the trails and enjoying panoramic views. It is also the ideal season to explore Aboriginal rock art sites and observe wildlife, as animals tend to congregate around the remaining water bodies.

If you prefer to experience spectacular thunderstorms and lush tropical vegetation, the "build-up" from October to December is a good option. This time is also ideal for those interested in witnessing the blooming of plant life and the migration of some bird species.

On the other hand, the wet season, from January to March or April, offers a unique experience for adventurous visitors. Although the rains can be intense, this is when the landscapes become lush and the waterways fill, providing opportunities for exciting boat tours and observing wildlife in their natural habitat.

In summary, each season in Kakadu offers unique and exciting experiences, so the best time to visit depends on your interests and personal preferences.

Tourism in Kakadu National Park

Kakadu National Park is a major tourist attraction in northern Australia, with 202,000 visits recorded in 2005. It is important to consider this when planning your visit, opting for less busy seasons to explore the protected area more peacefully.

Its spectacular landscape, cultural significance for Aboriginal people, and diverse wildlife are the main attractions. Waterfalls and gorges such as Maguk, Gunlom Falls, Twin Falls, and Jim Jim Falls are popular among visitors.

The Aboriginal rock art at sites like Nourlangie and Ubirr is another highlight of the park, attracting numerous visitors. Places like Yellow Water Billabong and Mamukala Wetlands offer opportunities for wildlife observation, while the region is internationally renowned as an excellent birdwatching destination, with about 30% of Australia’s bird species present here.

Large saltwater crocodiles are common in places like Yellow Water and East Alligator River, leading to the filming of movies like "Crocodile" Dundee in this area. Recreational fishing, especially for barramundi, is popular, but hunting is prohibited in the park.

Jabiru offers various accommodation options and services for visitors. Many sites in the park are accessible by standard vehicles, although areas like Twin Falls, Jim Jim Falls, and Gunlom require four-wheel-drive access. The Nature’s Way tourist drive, covering approximately 900 km from Darwin to Jabiru and Katherine and back to Darwin, offers a comprehensive way to experience Kakadu National Park.

Camping Areas within Kakadu National Park

In Kakadu National Park, there is a wide range of designated camping sites available. Places like Jabiru, Cooinda, and South Alligator have commercial camping areas that offer basic amenities such as showers and toilets. These areas are strategically located near the park’s main natural attractions. Some campsites within the park may require a nominal fee, while others are free but may have limited or no facilities.

Visitors can obtain a complete list of camping sites at the Bowali Visitor Center in Kakadu National Park, which was designed by Glenn Murcutt, or through their website. This provides visitors with the necessary information to plan their stay and enjoy the experience of camping amid the park’s stunning natural scenery.

How to Get to Kakadu National Park

There are different ways to reach Kakadu National Park, including flights to the main cities in the Kakadu region, traveling by private vehicle if you are already in the country, or accessing from nearby places where you are touring. It is recommended to check the road conditions report to prevent possible inconveniences and traffic disruptions: Kakadu Access Report.

By Plane

If you decide to fly, the main flight hubs are in Darwin and Alice Springs. From there, you have the option to rent a vehicle or join a tour to reach the park. Currently, there are no direct commercial flights to Kakadu. If you are traveling from abroad, you will likely need to fly to one of the major cities first and then take another flight to Darwin or Alice Springs.

By Car from Darwin

If you prefer a road trip, you can drive from Darwin via the Stuart Highway and then take the Arnhem Highway. For those without their own transportation, there are options to rent 2WD, 4WD vehicles, or even campervans in Darwin. The drive takes approximately three hours, and there are interesting places in the Northern Territory to explore along the way. Check out our suggested itineraries for some ideas. Alternatively, if you prefer not to drive, relax and make new friends by joining a bus or 4WD tour from Darwin.

From Katherine

To explore the park from Katherine, you can rent a 2WD, 4WD vehicle, or a campervan. Take the Stuart Highway and then the Kakadu Highway; it will take about three hours.

From Alice Springs

The journey from Alice Springs to Kakadu is often referred to as the Red Centre Way. It is an iconic journey through the heart of Australia and one you will never forget! You can join an organized tour or drive yourself at your own pace. Tip: If you decide to drive yourself, be sure to refuel your vehicle as frequently as possible. You can find unleaded and leaded petrol and diesel in Jabiru and Cooinda. Additionally, it is advisable to check the daily access report for the latest updates on road conditions and seasonal closures.