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Australia: Kakadu

A sign warning of crocodiles
Kakadu might be full of beautiful rock pools, but you'd be mad to swim in them

After wearing myself out in Nitmiluk, I drove northeast to Kakadu National Park, without a doubt the most famous National Park in Australia. It's certainly one of the most popular, and people either love it or loathe it. I've heard some people call it Kaka-don't, but it's not the sort of attraction you miss out just because someone else didn't like it. At A$15 the entry fee is three times the fee at any of the Western Australian parks, but you do get your money's worth; you can stay for 14 days, and bush camping is free (though there are sites with amenities for a paltry A$5 per night). When I paid, I mentioned to the ranger that I was interested in walking, and he handed me a huge bundle of leaflets, detailing the marked tracks available, and apart from three sites, they were all accessible by two-wheel-drive. (The most notable 4WD sites are Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls, to which day tours cost A$120; maybe next time.)

Southern Kakadu

Mardugal Billabong
The tranquillity of Mardugal Billabong

I spent my first day in Kakadu at Gunlom (also known as Waterfall Creek), a beautiful crocodile-free rock pool full of fish and cold, clear water; it was the perfect antidote to the long drive over the endless corrugation, so I set up camp there and planned my visit. The park looked so good from all the literature I'd been given and I was really enthusiastic, particularly after reading the glowing entries in my Lonely Planet guide. Little was I to know that Gunlom would be one of the most beautiful spots on the entire trip.

Yellow Water
Pretty Yellow Water is one of the most important tropical wetlands on the planet

Slick Tourism

A man-eating saltwater crocodile in Yellow Water
A man-eating saltwater crocodile lurking in the wetlands of Yellow Water

Cooinda is one of the hotel complexes in Kakadu, and I was culture-shocked; blubbery, whingeing tourists oozed out of their air-conditioned coaches to book into soulless units and ensure that their seats on the whizz-through tours of Kakadu's highlights had been reserved, while cheery girls with American accents greeted potential tour-victims with cheesy smiles and ingratiating sales talk. I nearly upped and ran away, but I spotted a boat tour for 6.45am the next day and paid up; my theory was that the sort of tourists I wanted to avoid wouldn't be up for a tour that early. After a quick lunch on the lawn – during which a huge black crow swooped down on the half-eaten sandwich in my hand, snatched it clean out of my fingers and flew up into a tree to eat it, the little swine – I got out as fast as I could.

A giant termite mound at the Rock Holes, Kakadu
A giant termite mound at the Rock Holes
Rock art at Nourlangie Rock
Rock art at Nourlangie Rock

Iligadjarr and Tea

Rock art in the famous x-ray style at Nourlangie
The picture of Lightning Man at Nourlangie

The next walk was round the Anbangbang Billabong – more wetland, same story, but with a very pleasing backdrop of the awesome Nourlangie Rock – followed by a hop up Nawurlandja Lookout, a view that was again rather smoky, but good nonetheless. My next jaunt was to Gubara, a walk that started at the end of a god-awful 9km dirt boneshaker, and which ended up at some stagnant and rather smelly rock pools, rather than the luscious flowing river promised in the brochure. There was just enough flowing stream to have a quick dip, but only time will tell if I've caught something fatal in the process. It didn't take much persuasion to head off to the Burdulba Camp to set up the tent and have a cuppa... or two, or three, or four...

The Wonder of Ubir

Ubir's rock art
X-ray-style rock art at Ubir

The following day was the day of reckoning, Kakadu's last chance to prove to me that it deserved its position as Australia's Number One National Park. I suppose it tried its hardest, but by the end of the day all I could think of was driving to Darwin. I started the day early – before the sun rises is the only remotely cool time of day or night – and headed back to Nourlangie Rock to start the Barrk Sandstone Bush Walk, which I did at 8am (by which time the temperature had already reached 22°C, or 70°F). This bushwalk is the longest in the park at 12km, and it's supposed to take 6-8 hours. By 11am I was back, having trudged through some interesting sandstone mountains with ornate erosion patters, and having visited the Naguluwur rock art site. It wasn't the best walk I've ever done, but it wasn't the worst; it was average, as much of Kakadu's walks seem to be.

The view from Ubir
The view over Kakadu from Ubir

1 A funny thing happened to me in Merl on my last night in Kakadu, as I torchlit my way through the night to make use of the A$5 ablutions. There I was, minding my own business, a sitting target for all the mozzies who'd discovered that the toilet was a perfect spot for target practice, when I spotted an odd shape sticking out of the top of the door. Closer inspection showed it to be a lizard that I'd accidentally trapped, so I opened the door, let him go and went back to the job in hand. The next thing I knew a huge beetle was wandering around my feet, trying to climb up to join me, so I finished off and headed off back into the night. The lizard and beetle weren't a drama, but as I walked back, this huge bird – well, I couldn't see it, but it sounded huge – swooped down from the trees, right past my head, squawking as it went. Now that did scare the shit out of me... good job I'd just done what I'd done, if you catch my drift.