Kakadu National Park isn’t just a must do for visitors to Australia, it is also a necessary experience for Australians. For both groups, a trip to Kakadu National Park offers an opportunity to understand the incredibly important connection that the Aboriginal people of Australia have with their land. It also allows everyone to see the one-of-a-kind ecosystem, wildlife and ancient history contained within this 20,000 sq km behemoth of a national park.
When I decided to go to Kakadu National Park on a three day trip recently, I was looking for a little bit of everything. Partly understanding, partly experience, but mostly adventure.
My hunger for that adventure was what motivated me to go on the trip without a guide, and just a few friends. Although there are lots of tours and guided trips available, we really wanted to have more freedom, and more flexibility to see what we wanted, and try and avoid the crowds.
Kakadu National Park 3 Day Camping Itinerary
|Day 1||6am – 7am||Around Darwin||Stock up on food, water and other essentials|
|8am – 9am||Fogg Dam||Approx 1 hour (66 kms)||Failed rice growing project is now a diverse wetland to see the local flora and fauna|
|11am – 11:45am||Mamukala Wetlands||2 hours (160 km)||Wetland environment|
|1pm-2:00pm||Bowali Visitors Centre||30 minutes (33km)||Park entrance, lots of information and assistance|
|2:30pm-3:30pm||Ubirr Art Site, Kakadu||30 minutes (40 km)||Ancient Aboriginal artwork and bushwalk to lookout|
|Evening||Gunlom Falls||Over 100km (2-4 hours depending on driver confidence)||First camping spot, and beautiful swimming area. Stayed overnight.|
|Day 2||2pm||Jim Jim Falls||160km (4-5 hours or so)||Waterfalls, and the next camping spot. Stayed overnight.|
|Day 3||2pm||Darwin||350km (5-6 hours)||Back to Darwin|
- Equipment: I will tell you right now that it pays to have good quality, reliable equipment. Here I’m talking about everything from tents, to cooking, sleeping and lighting equipment. Either buy good quality stuff, or borrow it. If you’re not sure what to bring, consider looking up ‘camping packing lists’ online.
- Car: For this particular trip you absolutely 100% need a 4WD car. We borrowed one off another friend, because we weren’t sure what the deal was with renting to go on some of the rough roads in Kakadu. Still, we saw lots of rental 4WD when we were there so it’s totally possible.
- Emergencies: In case of emergency, make sure at least a few people know where you’re going, and when you plan to be back. That way if anything happens, people are going to come looking for you.
Kakadu National Park Tours
If this already sounds like a bit too much to organize and you prefer a camping package, have a look at the following packages:
|3-Day 4WD Small-Group Litchfield and Kakadu Camping Adventure|
On this 3 day camping tour, you’ll explore Litchfield National Park, Ubirr Art sites, and the Kakadu National Park. Meals are included, along with a driver, camping accommodation, and an air conditioned 4 Wheel Drive.
|3-Day Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land Explorer Tour from Darwin|
Visit the Nourlangie Rock, relax on the Yellow Water Wildlife Cruise and explore the highlights of Kakadu National Park. You’ll be provided with superior accommodation at Mercure Crocodile Holiday Inn.
Preparation in Darwin City
First things first, we got up early so we could get everything that we needed for our three day camping trip to Kakadu. We went shopping in Darwin city, and stocked up on all the essentials. This included enough food for three days, including snacks, most of which was dry or didn’t need refrigeration. We also got water, and a few very big containers for extra water, as well as ice for our esky, which we had drinks in. In town, we filled up on fuel, and also filled our jerry can with emergency fuel just in case.
Then, we headed off down the Stuart Highway. It’s quite a long drive to Kakadu, well over three hours, and we really wanted to break it up a little. Initially, it didn’t look like there was much to do on the way, but when we had a bit of a dig online, we found there was actually tons of stuff that we could visit on the way to make the trip seem a lot shorter.
One thing we were very excited to see were the interesting wetland pockets that are scattered around the Northern Territory. Although the land can look really dry, there are monsoonal rainfalls for around four to six months of the year. During this time, lots of the roads are flooded and cut off, but the environment blooms. Some of the best places to see this are Fogg Dam, which is just outside of Darwin, and also Mamukala Wetlands, which is inside the Kakadu National Park border. Both are free to visit.
We stopped at Fogg Dam to swap drivers, and stretch our legs. Fogg Dam was constructed around the 1950s, and was initially intended for use as a rice growing area. This project failed partly because of finding cuts, but also because the rice attracted thousands of local birds, which settled in the area. Now, this amazing landscape is full of incredible wildlife, and is a beautiful spot to take a walk and explore the unique Northern Territory environment.
While we were at Fogg Dam, we went on the Woodlands to Waterlily Walk, which goes into the wetland through a forest via boardwalk. It’s a really easy walk, and even stopping to read the signs, we completed it in around 50 minutes.
Two hours further down the road, we were seriously in need of a break. Although the landscape in the Northern Territory was very interesting, it can get a little monotonous after two hours. Luckily, on the way to Mamukala we saw some some of the region’s famous termite mounds. Some of these mounds are enormous, bigger than a person. But the funny thing is you won’t really see any termites – they’re safe inside the mound or underneath it.
At Mamukala we decided to take the easier walk, which was approximately 1km long, and took around 30 minutes. There was some more wonderful wetland environment here, and the walks were a great way to see it.
Tip: Beware, there are no toilets at Mamukala, so you’ll need to either dig an emergency toilet, or wait another 30 minutes until you get to the Bowali Visitors Centre.
Arriving into Kakadu – Bowali Visitors Centre
Our first major stop in Kakadu National Park was the Bowali Visitors Centre. This is the entrance to the park and is a great place to stop and get some information about the area and the history of the park.
We wanted to make sure that all the roads to our planned destinations were open, and staff were able to help us out with that. Even though we were visiting in the dry season, there had been some unseasonal rains and we were aware some areas might be flooded. Luckily, everywhere that we had planned to visit was open. The centre had loads of other useful information, and we had a casual lunch there as we were wondering around. If you want to save your supplies, there is a café on site and their coffee is actually surprisingly good. Exactly what I needed after a long drive!
Tip: If you’re not a Northern Territory resident you will need to pay an entrance fee of AUD$25 (at the time of visiting, I was actually a resident). This is valid for 14 consecutive days, and kids under 16 are free. You can get your pass online, but if you don’t, the Bowali Visitors Centre is probably the next best spot (if you’re coming from Darwin).
Aboriginal Rock Art At Ubirr
Next stop was Ubirr for a look at some of the area’s amazing rock art. Ubirr is a world heritage site, and you can tell why straight away. The paintings on the rock here are thought to be 20,000 years old, and are absolutely incredible. I was speechless when we wandered up from the carpark to the rock area with one of the local rangers to see the artworks. The rangers provide free tours in the dry season (May to October) and I’d definitely recommend them to get the most out of the site.
From our guide we learnt that the rock art at Ubirr was used as a kind of historical record. The paintings covered hunting, religion, stories and sorcery, but were also used for fun, as a creative outlet. What I liked the most was learning what the paints were made of, and how easy it was for Aboriginal people to make them using naturally occurring minerals.
Tip: If you wanted to just head straight into Kakadu to the camping spot, you could easily check out Ubirr on the last day on your way back instead of the first. We wanted to make the last day an intense driving day, so we decided to see the site on the first day, and just get it done.
The Long Drive to Gunlom
Our first camping stop for the night was going to be Gunlom Falls. Once called UDP Falls, and sometimes referred to as Waterfall Creek, this out of the way spot was exactly what we were looking for in our Kakadu adventure.
Let me just say, I was glad every moment that we had borrowed a sturdy 4WD. Gunlom is located around 120km southeast of Bowali, but can take a considerably long time to get to. We left the Ubirr by 3:30pm, drove back down towards Jabiru, and then got on the Kakadu Highway and still never made it to Gunlom until around 7pm.
It was a long drive, made longer by the fact that we blew a tyre on the unsealed corrugated gravel road that makes up the last part of the journey. It was a stroke of luck that another car passed us to help change the tyre, as we couldn’t get the bolts loose. That is the downside of travelling with women only!
Still, we didn’t waste our waiting time, instead collecting some firewood (for us and our new tyre-changing friends) to cook with later.
Rolling into Gumlom around 7pm we quickly put our tents up, unpacked some cooking supplies and made a hasty dinner.
- Make sure your first meal is something simple, because after a long day driving, you don’t want to do too much preparation before you eat.
- Remember that lighting is your friend. Make sure you have lots of lights (like lamps and torches).
- If you’re rusty on setting up a tent, practice before you leave for unlikely times when you have to setup in the dark. Believe me on this one.
We got up early in the morning, wanting to get an early start on our day at Gunlom. After a simple breakfast, and a quick walk to the shop on site to buy some more ice for our esky (to keep water cool) and packed up our camp. We wanted to do this early, so we wouldn’t be sweating over it later. When we were ready to go, we headed over to the swimming area.
There were two swimming spots at Gunlom, the bottom of the falls, which features an enormous cool, green pool, with a sandy white beach framed by the rocky cliff, and the top of the falls where you’ll find a series of rock pools with amazing views.
We wanted to head straight for the top, both to get our blood flowing with the short (less than one kilometer) but steep walk, and to see the views. Even though it was only 15-20 minutes walking, we were dying for a swim when we got to the top. The rock pools were a fabulous example of Kakadu’s natural beauty, and we spent hours dipping in and out of the cold water, and lying on the hot rocks. You can get quite close to the cliff/falls area here, or you can move further back where there are even more delightful rock pools. Make sure you bring lots of water to the top, as you won’t want to climb all the way down once you get there.
Around 10am we climbed down to the bottom of the falls, grabbed some lunch to go from our campsite and headed over to the lower falls area. We ate lunch in the shade, and went for a swim in the pool, feeling very small against the backdrop of such an enormous landmark.
We dried off with some more time in the sun, and then decided that it was time to head to our next location: Jim Jim Falls.
Driving to Garnamarr Campground
Like Gunlom, the roads into Jim Jim Falls are not the area’s best. Although the Kakadu Highway is in pretty good shape (but this can change year to year depending on the weather and level of flooding in the area) the turn off to Jim Jim Falls is 50km corrugated dirt track, which can be very rough.
This track leads to the Garnamarr campground, which was where we spent the night. Fees for the campground are the same as at Gunlom, and were collected on site. By now, we were pretty effective at setting up our camp ground, so even though it was getting dark when we arrived, we were done and ready to cook within 20 minutes.
While we were having dinner, we got chatting with other campers in the area (the campground was at about half capacity because our trip happened mid-week). They had just come back from the falls and said that they were flowing quite heavily, and that the sight of the water was incredible. We were so excited to get started the next day!
Morning At Jim Jim Falls
We didn’t need any motivation to get up early the next morning, and get moving out to Jim Jim Falls. Again, we decided it would be better to pack our tents up and be ready to go. This was even more logical at Jim Jim because the falls were around 10-15km away by 4WD. Just be cautious, it’s a very rough track that includes creek crossings and sand, so I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who isn’t absolutely confident as a driver of 4WD vehicles.
Once we arrived at the car park it was very easy to follow the signs that would lead us to the falls. They’re around a kilometre away on foot, and the trek takes you along a beautiful billabong, and also over some boulders (which might be an obstacle if you’re not that fit). Still, it was an amazing adventure, and so worthwhile when we arrived at the gorge and saw the water falling over a cliff about 150 metres tall. It cascaded into a massive pool, fringed by a gorgeous beach where we enjoyed a casual drink and a dip.
Beware, the water is freezing! If it wasn’t so hot, and we weren’t so sweaty from the walk it probably would have been too much for us. But luckily that cold water was exactly what we needed and we absolutely loved it. We had lunch at the beach and basically spent the hottest part of the day alternating between the icy cold water and the toasty hot sand. It was beautiful.
But unfortunately, nothing lasts forever, and as the sun started to fall a little in the sky we knew that we had to head off. We had a seriously long drive ahead of us.
So back we went to the car park, and then back along the bad roads to the Kakadu Highway where we aimed the bonnet for Darwin and started the long trek back. Although we stopped for breaks, as we needed them, we were aiming to get back onto the sealed and signed roads by dark so that there wouldn’t be any chance of us getting lost. After all the stops to rest and change of drivers, we finally arrived at Darwin around 9pm.
Unpacking all of our stuff from the car, we were absolutely exhausted, but it had been one of the best three-day adventures I’d ever had. I felt like, considering how much distance we had to cover, we did really well to see so much, and experience such a large amount of what Kakadu National Park had to offer.
- I can almost guarantee that without at least a couple of drivers (we had three) you’ll have trouble completing the long drive on the last day in the same time we did. It can be very dangerous to be on the roads if you’re tired, so make sure you stop as often as you feel you need to so as not to lose focus. We were swapping drivers around every one and a half hours, and we stopped for coffee and a roadhouse and petrol station along the way. If you do start to feel tired, just pull over to the side of the road and take a quick power nap, you’ll be surprised how effective they can be in combating fatigue.
- When you’re driving along the rougher roads, do not even consider exceeding the speed limits. In fact, my opinion is always that it’s best to stay at least 5km under the speed limit, especially if the roads are unfamiliar to you, or the lighting isn’t in your favour.
|5-Day 4WD Camping Adventure Including Kakadu, Katherine Gorge and Litchfield National Parks|
If 3 days isn’t enough, have a look at this 5 day tour which includes all meals, a driver, air conditioned 4 wheel drive, and camping accommodation. You’ll cover all the major attractions including Jim Jim Falls, Gunlom Fall, Katherine Gorge and Aboriginal art sites.
There were lots of things to consider in undertaking a road trip like this one, and it pays to think of all this in advance to save yourself getting caught out.
Time: Think about how much time you have to spend on your trip. We could have easily stretched this trip to 5 days by spending two night at each camping ground instead of one. To be honest, I do kind of wish we had done that, as there was a feeling of being quite rushed during the trip.
Cost: This trip, although only three days, wasn’t exactly cheap. The main reason for this was fuel. It’s obviously essential for travel by car, but boy is it expensive. This is especially true in Darwin, where fuel is definitely going to be the majority of your expenses. For this, all I can say is to estimate the cost of fuel beforehand, and do your best to get a car that is at least a little fuel-efficient.
Resources: There are some things that I would consider to be 100% essentiall on any trip into outback Australia, but particularly into Kakadu. These are:
- Food: We took a massive box full of food with us because we wanted to make sure we had enough food for all of us to eat. It was lucky that we did because we were all eating a lot more than normal thanks to the amount of exercise we were doing. I’d probably say that if you’re going for 3 days, bring as much food as you’d eat in 4. Also, I’d recommend lots of easy to cook food, as opposed to complicated meals with lots of different ingredients. You can put together quite complicated meals while you’re camping, but it does make things harder.
- Water: Bring as much water as physically possible, and fill up or buy more whenever you get the chance. It is HOT pretty much everywhere, and you will get dehydrated and drink much more water than you usually would. Be prepared for this.
- Emergency Fuel: I would highly recommend bringing an emergency fuel tank with you on your trip. These aren’t that big, and can easily fit in the back of a car. In Australia, they’re called jerry cans, and they can really save your life, especially if you make the mistake of not calculating how much fuel you’re going to use.
- Sun Protection: I’m talking about both sunscreen and sunglasses. Sunscreen is a simple must anywhere in Australia, but it is so important in places like Kakadu where it’s very hot and dry. Your skin really does suffer in weather like that, and the sun is more than enough to ruin your trip. As for the sunglasses, they’re great in combating the glare, which is a massive problem for a lot of drivers (including me) on the roads.
- Insect Repellent: I already learned my lesson on this last time I went camping with some friends where nobody remembered to bring insect repellent. Over the next few days we were swamped with everything from mosquitoes to flies and ended up coming home a few days early. It might be dry, but make no mistake, there are LOTS of bugs in the Northern Territory, and they love people way too much!
Visiting Kakadu National Park was something that I have always wanted to do on my own time. The freedom that I felt being able to explore the amazing park, and see all the incredible natural beauty that was contained inside it, was absolutely worth some of the hassles that came with the package.
The trip lowlight was definitely blowing a tyre on our way to Gumlom. We were very lucky that somebody came along to help us, as we could easily have been sitting around for ages waiting for assistance. It was a close call, and only reinforced to me the necessity of informing people where you’re going when you’re travelling in isolated areas like the outback.
The highlight of the trip for me was definitely visiting Gunlom Falls. Despite the drive, both swimming areas were totally mind-blowing, and so beautiful I felt like I was swimming inside a Northern Territory postcard. Sitting on the edge of the rock pools and looking out over the panoramic views of Kakadu National Park is an experience I would definitely recommend to everyone.
All I can really say after telling my story is that no visitor to the Northern Territory should leave without visiting Kakadu National Park. Although a lot of people might say that Kakadu isn’t worth it, they’ve likely had bad experiences with tour guides, or they haven’t planned properly to see the best of what Kakadu has to offer. These kinds of people have yet to understand the magic contained inside this enormous national park, and should be ignored. Kakadu is gorgeous beyond words, an amazing experience likely to stay with you for years to come.