Northern Australia trip 2002, Part 4: Kakadu and Nitmiluk

A map of the trip route is here.

Previous installment: Borroloola to Darwin. Part 1 (Airlie Beach to Karumba), Part 2 (Karumba to Borroloola), Part 4 (Kakadu and Nitmiluk), Part 5 (Katherine and home). Click on a photo to see it full size. Photo albums are here: Kakadu and Nitmiluk.

Note: Some things have changed since we took this trip, so some statements are out of date. We’ve updated many of the links to other information sources, but we haven’t (yet) attempted to add notes on all the other changes.


In our previous episode, we drove from Borroloola to Darwin in the Northern Territory. In this episode, we visit Kakadu and Nitmiluk National Parks.

Tuesday 30 July 2002.
We headed out of Darwin towards Adelaide, turning off after 20 km onto the Arnhem Highway towards Kakadu National Park.

This (northern) approach to Kakadu has some boring stretches as well as the occasional point of interest. There are a set of apparently competing “jumping crocodile” river cruises, one of which claims to be the original. At the Mary River National Park you can hire boats. Termite mounds of formidable size line the roads in many areas.

We collected lunch from the Bark Hut roadhouse at Annaburoo (12-54.014S 131-40.563E). The Kakadu entry gate wasn’t much further along (12-48.054 132-07.711E). We ate lunch at some facilities just past that. The flies were bad, and biting insects were to be a feature of Kakadu. (Every tour’s list of “things to bring” started with insect repellent.)

We stopped for the day at Aurora Kakadu Resort near the South Alligator River (12-40.465S 132-28.991E), where there was a large group of cabins catering for bus tours and travellers. There was also a slightly neglected but adequate camping and caravan area. They had plenty of space, but the showers were again designed by people who don’t use showers.

We walked to the Anggardabal billabong in the late afternoon, and saw a reasonable selection of water birds. The water level was down a considerable amount. The mosquito population was aggressive, active and slow.

The open face steak sandwich dinner we had that night was of staggering size and quite tasty.

Wednesday 31 July 2002.
We stopped a kilometre up the road at the South Alligator River and observed birds. The easiest to see were the flocks of cockatoos, which had a white fluffy crest, unlike the sulphur crested ones we usually see. We think these are a type called “Little Corella” but we’re not birders, so we could be wrong. We saw a number of nests in the trees, but the nests were probably those of predator birds like kites.

Mamukala billabongWe continued another 11 km to the Mamukala billabong, which had a splendid large (partially enclosed) observing platform, a wonderfully cool, breezy, well shaded spot. Numerous species of water fowls could be seen around this much larger waterhole. We also saw a few colourful species of smaller birds, one looking like a miniature kingfisher.

We booked into the Aurora caravan park at Jabiru, just near the Kakadu Highway turnoff (12-39.799S 132-50.152E). After leaving a table and chairs to mark our camp site, we departed again for the 40 km drive to Ubirr in the East Alligator area. This is quite a good paved road, in contrast to the gravel track that Jean and her parents didn’t take in 1990. The only real problem was that we did our entire walk in the blaze of the mid-afternoon tropical sun, and that was noticeable. We were amused at the signs: “Carry lots of water–and drink it!”

Rock art at Ubirr, Kakadu N.P.Rock art at Ubirr, Kakadu N.P.Ubirr has an extensive collection of aboriginal rock art, all of which you can view during an easy walk. Some of the art was related to food, as you would expect. One place has been compared to a restaurant menu: a whole series of detailed drawings of edible fish, in a row on an outcropping over a shallow cave that would have done nicely as a place to prepare and eat food.

A lot of the artwork had been repainted, or painted over, during the time the site was used. Many paintings were done almost as X-rays, with the interior skeleton of the fish or whatever visible, as well as their shape, although this is said to be a recent method.

There was a Rainbow Serpent, of course. At one point we saw a painting underneath a tall overhang. We could only suspect there was once a tree there (the legend is that the spirits could lift the rock and put it back). One painting appears to show a Tasmanian Tiger, now extinct. Other paintings show European contact: figures with hands in their pockets, wearing shoes, and smoking a pipe.

Lookout at Ubirr, Kakadu N.P.We walked to the top of a lookout, where we had marvellous views of the Narbab floodplains and lakes, as well as some of the other rock formations. The walk up was relatively easy, although very steep in parts and quite poorly marked. Getting down again was be a bit more exciting; Jean ended up sitting down and sliding off the rocks in a few places, since her knees don’t take well to climbing down. However the view was well worth the effort.

View of floodplain from Ubirr area, Kakadu N.P.We had lunch in the motorhome, and thus mostly escaped the flies. We couldn’t manage another walk, although there are others in the Border Store and Manbiyarra areas nearby. The river cruise is also reputed to tell you much of aboriginal culture.

Upon getting back to Jabiru, we parked in the township, where we found the postal agency, a newsagency, and a Woolworths supermarket. The town was designed for over 3000 people, but the Ranger mine has never had more than 1200 people. The town includes features like a tunnel under the main road to the high school. We drove past the expensive hotel, built to resemble a crocodile (it’s particularly noticeable from the air), but didn’t go in.

We had a large, delicious barramundi meal at the campground’s bar/bistro area by the large swimming pool, which is mostly covered by shadecloth, a necessity in this climate.

Thursday 1 August 2002.
After a morning doing laundry and other chores, we drove to the airport for our tours.

View of Kakau from airThe Ranger open cut uranium mine was interesting, especially if you like hearing about industrial processing. The overburden is removed by a combination of blasting and digging, and stockpiled by the radiation levels. The ore is crushed down progressively smaller, before being turned into a fine powder. They extract uranium as the oxide (U3O8), not as yellowcake. The giant piles of yellow stuff are sulphur, used to make sulphuric acid for the extraction process.

They monitor the radiation levels of the water used, and go through a lot of water for settling dust. The grounds are covered with lawn, with watering systems working most of the time, as this helps settle dust. Naturally there is water life in the ponds. At the end of the life of the mine, the company has to restore the surface. This has already been done in one area that formerly contained a construction town, and it is hard to tell it from virgin scrub after nearly 20 years.

View of Kakdu N.P. from airWe took a late afternoon one hour flight in a small plane over the East Alligator River and Ubirr. The flight gave a marvellous opportunity to see part of Kakadu from above. No way you could get to many of these areas by vehicle.

Back at the caravan park, Eric visited some people with a fine example of a WORT (Weird Off Road Truck), however they hadn’t heard of Rob Gray’s website. Eric spent an entertaining hour or so talking with the owners. They were going along with the people from the travelling show (in Darwin last week when we were there, and due next in Mt Isa).

Friday was a rest day.

Saturday 3 August 2002.
East Alligator River, Kakadu N.P. from airWe packed up and drove to Cooinda, where we set up camp again. Jean and her parents stayed in one of the (expensive) rooms on their 1990 trip. Park literature suggests that the rooms (both here and at Jabiru are often booked out, but the campgrounds rarely are full. Certainly when we were there, we saw plenty of empty campsites, at least in the unpowered areas.

On our way, we stopped at the Bowali Information Centre. This includes an aboriginal cultural centre, which had some interesting information about the local clan groups. We spent about an hour there, and could easily have stayed longer. It was very well laid out and explained things clearly.

Rock art at Nourlangie, Kakadu N.P.Walking track to lookout, Nourlangie, Kakadu N.P.We also took a side trip to Nourlangie Rock, another easily accessible site for rock art. Here there was a 1 km walking track, with four or so rock art areas you could view. We thought Ubirr was better, but these were also interesting. There was also a viewing area for some reasonably dramatic cliff sides. Everything was well signposted, and had easy access to most of it. The crowds (helped by the arrival of several tour buses) were definitely much larger than at Ubirr.

We passed on visiting some of the other sites, partly because of the heat, but mostly because Jean’s knees wouldn’t take the climbing. Fortunately, Jean had seen some of these sites when she was here before.

At Cooinda (88065 km 12-54.320S 132-31.205E), we ate dinner at the bistro. Eric had a snack, and Jean sampled the salad bar. It didn’t have a large range of items, but what it did have were good. Most other people appeared to be buying a barbecue-it-yourself steak along with salad or hot vegetables.

Dawn at Yellow Water, Kakadu N.P.Crocodile in the mist, Yellow Water, Kakadu N.P.Sunday 4 August 2002.

Up early to catch the shuttle bus to Yellow Water for the two hour dawn cruise, a marvelous experience. Spectacular sunrise over the billabong and Alligator Creek water, with mysterious mists above the water, through which crocodiles swam silently. We saw a wide variety of water birds, all well described by the guide. This is one of the better river trips we’ve taken, especially for bird watchers. It was so early that it was even chilly on the water.

After a late breakfast we walked the kilometre to the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre, which like others had some brief but interesting information about the local clan groups. Some of the printed fabric and other items for sale in the shop were attractive, and mostly of much better quality than is available in many tourist stores. We have no place to put souvenirs and Jean isn’t sewing much anymore, so we didn’t buy anything.

Monday 5 August 2002.
We left Cooinda in the morning. We stopped briefly at the Mardagal camping ground and went for a walk to the billabong. Very peaceful, but not nearly the bird life of others.

We continued west on the Kakadu Highway, another road that hadn’t been paved in 1990. Then, if you had a non-4WD rental car, as we did, you had to turn back from Cooinda and retrace your path almost to Darwin.

Leliyn (Edith Falls), Nitmiluk N.P.We stopped briefly at Mary River Roadhouse for a snack, then continued on to Pine Creek, where we ate lunch. Turning south on the Stuart Highway, after 50 km we diverted to Leliyn (Edith Falls) in the Nitmiluk National Park. There we were delighted to discover a pleasant campground with plenty of space available, so we booked in.

The cold water in the large natural pool by the falls was a welcome shock after the heat of the day. We didn’t feel up to swimming the entire distance across the pool to the falls, though Eric could have done so if the water had been warmer. The bushwalks were all too long and hard to contemplate.

Much refreshed, we ate dinner, purchased earlier from the kiosk, which stops serving food in the mid-afternoon.

Katherine GorgeTuesday 6 August 2002.
Leaving Edith Falls, we drove into Katherine and immediately headed east to Nitmiluk Gorge (formerly known as Katherine Gorge, 14-19.063S 132-25.229E), arriving in plenty of time to get a powered campsite for two nights. By mid-afternoon, this popular spot had completely filled, although there were still some unpowered sites vacant.

We were surprised to discover that Jean’s CDMA phone was getting a strong signal here, and later chats with staff revealed that the service had only become operational a few days earlier.

As we parked, someone came up to tell us that our rear fuel tank appeared to be bouncing a lot on its supports. Closer inspection revealed that one of the three steel supports was completely broken, and another was splitting. Alarmed, we siphoned the remaining 70 litres of fuel from that tank into the front tank and Jean phoned around to locate a truck repairer in Katherine and make arrangements to have the supports rewelded.

Katherine GorgeDinner was at the bistro in the Information Centre. Good food, but expensive.

Wednesday 7 August 2002.
We had a choice of 2-hour, 4-hour, or 8-hour cruises on the Gorge, and chose the 4-hour cruise. In retrospect, we don’t think it was worth the extra time and money, as the extra time was mostly taken up with opportunities to swim, which didn’t interest us all that much, and the most interesting (to us) part of the trip was on the same stretch of river covered by the 2-hour cruise.

Tour boat and canoes, Katherine GorgeThe gorge itself is quite spectacular, and hordes of people in canoes were paddling leisurely along. At two places we had to get out of the boats and climb over rocks to the next pool, where another boat awaited us. The paddlers had to carry their canoes with them, usually over or alongside some minor rapids. Amazing flood heights, 18 metres. Spectacular cliffs.

After the cruise we departed our campsite and drove very slowly and carefully (so as not to bounce the rear tank too much) back to Katherine, where we located the repair place, RJ Motors, 3 km north of town on the main highway. They were able to remove the tank and its brackets that day, so we could drive away and find a place to camp for the night (rather than going to a motel as we’d done in Darwin).

Next episode: Katherine and home.

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For more information about places mentioned

Kakadu National Park http://www.ea.gov.au/parks/kakadu/

Mary River Park http://www.nt.gov.au/nreta/parks/find/maryriver.html and http://maryriverpark.com.au/

Nitmiluk National Park http://www.nt.gov.au/nreta/parks/find/nitmiluk.html