Kakadu is a magical place. The expansive national park is one of Australia’s largest and arguably most important, being at the core of the oldest living culture on earth. The UNESCO World Heritage Listed national park is home to some of the country’s best Aboriginal rock art, most diverse flora and fauna and some staggeringly beautiful landscapes.
It’s characterised by the rocky escarpments and floodplains of Arnhem Land, with lush forest, thundering waterfalls, rocky outcrops and a variety of wildlife. With millions of migratory birds and the intimidating saltwater crocodiles, it’s one of the most biodiverse places on earth.
The spiritual land of Kakadu National Park is one of the must visit places in the Northern Territory. While much of the park is quite remote and inaccessible for regular vehicles, there has been some improvements in recent years on the road network to allow 2WD vehicles to reach some of the most important attractions.
I recently spent a week in Kakadu travelling in my van during the dry season, so I’ve put together this guide to Kakadu National Park for those travelling with just a 2WD. This blog details all the best places to see that are accessible on a short road trip from Darwin.
About Kakadu National Park
Kakadu National Park covers an impressive 20, 000 square kilometres east of Darwin in the Northern Territory’s Top End. It’s one of 20 UNESCO World Heritage Listed places in Australia, in recognition of both its natural and cultural values.
It’s the traditional home of the Bininj/Mungguy people, who have lived in the region for tens of thousands of years. The national park is jointly managed by Aboriginal Traditional Owners and Parks Australia.
How to get there
There’s no official airport inside the park area, so by road is the only way to reach Kakadu. There are two main sealed roads that run through the national park, Arnhem Highway and Kakadu Highway, both meeting at Jabiru, the main town inside the park.
If you’re coming from Darwin, the park boundary of Kakadu National Park is just over 150km southeast of the city on Arnhem Highway.
Otherwise, if you’re coming from Katherine further south, it’s also just around 150km to the park entrance on Kakadu Highway.
You can also opt to join a tour either from Darwin or once you arrive in the park. Check some of these out from Viator.
Getting around Kakadu without a 4WD
Kakadu National Park can be explored with any kind of vehicle, thanks to the sealing of the two main highways through the park. But, it’s definitely more suited for 4WDs and you will be able to reach more sights with a high clearance vehicle. However, all of the main highlights of the park can be accessed by the sealed roads now, so you can still get to the enjoy some of the incredible places in Kakadu.
I was travelling in my old Toyota Hiace van, so I was confined to mostly exploring the more accessible places. This guide to Kakadu is aimed at those who are travelling in 2WD vehicles like me, and will focus on the spots you’ll be able to see in the dry season with a regular car or van.
When to visit Kakadu National Park
The best time to visit Kakadu is up for quite a debate. The Traditional Owners recognise six different seasons in Kakadu, each with their own characteristics and unique weather patterns. However, for visiting purposes, it can be simplified to the dry season which runs from May until October and then the wet season from November until April (although the exact beginning of the wet season varies each year).
Most people tend to visit Kakadu National Park in the dry season, as this tends to be the high tourist season for all of Northern Territory. During this time the weather is pretty predictable with clear skies and warm weather every day, with temperatures generally around 30 degrees.
On the other hand, the wet season is characterised by a few months of monsoonal rains with high levels of humidity. However, this is actually a very unique time to be in the national park, with no crowds and the chance to see the incredible wetlands and waterfalls at their best.
Be aware that travelling in the wet season comes with some road closures inside the park. A 4WD would be much more useful in the wet season, although even then some waterfalls are still unreachable. Taking scenic flights in Kakadu National Park is a great option to see some of the highlights during the wet season road closures.
Essential information about visiting Kakadu National Park
Park passes are required to visit Kakadu National Park. They are available online or at one of the Visitor Centres inside the park and are valid for 7 days. You can purchase them online here.
During the popular dry season, passes are $40 per person, while the price drops to $25 per person during the wet season from November until May. It’s cheaper for families and concessions. Kids up to 4 years old are free.
Kakadu covers an incredibly huge area of the Top End and is broken down into seven regions to help make planning your trip easier. These seven regions include:
- South Alligator Region
- Jabiru Region
- East Alligator Region
- Burrungkuy Region
- Yellow Water Region
- Jim Jim/Twin Falls Region
- Mary River Region
There are some Ranger guided activities, which are free and offer an incredible insight into the landscape and culture of Kakadu National Park. They operate all year round, with a different program for the tropical summer and dry winter. The activities are generally rock art tours that last around two hours at various sites on different days of the week. You can find out more about them here.
Early morning and late afternoon are better times to explore the park in terms of both weather and wildlife. However, you need to be very aware driving at night, as the animals are more active and accidents occur often.
Jabiru is the main town and hub of the national park. This is where you’ll find all the essential services, including a supermarket, fuel and variety of accommodation.
Phone reception can be limited inside the park. The only place you’ll find stable reception is at Jabiru, where there’s both Telstra and Optus signal.
Where to stay
Jabiru is the main town in Kakadu National Park and has a nice variety of accommodation options. It’s the perfect base from which to explore the park by car, with most of the highlights just a short day trip away. The other option is to stay near Yellow Water at the lodge.
Aurora Kakadu Lodge and Caravan Park | The most affordable place to stay in Jabiru, Aurora has a range of options including bungalows and lodge rooms, as well as, plenty of caravan park sites. From powered sites to a huge bush camping area, it’s where most people stay when travelling with a van. I stayed in the camping area in my van and really enjoyed my stay. It has a nice lagoon outdoor pool for cooling off. Check availability here.
Cooinda Lodge | Located beside Yellow Water Billabong, this is very convenient if you plan on taking an early morning or late evening tour of the wetlands. With air conditioned rooms and glamping style options, it’s a really nice place to stay in Kakadu. It also features an outdoor pool and restaurant. Check availability here.
Kakadu National Park camping
There are some basic Parks-managed Campgrounds scattered throughout the park area. Most have toilets and water, but a few also have showers. Some more basic and remote sites are unmanaged with honesty boxes, while the more popular ones are managed with an on-site manager.
Prices range from free to $15 per adult. It operates on a first come first served basis, but you can find out more information here.
Some convenient campgrounds for those with a 2WD or towing caravan are:
- Mardukal Campground, near Yellow Water
- Djarradjin Campground, which is not far from Nourlangie Rock
- Merl Campground, the closest to Ubirr
Essential gear for Kakadu
Things to do in Kakadu National Park with a 2WD
If you’re travelling through Kakadu National Park, these are the best things to do that you can access with a regular 2WD vehicle.
A bird watchers dream in Kakadu National Park, Mamukala Wetlands is an incredible hidden gem off the Arnhem Highway. Located just before Jabiru if you’re coming from Darwin, it’s easily accessed just off the highway.
Just a short walk from the car park and you’ll come to a purpose built bird watching shelter, to sit and enjoy the view. The area is beautiful all year round, although keen bird watchers will want to aim for late dry season around September when magpie geese congregate to feed in the area.
If you want to stretch your legs then there’s also a 3km walk around the wetlands. The walk is accessible during the dry season and allows you a closer look at some of the wildlife found there.
Ubirr Rock Art
The most famous attraction of Kakadu, Ubirr is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its cultural importance. There is an easy 1km circuit that takes in the incredible rock art galleries, as well as, a 250m climb up to the top of a rocky outlook. This viewpoint offers a spectacular 360 degree across the floodplains and one of the most incredible sunsets you’ll ever seen.
Watching sunset at Ubirr is one of the most popular things to do in Kakadu, so expect plenty of other people with you during the dry season.
Ubirr is just half an hour north of Jabiru on a sealed road, with plenty of parking to accommodate all visitors. You can easily visit Ubirr in the afternoon from your accommodation in Jabiru, and maybe even combine it with a stop at Cahills Crossing.
If you pass the turnoff for Ubirr and head for the river, there is a car park for Cahills Crossing on your left. This is where the highway crosses over the East Alligator River and continues into Arnhem Land. It has become one of the most accessible places to watch wild crocodiles, with a purpose built platform on the right side of the road for safety.
Estuarine (saltwater) crocodiles are the world’s largest reptile and are right at home in Kakadu, with a large number of them residing in the park boundaries. They tend to congregate at the crossing to feed on fish that get dragged in by the river tide over the road. It generally happens in the late wet season, when water levels are low and I saw quite a few lurking in the waters when I was there in August.
Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) and Nawurlandja
Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) rock art site is recognised along with Ubirr as some of the most impressive Aboriginal rock art in Australia. There is a beautiful 1.5km loop walk which takes you past an Aboriginal shelter and various rock art galleries from the car park. The impressive art in the Anbangbang Rock Shelter shows the history of Aboriginal inhabitants right up until first contact with Europeans. It’s an absolute must see in Kakadu National Park, despite generally being quieter than Ubirr.
It’s worth taking the walk up to Kunwarddewardde Lookout as part of the loop walk, which offers an incredible view of the Nourlangie rock and towards the Arnhem Land Escarpment.
On the road into Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) off the highway, you’ll also see a turnoff for Nawurlandja. This side trip is worth taking and takes you to a short but steep walk up to the top of a rock face to Nawurlandja Lookout. The spectacular view includes of the escarpment in the distance, Burrungkuy rock and Anbangbang Billabong. It’s one of the best places to watch the sunset in Kakadu, and is far less busy than Ubirr. When I was there in August, there was just a handful of other people at sunset time.
Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) is just 30 minutes south of Jabiru on a sealed road off Kakadu Highway.
Yellow Water (Ngurrungurrudjba)
One of the quintessential experiences in Kakadu is a tour of the Yellow Water Wetlands. As part of the South Alligator River floodplain, the wetlands attract a wide variety of wildlife, including birds and huge crocs.
While there is a few ways to explore Yellow Water, a sunset or sunrise cruise is a real highlight. The Aboriginal owned and operated wetlands cruises operate throughout the year and offer a chance to get close to some impressive wildlife.
If you’re not keen on a cruise, there is also a short boardwalk and viewing platform accessible in dry season. Nearby is also the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre, which is worth a stop to learn more about the fascinating culture of the Bininj and Mungguy people.
Kakadu National Park itinerary without a 4WD
If you don’t have a 4WD and still want to visit Kakadu, this itinerary will help you see the sights listed above within just a few days from Darwin.
Day 1 || Leave Darwin early and take the Arnhem Highway to Jabiru. On the way, stop at the Mamukala Wetlands for some bird watching and a short walk. Then continue onto Jabiru to check into your accommodation. In the afternoon, head off towards Ubir. Stop at Cahills Crossing to spot some crocs and then continue onto Ubirr. Wander past the rock art and then find a spot on top of the rock to watch the sunset over the Arnhem Escarpment and floodplains.
Day 2 || Relax in the morning at your accommodation in Jabiru and then set off in the afternoon for Burrungkuy (Nourlangie). Check out the incredible Aboriginal rock art and shelter on the loop walk and head up to Kunwarddewardde Lookout for impressive views. Return to your car and then drive just down the road to Nawurlandja Lookout in time for sunset. Climb to the top of the rock face and enjoy the changing colours of the sky with hardly anyone else around. Return to Jabiru to stay the night or camp at one of the nearby Parks managed campgrounds.
Day 3 || Leave Jabiru behind and head down to Yellow Water. Check into your accommodation at Cooinda Lodge or the campground and relax for the day. You can opt for the sunset Yellow Water Cruise, or head out on the sunrise cruise the next day.
Day 4 || Head back to Darwin or continue out via the Kakadu Highway to Pine Creek and down to Katherine.