How to do: Kakadu

Australia's largest national park is one of the world's greatest places–especially in a D-MAX or MU-X.

Words: Marcus Craft

"It's the one you don't see that'll get you," the old bloke said with a wry, knowing smirk.

I wasn't impressed. We were in Kakadu National Park's Garnamarr campground and this gnarled Territorian was talking about crocs, but over the years, I'd heard variations of this warning uttered in various places about other threats: Zimbabwe (about lions), New Zealand (blind-side flankers) and Victoria (elaborately hidden speed cameras). The crusty old codger looked like a twisted leather strap that had been chewed up and spat out by a crocodile–probably because he tasted like he looked.

No, I wasn't concerned about crocs. There might be more than 10,000 of the toothy buggers in Kakadu, but surely if you use some common sense, listen to the locals and guides, obey the 'Crocodile Safety' signs and steer clear of trouble spots, you should be right. Surely.

Besides, there's too much great stuff to see and do in Kakadu that you can't let the risk of a 5m-long, 500kg, indestructible carnivorous dinosaur mistaking you for an afternoon snack ruin your trip.

Here's our real-world guide to having a 4WD adventure in Kakadu.

When to go

Kakadu's traditional Aboriginal owners actually observe six seasons up here, each identifiable by subtle changes in weather, fauna and flora, but for the purposes of 4WD tourers, simply keep these two in mind: the Dry and the Wet.

Visitors can give Kakadu a nudge any time of year, but the Dry (April to October) is generally regarded as the best time to visit. Most visitor sites are open and it's easy to get around. The Wet (November to March) might cause you some problems as there are storms, flooding, and, at the very least, there can be a lot of tropical summer rain–falls of 1.5 metres in three months are not unheard of, hence the Wet moniker.

What to expect

Kakadu National Park is about 20,000 square kilometres of Top End adventure, where ancient escarpments and stone country melt into riverine and coastal floodplains.

It's World Heritage listed for its cultural and natural importance, its jaw-dropping scenery, amazing wildlife and back-to-your-roots bushland. There are also Aboriginal paintings here that are up to 20,000 years old. In fact, Kakadu's rock art constitutes "one of the longest historical records of any group of people in the world", according to Parks Australia.

A trip here can be as cruisy or as hardcore as a visitor desires. Sure, there are bitumen roads into the park–from the east, west and southwest–and many popular Kakadu spots can be accessed in a 2WD vehicle, but a 4WD offers visitors the best chance to see and experience most of everything here.

For those seeking adventure

Okay, we're assuming you'll be in a 4WD and driving into Kakadu from the west, from Darwin, about 133km away. Firstly, get off the bitumen as soon as possible.

Take a right off Arnhem Highway, just before the National Park proper, onto Old Jim Jim Road. This track is 4WD only and a nice start to any Kakadu trip. Bonus: there's a campsite called Giya-mongkurr (Black Jungle Springs) about 60km along the track. There's not much in the way of facilities there, but plenty of good old school camping to be enjoyed.

The track was in pretty good nick when we drove it, but remember to take vehicle-recovery gear (at the absolute least, a set of recovery tracks, such as MaxTrax) and spares for everything. You just never know when you might need it.

Also, remember to look around, mate. Kakadu has 60 types of native mammals, more than 280 different types of birds, more than 2000 different types of plants, thousands of insect species and, as we mentioned, more than 10,000 crocs. There's plenty of barra in Kakadu as well.

Further along, cross South Alligator River (early explorers got their Crocodilian species wrong) and get onto Kakadu Highway for a brief stretch, then take a right onto the 4WD-only track heading to Barrk Marlam (Jim Jim Falls) and Gungkurdal (Twin Falls). This is a 60km unsealed stretch of track which is often very corrugated, depending on weather, the volume of traffic and whether it's recently been graded or not. It was tough going when we were last there; the corrugations were punishing. "Impossible in [the] Wet," Parks Australia tells us.

Good news is: this track leads to Garnamarr campground, a top spot with showers, toilets, and drinking water, and it also marks the start of a nice little 4WD track. This sandy, single-vehicle-only trail includes deep ruts, water crossings and vehicle-swallowing chasms. (Not really, but the holes get pretty big.) It is 10km of slow, off-road fun. Remember to drop tyre pressure if needed. (I was lazy and didn't bother–strife ensued.)

After that, it's a short walk to the incredible Jim Jim Falls. Take a breather, snap a photo and have a swim (although Parks Australia has this sobering advice: "You should always be aware of the risk of a saltwater crocodile attack in all Top End waterways. It is never 100% safe to enter the water. Your personal safety is your responsibility.")

Twin Falls is 10km from Garnamarr campground, along another sandy 4WD-only track. There's a water crossing along the way that has been tackled when the wet stuff was between 500mm and 600mm deep. The water was about 300mm deep when we crossed, so we didn't have any trouble, but it's a good idea to have a snorkel on your 4WD.

Swimming is not allowed at Twin Falls, but visitors can take a boat tour. Those with more energy can slog their way to the top of the falls to have a much appreciated dip in the pools up there.

Elsewhere in Kakadu, there are plenty of 4WD tracks splitting off from main sealed routes throughout the park, including to the 4WD-only Gunlom in the park's south, but this Jim Jim Falls/Twin Falls trip offers good bang-for-your-buck fun and doesn't take ages.

For those seeking ancient art & culture

Your best bets are Ubirr, in the Kakadu's northeast, and Nourlangie, just southwest of it. The fantastic and fully equipped Bowali Visitor Centre, the park's HQ, is almost equidistant from both these spots, along sealed road.

Ubirr's art is peppered along a relaxed 1km walking path that loops back on itself. Those who prefer to burn a few more calories can hike to the escarpment edge and savour awesome views of Arnhem Land to the east and the stunning expanse of wetlands to the north.

Nourlangie is a good 1.5km walking loop taking in beautiful art, caves, and Gunwarddehwardde Lookout. From here, Arnhem Land stretches away to the horizon, in all its glory.

For those seeking crocs

Head for Cahills Crossing on the East Alligator River, at Kakadu NP's eastern edge, to see crocs chasing fish–and to watch people do idiotic things like a) drive across when the water's deep and get washed off; b) stand at the water's edge or, worse still; c) go for an ill-advised dip. Last year, park rangers counted 120 crocs in a six-kilometre stretch south of the crossing.

Readers Tales #1

Can't stop going there: With Darwin D-MAX owner Alan Specketer

"Our family travels to Kakadu so often they should charge us rent! For us, it's the quintessential Australian experience, with varied country and so much to see and do. Without a shadow of a doubt, our favourite part is Gunlom Falls, in the southern end of the park. Imagine pulling up at a car park and looking up at the top of the escarpment. There's a small walking trail leading off through a campground nestled at the base of it. You walk up the trail, which takes about 45 minutes–and it's quite a challenging trek because it's very steep–but when you get to the top, there's a creek that feeds the waterfall and a series of plunge pools. The pool at the very edge is just… if you can imagine being hot and sweaty (it's Darwin, so everyone is), and you step into the waters of this pool, which has an edge like an infinity pool, and you look out from the top of the escarpment country, across the rolling hills beyond, and drink it all in. It's just an absolutely breathtaking spot, absolutely gorgeous. You really struggle to describe it. You must go to Kakadu!"

Reader's Tales #2

Why we love Kakadu: With D-MAX owners David and Jennifer Antcliff

"When you're travelling around Australia with a family of five–including three kids under 11!–places need to have something special to keep them interested and Kakadu certainly had that. The waterholes, walks and the thousands of years of history and culture made it somewhere we'll never forget.

For the kids, though, it was all about waterholes! Maguk Gorge was amazingly clear, with thousands of fish, jump rocks and a waterfall to swim under–not a bad reward for the bushwalk trek through real Mick Dundee country! Jim Jim Falls was not for the faint-hearted and was one of the more challenging walks over lots of rocky country, but with a spectacular finale where you swim directly under a waterfall that is about 180m high, and wow is that water cold! You know you are in the Territory when you see croc traps along the walking trail. Our four year-old still asks if there are crocs in the water before she gets in when we are back home in Newcastle, NSW."

All Kakadu visitors need park passes and permits. Visit parksaustralia.gov.au for maps, apps and info, as well as suggested itineraries and a stack of other useful stuff.

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