Head due east of Darwin for approximately 90 miles (about a three-hour drive) and you’ll find yourself in Australia’s tropical Northern Territory – and in one of the continent’s largest park areas, Kakadu National Park. This is the “Top End” of Australia, as the locals refer to it, on the Timor Sea just below Indonesia and Papua New Guinea – and one of the most staggering destinations on Earth, from just about every angle.
More than 7,700 square miles make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kakadu, where wildlife enthusiasts find enormous ecological and biological diversity, from coasts and estuaries to floodplains, billabongs and stone country. More than one-third of Australia’s bird species and one-quarter of its freshwater and estuarine fish species are found here. For those who relish the opportunity to meet rare and endemic plants and animals, Kakadu is a wonderland.
The distinctive Kakadu animals are just one facet of this incredible region of Australia, which received its UNESCO World Heritage designation for both outstanding natural and cultural features. This living cultural landscape has been home to the Australian Aboriginal people for more than 65,000 years and provides one of the most exhilarating experiences a nature- and culture-focused traveler can have. The vast landscapes here have been shaped by nature, yes, but also by the humans who have called this region home. As you move farther into Kakadu National Park, flora and fauna present themselves, rock art is revealed and cultural encounters with local people provide insight into traditional sustainable living and land management.
A Natural Habitat Adventures journey into Kakadu ensures the least impact on, but an appreciation for the environment, Australian aboriginal culture and Australian wildlife. In small groups of no more than 12 (with two guides), you’ll stay in intimate lodges and explore remote natural settings for a deeper, more serene experience. Travel in the company of Expedition Leaders who have years of experience and resources from WWF’s top scientists. Have a wildlife or aboriginal history question? They’ll have the answer … and then some.
From Bamurru Plains, one can explore 115 square miles of distinct environments along the Mary River, all together a rich ecosystem for countless species of flora and fauna. Within the melaleuca forest, savanna woodlands, primordial paperback swamps, wetlands, floodplains and riverine habits, you’ll find jumping fish, freshwater and saltwater crocodiles (some of which are the world’s largest living reptiles), brumbies, buffalos, dingo and wallabies. All told, this wild and unusual environment, explorable by airboat, quad bike, open-top safari truck and on foot, is home to 68 mammal species; more than 120 reptile, 26 frog and 300 tidal and freshwater fish species; approximately 2,000 plant species; more than 10,000 insect species; and one-third of all Australian bird species.
Discover Kakadu’s Aboriginal Heritage
Representing the oldest living culture on Earth, the Aboriginal people of Kakadu National Park are its traditional owners. The Bininj in the north of the park and the Mungguy in the south are proud to share this special place with travelers, those who seek to learn all they can about the history and culture of a destination. Some of the Bininj and Mungguy live in remote areas of the park, while others live in Kakadu’s towns, and all have a deep and long-lasting spiritual connection to the landscape.
For more than 65,000 years, the land and people have been linked. Caring for that land and for the Kakadu animals is not a chore; instead, it is fundamental to the Aboriginal culture. That cultural responsibility passes through generations by way of art, language, ceremonies and kinship. So, too, is traditional ecological knowledge preserved through the Aboriginal generations. An understanding of and respect for the land, from the floodplains to the rocky ridges, from sea-level changes over time to planned patch burning, is vital to the continued conservation and protection of Kakadu National Park.
Today, there are about 19 clan groups that share ownership over certain areas of land within Kakadu National Park. The boundary lines for each clan pass from one generation to the next through the father. The Bininj and Mungguy cooperatively operate the park with Parks Australia, together protecting and managing the land through traditional knowledge and modern science.
Rock Art Revealed
One of the most internationally and culturally significant sights you’ll see in Kakadu is the rock art – or kunbim to the Aboriginal people. Kakadu boasts one of the world’s greatest concentrations of rock-art sites, with more than 5,000 such sites located within the park. What’s more, some of these paintings are up to 20,000 years old – the artwork provides one of the longest historical records of any group of people on Earth.
When we speak of generational wisdom, whether clan boundary lines or traditional ecological knowledge, much is learned by studying these rock-art paintings, which reveal the intricacies of Aboriginal life over thousands of years. The most impressive galleries are at Ubirr and Burrungkuy, where you’ll see naturalistic paintings of animals, x-ray art and depictions of the Aboriginals’ early contact with Europeans. It is the very act of painting, perhaps less so than the paintings themselves, that is most important to the Aboriginal people. This expression of cultural identity and connection to the country continues even today, mostly done on bark, paper and canvas, continuing to illustrate the hunter-gatherer way of life and providing a record of human interaction with the environment.
So where to now? You’ve delved into the mystical Kakadu National Park, with its endemic wildlife and incredible Aboriginal culture. While here on the “Top End,” there’s another must-see destination for nature- and wildlife lovers: the Daintree Rainforest.
Not far from Kakadu, on Cape Tribulation, Daintree is a magical place of ancient ferns, emerald vines and dense canopy. It’s here you may see the endangered cassowary, an Australian bird that stands up to 6 ½ feet tall. Watch for saltwater crocodiles as you cross the Daintree River. Learn about the Eastern Kuku Yalanji Aboriginal history of this sector of Daintree National Park. Rugged and spectacularly scenic, this part of the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area is known for its rushing rivers, deep gorges, thunderous waterfalls and lush mountains.
Within the boundaries of Daintree Rainforest – which covers 460 square miles – seek out the musky rat kangaroo, some 430 bird species, ancient plant species that date to the Jurassic and Crustaceous periods and more. Travel on foot and by boat as you visit Aboriginal sites of significance, the Botanical Ark, a conservation-driven ethnobotanical garden, and deep into the 135-million-year-old tropical forest, so rich in biodiversity.
For those in search of a mind-blowing natural, wild and historical experience, this far-flung region of Australia delivers, cementing for you the elemental relationship between the Aboriginal people of the continent and the land and wildlife they nurture and respect.