“Can we see much in Kakadu with a 2WD?” I asked multiple people and googled the heck out of the question.
Everyone with a 4WD said, “No, with a 2WD it’s Kakadon’t.”
Another caravanner said she was convinced at the visitor center to just take a flight over Kakadu as she wouldn’t see much with her 2WD.
Kakadu is Crocodile Dundee land. It’s where they filmed the movie I watched as a child that gave me the dream of exploring Australia so I had a draw to see it. Most visitor centers here are sales centers for local businesses and many sites I read were from those with a 4WD or sites renting 4WD. So I didn’t fully trust that it would be ‘Kakadon’t’ with a 2WD or didn’t want to believe it. We decided to go anyway and find out for ourselves.
Darwin to Katherine via Kakadu
On National Highway 1 Darwin is about a 200 mile (317km) straight shot to Katherine. Darwin to Katherin via Kakadu is 345 miles (556km). We took the long way around through Kakadu, and I don’t regret one extra mile of that journey.
We had enjoyed our time with Simon and Eunice, Trin’s cousins, in Litchfield and spent a second day with them exploring the route leading to Kakadu.
We stopped at A View of the Wetlands. It was a nice view, but the land wasn’t very wet so we didn’t see much wildlife. The small wetlands museum however is worth a stop. It is free and the guy at the desk was helpful, he printed for us the status sheet that lists attractions and roads still closed due to Coronavirus or construction. Many of the rural Aboriginal communities are still closed in fear of Coronavirus, even though there are zero cases in all of Northern Australia.
The Mamukala wetlands still held water and birds flocked to it. We were warned by the ranger at the View of the Wetlands that there were some very large salties (saltwater crocs) in the area. He asked us to be on the lookout and not to stand next to the water.
One of the pathways was a boardwalk that took us out over the water, evidently high enough to stay out of the crocs mouths. We stood in the shade of the viewing platform for quite some time zooming in on the colorful birds watching them walk across the large lily pads.
As I leaned closer over the railing I accidentally knocked over my pair of sunglasses and it fell into the marsh below the platform. We could see it sitting on top of the marshy grass. Trin was ready to climb down to retrieve it, but we were over water and could not see what was underneath us. I begged him not to do it, they were not worth losing a limb or life over.
It made me a little sick to leave it there as litter, but it was a pair I found along the railroad tracks leading up to Machu Picchu. I guess they were destined to be litter, a fact that bothers me more than its loss. We met Niel on this platform. He is the one who spotted the Comb-crested Jacana for us that we wanted to see. None of us even saw until after this picture was process what was lurking along the grass-line.
Rangers closed the dam walk due to the recent saltie sightings. We were able to drive across the dam and use the viewing platform on the opposite side. Along the way, we saw the huge metal trap awaiting the large saltie. Once captured he will be moved to another area.
South Aligator River
After entering Kakadu we stopped at South *Alligators River to try and spot a few salties. The ranger was at the boat ramp so we stopped to talk. He was born and has lived his whole life in the Territory.
*South Alligator River was named by early explorers who didn’t distinguish the difference between Alligators and Crocodiles. There are no native Alligators in Australia. The crocodiles don’t seem offended by the river’s name, so it has remained.
Search and Rescue
The ranger pointed out a big female crocodile laying in the sand on the opposite shore. As we talked he pointed out other crocodiles on the move. One had the ridge of his tail above the water. The ranger said that was an aggressive stance.
We talked for almost 2 hours.
“The search and rescue can be quite rewarding when we find the lost individuals and are able to help them. One time we were called by family members who were expecting their two men back who hadn’t returned home when expected. We waited for the tide to rise to see if they would show up. Often boats get stuck on sand bars at low tide, but they didn’t show.
“We navigated down the river searching for them, all the way to the ocean. Then I saw something shiny in the mangroves. We motored over and there the two men were stuck in mangrove trees. They had capsized and then scrambled up into the grove when the crocs came in.
“Every inch of them were covered with mosquito bites and they were severely dehydrated. They began to cry when they saw us.”
A life flight was called to take the men in for medical care. This ranger saved their lives.
“But we still have to clean the bathrooms,” he chuckled, “even as a senior ranger, but I love the job. I get paid to be out here every day.”
Jabiru is the only town (population 1,081) along route 36 and 21 between Darwin and Katherine. We filled up our fuel and water tanks in Jabiru before heading north for some hiking.
One of the highlights of Kakadu for us was Cahill’s Crossing (the cover image at the top for this post). This is the point where the river crosses over the road, or I suppose it can also be where the road crosses the river. East Alligator river flows over Oenpelli Road on its way out to the ocean.
We did not cross as the air intake on Lil’ Beaut is too low. Stalling out on a road in the middle of a river filled with salties didn’t sound like a good idea. The road beyond it would eventually turn into 4WD-only so we had no reason to cross it either.
We parked nearby and stood to watch a phenomenon that the ranger at South Aligator river told us about.
The road acts as a low dam holding back the water on the right but allowing a shallow flow of water about shin deep over the road as it meandered toward the ocean many miles away. We stopped in the evening and watched the saltwater crocodiles. Some lay on the sandy shore of the river others roamed through the water. They seemed sated and lazy. We counted 14 salties. There were probably more just below the murky surface of the water out of sight.
There is something majestic about seeing the dinosaur-like creature gliding effortlessly through the water, their long powerful tail gently swaying back and forth as if all was at peace.
When water flows upriver
The next morning we hiked one of the trails nearby and then went back to the crossing at around 10 AM. The river looked the same as it had the night before except there seemed to be more salties. They were also moving about as if in anticipation of something we could not see. It felt like something was about to happen.
Without sound or visible stirring of the water, the level of the river on the ocean side began to rise. The rocks protruding from the water disappeared below the surface until the water was even with that of the road. The tide had come in. The water continued to rise.
Before long the river flow changed direction. It began to flow inland rising above the road. The water depth of the road increased as did the speed. Fish began to jump and skid across the road.
Croc feeding frenzy
The crocs positioned themselves just below the cascade from the road with mouths open ready for the feeding. Fish began to fly around in a panic. Some barely missed the crocs’ mouths jumping over their backs. Others were caught in a snap and the croc would lift its large head out of the water to toss the captured fish down its throat.
Last night they appeared lazy and majestic. Now their power was aggressive and raw, somehow even more magnificent. Their yellow eyes looked back at me as if they knew their power over any human who dared walk near her shores.
It is also humorous to see their claws sticking out of the water on both sides of their head. Crocodiles primarily use their tails for propulsion in the water. They swim with their arms straight out to each side to keep them from rolling in the water. The water was a muddy brown, churned up by the feeding frenzy. All we could see was their heads, the ridgeline of the backs, and their toes sticking out of the water splayed open on either side.
We stayed high up on the boulders that lined the river. Caution signs warned that standing down by the water’s edge was dangerous at all times and that fatalities had occurred here. Still some crowded right down by the water’s edge. I hoped we wouldn’t see one of them taken this morning. Crocodiles can move up to 30km/h on land. They are even more deadly in the water.
Hikes in Kakadu
Sunset over the billabong
Just beyond Cahill’s Crossing is the Nadab Lookout. The short hike up to this viewpoint wanders through rock outcrops with Aboriginal rock art. The viewpoint at the top is only 250 meters in elevation but is still the highest point in the area. It is a beautiful vantage point to see over the a large billabong at Ubirr.
We arrived at the top of Nadab Lookout just as the sun turned bright orange and hung only a few inches above the horizon. The billabong turned pastel in the soft light of the sunset. The heat of the day dissipated but the rocks on which we sat were still quite warm.
Living in a bus and traveling the outback gives us the opportunity to watch the sun set and rise. The colors are beautiful bookends of the day reminding me of how blessed we are, the fleeting colors though temporary can be loved.
We loved the multiple hiking trails within Kakadu. Some followed the rivers and warned of crocs being seen on the trails. Other trails wander through areas with large amounts of Rock Art painted by Aboriginal people. A few trails wandered through cool rock formations where we found hidden caves. Most of the walks had little to no elevation gain which was good for these hot days.
Even though August is the the middle of winter, the dry cooler season we started all our hikes as early in the morning as possible due to the heat and minimal shade available on any hike. The evenings cool off to perfection for sleeping.
Viewpoint and billabong walk
South of Jabiru we walked the xx trail that circles another billabong. Wallabies drank from the water. They watched us with curiosity and hopped away as we approached on the trail. Birds surrounded the billabong in flocks and I finally captured a picture of a blue-winged Kookaburra through the binoculars.
Waterfalls and swim holes
Many list the Jim Jim Falls and Gunlom Falls as highlights of Kakadu. Both were closed due to Coronavirus and all of them were inaccessible by 2WD anyway. These would have been wonderful to see and refreshing to take a dip. It was around 90°F every day, and all of the rivers we visited so far were filled with salties. Still, there was more to see in Kakau than just these swim holes and the park fees have been waved for 2020.
Even without seeing these falls and swimming in the fresh water I felt Kakadu was worth the trip with our 2WD Toyota Coaster, Lil’ Beaut.
Sometimes opportunity comes by ignoring the naysayers, those of the Kakadon’t. What blue door have you taken that others said wasn’t worth it?
Retired from Corporate America at the age of 43 along with her husband Trinity. In 2016 they sold their home to begin a nomadic life of slow travel. Bonnie writes of their experience on the road in each country. Subscribe to follow her stories here.
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