By Lauren Novak
Bzzzzzzzzz. Welcome to Kakadu National Park – home to 1000 species of flies (if you believe the signage).
The expansive Northern Territory park stretches across almost 20,000 square kilometres of Australia’s Top End – but you’re never alone in Kakadu. Bzzzzzzz. Going for a bushwalk? You’re trekking buddy could be a Damsel fly. Bzzzzz. Picnic lunch at the cultural visitor centre? A Mayfly might stop by for a bite (of lunch that is, not you). But flies are the least of your worries if that picnic happens to be on the banks of one of Kakadu’s rivers or billabongs.
My first visit to the park came at the beginning of the wet season when temperatures regularly hit 38C and humidity rises above 80 per cent – conditions just right to get the NT’s most notorious resident, the crocodile, on the move.
Arriving for a late picnic lunch at Cahill’s crossing, not far out of Jabiru (Kakadu’s main township about three-and-a-half hours east of Darwin), my family and I picked a nice table just far enough up the bank to be out of the reach of snapping jaws. Signs dotted everywhere throughout the park warn not to get too close to water sources where coming a cropper with a croc is a distinct possibility.
Unpacking lunch, we were more concerned about bat poo dropping into our food from the gathering of nocturnal winged onlookers perched in a tree above our heads than becoming afternoon tea for a croc. But within minutes we were alerted to a suspicious body in the water by an archetypal bush bloke crouched on the riverbank. In faded shorts, muddy boots and not much else, the sinewy old fella pointed down the river towards the spot where cars can cross through shallow water. That day’s newspaper (the NT News, infamous for splashing crocodiles across its front page at every opportunity) featured a picture of a croc at that very crossing just days earlier under the screaming headline CROC BLOCK SHOCK. And now here we were sitting metres from that spot with two beady eyes and a scaled spine slithering down the waterway towards us.
Over the next half-hour we spotted three real live crocodiles moving around in the milky water. A small crowd formed as others caught wind of the action. But everyone remained hushed, the sound of cameras clicking the loudest noise anyone seemed game to make.
Elsewhere in the park, you’ll come across kangaroos, cockatoos, plenty of insects to keep the flies company and extended families of geckos – especially at night. As well as croc spotting, there are bush walks and drives, cultural centres, ancient rock paintings, waterfalls and river cruises to keep visitors busy. You can camp (if you’re game) or stay in accommodation ranging from basic cabins to fairly luxurious digs. Jabiru, which supports the Ranger Uranium Mine (yes a uranium mine in a national park…), is a fairly central place to stay – with the expansive rock lookout of Ubir (the best vantage point for a sunset I am yet to come across) to the north and the billabongs and rivers of Yellow Water to the south. The really adventurous can head off on dirt tracks to the spectacular Jim Jim falls, although most locations are accessible by an average car in good condition.
Its important to travel with plenty of food, water and sunscreen – and keep in mind mobile phones may only get reception near the big centres, such as Jabiru which has a phone tower for the mine. To get the most out of the visit, it helps to be open to learning about the culture of the place. Guided walks are held mostly in the dry season but Kakadu’s Aboriginal owners recognise six different seasons, bringing gushing waterfalls and lightning storms, blooming flowers as the monsoons subside or rising smoke during the dry season burn-offs to control undergrowth.
Crocodiles are more active in the wet, but it’s safe to say they’re hungry all year round. So if you want to live to tell your crocodile tale, make sure the closest you come is when he shows up on your menu, not the other way around.