The area of UNESCO World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park has been continuously inhabited by Aboriginal people for over 50,000 years. Aboriginal history and culture is illustrated by some 5000 recorded rock art sites; however, only very few of them are accessible to tourists.
The national park covers a huge area (about half the size of Switzerland!) and is home to hundreds of different animals and plants. Although, when driving through the park, you get the feeling that there are only two plant species; grass and eucalyptus tress. But that’s far from true: About 2000 different plants grow in Kakadu. In order to encourage biodiversity and to prevent devastating wildfires, traditional patch burning, a land management tool used by Aboriginal people for tens of thousands of years, is now again successfully employed in the park.
A visit to Kakadu is not cheap. The park pass is 40 AUD per person and campsites are either cheap but inaccessible in a 2WD, expensive but with shower (very, very important in that heat!), or seemingly cheap (without shower) but, for two people the same price as the expensive one. That made choosing a site pretty easy.
Because of the heat it’s best to get up early; anyway you can’t continue sleeping once the sun hits the campervan and the cockatoos start shrieking. So we got up at sunrise and by the time the gate to the rock art site of Ubirr opened, we were there and walked the short loop when the heat was still bearable.
The pricey park pass gives you access to ranger guided activities and walks, which is a great thing. The site of Ubirr is stunning but without any explanation and information about Aboriginal culture and the significance of the paintings and the surrounding landscape for the traditional owners of the land, the paintings are just beautiful and interesting but not much more. With the stories the rangers tell you however, the paintings come to life and offer a glimpse into another, very different, culture.
After walking the site once by ourselves, we joined the ranger guided walk, and I’m glad we did. It gave us a great insight into Aboriginal culture and lifestyle. It was also beautiful to see that this culture, in some places, still lives on today and that the paintings aren’t just drawings open to free interpretation (like in other places; I often thought about the rock art we saw in Talampaya in Argentina), but that people know what they really signify.
Outstanding rock art can be seen at Ubirr and Nourlangie – these sites are not to miss when visiting Kakadu – and at both sites there are ranger guided walks but not everyday, so it’s best to plan your visit so that you can participate in at least one guided walk. We also found some rock art on the Bardedjilidji walk, a 2.5 km walk through sandstone outliers. The walk is short, yes, but the heat slows you down a lot and the trail seems much longer than it actually is. It’s beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but the heat… unfortunately you can’t do all the walks before 10 a.m.
A fantastic sunrise spot is at Ubirr; from the top of the rocks you have spectacular views over the floodplains below and, behind you, the sandstone rocks and cliffs. It’s a wonderful spot to let the day come to an end – before it gets a bit exciting again when you have to drive back to the campsite in the dark and are constantly scared that a wallaby or kangaroo will jump in front of your car.