From Darwin, travel in a loop through the waterfall-laden landscapes of Litchfield and Kakadu national parks.
By Jennifer Pinkerton
What to expect
- See saltwater crocodiles in the wild
- Explore Aboriginal rock art sites and culture in Kakadu
- Swim in freshwater swimming holes
- Time: 5 days
- Distance: 735 kilometres (457 miles)
- Transport: car and cruise
- Nearest major city: Darwin
- Price: $$
Comprising the Arnhem, Kakadu and Stuart highways, Nature’s Way is the scenic route that links two of Australia’s most spectacular national parks: Litchfield and World Heritage-listed Kakadu. Both have an abundance of freshwater swimming holes and stunning waterfalls, and Kakadu is also lauded for its walks, Aboriginal art sites, escarpments and jaw-dropping views over Arnhem Land. On a map, the drive resembles a triangle. It's a route with three main segments. First, take in the wetlands around Darwin before spending two days exploring Kakadu and a final day adventuring in the waterholes and tropical bush of Litchfield.
Day 1: Darwin to Kakadu National Park
Hire a car in Darwin and leave the city via the Stuart Highway and follow the Arnhem Highway south-east towards Kakadu. About 23 kilometres (14 miles) down the highway, after Humpty Doo and before Fogg Dam Nature Park, stop for an unforgettable two-hour cultural tour with Pudakul Aboriginal Cultural Tours, which runs every day from May to October at 10:30am. Your host will greet you with a ‘Welcome to Country’, a ceremony designed to warmly usher in visitors to Aboriginal land. Next, expand your Top End experience by learning about the local Aboriginal approach to land, food, hunting, cooking, craft and art. This interactive session concludes with morning tea and a chance to talk freely and openly with your hosts.
Drive for another 13 kilometres (eight miles) to Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve. This site was once home to rice crops, and the abandoned paddies have evolved into open-air wetlands alive with reptiles, jabirus (large native birds) and blue-winged kookaburras. Stroll the 1.5-hour Monsoon Forest trail beneath thick forest canopy. Alternatively, follow the pretty Woodlands to Waterlily Walk, which takes just 45 minutes. In the afternoon, visit crocodiles in their natural habitat on the Adelaide River by taking a jumping crocodile cruise with Adelaide River Cruises or Spectacular Jumping Crocodile Cruise. Afterwards, drive another 140 kilometres (87 miles) down the highway to spend the night in the township of Jabiru, just north of Kakadu National Park. Jabiru’s most famous accommodation, the Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel, is shaped like a giant saltwater crocodile.
Day 2: Kakadu National Park
Wake in time to watch the sun rise over Ubirr in Kakadu’s East Alligator region. Kakadu is famous for its Aboriginal art sites, sweeping escarpments and dazzling views over Arnhem Land, and Ubirr offers all three. Make sure you take in the world renowned X-ray art, as well as the rainbow serpent (an Aboriginal creation story) sketches. The latter are tucked along the boardwalk area behind Ubirr’s Crosshatching Gallery, so named because artists have used crosshatching – intersecting sets of parallel lines – to shade in sections of their art.
In the afternoon, continue your rock art tour at Nourlangie Rock, which boasts the most spectacular escarpment in the park, as well as a chain of shady galleries. While there, walk the 1.5-kilometre (0.9-mile) trail that leads to Gunwarddewarde Lookout. The path is stamped with pink gum leaves, and the views from the walk’s peak are epic. One of the most beautiful experiences on offer in Kakadu is a sunset cruise at Yellow Water, 60 kilometres (37 miles) from Jabiru. When the guide turns off the boat’s engine towards the end of the cruise, you'll be bathed in silence of the noisy kind: a cacophony of calls from birds including sea eagles, azure kingfishers and rainbow bee-eaters. Alternatively, take a break from driving and join Kakadu Cultural Tours on a day-long Arnhemlander 4WD tour that weaves you through private ancient rock art sites and drops in at Injalak Arts Centre, where you’ll meet Aboriginal artists and become acquainted with bush tucker preparation and cooking.
Day 3: Kakadu National Park
After spending the night at Cooinda Lodge beside Yellow Water, devote today to exploring Kakadu’s water-filled southern regions. In the morning, drive along the Kakadu Highway to the Motor Car Falls Walk, reached via a 7.5-kilometre (4.6-mile) return trail within the Yurmikmik series of walks. The path follows a historic vehicle track first travelled in 1946 by Paul Allmich, an old tin miner, who bogged his Chevrolet truck at a site now known as Motor Car Creek. Step through open woodlands dotted with cathedral termite mounds until you come across a knot of mangroves. The trek will reward you with the cascading Motor Car Falls. For most of the year, lacewing butterflies feed on minerals secreted from nearby rocks, and the pool’s waters are full of fish, turtles and freshwater shrimp. You're permitted to swim here all year round.
Laze the afternoon away at nearby Gunlom Falls. At this sacred spot, a waterfall plunges 100 metres (330 feet) through a copper-coloured escarpment to reach a base pool encircled by eucalypts. Walk the path to Gunlom’s top pools a couple of hours before sunset, then watch surrounding rocks blush as the light begins to fade. Spend a second night in the comfort of Cooinda Lodge.
Day 4: Kakadu National Park to Litchfield National Park
From Cooinda Lodge, head south through the former goldmining town of Pine Creek, and take in its buildings built in the 1870s gold rush era. Visit the circa 1888 Pine Creek Railway Station, now a museum, and see original mining machinery in Miners Park. You can also visit the iron shed bakery where local Jimmy Ah You and his son used to bake bread for World War II soldiers. In the early afternoon, detour to Leliyn (Edith Falls). This final stop on the renowned Jatbula Trail offers a deep waterhole below a series of shallow pools on top of the cliff. If time allows, continue on to Nitmiluk National Park where Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge is a perfect spot to explore via canoe. Spend the night in the town of Katherine, or in Nitmiluk National Park at the Aboriginal-owned Cicada Lodge. Alternatively, drive north-west for another two hours to Batchelor, a small, well-kept town at the entrance to Litchfield National Park. Behind a knot of tropical flora, you’ll find the Rum Jungle Bungalows among luscious gardens.
Day 5: Litchfield National Park to Darwin
Unlike Kakadu, with its sizeable distances between sites, Litchfield National Park – a short drive from Batchelor – has waterholes and waterfalls that are easily accessible. You can fit many of the park's sites into a day trip. Once inside the park's lush borders, make your first stop at the magnetic termite mounds – eerie, tombstone-like wonders of nature. Spend the rest of the morning lazing inside the shallow, bubbling pools of Buley Rockhole, where a stream tumbles down the hill, bouncing between small waterholes. From here, travel to the park’s signature swimming hubs, Wangi and Florence Falls. The latter has powerful waterfalls that drop to a deep pool, edged by fern-lined cliffs.
In the late afternoon, drive the 90-minute trip back up the Stuart Highway to Darwin, stopping at Berry Springs for a homemade fruit ice cream at Crazy Acres mango farm, as well as a peaceful swim or snorkel in the clear waters of Berry Springs. Arrive in Darwin with time to check in to your accommodation and enjoy dinner at Little Miss Korea.
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