One wild day in Kakadu

Mike Unwin explores Kakadu…

How do you cover Australia’s biggest national park in a single day? The answer, of course, is that you can’t. This vast wilderness of wetlands, savannahs and escarpments spans half the size of Switzerland and would take a lifetime to explore. Nonetheless, you can certainly pack a lot into 24 hours if you know where to go.

There’s no better way to greet the day than a cruise on Yellow Water Billabong, at the very heart of the park. Skeins of Magpie Geese, egrets, ibis and other waterbirds will already be commuting overhead as your boat nudges out from the jetty. With the dawn mist rising, you’ll soon spy the serrated profile of your first Saltwater Crocodile, gliding silently across the limpid waters.

As your boat meanders deeper into the wetland, birds are everywhere: a shy Black Bittern flapping away from the roots of a pandanus; a dazzling Azure Kingfisher dashing past; a White-bellied Sea Eagle wheeling overhead. The salties haul themselves out on to the banks as the morning warms up, jaws agape, prompting agile wallabies to detour nervously as they approach to slake their thirst.

Back for a slap-up breakfast, you still have most of the day ahead of you — and time to make an excursion deeper into the park. With a picnic lunch packed you could head south to the spectacular cascade at Jim Jim Falls. Here, in the dry season, you can hike through monsoon forest and clamber up to a picture-perfect pool where the water plunges 150 m over the surrounding cliffs. Or head northeast to the East Alligator River, where circular walks through the riverside monsoon forest bring black fruit bats and other wildlife, and there is excellent barramundi fishing for anglers.

Humans have inhabited Kakadu for more than 40,000 years and no visit would be complete without a glimpse of the park’s ancient culture. In the cooler late afternoon, you could head to one of the outstanding rock art galleries, such as Nourlangie, where scenes of sorcery, hunting and creation myths are daubed natural pigments across the sandstone cave walls. Continuing along the trail to Gun-warddehwardde lookout brings outstanding views across Kakadu’s rugged escarpment — and more excitement for the birder, with such local specialities as Sandstone Shrike-thrush and Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon.

Indeed, wherever you travel through the day, birding is never off the Kakadu agenda. Not only does every billabong teem with water birds, but the savannah woodland also brings the likes of honeyeaters, cockatoos and fairy wrens. And, for the vigilant, there is always a chance of a rarity — perhaps a party of Gouldian Finches at a roadside creek or a Red Goshawk gliding overhead.

Night falls quickly in the tropical Top End — time to return to your resort. If you’re staying back at Gagadju Lodge, near Yellow Water, you could sample some Kakadu specials, such as barramundi or wild goose pie. Dining out under the stars, a chorus of frogs, the yapping of barking owls and other night noises will remind you of exactly where you are.

Indeed, your 24 hours is still not up. Before turning in, you could — if you still have the energy — take a guided wander along the boardwalk to discover the nocturnal life of the billabong. A sweep of your torch beam should reveal crocodile eyes glowing red in the water and jewel-like tree frogs crouched among the vegetation. You may even surprise a foraging Brown Bandicoot or spy a handsome Carpet Python wrapped around the roots of a paperbark tree. Kakadu never sleeps, even if you now have to.

· Birdwatch Australia — Birdwatch Australia and its parent company Australia-Naturally Travel have been arranging bird watching and nature-viewing tours throughout Australia for over 20 years.

· Northern Territory — www.australiasoutback.co.uk

· South Australia — www.southaustralia.com

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