Kakadu National Park is Australia’s largest national park at almost 20,000 square km with world heritage listing and nearly 200,000 visitors annually. With the best camping and attractions at the end of 4WD tracks it is the perfect location to explore with your 4WD and Trayon Camper.
The southernmost section of Kakadu national park is less promoted than the rest of Kakadu but boasts some of the very best scenery and camping in Kakadu. Some places require some planning to arrange access, with the advantage that once obtaining access you will likely have the areapretty much to yourself.
Coming from the south, the Kakadu Highway commences at Pine Creek and continues for 60km to the Mary River Roadhouse where fuel and basic last minute supplies are available. The national park commences just north of the roadhouse. Back on the Kakadu Highway it’s time to call in to the ranger station and pick up your key for access to Koolpin Gorge (more on Koolpin later). The ranger station also has up-to-date road information, some pamphlets and a nice display on the region. Sometimes there is even a ranger there, although it is usually unmanned.
A further 2km from the ranger station is the turn-off to Gunlom Koolpin, a total of 11km from the park entrance. This gravel road takes you through the southern hills and basins section of Kakadu, with a scenery of rugged hills and broken ridges that are particularly attractive in the dramatic light of the evening or early morning.
About 13km along the Gunlom road is the Kambolgie campground which is pretty basic but fine for an overnight stop. A further 8km is the carpark for the Yurmikmik walks which are a series of interconnected walks across the Marrawal Plateau. Continuing along the Gunlom Road for a further 6km you come to a T-intersection with Gunlom to the left and Koolpin to the right – continue to the left for another 10km to Gunlom.
Gunlom is known by several names: the original name was UDP falls (after the Uranium Developing and Prospecting Company), it’s also known as Waterfall Creek and in the Crocodile Dundee movie they named it Echo Pool. Gunlom has a large camping ground, grassy day-use area, and a number of walks emanating from the carpark. A short walk leads to the plunge pool at the base of the 100m cliff face with either a gentle trickling or roaring waterfall (depending on the time of year) tumbling down the cliffs. The 1km climb to the top of the falls is highly recommended, with the reward being the fantastic views over southern Kakadu and the cooling swim in the refreshing plunge pools.
Leaving Gunlom head back along the main road and at the intersection continue straight ahead for another 10km to the signposted turnoff on the left to Koolpin Gorge. The track ahead is protected by a locked gate, with your permit and key previously organised it’s time to open the gate and lock in the hubs for some 4WDriving.
Access to Koolpin Gorge is strictly by permit only which needs to be organised ahead of your visit. The permit is free and the application form can be downloaded from the Kakadu National Park website.
The drive into Koolpin is very scenic with fantastic views to the surrounding countryside. The first challenge is the crossing of Koolpin Creek which is generally fairly shallow with a firm rocky base followed by a sandy exit on the other side, which shouldn’t cause any issues for a high clearance 4WD. There are sections of the track meandering through open woodland with spear grass sections often higher than the vehicle. The track also climbs up to vantage points with the spectacular nearby cliffs on show. At the end on the track there is a grassy clearing with fireplaces and pit toilets provided. Just perfect for setting up the Trayon and making use of the many Trayon features such as a beverage from the 90lt fridge, hot shower, and importantly a comfortable sleep up off the ground.
The walking track to Koolpin Gorge commences back along the 4WD track about 100m from the campground entrance, with a marked trail leading to Pink and Black Pools which are great for a swim or just laze around taking in the fabulous views. For the more adventurist, the creek can be followed further upstream to more pools, waterfalls and beaches to swim and laze around.
From the Koolpin Gorge campground head 9km back to the gate and main road, then head a further 36km back to the Kakadu highway. Turn right for a short stint (40km) on the bitumen before turning right to Maguk on the 12km 4WD only track.
Maguk (Barramundi) Gorge track leads to a carpark with picnic tables. The track has some sandy sections but is generally straightforward. The 2km walk from the carpark leads through monsoonal rainforest then through an open and rocky section to a large picturesque plunge pool and waterfall. Also if you have a snorkel mask bring it and use it to view the many multi-colored fish swimming in the pool. There is also a walking track up to the top of the falls that offers more swimming opportunities and great views down the gorge.
The Maguk campsite is back 1.7km from the gorge carpark, and is a lovely place for a night (or more) with grassy and shady sites with fire pits and pit toilets. From the Maguk campsite backtrack to the Kakadu highway turning right, then travelling 22km to the turn-off to Bilkbilkmi (Graveside Gorge) on the right.
Graveside Gorge (Bilkbilkmi) isn’t even shown on most official maps or guides. The 39km access track is rough and definitely high clearance 4WD only with sandy stretches and rocky river beds to cross. At the end of the track there is a basic campground with pit toilets. Access is by permit only and permits are limited, but the beautiful monsoon forest and scenic gorges are worth the effort. Backtrack to the main road turning right and traveling 26km to our next destination on the left – Yellow Water Billabong and Cooinda Village.
Yellow Water Billabong is Kakadu #39's most famous wetland which is located at the end of Jim Jim Creek that flows into the South Alligator River. This river system, which is the largest in Kakadu, contains extensive wetlands that include river channels, floodplains and backwater swamps. The only way to really see this area is via boat, either your own or the famous Yellow Waters Wetlands Boat cruise. There are several cruises each day, with the early morning cruise (which includes breakfast) or sunset cruise the pick of the bunch. From a boat you will see plenty of birdlife and animals as well as some very big crocodiles! The fishing is also excellent here, with good size barramundi regularly caught when the conditions are right. The Gagudju Lodge Cooinda is great if you’re looking for a resort style accommodation or a campground with full facilities, with the national park campground at Mardugal a good option if looking for a more basic spot.
From Yellow Waters its 6km back to the main Kakadu Highway then another 6km to the turn-off to the Jim Jim Falls area.
The road from Kakadu Highway to the camping area is a wide maintained gravel road that stretches for 60km. There are corrugated patches and usually plenty of dust so watch out for on-coming vehicles, particularly ones in a hurry. It is a very scenic drive as you approach and drive along the escarpment – particularly late in the afternoon when the surrounding ranges light up brilliantly. Once at the Jim Jim camping area (now called Garnamarr) pick out and reserve your place even if you arrive in the morning as it can get quite busy. It’s worth catching up with the campground manager who can fill you in on the road conditions and sell you shuttle boat tickets for the Twin Falls cruise (the only way to access Twin Falls – more on this later). The campground is quite good with shady areas, firepits, and amenities that include solar hot showers. Right at the campground the road ends and the track to the falls is protected by a gate which locked at night. Once through the gate the track becomes narrow with plenty of sandy patches and some creek crossings. After 9km you come to a fork in the road with Twin Falls to the right and Jim Jim Falls to the left. Head left to Jim Jim Falls carpark, which is only another 1km.
The walk from the carpark to the plunge pool at the bottom of Jim Jim Falls is only 900m long but
don’t underestimate it. The 400m is easy enough to the viewing pool which you get your first view down the gorge to the falls and it’s fantastic. Great spot for a photograph before tackling the more difficult second stage which involves scrambling and rock hopping over boulders. These are often slippery with sand so take extra care. The closer you get to the end of the gorge the more impressive it gets! This is one massive cliff face. The plunge pool is enclosed on three side by vertical cliffs and is huge. Jim Jim Falls (Aboriginal name Barrkmalam) descends from the an elevation of 259m above sea level via one drop that ranges in height between 140m and 200m. The water doesn’t see much sun so is refreshing (well pretty cold actually). A better option for a swim is the other pool back a little, that has a nice white sandy beach and is much warmer.
From the Jim Jim carpark it’s a 1km back to the intersection then continue to the left towards Twin Falls. From here its 10km to the Twin Falls gorge. After 1.5km you come to the old camping area that is now a picnic area and then comes the biggest challenge on the track – the crossing of Jim Jim creek. This concreted crossing can be quite deep especially early in the dry season with a depth around 1m, so a snorkel is highly recommended. It is also not a creek to walk as saltwater crocodiles are prevalent in the area. After the excitement of Jim Jim creek the track meanders through bushland before arriving at the Twin Falls carpark.
Twin Falls gorge is stunningly beautiful and a highlight of trip to Kakadu. A shuttle boat takes you up to the walking track to the base of the falls. Tickets are required for the shuttle boat and these can be purchased from the Jim Jim campground manager or from the Bowali visitor centre in Jabiru. Don’t make the mistake of arriving at Twin Falls without tickets and missing out on viewing the gorge and waterfall. From the boat drop-off point it’s a short walk with some rock-hopping to the sandy beach and spectacular twin falls waterfall. Great spot for a photograph and to take in the beautiful surrounds, but with no swimming it’s not a place to linger for too long. But there is an alternative – take the longer walk from the carpark to the top of the falls where you can swim and take in the breathtaking views into the gorge below.
Returning from Twin and Jim Jim Falls stay overnight at the campground and make sure you’re back in time to watch the surrounding hills ignite with the setting sun perhaps while relaxing with a cool beverage after a great day 4WDriving and walking in one of the most spectacular places in Australia.
From the Jim Jim campground drive back to the Kakadu Highway turning right and then travel 12km to the Muirella Park turn-off on the right. Muirella Park is a large campground adjacent a billabong which is a great place for fishing and perhaps even a decent (legal) size barramundi. There is a ramp for launching your boat, and the amenities even include solar showers. Another option is to camp at Sandy Billabong, which is 6km further on along a 4WD only track to a basic campground adjacent the billabong. This is another popular fishing place as well.
Heading back to the highway it’s another 7km to the turn-off to the Nourlangie area. This area is famous (and popular) for its aboriginal art at Nourlangie rock which is only a short stroll on well-formed paths from the carpark. Leaving Nourlangie rock it’s worth stopping at the scenic Anbangbang billabong with the pretty billabong framed by Nourlangie rock making a great spot for lunch or a cuppa.
Back to the Kakadu highway it’s 19km to the Bowali Visitors Centre on the outskirts of Jabiru. The visitors centre is a great place to learn about Kakadu with extensive displays, videos, information sheets, friendly staff to help, and café gallery. Jabiru is only a short drive further on, and a good place to fuel up and replenish your supplies. From Jabiru it is 48km north on the Oenpelli Road to Ubirr, famous for its rock art and views across the floodplains. The views from the lookout across the Nardab floodplains and into Arnhem Land escarpments are spectacular, especially at sunset.
Purchase your food and beverages prior to entering Kakadu as supplies as limited until you get to Jabiru. Bring along basic recovery equipment such as a snatch strap, shackles and tyre pressure gauge. As mobile phone coverage is patchy at best, a satellite phone and PLB (or equivalent) are prudent items to carry.
The dry season (April to November) is the best time to travel, as most of the tracks are closed during the other months. Check road conditions and track openings prior to travelling.
Kakadu national park has many highlights including the big attractions of Twin and Jim Jim Falls, and there also places to explore away from the crowds. It takes a little effort and pre-planning to organise permits, but the rewards will make this all worthwhile. On your next trip north plan ahead and sample the delights of Kakadu – you will not be disappointed!