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All images © Jennifer Ennion

Discovering Kakadu with the family

It’s hot and challenging, and that’s exactly why Jennifer Ennion has fallen under the spell of Kakadu National Park.

His little legs stretch over the rock that towers above his head. Tiny hands grab at tree roots as he pulls himself up. His determination is palpable; his enthusiasm contagious. At just three years old, Wild One soldiers on through the humidity that’s embracing us like a warm hug on a sticky summer’s day. Thankfully, there’s a reward at the end of this challenging hike to Jim Jim Falls, one of the highlights of the Northern Territory’s famous Kakadu National Park. A dip in a waterfall-fed plunge pool is spurring this camping trio on. But let me rewind six days, when we arrived at the Britz depot in Darwin eager for our first sojourn with a rooftop tent.

The adventure mobile

Kakadu has a reputation for being a tough place to travel, and although the main roads into the national park are sealed and 2WD accessible, the really fun stuff – what we want to see – can only be reached by 4WD.

4WOur Toyota Prado is up to the task, but our 36-year-old Viscount is not. And so it is that we put the caravan and car in storage and hire a Britz “Safari” LandCruiser.

Reverting back to a tent and squeezing everything into the LandCruiser takes some adjusting to, but we’re immediately impressed that Britz has thought of everything: mattresses, sleeping bags, cutlery and crockery, a tea pot, first-aid kit and even an emergency beacon for precaution, and all of it is neatly stowed in the 4WD. The Britz staff even encourage us to grab a pool noodle for Kakadu’s natural swimming holes.

Three hours later, we’re pulling up at Bowali Visitor Centre, a great first stop in UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kakadu. Here, we chat to the park rangers, check out the great little museum, pop into the gift store selling sophisticated souvenirs and cool down after a hot midday drive.

Before we know it, we’re setting up our rooftop tent at Cooinda Camping Ground, the best accommodation for campers and caravanners in the park due to its central location and facilities. A quick swim in one of the resort’s two pools is enjoyed before we give ourselves a night off cooking by feasting on barramundi and crocodile at the on-site Barra Bistro.

A waterfall welcome

We “ease” into our Kakadu adventure with an excursion to Maguk Waterfall and it’s one of many times we’re thankful for the Britz "Safari" as we tackle the 4WD-only dirt road. An hour later, we’re the first travellers pulling up to the start of the two-kilometre (return) Maguk Walk, a meandering track through monsoon forest and across a small creek. The freshwater pool at the end of the walk is an oasis of calm and cool, and we spend the rest of the morning floating, swimming, snorkelling and jumping off rocks. It sets the benchmark high for the rest of our stay – yet Kakadu keeps on delivering.

Croc-spotting

Many people are lured to Kakadu to see a saltwater crocodile in the wild, and one of the best ways to do so is on an Indigenousowned Yellow Water Cruises tour. We opt for a sunset boat ride and as soon as we hit Yellow Water Billabong the spines and snouts of crocs are spotted everywhere. Wild One is enraptured, as are his parents. The plethora of birdlife is equally as impressive, and we love learning about the stunning black-necked storks, fleeting kingfishers and comb-crested jacanas.

Image credit ©

Art lessons

Attempting to educate a toddler about Australia’s rock art is futile, but we make our visit to Ubirr the next day fun by playing games to see what creatures we can identify in the ancient paintings. We discover turtles, fish and even a thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) and learn how important these creatures are to Australian Aboriginals, past and present.

After checking out the natural gallery, we climb to the top of a rock escarpment and are greeted with views stretching to Arnhem Land. Immediately transported to The Lion King, I imagine lions, giraffe and elephants roaming the lime-green floodplains, before I’m quickly jolted back to the wilds of Australia, where instead boar and water buffalo tramp.

Reaching Gunlom

We’re visiting Kakadu in the dry season (April–October), yet daytime temperatures are pushing 30 degrees. In preparation for the heat and wanting to give Wild One the best chance of making it to the top of Gunlom Falls – one of the most challenging hikes in Kakadu – we decamp from Cooinda to Gunlom Campground. A short stroll from our site to the trail head allows us to set off at 7am the following morning to tackle the steep mountainside path.

It’s slow-going, but I’m proud of how determined and strong our son is to reach the top. Once we get there, about 40 minutes later, the views over the grasslands below are phenomenal, while the natural, tiered pools are rejuvenating.

Jim Jim Falls

In a week of amazing challenges, the most rewarding experience comes at the end of our visit. The hike to Jim Jim Falls is long and sweaty but incredibly beautiful, with monsoon forest following the shore of a glassy creek that eventually leads us to a torrent of large boulders. My husband hoists Wild One onto his hip to scale the giant “stepping stones” together, until, finally, we reach a sand beach in what must be one of Australia’s most awe-inspiring natural landscapes.

A pterodactyl soars overhead, I imagine, as we enter a prehistoric amphitheatre of towering rock walls. We slowly descend into a pool of inky green water, before discovering a second pool at the base of the waterfall. The falls aren’t running when we visit, which we’re thankful for, as we wouldn’t be able to step foot in this incredible environment if they were, such is the transformative magic of this national park. Kakadu, it’s one helluva captivating place.

This article originally appeared in volume 11 of Caravan & Camping with Kids. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.

Need to know

All visitors to Kakadu over the age of four must purchase a park pass (excluding NT residents). Passes can be bought at Cooinda or Bowali Visitor Centre.

Stay

Cooinda Camping Ground, next to Yellow Water Billabong, has 300-plus campsites, as well as camp kitchens, a bistro and bar, two pools and a playground.

Be croc-wise

Kakadu has Crocodile Management Zones that are monitored regularly during the visitor season for the presence of crocodiles in order to minimise risk to humans. In the designated zones, you enter the water at your own risk. For more information, click here.

Fast fact

Estuarine (saltwater) crocodiles are the world’s largest reptiles and Australia’s biggest estuarine and freshwater predator.

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