Kakadu - Swimming at the top of the world (or at least the escarpment)

Monday, Aug 03, 2009 at 00:00


Kakadu is the largest national Park in Australia and the only one in the world to encompass an entire river system. At almost 20,000 square kilometres, it is one third of the size of Tasmania.Kakadu is home to or visited by 290 different species of birds which is one third of all of Australia’s bird species, 68 different species of mammal, 120 reptile species, 26 species of frogs, 300 types of fish, 2,000 different plants and over 10,000 types of insects. The wetlands are of international significance for migratory birds.

For those just driving through the bitumen access roads of Kakadu Highway and the Arnhem Highway, visitors will see little but Savannah woodlands, however the park also encompasses the following types of country: Stone country, hills and ridges to the south, monsoon forest pockets, billabongs, flood plains, tidal flats and the coast. Much of the park is very close to sea level and the rivers on the plains are subject to tidal influence which reaches over ninety kilometres inland. Large estuarine (salt water) crocodiles are found in and near the waterways.

For those who have not purchased a park pass either on line or from the Tourist Centre in either Darwin or Katherine, they can be purchased from a number of places in or near the park. These include the Goymarr Tourist Park adjacent to the Mary River Roadhouse near the southern park entrance via the Kakadu Highway and the Aurora Kakadu, South Alligator accommodation centre near the northern entrance to the ark via the Arnhem Highway. See more about who needs to purchase a pass and how to do so on line here


Known also as Waterfall Creek and UDP Falls, this area was central to Uranium mining and processing during the 1950s and 1960s in the South Alligator River valley. The Uranium Development and Prospecting Company gave the name UDP to the area, where accommodation villages were at several of the mine site. Despite cleaning up and burial of the mill and contaminated waste, radiation levels in some of the former mining and milling areas still remain above acceptable levels for human habitation. There were thirteen small mines operating in the South Alligator area. These areas are off limits for tourists. At the time of our visit, close by the road and river approaching Gunlom, earthworks were underway cleaning up old mining residues.

Gunlom campground and falls are accessed by a 35 kilometre dirt road which is suitable for use by two wheel drive vehicles and for towing during the dry season. The track may be corrugated.

We took the walk involving a one kilometres climb up the steep escarpment to the top of Gunlom Falls where Waterfall Creek tumbles 100 metres down a sheer cliff into the deep and large plunge pool below. Swimming in the clear waters where they were trickling over the lip of the big drop and looking out at the vista over the South Alligator River valley was a truly amazing experience.

Families took inflatable rafts across the pool to where the waters trickled in from high above while I of course swam to fell the splashing from the waterfall. I looked up to see someone perilously close to the edge at the top of the falls.

Awoken early in the morning by a cacophony of bird calls, we took the flat and easy 2.5 kilometre return walk to the South Alligator River. About half way along the walk trail, the path crosses Murrill Billabong at a dry patch near a pool which is home to water birdlife. From this point the trail becomes narrow and grassy (watch out for snakes). The river is home to Estuarine (salt water) crocodiles, so again exercise caution and do not enter the water. Huge trees and tall bamboo line the sandy river banks. Small fish could be seen in the river. A swim in the plunge pool at the base of the falls was cooling and welcome.

There is another small and unserviced campground on the way to Gunlom by the Kambolgie Creek. This has pit toilet only and is suitable for tent camping, although some caravans do get in. Nearby are the inter-connected Yurmikmik walks which are best done in the wet season when the creeks are flowing, subject to conditions permitting. The individual walks are: Boulder Creek Walk (two kilometre return); Yurmikmik Lookout Walk (five kilometre return); Motor Car Falls (7.5 kilometre return) and Kurrundie Creek Walk (eleven kilometres return).

A four wheel drive track can be taken to the Gimbat picnic area during the dry season. The picnic area is situated near Guratba (Coronation Hill) and the South Alligator River further upstream.

Camping at Koolpin Gorge requires a special permit. This can be applied for on line bearing in mind that the date you want may not be free because numbers of campers are limited, and the access track must be driven during specific times of day to work as one way traffic. Permits are required for day visits as well as camping. While camping is $5 per person there is a $50 deposit for a gate key, which must be collected from and returned to the Goymarr Tourist Park adjacent to the Mary River Roadhouse. Certain areas of cultural significance may not be visited. This was all to complex for us to pre-arrange, so we did not go to Koolpin Gorge.

There are other much more remote walks and overnight hikes to spectacular waterfalls, swimming holes and gorges that can be taken within the South Alligator region. These require special permits and may not be accessible year round due to cultural reasons in addition to wet weather inaccessibility.

Gungural car park and camping area is 33 kilometres from the Gunlom turnoff, and consists of a wide bitumised loop road around 500 metres from the Kakadu Highway. We chose this as an overnight stop and place to leave the caravan to visit Maguk in the Barramundie Gorge. There is a four kilometre return walk from Gungural to the South Alligator River and on to a lookout high on a hill.

We walked at first to the River and were met on the track by some young European ladies who told us the river was dry – nothing there. As we had seen water further upstream at Gunlom, we looked further; there were three channels and one had water flowing.

From the lookout, we could see a large dam out in the valley, but were not able to find out what this dam was used for.

Maguk – Barramundie Gorge

Driving nine kilometres on the Kakadu Highway and a further twelve kilometres on the Maguk access track, we stopped at a very busy car park. There were two tour coaches and a number of other commercial tour and private vehicles. The one kilometres walk (one way) follows the Barramundie creek line through monsoon forest where Pandanus and very tall Paperbark trees predominate.

There is a boardwalk through wetlands at the start of this trail. The trail then climbs over the rocks where some Aboriginal paintings can be seen, to view and access the top pools where a series of cascades links small pools. Some of these are big enough for swimming in, and people jumped off a rock ledge done into the channel. There is a round hole in the rocks and a few jump into this where the only way out is to swim under the rock. As the tour groups were mostly here and swimming in the top pools it was a little crowded at this popular destination. We looked down onto a much larger pool where others from a tour group were also swimming.

Read more detail about this trip and see all the photos in our 2009 travelogues http://www.australiasomuchtosee.com/australiasomuchtosee_002.htm


Red desert dreaming

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