Moonrise on the Billabong: Australia’s Kakadu National Park

Dry land can end up far away when boating in the National Park.
Moonrise over Yellow Water Billabong is a magical sight. Photo by Anthony Toole

Everything here is big: the birds, the trees, the red rocks. From high viewpoints, the wilderness of eucalyptus forest reaches into a distance limited only by the abrupt wall of the 1,312-foot (400 km) Arnhem Escarpment. Even the span of a spider here matches that of my hand.

Yellow Water Billabong was no different, though at a first glance it appeared nothing more than a broad river. The boat meandered through half-submerged trees, freshwater mangroves (Darlingtonia) and a huge acreage of water lilies.

Further expanses of water opened out around each bend, and as the first crocodile drifted silently across the bow we realized we were in the middle of a vast wetland, and that the nearest dry shore was a long way off.

Stretching 62 miles (100 km) east to west and double that north to south, Kakadu National Park is Australia’s largest national park, a Ramsar wetland (a wetland of international importance) and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Big as it is, Kakadu is not a place to see at a gallop, and we had taken two days to get this far.

Kakadu has been inhabited by humans for probably 50,000 years, and was almost certainly one of the first areas in Australia to be settled by the Aboriginal peoples. It plays an important role in their creation myths, those wonderful, richly textured stories that incorporate the physical landforms, the birds, animals, fishes and their relationships with the settlers.

At places within Kakadu such as Ubirr and Nourlangie, these myths are exquisitely illustrated in rock paintings, which give a unique insight into Aboriginal culture and history.

The traditional owners manage the national park jointly with the Australian government’s Department of the Environment and Heritage. It is a wilderness cut by only two main paved roads: the Arnhem Highway, from Darwin to Jabiru, and the Kakadu Highway, from Jabiru to Pine Creek.

A short paved road north to Ubirr and the border with Arnhem Land is impassable in the wet seasons (or restricted to 4-wheel-drives), as are the unpaved roads that are generally navigable only by 4-wheel-drive vehicles.

We booked our campervan into a campsite in the tourism area of Cooinda and awaited the small canopied boat that would take us on a late afternoon trip on Yellow Water.

Kakadu contains the entire catchment of a major river system, the South Alligator. It also encompasses the smaller West Alligator and much of the Wildman River; the northeast edge of Kakadu is divided from Arnhem Land by the East Alligator. In the monsoon season, the floodplains cover hundreds of square miles.

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