Kakadu in the wet season
Australia’s Northern Territory in the wet season is a formidable experience for most people. Heavy humidity, lashing torrential rainfall, gusty winds, lightning storms and the occassional risk of encountering a ‘saltie’ (Aussie slang for a saltwater crocodile) in the swampy mangroves that surround the state’s coastline. Yet there is a strange compelling beauty to this wild frontier state at the northen most tip of the country.
Two weeks ago I travelled with my two kids and husband to Kakadu National Park for a much needed family holiday. Since January is the heart of the wet monsoonal season, we were warned that most of the park’s roads would be impassable and most major tourist sites would be closed off. Much of this information proved to be true. Popular tourist sites like Ubirr and Cahill’s Crossing were closed due to flooding and dangerous road conditions. But what we were blessed with was a breathtaking display of verdant green wet season landscape and abundant wildlife: lush mangroves full of white, pink and purple lotus blooms, Jabiru storks, herons, kites and other birds of prey, black wallaroos and even a sighting of a huge saltwater cocodile in the muddy river. We stayed at Aurora Kakadu close to the South Alligator River — one of three rivers that cross this national park. The popular Gungarre Monsoon Forest and Billabong Walk begins near the hotel grounds. I didn’t get a chance to walk this trail but I would love to explore it the next time I visit this place.
On our first afternoon in Kakadu we decided to visit the Bowali Vistor Centre. As the park’s main information centre, it is situated in a beautifully designed structure overlooking the parklands. Bowali’s main drawcard is a purpose built walk-through display area showcasing Kakadu’s unique flora and fauna and an art gallery. Children, in particular, really enjoy this interactive display. There’s also a small library with a collection of old books and maps on the region. At the time of our visit, four children with their grandfather and grandmother were feeding the turtles in the centre’s pond. The grandmother fell into conversation with me. She and her husband were visiting from Victoria, a different Australian state, to babysit her daughter’s four children. She was covered in sweat and complained that while she appreciated Kakadu’s wild beauty, the extreme wet season humidity and prolific numbers of biting insects were not to her taste at all. I could see her point. No one could possibly like those discomforts. Yet I was willing to slap on strong insect repellant and brave the humidity for a chance to see Kakadu’s lush beauty in the wet.
During the second day of our stay we drove to Jabiru the only major town in Kakadu National Park. Coming from cosmopolitan south-east Asia where I was born, I would usually consider Jabiru to be more of a village than a town. It comprised of one petrol shed and convenience store, a small collection of shops that made up the town centre and a few hotels for tourists. The best find, in my opinion, was the Jabiru public swimming pool which turned out to be a well-maintained and generously sized facility. We spent over two hours swiming here for a nominal entry fee. The swiming centre manager was a middle-aged woman from Australia’s southern state of Victoria. I asked her what made her stay in this isolated Northern Territory town so far away from her far more urbane and cooler climed home state. “I love the thunderstorms and the dramatic landscapes out here,” she said. “It grows on you this place. It’s like no other place I’ve ever been”. Too right it is. Kakadu’s isolation is what makes it so beautiful and pristine. It seems to capture the heart of some immediately.
On our way back from Jabiru we decided to drive to the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre on the recommendation of our hotel receptionist. The drive from Jabiru to Warradjan was highly enjoyable. We passed flooded mangroves and the kids kept imagining that every protruding log was a saltwater crocodile lying in ambush! But just as we were nearly at the centre, a beat up Toyota Landcruiser drove past on the opposite side of the road. It was driven by an elderly Aboriginal woman and she waved frantically as she drove past us to our bewilderment. It was only once we reached the cultural centre, a few minutes later, that we realised why she did that. It was closed for the day as it was late afternoon in the low tourist season. Disappointing but what an interesting detour this proved to be. I put the cultural centre down on my list of places to visit on our next trip out here.
Two nights and three days is by no means adequate to see all the highlights of this vast conservation park. According to parksaustralia.gov.au it’s “nearly half the size of Switzerland”. But that’s all the time we had to spare for this first foray into Kakadu. I plan to return again in the dry season between April to October to experience the major landmarks that we were unable to access this time. Despite others reservations about us visiting Kakadu in the wet, I’m glad we came. Yes, we had to cope with high humidity, heavy rainfall and biting insects but the lush green landscape, abundant wildlife and spectacular nightskies lit by zigzagging lightning storms more than made up for all these inconveniences.