Kakadu National Park is located within the Alligator Rivers Region of the Northern Territory of Australia. It covers an area of , extending nearly 200 kilometres from north to south and over 100 kilometres from east to west. It is the size of Israel, about one-third the size of Tasmania, or nearly half the size of Switzerland.
Aboriginal people have occupied the Kakadu area continuously for at least 40 000 years. Kakadu National Park is renowned for the richness of its Aboriginal cultural sites. There are more than 5000 recorded art sites illustrating Aboriginal culture over thousands of years. The archaeological sites demonstrate Aboriginal occupation for at least 20 000 and possibly up to 40 000 years.
The cultural and natural values of Kakadu National Park were recognised internationally when the Park was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This is an international register of properties that are recognised as having outstanding cultural or natural values of international significance. Kakadu was listed in three stages: Stage 1 in 1981, Stage 2 in 1987, and the entire Park in 1992.
Approximately half of the land in Kakadu is Aboriginal land under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 and most of the remaining land is currently under claim by Aboriginal people. The areas of the Park that are owned by Aboriginal people are leased by the traditional owners to the Director of National Parks to be managed as a national park. The remaining area is Commonwealth land vested under the Director of National Parks. All of Kakadu is declared a national park under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
The Aboriginal traditional owners of the Park are descendants of various clan groups from the Kakadu area and have longstanding affiliations with this country. Their lifestyle has changed in recent years, but their traditional customs and beliefs remain very important. About 500 Aboriginal people live in the Park; many of them are traditional owners. All of Kakadu is jointly managed by Aboriginal traditional owners and the Australian Government’s Department of the Environment and Water Resources through a division known as Parks Australia. Park Management is directed by the Kakadu Board of Management.
Kakadu was established at a time when the Australian community was becoming more interested in the declaration of national parks for conservation and in recognising the land interests of Aboriginal people. A national park in the Alligator River region was proposed as early as 1965, but took until 1978 for the Australian Government to make arrangements to acquire the titles over various tracts of land that now constitute Kakadu National Park.
Kakadu National Park was declared under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975 (NPWC Act) in three stages between 1979 and 1991. The NPWC Act was replaced by the EPBC Act in 2000. The declaration of the Park continues under the EPBC Act. Each stage of the Park includes Aboriginal land under the Land Rights Act that is leased to the Director of National Parks or land that is subject to a claim to traditional ownership under the Land Rights Act. Most of the land that was to become part of Stage One of Kakadu was granted to the Kakadu Aboriginal land Trust under the Land Rights Act in August 1978 and, in November 1978, the Land Trust and the Director signed a lease for the land to be managed as a national park. Stage One of the Park was declared on 5 April 1979.
Stage Two was declared on 28 February 1984. In March 1978, a claim was lodged under the Land Rights Act for the land included in Stage Two of Kakadu. The land claim was partly successful and, in 1986, three areas in the eastern part of Stage Two were granted to the Jabiluka Aboriginal Land Trust. A lease between the Land Trust and the Director of National parks was signed in March 1991.
In 1987, a land claim was lodged for the land in the former Goodparla and Gimbat pastoral leases that were to be included in Stage Three of Kakadu. The other area to be included in Stage Three – the area known as the Gimbat Resumption and the Waterfall Creek Reserve were later added to this land claim. The progressive declaration was due to the debate over whether mining should be allowed at Guratba (Coronation Hill) which is located in the middle of the area referred to as Sickness Country. The traditional owners’ wishes were ultimately respected and the Australian National Government decided that there would be no mining at Guratba.
In 1996, the land in Stage Three, apart from the former Goodparla pastoral leases, was granted to the Gunlom Aboriginal Land Trust and leased to the Director of National Parks to continue being managed as part of Kakadu.
Phillip Parker King, an English navigator entered the Gulf of Carpentaria between 1818 and 1822. During this time he named the three Alligator Rivers after the large numbers of crocodiles, which he mistook for alligators.
Ludwig Leichhardt was the first land-based European explorer to visit the Kakadu region, in 1845 on his route from Moreton Bay in Queensland to Port Essington in the Northern Territory. He followed Jim Jim Creek down from the Arnhem Land escarpment, then went down the South Alligator before crossing to the East Alligator and proceeding north. A more plausible, if prosaic, explanation for the origin of the name of the park is that Leichardt applied the colloquial German term for a cockatoo, although this is unlikely to sit well with the indigenous historians.
In 1862 John McDouall Stuart travelled along the south-western boundary of Kakadu but did not see any people.
The first non-Aboriginal people to visit and have sustained contact with Aboriginal people in northern Australia were the Macassans from Sulawesi and other parts of the Indonesian archipelago. They travelled to northern Australia every wet season, probably from the last quarter of the seventeenth century, in sailing boats called praus. Their main aim was to harvest trepang (sea cucumber), turtle shell, pearls and other prized items to trade in their homeland. Aboriginal people were involved in harvesting and processing the trepang, and in collecting and exchanging the other goods.
There is no evidence that the Macassans spent time on the coast of Kakadu but there is evidence of some contact between Macassan culture and Aboriginal people of the Kakadu area. Among the artefacts from archaeological digs in the Park are glass and metal fragments that probably came from the Macassans, either directly or through trade with the Coburg Peninsula people.
The British attempted a number of settlements on the northern Australian coast in the early part of the nineteenth century: Fort Dundas on Melville Island in 1824; Fort Wellington at Raffles Bay in 1829; and Victoria Settlement (Port Essington) on the Coburg Peninsula in 1838. They were anxious to secure the north of Australia before the French or Dutch, who had colonised islands further north. The British settlements were all subsequently abandoned for a variety of reasons, such as lack of water and fresh food, sickness and isolation. It is difficult to assess the impact of these settlements on the local Aboriginal people and the type of relationship that developed between them and the British. Certainly, some Aboriginal labour was used at the settlements. Exposure to new sickness was an ever-present danger. As in other parts of Australia, disease and the disruption it caused to society devastated the local Aboriginal population.
Water Buffalo had a big influence on the Kakadu region as well. By the 1880s the number of buffaloes released from early settlements had increased to such an extent that commercial harvesting of hides and horns was economically viable.
The industry began on the Adelaide River, close to Darwin, and moved east to the Mary River and Alligator Rivers regions.
Most of the buffalo hunting and skin curing was done in the dry season, between June and September, when buffaloes congregated around the remaining billabongs.
During the wet season hunting ceased because the ground was too muddy to pursue buffalo and the harvested hides would rot. The buffalo-hunting industry became an important employer of Aboriginal people during the dry-season months.
The extent to which missions have influenced Aboriginal society is the subject of debate. Some writers and anthropologists argue that missionaries, in seeking to ‘civilise and institutionalise’ Aboriginal people, forced them to abandon their lifestyle, language, religion and ceremonies—indeed, the whole fabric of their lives. Others argue that, although criticism can be levelled at the methods used to achieve their goal, the missionaries did care about the welfare of Aboriginal people at a time when wider Australian society did not.
In southern Kakadu much of Goodparla and Gimbat was claimed in the mid-1870s by three pastoralists, Roderick, Travers and Sergison. The leases were subsequently passed on to a series of owners, all of whom were unable for one reason or another to make a go of it. In 1987 both stations were acquired by the Commonwealth and incorporated in Kakadu National Park.
A sawmill at Nourlangie Camp was begun by Chinese operators, probably before World War I, to mill stands of cypress pine in the area. After World War II a number of small-scale ventures, including dingo shooting and trapping, brumby shooting, crocodile shooting, tourism and forestry, began.
Nourlangie Camp was again the site of a sawmill in the 1950s, until the local stands of cypress pine were exhausted. In 1958 it was converted into a safari camp for tourists. Soon after, a similar camp was started at Patonga and at Muirella Park. Clients were flown in for recreational buffalo and crocodile hunting and fishing.
Crocodile hunters often made use of the bush skills of Aboriginal people. By imitating a wallaby’s tail hitting the ground, Aboriginal hunters could attract crocodiles, making it easier to shoot the animals. Using paperbark rafts, they would track the movement of a wounded crocodile and retrieve the carcass for skinning. The skins were then sold to make leather goods. Aboriginal people became less involved in commercial hunting of crocodiles once the technique of spotlight shooting at night developed. Freshwater Crocodiles have been protected by law since 1964 and Saltwater Crocodiles since 1971.
The first mineral discoveries in the Top End were associated with the construction of the Overland Telegraph line between 1870 and 1872, in the Pine Creek – Adelaide River area. A series of short mining booms followed.
The construction of the North Australia Railway line gave more permanency to the mining camps, and places such as Burrundie and Pine Creek became permanent settlements. The mining camps and new settlements drew many Aboriginal people away from Kakadu. No Aboriginal people are known to have worked in the mines but their exposure to alcohol and other drugs had a huge impact.
Small-scale gold mining began at Imarlkba, near Barramundi Creek, and Mundogie Hill in the 1920s and at Moline (previously called Eureka and Northern Hercules mine), south of the Park, in the 1930s. The mines employed a few local Aboriginal people.
In 1953 uranium was discovered along the headwaters of the South Alligator River valley. Thirteen small but rich uranium mines operated in the following decade, at their peak in 1957 employing over 150 workers. No Aboriginal people were employed at any of these mines.
Early in the 1970s large uranium deposits were discovered at Ranger, Jabiluka and Koongarra. Following receipt of a formal proposal to develop the Ranger site, the Commonwealth Government initiated an inquiry into land use in the Alligator Rivers region. The Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry (known as the Fox inquiry) recommended, among other things, that mining begin at the Ranger site, that consideration be given to the future development of the Jabiluka and Koongarra sites, and that a service town be built (Fox et al. 1976, 1977). The Ranger mine and the service town (Jabiru) have had many and considerable impacts on Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people express varying opinions about mining.
The rain season (January to March/April) is characterised by warm temperatures and, as one would expect, rain. Most of the rain is associated with monsoonal troughs formed over Southeast Asia, although occasionally tropical cyclones produce intense heavy rain over localised areas. At Jabiru the average maximum temperature for January is 33 °C.Annual rainfall in Kakadu National Park ranges from 1,565 mm in Jabiru to 1,300 mm in the Mary River region.
Most non Aboriginal people really only refer to the rain and dry seasons, but Aboriginal people Bininj/Mungguy identify as many as six seasons in the Kakadu region:
The distinctly different geographical areas of Kakadu have their own specialised flora. The environment referred to as ‘the Stone Country’ features ‘resurrection grasses’ that are able to cope with extreme heat and long dry spells followed by periods of torrential rain. Monsoon forests often develop in the cool moist gorges dissecting the stone country. The southern hills and basins support several endemic plants that are only found in Kakadu such as the Eucalyptus koolpinensis found near Jarrangbarnmi (Koolpin Gorge). Lowland areas form a large proportion of Kakadu National Park and are mainly covered in eucalypt dominated open woodland with the ground layer consisting of a large range of grasses including spear grass, sedges and wildflowers.
The floodplains, which are inundated for several months each year feature sedges such as spike rush as well patches of freshwater mangroves (itchy tree), pandanus and paper bark trees (Melaleuca). Varieties of water lilies, such as the blue, yellow and white snowflake, are commonly found in these areas. Estuaries and tidal flats are populated with varieties of mangroves (39 of the 47 Northern Territory species of mangrove occur in Kakadu) that are important for stabilising the coastline. Mangroves serve as feeding and breeding grounds for many fish species including the barramundi.
On the tidal flats behind the mangroves, hardy succulents (samphire), grasses and sedges grow. Isolated pockets of monsoon forest grow along the coast and river banks. These forests contain several impressive trees, among them the banyan fig, which can be recognised by its large, spreading aerial roots, and the kapok tree, which has a spiny trunk, large, waxy red flowers and pods full of cotton-like material.
The diverse environments of Kakadu National Park support an astonishing array of animals, a number of which have adapted to particular habitats. Some animals in the Park are rare, endangered, vulnerable or endemic. Responding to the extreme weather conditions experienced in the Park, many animals are active only at particular times of the day or night or at particular times of the year.
About 60 mammal species—marsupials and placental mammals—have been recorded in the Park. Most of them inhabit the open forest and woodlands and are nocturnal, making it difficult to see them. Others, such as wallabies and kangaroos (macropods), are active in the cooler parts of the day and are easier to see. However, recent surveys have revealed a disturbing decline of nearly all mammal species throughout Kakadu, including once common and widespread species such as northern quolls. Kakadu’s many habitats support more than 280 species of birds, or about one-third of Australia’s bird species. Some birds range over a number of habitats, but many are found in only one environment.
To date, 117 species of reptiles have been recorded in Kakadu. Being cold blooded, these animals rely on heat from an external source such as the sun to regulate their body temperature. This is not to say that reptiles are active only during the day; in fact, few snakes can withstand Kakadu’s midday heat and most are active at night.
Two species of crocodile occur in Kakadu: the Freshwater Crocodile (Crocodylus johnstonii) and the Estuarine, or Saltwater Crocodile (C. porosus). Freshwater Crocodiles are easily identified by their narrow snout and a single row of four large boney lumps called ‘scutes’ immediately behind the head. Estuarine Crocodiles do not have these scutes and their snout is broader. The maximum size for a ‘freshie’ is 3 metres, whereas a ‘saltie’ can exceed 6 metres.
Kakadu’s 25 frog species are extremely well adapted to the region’s climatic extremes. Many remain dormant during rainless times. With the onset of the wet season, when the billabongs and swamps start to fill with water, the night air is filled with the sounds of frogs such as the northern bullfrog and the marbled frog. As the water builds up, frogs and tadpoles have an abundance of food, such as algae, vegetation, insects, dragonfly nymphs, and other tadpoles. Not all of Kakadu’s frogs are found in the wetlands: many live in the lowland forests.
Fifty-three species of freshwater fish have been recorded in Kakadu’s waterways; eight of them have a restricted distribution. In the Magela Creek system alone, 32 species have been found. In comparison, the Murray–Darling river system, the most extensive in Australia, now supports only 27 native fish species. Although introduced fish have been found in most Australian waterways, none have been recorded in the Park.
Despite the fact that Kakadu supports more than 10 000 species of insect, these creatures are often overlooked by visitors. Among the insect groups are grasshoppers, beetles, flies, termites, butterflies and moths, bees, wasps, ants, dragonflies and damselflies, caddis flies, non-biting midges and mayflies. The great variety of insects is a result of the varied habitats and relatively high temperatures throughout the year.
Perhaps the most striking insect-created features in the Park are the termite mounds. The mounds in the southern part of the Park are particularly large and impressive. Leichhardt’s grasshopper, in colours of orange, blue and black, is perhaps the most spectacular insect found in Kakadu. It is also found on the Arnhem Land plateau and in Gregory National Park.
Much of Kakadu was under a shallow sea approximately 140 million years ago, with the escarpment wall formed from sea cliffs and Arnhem Land from a flat plateau above the sea. Currently the escarpment rises 330 metres above the plateau and extends approximately 500 kilometres along the East edge of the park and on into Arnhem Land. The escarpment varies from near vertical cliffs in the Jim Jim Falls area to isolated outliers and stepped cliffs in the North.
Chasms and gorges form a network that dissects the rocky platforms on the plateau. The plateau top is a harsh, dry environment where water drains away quickly and top soil is scarce in most areas. Sparse pockets of open forest and woodlands have developed in these areas. However creeks have carved deep gorges in the escarptment in which tall monsoon forests grow. These areas form microclimates for plants and animals and often serve as a refuge during the dry season. Allosyncarpia ternata, a large shady tree found only in the Kakadu and Arnhem Land, is the dominant plant species.
The outliers are essentially pieces of the Arnhem Land plateau that have become separated from the plateau complex by erosion. They were islands in the ancient seas that once covered much of Kakadu. The gently undulating lowland plains stretch over much of the Top End. Travelling anywhere in Kakadu, you cannot help noticing the lowlands—they make up nearly 70% of the Park. The soils are shallow and often overlie extensive sheets of laterite (ironstone) and a thick profile of strongly leached rocks.
During the wet season, water carried down from the Arnhem Land plateau often overflows from creeks and rivers onto nearby floodplains. Alluvial soils carried in the floodwaters add nutrients to the floodplains. Nutrient-rich soils along with an abundance of water and sunlight make the floodplains an area of prolific plant and animal life. During the dry season the water recedes into rivers, creeks and isolated waterholes or billabongs. Kakadu’s wetlands are listed under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (the Ramsar Convention) for their outstanding ecological, botanical, zoological and hydrological features.
The southern hills and basins cover a large area in the south of the Park, including the headwaters of the South Alligator River. Rocks here have been exposed from beneath the retreating Arnhem escarpment; they are of volcanic origin and are extremely old (2500 million years). This landform is characterised by rugged strike ridges separated by alluvial flats.
Kakadu’s coast and the creeks and river systems under tidal influence (extending about 100 kilometres inland) make up this landform. The shape of the estuaries and tidal flats varies considerably from the dry season to the wet season. During the dry season tidal action deposits silt along the river beds and banks. During the wet season the river beds are eroded by the floodwaters and large quantities of fresh and saline water flow out across the tidal flats, where silt is deposited. Large silt loads are also carried out to sea, some of the silt being deposited as a nutrient rich layer on the sea floor, contributing to the muddy waters that characterise Kakadu’s coastline.
The estuaries and tidal flats are home to an array of plants and animals adapted to living in the oxygen-deficient saline mud. The dominant habitats are mangrove swamps and samphire flats. Where freshwater springs occur along the coasts and river banks, isolated pockets of coastal monsoon rainforests form.
The art sites of Ubirr, Nourlangie and Nanguluwur are internationally recognised as outstanding examples of Aboriginal rock art. These sites are found in rocky outcrops that have afforded shelter to Aboriginal inhabitants for thousands of years. The painting in these rock shelters were done for various reasons:
Ubirr is a group of rock outcrops in the northest of the Park, on the edge of the Nadab floodplain. There several large rock overhangs that would have provided excellent shelter to Aboriginal people over thousands of years. Ubirr’s proximity to the East Alligator River and Nadab floodplains means that food would have been abundant and this is reflected in much of the rock art here. Animals depicted in the main gallery include Barramundi, Catfish, Mullet, Goanna, Snake-necked Turtle, Pig-nosed Turtle, Rock-haunting Ringtail Possum, and Wallaby and Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger).
There are also images of the Rainbow Serpent said to have created much of the landscape as well as mischievous Mimi spirits and the story of the Namarrgarn Sisters. Many stories connected to Aboriginal rock are highly complex and linked to other stories. Often the true meanings have been lost, but they all have a purpose which is usually to serve as a lesson or a warning to the young or to those passing through the area.
Nourlangie is located in an outlying formation of the Arnhem Land Escarpment. There are a number of shelters in amongst this large outcrop linked by paths and stairways. The shelters contain several impressive paintings that deal with creation ancestors. The stories connected to these artworks are known only to certain Aboriginal people and remain secret.
Anbangbang Billabong lies in the shadow of Nourlangie Rock and is inhabited by a wide range of wildlife which would have sustained traditional Aboriginal people well.
Nanguluwur is a small art site, near Nourlangie, which displays several rock art styles. These include hand stencils, dynamic figures in large head-dresses carrying spears and boomerangs, representations of Namandi spirits and mythical figures, including Alkajko, a female spirit with four arms and horn-like protuberances. There is also an interesting example of ‘contact art’ depicting a two-masted sailing ship with anchor chain and a dinghy trailing behind.
Human impacts during the 19th and 20th century have been significant. Introduction of Domestic Asian Water Buffalo from Southeast Asia has resulted in damage to the fragile floodplains and wetlands. Buffalo have largely been eradicated from the area now so the land is rehabilitating itself. Crocodile hunting which has been banned since 1972 made a huge impact on crocodile populations. In the 30 or so years that they have been protected, however the crocodile population has recovered so successfully that some consider there to be an over population.
Mining has an obvious impact on the landscape, but only one operational mine (Ranger) remains. Mine operators are required to completely rehabilitate the area once the operation is wound down. Some small scale logging occurred in the early part of the 20th century, but little evidence of this remains. Tourism represents a significant human impact to Kakadu National Park with hundreds of thousands of visitors arriving annually. Infrastructure such as roads, tracks, interpretive signage and shelter, accommodation, telecommunications and other services must be provided to support this activity.
Controlled burning is practiced by the national park in consultation with traditional owners who have used fire as a land management tool for thousands of years. Fire is an important hunting tool for Aboriginal people using it to flush out prey. The other benefit is that once the fire has gone through an area the tender shoots of the fast regenerating grasses attract wallabies into a clearly defined area. Birds of prey such as Whistling Kites also rely on fire to flush out small animals and are usually found in large numbers circling a fire front. Other species such as white-throated grasswrens have declined because of too many fires. Aboriginal people understand that fire is necessary to ‘clean up’ the landscape and believe that many small fires are preferable to one large fire.
Kakadu National Park has some of the best examples of Aboriginal rock art in Australia. The sites of Nourlangie and Ubirr are among the most visited locations in the Park. It is possible to view some of Kakadu’s diverse wildlife at places like Yellow Water Billabong, Cooinda on board a wildlife cruise or at Mamukala Wetlands or Anbangbang Billabong. The Kakadu region is one of the world’s best for bird watching as approximately 30 percent of Australia’s bird species can be seen here.
Large saltwater crocodiles are also commonplace and visitors are likely to see them at Yellow Water and East Alligator River so it was no coincidence that the Crocodile Dundee films were shot here. Visitors are urged to exercise caution around crocodiles as they have been responsible for a number of fatal attacks. Recreational fishing is a popular activity inside Kakadu National Park. The main target species is Barramundi and the most popular locations are Yellow Water, the South Alligator and the East Alligator River. Hunting is not allowed in Kakadu National Park.
There are several accommodation options in the Park, mostly found in the town of Jabiru, as well as a range of services to cater to visitor’s needs. Visitors can experience Kakadu National Park with a recognised tour operator or they can drive themselves. Many of the Park’s sites are accessible by standard two wheel drive vehicles, but areas like Twin and Jim Jim Falls and Gunlom require four wheel drive vehicles. Visitors can experience Kakadu National Park via the Nature’s Way tourism drive which is a loop from Darwin to Jabiru then onto Katherine and back to Darwin covering approximately 900km.
The EPBC Act provides for boards of management to be established for parks on Aboriginal land. The Kakadu Board of Management, which has an Aboriginal majority (ten out of fifteen members), representing the Aboriginal traditional owners of land in the Park, was established in 1989. The Board determines policy for managing the Park and is responsible, along with the Director, for preparing plans of management for the Park. The Plan of Management is the main policy document for the Park and strives to balance strategic or long-term goals and tactical or day to day goals. Day to day management of Kakadu is carried out by people employed by Parks Australia, which is a branch of the Australian Government’s Department of the Environment and Water Resources. Approximately one-third of the staff in Kakadu are Aboriginal people.
The town of Jabiru has several accommodation options, a service station, police, a medical clinic and a shopping centre with a range of outlets. The town was built for the Uranium mine that was established prior to the founding of Kakadu National Park and provides infrastructure for the mine’s workforce as well as the national park activities and tourism. Jabiru has a small airport from which scenic flights operate daily. There are no scheduled air services between Jabiru and Darwin however.
Other small tourism centres such as Cooinda and South Alligator provide limited facilities. Cooinda, 50km south of Jabiru on the Kakadu Highway is the site of Gagudju Lodge Cooinda, Yellow Water Cruises and the Warradjan Cultural Centre. Fuel and limited provisions are available at Cooinda and there is also a small airstrip for scenic flights. South Alligator approximately 40km west of Jabiru on the Arnhem Highway includes a hotel and service station. The Border Store near Ubirr Art Site and Cahill’s Crossing, 50km north of Jabiru, is a general store.
There are a wide variety of designated camping sites throughout the Park. Jabiru, Cooinda and South Alligator all have commercial camping areas and are in close proximity to most of the important natural attractions in these areas. Some of the Park’s campsites charge a nominal fee as these have shower and toilet facilities, others are free, however they have limited or no facilities. A list of the sites can be obtained from the Kakadu National Park’s Glenn Murcutt-designed Bowali Visitor Centre or from their website.