Dry season weekend getaway: Kakadu 2020
We had originally planned to go to Japan for 3 weeks in June. When the global pandemic made it clear our trip would have to be postponed, along with many other plans for 2020, we started thinking about places we could still visit.
Once it was announced that Kakadu National Park was reopening, we figured now was a rare opportunity to explore it without the usual crowds. The first stage of reopening was for day use only, no camping, which meant we would have to stay at one of the hotels. It seemed the rest of the Territory had the same idea as, when I phoned up, there was only one Friday night available (no Saturdays or Sundays) in the next 6 weeks. We ambitiously booked in our one-night getaway, along with a sunset cruise, and set about planning our trip.
In a way, we were relieved camping wasn’t an option when we first made the decision to head out there (camping in the park did end up reopening a couple of weeks before our trip). As much as the dry season weather calls for trips out into the bush, the thought of a weekend camping with two young children is just exhausting. I’m sure we’ll get back into it next year, when A is just that little bit older. Plenty of our friends do go camping with their young families, we went on many trips ourselves when X was a baby and toddler, but, for us, we feel it’s too much effort when it’s just for a night or two. It seems we weren’t the only ones who felt this way, the hotel we stayed at was packed with young families with a baby or young toddler and an older sibling (or two).
We had loosely been planning a longer camping trip to Kakadu, either with friends or visiting relatives, and I’m sure we will be back for many a longer trip in future. As the current attraction was the lack of crowds, we figured we would aim to visit some of the more popular sites. It was a very rushed trip. I wouldn’t recommend a one-night stay, if you have the option of staying longer, but a one-night stay was still worth it.
After a failed attempt to gather information at the visitor centre (it was shut), we headed straight to the Ubirr rock art site. In what would usually be ‘peak season’ (Australian winter school holidays, which also coincides with the European summer holidays), there was only one other car in the carpark. We were there for over an hour, enjoying a picnic lunch and exploring the site and, at most, there were maybe five families there. We really appreciated being able to take our time, walking at a child’s pace and looking at each gallery for as long as we wanted, without holding up other visitors or having to be mindful of those trying to take photos. It’s hard to explain to a 3-year-old just how long ago some of the paintings were painted, but he enjoyed picking out some of the animals and listening to the stories.
Next stop was the hotel, to check in and get ready for our sunset cruise. We had been told the sunrise cruise is ‘the’ cruise to be on, but we just couldn’t bring ourselves to get up that early (as it was, we were woken by other guests who were booked onto that tour). Another time. We still got to see an abundance of wildlife on the sunset cruise, lots of crocodiles, water birds, and buffaloes coming out to feed, although X and A were starting to get a bit tired of it when the driver kept on taking us for ‘one more quick look’ at things after the sun had already set.
The next morning, we decided to head to one of the more popular waterfalls. Hotel staff told us that Gunlom was closed for swimming, as the rangers were trying to catch a crocodile, so we decided to head to Jim Jim Falls. This probably wasn’t the best choice with a toddler and a 3-year-old but, without any park information, it was hard to make an informed decision (after discovering the visitor centre was shut, I had asked at the hotel for a map or brochure but was told “It’s all online, we don’t have any brochures or maps either”). In future, we’ll make sure we spend more time online in the days leading up to our trip, and might even print out all the site information documents (the website has a PDF for each site) and put them in a folder that we can take with us each trip. I don’t know if it’s always like this, or if the disrupted tourist season and Covid-19 changes were the cause, but I do like to have a paper map and brochure to refer to when I’m somewhere with intermittent phone reception. We usually keep our brochures for future visits, so if they’re not printing as they don’t want them to be wasted, perhaps they could offer a booklet you can pay for (and thus be more likely to keep), or a comprehensive document you can download with all of the PDFs together rather than having to find and download each of them all individually.
We headed into Jim Jim Falls. The start of the road in was terrible. Rutted corrugations that try to pull you across into past vehicle tracks. It had been marked as ‘4 wheel drive only’ so we knew it would likely be rough in parts and, whilst unpleasant to drive on, I have had plenty of experience driving on similar roads, so we continued on. It’s possible, again, that the road would have usually been graded. Having not been there before, it’s hard to know what was ‘usual’ and what was a casualty of the delayed start to the 2020 tourist season. When we do next go in to Jim Jim, we will plan to camp overnight (the campground looked nice, when we saw it we were a little regretful that we hadn’t thrown our swags in at the last minute).
A woke up about two thirds of the (50km) way in, and was not pleased. I suppose, after getting ready to move and then moving and settling into our new house, we haven’t been on as many bumpy roads as X had at that age. We stopped to give her a chance to wake up and have a snack, but then had to push on (either way, we couldn’t stay on the side of the road). Finally, we made it to the carpark for the falls, and had a quick lunch before pulling together all our swimming things. The first part of the walk was fairly easy, A did the first kilometre or so down to the river by herself. It then began to get a bit rough, with bigger steps and boulders to climb over, so I put her on my back in the carrier. The walk turned out longer than expected, towards the end there were giant rock slabs to clamber over, we had to carefully swing X onto each one before clambering ahead of him to the next. Finally, we made it in. There is a really nice sandy beach at the end, and a large, refreshing pool of clear water with lots of fish you can swim around with. It would have been nice to stay longer (hence, next time we’ll camp out there and have the whole day to do the walk). After a quick dip and a play in the sand, it was time to head back. I carried X on my back in a towel for the tricky section over the rocks, as I wanted to ensure we made it back to the sealed road before dark.
We made it out with plenty of time to spare and, after a quick stop at Jabiru for fuel and hotdogs, started the journey home. It was a very rushed trip, we were glad we had Sunday to rest at home and recover. As I’ve said, I would definitely recommend a longer stay, but one night was better than nothing. We’re glad to have made it out to Kakadu and to have seen it without its crowds, and we’ll definitely be back.