Kakadu in a 2WD!
Kakadu National Park wasn’t on our initial itinerary for our visit to the Northern Territory. Not because we didn’t want to visit the amazing UNESCO World Heritage site, but because we were travelling in our 2WD Toyota Hiace van and we didn’t think that we could access anything worthwhile in the park.
We love our van, but she is more of a delivery van than an off-road adventure vehicle!
But, after chatting with friends in Darwin about the condition of the roads, we decided to give it a try, and I am so happy that we did.
Of course, it would be so much better to visit in a 4WD and next time we definitely will, but I wanted to write about the places that we were able to visit, to show you that it is definitely worth visiting, even if all you have is a 2WD.
Getting to Kakadu National Park
You will have absolutely no issues getting to Kakadu in your 2WD.
We arrived from Darwin (it’s about 150km of sealed road from Darwin to the entrance on the Arnhem Highway) and left heading towards Katherine (it’s about 150km of sealed road from the park entrance on the Kakadu Highway to Katherine).
Both highways through the park are fully sealed and I can’t imagine having any issues in a 2WD, even in the wet season, although we were there in September.
We stayed in both the towns of Jabiru and Cooinda, where we were able to fill the van with petrol - although it wasn’t cheap - so you don’t need to worry about having a spare jerry can of petrol for your visit!
Getting around the park
Many of the smaller roads within the park are also well-sealed, especially to the more popular tourist spots. There are also dirt roads that we were fine driving on in the van, although I imagine in the wet season these might get pretty slippery.
If you have hired a 2WD though, chances are you won’t be able to go on dirt roads at all - check your contract first!
Unfortunately, without a 4WD you won’t be able to access any of the beautiful waterfalls and swimming spots, like Gunlom, Jim Jim or Maguk, as these are all located on 4WD-only tracks.
But please don’t let that put you off - there are so many amazing places to visit in your trusty 2WD!
Our first stop in Kakadu National Park was the bird hide at the Mamukale Wetlands. This is located about 70km from the entrance gate as you come from Darwin on the Arnhem Highway.
There is a short walk from the parking area to the bird hide - it was in very good condition, I think you’d be fine with a wheelchair or stroller - and there is a 3km walk along the edge of the wetlands, but it was too hot for us to venture any further than the bird hide.
Now, I should preface this by saying that I hate birds. I don’t know where this hatred has come from (possibly Alfred Hitchcock) but I find them so pecky, grotty and swoopy.
So saying that, you might be surprised to hear that I absolutely loved the bird hide!
We were expecting to see a few birds here and there, like in other bird hides we have visited, but Mamukale was amazing! We saw hundreds and hundreds of birds!
We visited in September and apparently that is the best time to come, as it is the end of the dry season when water is more scarce and so the birds congregate here to feed. This was the best time of year for the Aboriginal people of this area to come here to hunt.
There are signs up in the bird hide which show all the varieties of birds you can see here and how the wetlands change with each season.
Bring your camera and head net (the flies were terrible!) and get ready to relax and watch the birds for ages. It’s like watching a million little soap operas, with all the dramas happening in each group of birds!
Visiting Cahill’s Crossing at high tide was one of our favourite experiences in Kakadu.
The crossing is where the Arnhem Highway crosses the East Alligator River. At low tide it is just a regular road that forms a kind of dam across the river, but as high tide approaches, the river flows up and over the road, bringing with it fish like barramundi and mullet, and the crocodiles that come to eat them!
There is a car park a short distance from the crossing where you can leave your 2WD and walk to the viewing platforms that overlook the river and wait for the crocs to surface.
As the water began to trickle over the road, a few crocs appeared, and then all of a sudden out of nowhere there must have been at least 40 huge saltwater crocs right in front of us, and probably many more hiding under the water!
We watched them hunt their fish dinner (some were resting on the bridge with their mouths open and the fish would swim right in!) and some cheeky ones even floated over the bridge with the tide.
Ubirr is one of the most famous spots in Kakadu. Here you will find the most amazing Aboriginal rock art as well as a spectacular lookout from the top, overlooking the floodplain.
It should definitely be on your Kakadu to-do list and you can absolutely get there in your 2WD!
The Aboriginal people would camp here in the rock shelters and using the rocks as their canvases, created some of the best surviving rock art in the world. The art is not only beautiful, but tells amazing stories about creation, behaviour and law.
The pictures give an important historical and scientific record of Kakadu - you can see an image of a colonial man from around 1880, and one of a thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) which have been extinct on the mainland for thousands of years!
From the carpark there is an easy 1km loop walk which takes you to the different rock art galleries and up to the lookout. The main walk is accessible for wheelchairs and strollers, and you will be able to see some of the galleries from there, but getting to the lookout involves a fairly easy scramble up some rocks.
There are toilets near the carpark - make sure you use these facilities before starting as there are none once you start the walk. It gets pretty hot up at the lookout in the middle of the day, so try and go either early or late in the day. It closes at sunset.
The Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) area is another great spot to explore with only a 2WD. It is an amazing opportunity to see how the Aboriginal people lived during the wet season, when they would camp among the rocks here.
There is evidence of over 20,000 years of occupation in this spot!
You can do an easy 1.5km walk through the park here, which takes you past shelters (and grinding stones), rock art galleries and lookouts.
There are toilets at the carpark, and the path is half wheelchair accessible - you wouldn’t be able to go up through all the rocks and to the lookout, but could still see some of the art and get a good feel of this awesome spot.
After finishing the walk, we drove a short distance to eat our lunch at one of the picnic areas at nearby Anbangbang Billabong, surrounded by tall trees giving us some much-needed shade.
It’s a beautiful spot with Burrungkuy in the background and we saw so many birds, including jabirus.
There are no toilets, so make sure you use the ones at the Burrungkuy carpark, and please take your rubbish with you - we cleaned up so much litter that grots before us had left!
Yellow Water and Cooinda
We loved our time at the Yellow Water (Ngurrungurrudjba) wetlands, especially the boat cruise that we did at sunset.
Ngurrungurrudjba is part of the South Alligator River floodplain and in the dry season you can do a 2.6 km return walk to a viewing platform on the Home Billabong.
The boat cruises depart throughout the day, but the best time is either at sunrise or sunset. We saw so many animals - crocodiles, water buffalo and a huge number of birds - it was incredible!
We had an Aboriginal woman whose family has always lived in this area as our guide. It was fascinating to learn all about how her people still hunt and gather bush tucker here and we even got to try some for ourselves!
The campground at Cooinda was luxurious compared to the bush camps we were used to. There is a big laundry room and you can use the resort facilities - swimming pools, restaurants and bars!
It was a lovely spot to relax, especially in the middle of the day when it was too hot to be out exploring. The smaller of the two pools had a big shade cloth and we were generally the only ones there.
Remember that Kakadu is huge! It is reasonable to expect to only be able to visit one place per day, especially if you have young kids.
We used Jabiru as our first base, to explore Ubirr and Cahill’s Crossing, and then visited Burrungkuy on the way to Cooinda, where we stayed to explore the Yellow water area, before heading out of the park towards Katherine.
We spent a week there, but with a 4 and a 6 year old we like to take it slow. If you have a 4WD you could easily spend much longer, but I think that in that week we got to see everything that we were able to in our 2WD van.
I hope that reading this encourages you to explore Kakadu in your 2WD. It really was an amazing experience and I am so glad we went!