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Home > Travelogues > 2009 Travelogues Index > Kakadu National Park - Gunlom and Maguk
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Kakadu National Park commencing at Gunlom and Maguk

Kakadu is the largest National Park in Australia and the only one in the world to encompass an entire river system. 


The park is almost 20,000 square kilometres; one third of the size of Tasmania.  Kakadu is home to or visited by 290 different species of birds which is one third of all of Australia’s bird species, 68 different species of mammal, 120 reptile species, 26 species of frogs, 300 types of fish, 2,000 different plants and over 10,000 types of insects.  The wetlands are of international significance for migratory birds. 


For those just driving through the bitumen access roads of Kakadu Highway and the Arnhem Highway, visitors will see little but Savannah woodlands which comprises 80% of the park, however the park also encompasses the following types of country:  Stone country, hills and ridges to the south, monsoon forest pockets, billabongs, flood plains, tidal flats and the coast, with 500 square kilometres being coastal and estuarine.  Much of the park is very close to sea level and the rivers on the plains are subject to tidal influence which reaches up to 100 kilometres inland.  Large estuarine (salt water) crocodiles are found in and near the waterways.

Read about the geological history of this ancient land

With the main Visitor and Cultural Centre being Bowali near Jabiru, soon after we entered the Kakadu National Park from Pine Creek via the Kakadu Highway we stopped at the small and at the time unmanned Mary River Ranger Station where a few pamphlets were available. There is a similar small Ranger Station near the northern entrance to the park via Arnhem Highway. 


For those who have not purchased a park pass either on line or from the Tourist Centre in either Darwin or Katherine, they can be purchased from a number of places in or near the park.  These include the Goymarr Tourist Park adjacent to the Mary River Roadhouse near the southern park entrance via the Kakadu Highway, and the Aurora Kakadu accommodation centre near the northern entrance to the park via the  Arnhem Highway.  See more about who needs to purchase a pass and how to do so on line hereNote that the Goymarr Mary River Roadhouse has now reopened under new management.


Known also as Waterfall Creek and UDP Falls, this area was central to Uranium mining and processing during the 1950s and 1960s in the South Alligator River valley.  The Uranium Development and Prospecting Company gave the name UDP to the area, where accommodation villages were at several of the mine sites.  Despite cleaning up and burial of the mill and contaminated waste, radiation levels in some of the former mining and milling areas still remain above acceptable levels for human habitation.  There were thirteen small mines operating in the South Alligator area.  These areas are off limits for tourists.  At the time of our visit, close by the road and river approaching Gunlom, earthworks were underway cleaning up old mining residues.    

Gunlom campground and Gunlom Falls are accessed by a 35 kilometre dirt road which is suitable for use by two wheel drive vehicles and for towing during the dry season.  The track may be corrugated, so caution is advised. 

We took the walk involving a one kilometres climb up the steep escarpment to the top of Gunlom Falls where Waterfall Creek tumbles 100 metres down a sheer cliff into the deep and large plunge pool below.  Swimming in the clear waters where they were trickling over the lip of the big drop and looking out at the vista over the South Alligator River valley was a truly amazing and breathtaking experience.   

Families took inflatable rafts across the pool to where the waters trickled in from high above while I swam over to feel the splashing from the waterfall.  Near the waterfall, two strong streams of bubbles rose, but I was unable to ascertain why.  I looked up to see someone perilously close to the edge at the top of the falls.

Awoken early in the morning by a cacophony of bird calls, we took the flat and easy 2.5 kilometre return walk to the South Alligator River. About half way along the walk trail, the path crosses Murrill Billabong at a dry patch near a pool which is home to water birdlife. From this point the trail becomes narrow and grassy (watch out for snakes).  The river is home to estuarine (salt water) crocodiles, so again exercise caution and do not enter the water.  Huge trees and tall bamboo line the sandy river banks.  Small fish could be seen in the river.  A swim in the plunge pool at the base of the falls on our return was cooling and welcome, and small striped fish gently nibbled our toes. 

What happens to Gunlom campground during the wet season?  Heavy rainfall can occur over a short space of time and can cause the entire valley to flood. The amenities block in the campground is built to survive inundation, and in January 1998, the water level was over the water pressure tanks high on stands.  Septic tanks are pumped out at the close of the season, and pumped out again ready for the opening of the campground during the dry season.  Rainfall is usually higher on the scarp than on the plains. Average annual rainfall varies between 1.56 metres and 1.3 metres in different pats of the park.  Many parts of the park are closed during the wet season due to inaccessibility of the roads due to flooding.  Camp grounds may be closed due to inundation or due to crocodile danger when partially flooded. 


Check for open and closed roads, camp grounds and walks here


Camping at Koolpin Gorge requires a special permit. This can be applied for on line here allowing at least seven working days for processing or telephone 08 89381140.  Bear in mind that the date you want may not be free because numbers of visitors are limited to forty.  The access track must be driven during specific times of day to work as one way traffic. Permits are required for day visits as well as camping.  While camping is $5 per person honesty box, there is a $50 deposit for a gate key which must be collected from and returned to the Mary River Ranger Station between 8am and 7pm.  Keys are located within a secure lock box marked “Koolpin – Permit Holder Key Pick-up”.
A security code to open this box and collect your key will be on your permit. 
Certain areas of cultural significance may not be visited. 


This permit procedure was all to complex for us to pre-arrange within our travel schedule, so we did not go to see Koolpin Gorge.  


There are other much more remote walks and overnight hikes to spectacular waterfalls, swimming holes and gorges that can be taken within the South Alligator region.  These require special permits and may not be accessible year round due to cultural reasons in addition to wet weather inaccessibility. 

Gungural car park and camping area is 33 kilometres from the Gunlom turnoff, and consists of a wide bitumised loop road around 500 metres from the Kakadu Highway.  We chose this as an overnight stop and place to leave the caravan to visit Maguk in the Barramundie Gorge.  There is a four kilometre return walk from Gungural to the South Alligator River and on to a lookout high on a hill. 

We walked at first to the River and were met on the track by some young European ladies who told us the river was dry – nothing there. As we had seen water further upstream at Gunlom, we looked further; there were three channels and one had water flowing.  Although the water was not very deep it is still crocodile country.

From the lookout, we could see a large dam out in the valley, but were not able to ascertain what this dam was used for. 

Shortly after leaving Gunlom and returning to the Kakadu Highway, we found a lookout point called Bukbukluk which overlooks the former Goodparla station. 
In 1987 Goodparla and Gimbat pastoral stations were acquired by the Commonwealth and incorporated into Kakadu National Park.

Maguk – Barramundie Gorge

Driving nine kilometres on the Kakadu Highway and a further twelve kilometres on the Maguk access track, we stopped at a very busy car park.  There were two tour coaches and a number of other commercial tour and private vehicles. 



The trail then climbs over the rocks where some Aboriginal paintings can be seen, to view and access the top pools where a series of cascades links small pools.  Some of these are big enough for swimming in, and people jumped off a rock ledge done into the channel.  There is a round hole in the rocks and a few jump into this, where the only way out is to swim under the rock. 

As the tour groups were mostly here and swimming in the top pools it was a little crowded at this popular destination.  We looked down onto a much larger pool where others from a tour group were also swimming.  I chose to cool down in the shallow cascades further downstream on the return walk. 

There is a boardwalk through wetlands at the start of this trail.  The one kilometres (one way) walk follows the Barramundie creek line through Monsoon forest where Pandanus and very tall Paperbark trees predominate. 

We observed a fawn coloured snake of around a metre in length crossing the Gungural access road but it was gone too quickly to get any idea of what type of snake it was.

See here for more about Uranium mining in the South Alligator valley during the 1950s and 1960s.


See here for the story of living as a child in the South Alligator mine village in the 1950s.

With so much to see in this vast National Park, we chose a few special places.  These included Gunlom, Yellow Waters, Jim Jim Falls,Twin Falls, Nourlangie and Nanguluwur rocks, UbirrUbirr Rock, East Alligator River and Mamukala Wetlands.


See Park Notes with map here


Read our review of the National Parks semi-serviced campgrounds.  For all camping and accommodation options see link here

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See Question and Answer about visiting Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks here

There is a small and unserviced campground on the way to Gunlom by the Kambolgie Creek.  This has pit toilet only and is suitable for tent camping, although some caravans do get in.  Nearby are the inter-connected Yurmikmik walks which are best done in the wet season when the creeks are flowing, subject to conditions permitting.  The individual walks are: Boulder Creek Walk (two kilometre return); Yurmikmik Lookout Walk (five kilometre return); Motor Car Falls (7.5 kilometre return) and Kurrundie Creek Walk (eleven kilometres return).


A four wheel drive track can be taken to the Gimbat picnic area during the dry season.  The picnic area is situated near Guratba (Coronation Hill) and the South Alligator River.


Koolpin Gorge (Jarrangbarnmi)