Australia is home to some of the world’s most dangerous animals and If you believe everything you hear, Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Top End is one of the most dangerous places on earth. In reality, if you use your common sense and obey the warning signs in the park, the most dangerous Kakadu animals you’ll have close encounters with will be mosquitos.
In fact, out of the 30 most dangerous animals in Australia, only six occur in the terrestrial environments of Kakadu: Saltwater or estuarine crocodile, Dugite or Western brown snake, Mulga or King brown snake, Redback spider, Bull ant and Giant centipede. Of course, if you include the coastal waters, your list will expand quickly (jellyfish alone will add 3 species to the list). But the point is – the majority of Kakadu animals are not dangerous to humans and you should try to visit Kakadu National Park at least once.
The stunning UNESCO Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park is the quintessential Australian wilderness. At almost 20,000 square kilometres, Kakadu is the largest National Parks in Australia. Roughly the size of Slovenia, it extends for nearly 200 kilometres from north to south and over 100 kilometres from east to west.
Kakadu contains most of the major habitat types of Australia’s Top End, including the stone country, hills and ridges, savannah woodlands and monsoon forests, billabongs, floodplains, tidal flats and coast. These habitats harbour an astonishing diversity of wildlife.
There are more than 60 species of mammals, 280 species of birds, 25 species of frogs and 117 species of reptiles living in Kakadu
One of the most interesting features of the park is the seasonal wetlands that change dramatically between the rainy and the dry seasons. Kakadu wetlands are of international significance, with over 40 species of migratory birds travelling here from Russia, China and Japan.
Yes, two species of crocodiles occur in Kakadu: Freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus johnstonii) and Estuarine or Saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), affectionately known as the Salty.
No. Kakadu’s waterways are not suitable for swimming. Apart from the danger of flash flooding, there are crocodiles to consider. Virtually any body of water in Kakadu is likely to be home to crocodiles. So, always obey warning signs in the park. If there is no sign, play it safe and assume that crocodiles are there, even if you can’t see them.
Apart from the crocodiles, Kakadu is home to a few species of venomous snakes, including Northern Brown snake, Mulga or King Brown snake, Northern Death Adder, and Great Black Whipsnake. Of course, unless you are a snake expert, identifying snakes is a tricky business, so it’s best to assume any snake is potentially dangerous and stay out of its way.
In contrast to what some may think, snakes are not out to get you. They would only attack if provoked. If you spot a snake, walk away from it slowly and either choose a different path or wait for the snake to retreat. It has no more interest in meeting you than you do in meeting it.
There are no kangaroos in Kakadu National Park, but there are a few other species of macropods in the park. The bigger ones are the three species of wallaroo: the antilopine wallaroo, black wallaroo and common wallaroo. As their name implies, wallaroos are smaller than kangaroos but bigger than wallabies.
There are also agile wallabies and short-eared wallabies in the park. In fact, agile wallabies are some of the most common mammals in the Northern Territory parks.
Now that the introductions are out of the way, let’s have a closer look at Kakadu animals and some of the best places to see them in the park. My friend and I spent a week in Kakadu during the month of April which was right after the rainy season. So, the billabongs were full, the forests were flooded and some of the roads were impassable.
We took 3 cruises on Yellow Water billabong, drove out to Ubirr Rock and spent our days driving around the park spotting as much wildlife as we could. Here is what we found.
Kakadu Reptiles and Amphibians
Just about any body of water in the park may very well be hiding one of the world’s most formidable predators underneath its deceptively calm surface.
Two species of crocodile occur in Kakadu: the Freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus johnstonii) and the Estuarine or Saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), affectionately known as the Salty.
Salties are by far the more impressive of the two. They are the most well-known of Kakadu animals and the world’s largest reptiles. They may grow to over 6 meters long, weigh over 1,000kg.
The largest Saltwater crocodile ever recorded was shot in Queensland in 1957. That animal was reported to be 8.6 meters long. It pays to remember that when you are looking at a submerged crocodile with only the top of its head and snout visible above the surface, that visible part represents 1/8th of the animal’s total size.
The Saltwater crocodiles are Australia’s largest estuarine predator. In 2010, a group of awed tourist at Kakadu watched a Salty gobble a 3-meter-long Bull shark. And in 2011, a large male saltwater crocodile killed a Bengal tiger in India’s Sundarbans – the area infamous for its man-eating tigers.
However, life is not always peachy even for such a formidable predator. Only about 1% of all hatchlings reach adulthood. The rest fall prey to fish, birds, monitor lizards and other crocodiles. Though, those that do mature can live for up to 70 years.
Saltwater crocodiles caused many human fatalities in Australia’s Top End. They are dangerous ambush predators and can be difficult to see. This is why even if you don’t see any warning signs next a body of water in Kakadu, always asume that crocodiles are present and do not approach the water’s edge. You can view crocodiles safely from a distance or from a cruise. The Yellow Water cruises will allow you to see the crocs up close and personal (see the details at the end of the post).
The Freshwater crocodiles are endemic to Australia. They are much smaller than Salties and are not known to attack people.
As the name suggests, they live mainly in freshwater wetlands, billabongs, rivers and creeks, though they are tolerant of saltwater. They are a poor competitor for Salties, which means they are not the easiest of Kakadu animals to spot. We’ve only found one Freshie in our few days in Kakadu. A good place to see them is Mary River (you can check the details about visiting Mary River in this post)
The snakes in Kakadu are as abundant as they are diverse. One of the most interesting species found in the park is the aquatic File snake. It takes its name from its rough, file-like skin that helps the snake grip its slippery aquatic prey. Another snake common in the waterways is the Water python that preys on birds and their eggs.
Most of our snake sightings happened on the road. The most venomous snake we managed to spot was the odd-looking Northern death adder. Death adders are some of the most venomous snakes in the world, so watching it cross the road in front of our car felt like watching a Great white shart swimming by. We gave it time to slither to the other side of the road and took some images through the car window before it disappeared out of sight.
We also spotted quite a few non-dangerous snakes on the roads: a Black-headed python, Children’s python, Carpet python, Olive python, Golden tree snake, Common tree snake. And while the pythons look very menacing due to their impressive size, they are non-venomous snakes, and not particularly dangerous for humans. And the fact that we saw so many snakes on the road is a reminder that humans are much more dangerous to snakes than they are to us.
Amphibians are also quite abundant in Kakadu. There are about 25 different species that make their home in the park. Given the unique nature of the billabong habitat, many frog species burrow into the mud when the water recedes and spend the dry season underground, waiting for the rains to return.
In our wanderings around the park, we picked up a few species: Desert tree frog, Rocket frog, Tornier’s frog, Dahl’s aquatic frog, Roth’s tree frog, and Green tree frog.
Kakadu is home to over 280 species of birds, about a third of all Australian birds! No wonder, the park is considered one of the best bird watching destinations in Australia.
During the wet season, when the floodplains are inundated, the birds don their finest plumage for the breeding season. As the water recedes in the dry season, the birds congregate on shrinking billabongs in huge numbers.
Crested jacana – aka Jesus bird
Comb-crested jacanas were very abundant on the Yellow Water billabong. This species is also known as the Jesus bird, because of their apparent ability to walk on water – a superpower they owe to their hugely elongated toes that allow them to balance effortlessly on top of water lilies and other aquatic plants.
Interestingly, it is the male Crested jacana that looks after the chicks once they hatch. Most of them take their paternal duties quite seriously, religiously chasing away any intruders.
Jabiru and Brolga
Another species I was searching for was the Jabiru stork. It was too early in the season for them, but after 3 days and 4 cruises, we found the first Jabiru of the season.
I was also hoping to see Brolgas at Kakadu, but while we saw a few birds flying overhead, we never got a chance to actually watch or photograph them.
The ‘wishlist’ species aside, Kakadu has an amazing diversity of birdlife. We regularly saw Magpie geese, Masked lapwings, Intermediate egrets, Plumed whistling ducks, Nankeen night herons, Radja shell ducks and Australian darters.
Any wilderness in Australia is likely to be home to a few species of parrots. Kakadu is no exception. Driving around the park we spotted Little corellas, Sulphur-crested cockatoos, Red-tailed black cockatoos and Red-winged parrots.
The raptors are represented in Kakadu by the White-bellied sea eagle, Whistling kite and Black kite. April is the start of the raptor’s breeding season as well and many birds can be seen carrying nest material in their talons.
We are not the keenest bird watchers around, so we didn’t go too far out of our way to see the most birds in the park, but we still managed to spot quite an impressive variety.
Some of our favourites were: Bush-stone curlews, White-breasted woods-wallows, Restless flycatchers, Lemon-bellied flycatchers, Broad-billed flycatchers, Shining flycatcher, Sulphur-crested cockatoo, Little Corella Bar-shouldered doves, Forest kingfishers, Rainbow bee-eaters and White-throated honeyeaters.
Kakadu is home to more than 60 species of native Australian mammals. Although most of them are quite difficult to see due to their shy nature and nocturnal habits. There are Sugar gliders, Brush-tailed phascogales and Northern quolls hiding in the dark forest.
About a third of Australian bats have been recorded in Kakadu. The Black-flying foxes are easy to see. As are the microbars. Though the microbats are very difficult to identify without a bat detector.
You won’t have any difficulties spotting Agile wallabies – the most conspicuous of Kakadu animals. They snooze at the campsites, graze on open lawns or hop along on the sides of the road. We also spotted a Black-footed tree rat, a Northern Brushtail possum and a Dingo. As well as a dead Brown bandicoot on the side of the road.
Another species of wallby we spotted in the park was Short-eared rock wallaby. These adorable macropods live among the rock outcrops at Ubir Rock. They are not easy to find, so be prepared to so some serious scanning of the rocks. We didn’t spot one close enough for a decent photograph, but here is what they look like.
Best places to see animals in Kakadu
You will see animals in Kakadu simply by driving around the park or walking around a campsite. But there are some places that
Yellow River Billabong
The best way of seeing wildlife in Kakadu is by cruising Yellow Water Billabong. During our visit, we stayed at Cooinda Camping Ground which is the departure point for Yellow River cruises. There are early morning and late afternoon cruises available at Cooinda and we did them all.
On each cruise, we saw saltwater crocodiles, white-bellied sea eagles and a phenomenal abundance of water birds, including crested jacanas, magpie geese and whistling ducks. We even spotted a golden tree snake swimming across the billabong on one of the cruises.
For something different to do in Kakadu, we explored Ubirr Rock. This site is best known for its 40,000 years old rock art, but we were more interested in spotting some of the lesser-known Kakadu animals – Short-eared Rock Wallabies.
The drive to Ubirr was not an experience for the faint-hearted – the road at Magela Creek crossing was flooded by 0.6 meters of water.
It wouldn’t be too bad if it was just water, but in Kakadu water means crocodiles and stalling at the bottom of the creek surrounded by crocs seemed like a rather grim proposition. But after some deliberation, we decided to brave the crossing and luckily emerged victorious at the other end.
Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) region is another good place to see some of Kakadu’s animals. It is one of the best places in the park to see wallaroos. Birders should keep their eye open for chestnut-quilled rock pigeons.
What else to see in Kakadu?
If you are visiting in the dry season (May to October) and have a high-clearance 4WD, you can explore Arnhem Land Escarpment and check out the iconic Jim Jim Falls, Twin Falls and the Twin Falls Gorge.
About an hour’s drive from Cooinda, Maguk is a pristine natural waterfall fringed by steep walls of the gorge. It is a less-known attraction that is well worth the visit.
Best time to visit Kakadu
Kakadu wetlands follow the same flood cycle as all tropical wetlands, like the Amazon and the Pantanal, for example. There are 6 different seasons in Kakadu, but for the practical purposes of visiting the part the most important seasonal variation is between the Dry Season and the Wet Season.
Dry Season – May to October
Most people visit during the dry season because most of the park’s sites are open, the roads are easy to drive on and, well, it doesn’t rain much.
Try to visit early in the dry season to catch the end of the floods. You may run the risk of some sites still being inaccessible, but you will have the benefit of being able to explore flooded forests from a boat. You also will avoid the busiest time in the part if you visit in April-May.
Wet Season – November to April
During the wet season much of Kakadu becomes inaccessible. However, the most popular areas like Burrungkuy and Yellow Water remain open all year round, so you can still see plenty of wildlife in Kakadu and much fewer people.
The wet season is the best time for scenic flights over Kakadu’s flooded forests and sprawling wetlands. It is also the perfect time to see the park’s waterfalls in full flow.