Kakadu National Park is part of a massive wetland region in the Northern Territory renowned for its cultural significance, its size and its ancient amphibious creatures that navigate its waterways. A cruise to see the crocodiles was something that I hadn’t fully committed to when organising my adventure to the Top End. I was hoping to see the man-eaters at Shady Camp or by the side of the road as many videos had shown them there.
Unfortunately, my time in the Northern Territory was running out, and I hadn’t seen any of the giant predators anywhere that I had desperately hoped to see. So, I decided to pop on a tour boat and see if I could see what I came to see aboard a Yellow Water Dawn Cruise. (I knew my best chance of seeing them was to go on a jumping crocodile tour at the Adelaide River, but there were a few things that didn’t align with my values, so I decided against going with them.)
Why the Dawn Cruise?
As someone who loves shooting the hell out of stuff, photographically, that is, I wanted to have the beautiful soft, golden light that comes at daybreak or before nightfall. Even though there was an option for an afternoon cruise, which would have given me the desired light and luminescence I was looking for, I opted for the dawn cruise because sunrise is the quietest and most serene time of day when animals are more likely to be seen.
Cruising The Floodplains.
Boarding the boat before the sunrise broke the horizon, it was time to cruise the calm, serene waters of the Yellow Water floodplains. As darkness fell and the light claimed the land, the usual soft morning light of a sun hovering over the horizon was blocked by a sky full of gloomy clouds.
Pushing through a tiny gap to break from Home Billabong, the boat passed between narrow trees and brushed low hanging branches to the Yellow Water section of the South Adelaide River.
The river went from looking like a classic waterway to a noticeably flooded landscape. Trees, grasses, bushes and shrubs sat above the vastly broadened waterline as the sitting monsoon waters consumed areas usually walkable in the dry season.
On the glassy ultra-reflective waters, the boat gently motored through the eerily quiet landscape, creating small ripples in an otherwise completely still waterscape. The sense of calm and serenity in this place of cultural significance and untouched wilderness was magical.
The tour guide pointed out the usual dry season departure pier and public pier that was now about 2 metres higher thanks to the heavy rain that persists throughout the monsoon season. He also pointed out that rather than staying close to the ground, the grasses here have the unique ability to float and stay on the surface of the area rather than drown with the seasonal rains.
I Spy With My Little Eye, Something Majestic, Something That Can Fly.
Cruising through different sections of the peaceful floodplain, birds of varying sizes, beauty and rarity were spied throughout the cruise. The first order of the day was the exquisite Jabiru, a strikingly large bird with a glimmering iridescent head and neck, bright yellow eyes, a prolific beak and long, skinny red legs.
Shortly after, a majestic, white-bellied sea eagle was spotted perched on a dead tree branch high above the waterline. Fractionally later, another bird flew in to see what was on the pecking order. It was another bird of prey, the osprey.
Furthermore, into the cruise, a darter, a pied cormorant and the delightfully beautiful and petite Jacana were also singled out amongst the landscape. We were informed that the delicate-looking Jacana is known as the Jesus bird as its large foot span (the largest in comparison to its size) allowing it to be able to walk on water. (Cue 30 Seconds to Mars: Do you believe you can walk on water, do you believe you can win this fight tonight!)
In addition to seeing all these beautiful birds that called this landscape their home, dragonflies with vivid yellow wings surrounded our water vessel. In Aboriginal Dreamtime stories, the arrival of so many dragonflies signifies the changing of the seasons. It was not only beautiful to have them join us in this peaceful place but being told cultural stories that were happening at that very moment was a lovely spiritual way to connect with this ancient land that feels like it’s been here since before time.
Searching For Crocodiles.
As a place renowned for its animals of the crocodilian variety, stories of resident crocodiles the guides had come to know were told as were general crocodile facts of their lives and sex lives. Probably don’t think we needed to know that how crocodiles tickle each others’ fancy is what you should have done, so your wife didn’t divorce you, though, even if it was in jest.
Alas, no ancient sharp-tooths were spotted despite visiting their usual haunts. It turns out that while crocodiles roam these parts in large numbers and often spotted throughout the waterways in Kakadu National Park, the deep waters created by the monsoon season make them much, much harder to find. This is because the high waters make them abandon their usual hangouts and spread out to further places where it’s not hell or high water. Cue crying.
Going Home (Billabong)
As the minutes ticked over and the sun ascended higher into the sky, the heavy clouds persisting throughout the morning broke apart and allowed the sunlight to shine through. The grey shades from the cloud darkened landscape changed into bright, vibrant colours as the sun bathed the flooded plains in a warm glow.
The temperature also changed noticeably as the infamous Northern Territory heat began to take on and the humidity rose. But still, the landscape was absolutely calm. A perfect frozen wilderness serenity that felt as though we were stuck in time. The only thing that moved, that made any noise was our boat as it gently moved across land that felt timeless, ancient and untouched.
Yellow Water Dawn Cruise Review
To see the floodplains of Kakadu National Park, you could either walk, drive-by or hop on a flight. Walking isn’t the safest way to go as there are dangerous man-eaters who have no qualms about dining on humans. Driving doesn’t allow for an immersive, intimate experience. Neither does flying over the vast monsoon-drenched plain, which is also expensive and doesn’t allow you to get up close with the beings residing there.
Taking to the water in a slow-moving boat allowed me to drink in the landscape and the scenery. With so much silence in such a pristine environment and with the beautiful birds that we spotted, I could appreciate this beautiful ecosystem in a much more spiritual way than driving slowly past the floodway or flying over it.
Almost the only sound that heard was from the tour guide, but it wasn’t too distracting. Not only was he a great help for pointing out some of the incredible birdlife, but his commentary allowed me to understand and appreciate the landscape in a deeper way that didn’t affect the blissfulness that came from the timeless serenity that I so enjoyed.
The main reason I hopped on the cruise was to see the wildlife. Crocodiles were, in particular, the creature that I desired to see the most. Kakadu National Park is world-renowned for its population of direct descendants of the dinosaurs. I had been in the Northern Territory for a week and a half and had yet to see one, so this was a last-ditch effort to see the man-eaters in the wild.
Unfortunately, that didn’t come to fruition. I learnt throughout my Top End adventure that monsoon season isn’t the best time to search for crocodiles. The high water that falls over the bookend months of the calendar year displaces them and they are not often found at their usual haunts.
If I was lucky, I could have seen one in a flooded culvert, as the boss from Kakadu Air showed me one he videoed on his phone recently near Yellow Water.
Alas, it was not to be. While it was disappointing not to see what I cruised for, the birdlife seen on the cruise was incredible. The jabiru and the jacana are two I had never seen before, and being able to get so close to such magnificent birds was a treat.
It was also fantastic to be able to photograph the white-breasted sea eagle, and the osprey, two birds I’ve never been able to capture before.
A few more common birds were also spotted, but it would have been nice to see even more, but as the tour guide noted, birds along with the crocodiles are in short supply during this time of year. Double strike. It was a little bit disappointing on that front, but that being said, none of that was the fault of the cruise tour guide company. It just wasn’t the season for Kakadu creatures to be out and about the way they are in the dry season.
The boat cruising the Yellow Waters was an overly rectangular sort of thing. The vessel had largely uninterrupted views out the front and sides, with only narrow, sparsely placed poles holding up the roof unnoticeably blocking some of the views. They were easy to work around and didn’t hinder the delightful search for animals.
At other times of day, the roof would be a nice reprieve from the heat right at midday, but it probably wouldn’t be the best at any other time of day. It would likely only cover one side most of the time during the middle of the day, but when the sun is low in the sky, it’s not going to help much. Consider bringing a hat and some sunscreen regardless of what time you go, because that Northern Territory sun is a little shit.
There’s also a toilet on board. I didn’t use it so I can’t comment on its state, but it’s good to know that if need be, there’s a place to plop your poops.
This particular Yellow Water Cruise was 2 hours, which seemed a little on the long side. It may have something to do with it not being the season for the creatures of the waterways not being in abundance.
Whenever I saw a bird, I was entranced. But towards the end of the cruise, I was getting bored. While I enjoyed traversing the flooded waterway and seeing the beautiful flowers, the floating grasses, and the blissful silence of the morning in an untamed wilderness, spotting five birds over 2 hours means a lot of waiting and drifting in-between. After a while, the landscape was more or less the same, and was no longer captured my attention as much.
While it would be incredible to come during the season when more animals are out to play, I picked the wrong season to come looking for them. None of this is the fault of the tour company but based on what I got to see during my wet season daw cruise, it felt a bit long so, I’m going to rank it down a bit for that.
The tour guides on the boat were informative, coherent and complimented the cruise nicely. His commentary didn’t detract from the serenity of the landscape even though he was the only one to be heard.
The staff member inside when I went to pay for the cruise was less of a joy to be around, but the staff at the kitchen were kind and helpful.
Value For Money
In general, I enjoyed the cruise. I loved the flooded landscape, the complete and utter quiet and serenity but most of all, I loved the birds! The Jabiru and the Jacana I had never seen before, and being able to get so close was incredible. I had never been able to get photographs of the white-bellied sea eagle, so that was a thrill to have been able to capture it. Along with the other birds, it was amazing to see them thriving in the wilderness.
I just wish there had been more animals, particularly crocodiles, which I was dying to see. Not literally, those ancient sons-of-guns will eat me for breakfast so fast if they wanted to. It just wasn’t the season and we weren’t lucky to see them or more birds.
Because of that, and not because of the tour company, it was a little disappointing. It made the tour feel a bit on the long side too. That being said, it was still a lovely way to slow down and spend the morning floating amongst an ancient wilderness with so much seasonal water dramatically altering the look of the landscape.
Still, I found it a bit on the expensive side. I wasn’t too happy that there was a breakfast sewn into the cost, which I never knew about till I got on board and then later when I went to pay for the cruise (as I didn’t book online as it was a last-minute thing).
I didn’t want the brekkie and a lot of it didn’t cater to my dietary requirements anyway. I also wanted to get out of there to carry on with my day, as I had a jammed packed itinerary I wanted to complete. I was lucky I was able to get a refund for the breakfast part of the package after some negotiating.
The Yellow Water Dawn Cruise was a beautiful way to absorb the vast beauty that is Kakadu National Park. It was lovely to be able to slow down and be exposed to such serenity inside Australia’s largest national park, allowing me to connect spiritually to the landscape and furthermore appreciate how important large sections of undeveloped wilderness are to our ecosystem and why they need to be protected at all costs.
Even though it felt a bit long and not many creatures were seen, it was still a magical way to start the day and see some of what resides in the floodplains of the South Adelaide River.
- Based on my experience in February 2021
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