Kakadu is a magical place, but why do so few Aussies get to see it?

Kakadu is a magical place, but why do so few Aussies get to see it?
Edited by Travel Weekly

    Many Australians might reasonably ask what’s the point of going to the Top End when you could just go to France for the same price? Archaeologist and writer Fredrika Stigell explores the possibilities.

    While locals living in big cities such as Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane will swallow sky-high airfares to London or Paris, they shudder when they look at the cost of regional airfares to Darwin and then beyond.

    NT Airport’s aviation director Matthew Findlay said fares were high because of the Top End’s isolation and lower demand, particularly during the wet season.

    When a Senate inquiry invited the public to comment on the issue of air services in regional, rural, and remote Australia, more than 120 people, tourism and commerce bodies, and politicians made submissions.

    They predominantly came from frustrated regional Australians who said they were fed up with exorbitant costs in places such as Mount Isa and Alice Springs – towns where industries and public services rely on skilled workers who have families in major cities.

    Many people suggested airlines were taking advantage of their monopolies in small towns. But Virgin Australia said because many regional services did not deliver “acceptable commercial returns”, the suggestion was not accurate.

    The airline said instead, pricing was determined by supply and demand for services, costs of operation, and competitor pricing.

    “Due to a lack of scale, costs of operation on a per passenger basis are always higher on regional routes than on trunk routes between capital cities,” the airline’s submission read.

    Rental car prices in Darwin are also very high – without a car or a guided bus, it’s impossible to get into and around Kakadu National Park and the surrounding areas.

    This issue means the Top End is especially inaccessible to those with little disposable income to spare – meaning the dominant tourist in the NT is usually older or from overseas.

    It’s all in our own backyard

    The overemphasis of Europe as a destination and high airfares to the NT means locals get to see less of their own backyard, especially when it comes to our Indigenous heritage and culture. This is despite the fact Kakadu is home to some of the world’s most extraordinary rock art and hosts the oldest known human occupation site in Australia – Madjedbebe, a sandstone rock shelter.

    Ubirr, Kakadu’s best sunset spot.

    While Madjedbebe is not open to the public, there are many rock shelters with evidence of continuing occupation and stunning rock art to be visited freely, for instance Nourlangie and Ubirr (which boasts Kakadu’s best sunset spot!)

    Ecotourism in Kakadu is also a crucial industry that keeps Indigenous people employed and empowered, with the ability to share their stories and knowledge with tourists.

    Guluyambi River Cruises is owned and operated by the Manilikarr clan and takes tourists along for a gentle ride on the East Alligator River.

    “The crocs aren’t hungry today,” says Robbie as tentative tourists board the boat. “But they might want a snack.

    “Tourists are a good snack,” he jokes.

    Apart from croc jokes, Robbie and his team teach visitors about the plants that line the river banks. The multifarious uses of pandanas, for example, include everything from baby slings to rafts to paint brushes to torches.

    Yellow Water River Cruises is a similar provider of a river cruise experience on the South Alligator River.

    Plants are not the only thing that line the river banks.

    Numbers fail to flow despite cash injection

    The NT Government has invested millions of dollars into tourism, but visitation numbers remain low.

    Jabiru, the town at the heart of Kakadu National Park, has been assured a lifespan beyond its scheduled demolition of 2021, following an NT Government promise to keep the lights on and the release of a $446 million blueprint to transform it into a tourism hub.

    Jabiru, a three-hour drive from Darwin, is already home to a number of tourist lodges, including Indigenous-owned Anbinik, with proceeds going directly to the Manilikarr clan.

    But it is worth noting the flipside to Kakadu. Because it is not easily accessible to the average Australian, there is the benefit to the environment in that it lessens the impact on Country, on wildlife, on heritage sites and in local communities.

    The wide-open plains of the Top End.

    COVID travel restrictions meant many rare animals in Kakadu National Park had a chance to re-emerge. The spotted quoll, for example, now throws itself carelessly across the Arnhem Highway, with knowing drivers swerving to give it a chance. But pity a quoll that comes across a Sydneysider in a hire car, or suburban Brisbanite in their shiny 4WD.

    With higher tourist numbers, also comes the risk of more littering, unethical practices or general ignorance. Kakadu Rangers often have to wrangle curious tourists out of restricted areas that might be sacred to local people.

    All Australians should be encouraged to experience Kakadu. But as Jabiru gets rebuilt and more money is put into tourism in the region, sustainability must be kept top of mind so that we do not turn Kakadu into a Disney World.

    Fredrika Stigell travelled to the Northern Territory as part of her Masters in Archaeology. She is also an Editorial Assistant who writes for Travel Weekly and associate publication B&T.

    Feature image: Nourlangie rock art. All images, Fredrika Stigell.

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