Go on a Kakadu Tour or Self-Drive?
And how do you find the best Kakadu Tours?
I get many questions about Kakadu tours. The questions are always the same.
Either people ask me if they have to go on a tour to Kakadu or if I think they could do it by themselves.
Or they ask me to recommend a tour for them.
So let's address those two questions separately:
Go on a Kakadu Tour or Self Drive?
I get regular emails from people who say they really don't want to go on a tour but are not sure if they can do it themselves.
If the only reason you consider a tour is that you think it's too difficult to drive through Kakadu, that it's too wild and dangerous, forget it. It isn't at all. Kakadu National Park is VERY developed.
If you can drive a car and follow road signs you can explore Kakadu on your own. The park has many places for accommodation, countless campgrounds, stores, service stations, everything. If you don't like tours, don't go on one.
But there are other good reasons why people may prefer a tour to Kakadu. If you should go on a tour or rather self drive depends on several things:
1. How much time do you have available?
Simply put, the less time you have the more sense it makes to book a tour to Kakadu. It already saves you time by not having to pick up a hire vehicle and stock it with supplies. No need for shopping and getting organised.
It saves you driving around looking for things in the park, asking questions and getting information. Tour companies have structured their schedules to squeeze in the most. Your own schedule is unlikely to be as efficient.
Also, the Kakadu tour companies are all set up to make camp and cook at night, and it's all done in a breeze, much faster than you could do it yourself.
It's also easier on you and you won't mind longer days that are packed to the max. If you have to do everything yourself you may want to take it a bit easier...
(That's if you are on a Kakadu camping tour compared to self driving/camping. If you are in accommodation and go to the restaurant to eat it doesn't make as much difference.)
2. How good are you at doing your own research and getting information?
If you haven't done so already, you should read the page that discusses why many tourists end up disappointed with their Kakadu visit. Kakadu National Park is a huge park. There many very different things you can do, many VERY different experiences.
It can be a fully catered and air-conditioned Kakadu trip in the middle of huge groups of people at all times, or it can be a physically demanding wilderness experience. Or anything in between. You decide which. But to decide and plan it you need to know all the options. And since there are so many options this takes a bit of effort.
If you don't have time to do the research or simply can't be bothered, you risk ending up as disappointed as many others who arrived at Kakadu NP totally unprepared. In that case a Kakadu tour may be the better choice. (Provided you get a good one, but we'll get to that.)
A Kakadu tour will make sure you use your time efficiently. They should take you to some great places, and the tour guide will ALSO provide a lot of background information about the park, the Aboriginal inhabitants, the vegetation and wildlife. Tour guides will point out interesting plants and little animals and in general open your eyes to many things that you would otherwise miss.
Unless, of course, you like reading and doing your own research anyway (the Bowali Visitor Centre is excellent). Or unless those aspects don't matter that much to you.
3. What are your personal preferences?
No matter how little time I have or how unprepared I am, you would not find me on a tour bus, EVER. I just can not stand outside imposed schedules and I don't like group activities in general. I am a fiercely independent traveller.
Others just love groups and think everything's more fun with more people.
Only you can decide what is more important to you, or more likely to spoil the experience: having to stick to a schedule and being herded around, or the stress and demands of organising a trip yourself? That are the two aspects you need to weigh against each other.
Which is the best Kakadu Tour?
There must be hundreds of tours to Kakadu available. Many people are totally overwhelmed by what's on offer. How do you even start to narrow it down?
The main things to consider are:
Coach tour or Kakadu 4WD safari? Do you want a camping tour or are you only happy in accommodation? How big a group can you handle?
How much time do you have available? I would not bother with Kakadu day tours. Even two days seems very little, but it depends what you expect from the trip. The most common tours are the 3 day Kakadu tours and from there onwards it gets better and better.
But the most important question is of course which places the tour visits.
If you are on a two wheel drive bus a lot of Kakadu will be off limits. If you don't want to camp then you may also miss out.
The places that are usually listed as the must-sees (by mainstream tourism, not by me!) are:
- Mamukala Wetlands (observation platform)
- Ubirr (rock art, sunset lookout and Aboriginal guided river cruises on the East Alligator River)
- Bowali Visitor Centre
- Nourlangie (rock art)
- Yellow River (boat cruise on wetlands)
- Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre
All those places can be accessed by the big coaches, all have nearby facilities like accommodation, stores etc. It is all very touristy, crowded and developed and does not much feel like wilderness.
However, the scenery is often spectacular and for many overseas tourists this is impressive enough.
(All those places also have some great options for longer bushwalks and staying in less visited bush campgrounds. Unfortunately the tours that focus only on those must sees won't usually give you an opportuntiy to experience those wilderness aspects...)
My must-see list looks very different. The places that I personally consider the highlights are:
Other good places that you might find mentioned are Motor Car Falls and Kurrundie Creek Falls (wet season), Graveside Gorge, and Sandy Billabong (great bush campsite).
Decide what you want out of your Kakadu tour and check which of those places a tour goes to. Read their itinerary in detail:
How much time do they allow at each stop? How much walking and swimming? (E.g. do they only put you on the tourist shuttle boat to Twin Falls for your photo opportunity and that's it? Or do you also hike to the top, explore the creek, swim in the waterholes, picnic on the sandy beaches...?)
Doing that research should give you a good idea of what kind of Kakadu trip you can expect, and how much time and money you will have to spend to get to the places that matter to you.