Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - Kakadu National Park & The Kimberley

Kakadu's Aboriginal people rarely paint on rock now, but the sandstone galleries of their forebears constitute one of the world's oldest and best preserved records of human prehistory. Around 5,000 art sites, concentrated along the escarpment, in gorges, and on rock outliers, have been recorded in the park, and an additional 10,000 are thought to exist. Dating back as far as 20,000 years, the paintings are much more than creative expression: they are a visual record depicting the physical, social, and cultural environment of a people who had no written language.

The major sites of Ubirr and Nourlangie allow visitors to appreciate the beauty of the art and, through this, the close links between Aboriginal people, the land, and their spiritual heritage. These links can also be explored at the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre, near Yellow Water, where Kakadu's Bininj owners have created an outstanding display of cultural materials.

The Kimberley, Western Australia

The rugged Kimberley region of northwestern Australia offers endless opportunities for solitary encounters with nature. Indeed the region is so vast, covering 260,400 square miles, it is about half the size of Texas, that finding some space to yourself is seldom a problem, even during the April-to-October tourist season.

Despite its proximity to the populous islands of Indonesia to the north, the Kimberley remains one of the most sparsely inhabited parts of Australia. Aboriginal occupation dates back 40,000 years, and Dutch, English, and French explorers began to investigate the coastline from the 17th century onward, but it was not until the late 1870s that the Kimberley began to be settled by Europeans. This was partly because it was so far from the developing population centers of the southeast coast, such as Sydney and Melbourne, and partly because the rugged terrain posed major obstacles to settlement. Even today, the Kimberley's population is a mere 30,000, most of whom live in the region's few small towns or on vast cattle stations scattered across the plateau.

The Kimberley not only remains undeveloped, it offers glimpses of an almost unimaginably distant past. Some of the region's rocks formed as far back as two billion years ago, and much of the terrain has changed little since it was ground by glaciers during two ice ages 700 and 600 million years ago. The sea has long since retreated from the plateau to create a stunning but treacherous coastline of inlets, channels, and thousands of islands, which, around Derby, is subject to the second-biggest tides in the world. The inland terrain of the Kimberley is no less varied: folded mountains give way to dusty plains; flat-topped plateaus reminiscent of the mesas of the American Southwest rise above vast expanses of savanna grassland; and lush pockets of rain forest thrive beneath lofty escarpments. Although in the dry season, in particular, much of the land appears to be semi-desert, every track you follow seems to lead to another miraculous flow of pristine water, another Eden-like oasis surrounded by hot red rock.

Exploring this remote and rugged land requires careful planning. Road access remains limited: the Great Northern Highway skirts the southern edge of the plateau, but the main route through the heart of the Kimberley, the Gibb River Road, is a dirt track that was once a cattle trail and remains rough going in places.

Continued in: Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - The Kimberley & The Pilbara

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