After dark in Kakadu is party time for the local wildlife, writes a startled Pamela Wade.

Jerked awake by a blood-curdling scream, I lay bathed in the cold light of the moon, suddenly alert.

The scream came again, joined by others from somewhere not far away beyond the trees.

Then there was a howl, cut off abruptly, and in the silence that followed, something large whirred past just inches from my ear.

Night in the Northern Territory is a lively affair and nowhere more so than in Kakadu. Birds and animals that lie low through the heat of the day emerge after dusk to conduct their lives and, being Australian, that involves a lot of noise.

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Bush stone-curlews sound like women being strangled, dingoes raise hair on the back of your neck and fruit bats fly like clockwork toys.

At least the whine of the mozzies was kept safely beyond the exposed mesh of my dome tent and, comfy in my swag, I turned over and fell effortlessly back to sleep again.

A day of walking and swimming, followed by a delicious campfire dinner with several large mugs of wine, is the perfect recipe for a good night's sleep, and that was the pattern on World Expeditions' Kakadu Walking Adventure.

It really was an adventure: the company's slogan "Take the path less travelled" is a literal description of our hikes through stone country.

"Bush bashing" is what Dan Rose, our burly guide, called it as he led us through expanses of golden speargrass under the fleeting shade of lovely salmon gums, over sooty burn-outs and along damp stream beds, rock-hopping beneath the paperbark trees.

There was actual rock climbing, teetering over boulders and picking a path through jumbled rocks, up and down, a real challenge for those of us who rarely venture off the concrete.

But the rewards were so worth it: views, wide and long, from the top of an outlier of the Arnhem Land Plateau, over plains of olive gum trees and ancient orange rocks under a blue, blue sky.

There were clear, deep plunge pools at the base of soaring cliffs down which water fell in slow motion from other hidden pools at the top, just another scramble away.


Kakadu National Park's Twin Falls. Photo / Tourism Australia

There was art, too: Kakadu National Park is a World Heritage area, not just because of its natural and unspoilt beauty, but because of its cultural significance.

Nineteen clans of the Bininj / Mungguy people have lived here for thousands of years and there is rock art to be found throughout the region, the longest continuous cultural history to be found anywhere in the world.

In ochre, charcoal and blood, paintings of people, real and mythological, kangaroos, manatees, snakes and birds, and even a ship under full sail tell stories that record and teach.

"Stories are the maps and knowledge of the land," said Dan, explaining how the levels of meaning are customised to the age and responsibilities of the audience, as we stood in the shade of an overhang, looking at paintings still bright and clear underneath.

We had already had an example of that from Deanne Kenyon, when we received our traditional welcome to the country on a Pudakul Aboriginal Cultural Tour before we entered Kakadu.

Spitting water on to our heads - "It's better than being smeared with armpit sweat," she said cheerfully - ensured our safety in her country. She gave us an insight into her family's way of life and knowledge of the land and vegetation: "It's one big medicine chest for us out there."

Deanne left us with a useful tip in case of crocodile attack.

"There's an auto-open mechanism inside its mouth. If it grabs your arm, just touch it, and it'll open its jaws. Easy!"

Gazing into the cold yellow eyes of a 3m-long croc just a few hours later, her advice seemed optimistic.

On a gloriously Technicolor sunset cruise on Yellow Water, we saw hundreds of birds - a sea-eagle scooping a fish from the water, pelicans and spoonbills, bright kingfishers and stately jabirus, flocks of pretty whistling ducks - but it was the saltwater crocodiles, silent and sinister, that stuck in my thoughts at bedtime.

Because crocodiles hunt at night.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Qantas has daily flights to Darwin via Sydney or Brisbane. From there, Kakadu is a two-hour drive.

Further information: Kakadu Walking Adventure is a six-day guided experience in semi-permanent campsites with solar heated showers. Call 0800 350 354 or visit worldexpeditions.co.nz to learn more about Kakadu and other destinations.

The writer travelled as a guest of Qantas and World Expeditions.