A bitter tale of mistrust and mismanagement inside Australia’s largest national park.
After months of build-up, the wet season has finally arrived in Kakadu.
Rain fills the billabongs and floods the creeks, freeing Kakadu’s crocodiles to spread across the park.
The ancient land is awash with colour and life.
But beneath the majestic rock outcrops and across the vast floodplains, another storm is playing out.
For years, Kakadu’s natural environment has been degrading and popular tourist sites have been closed with little warning.
Kakadu — billed as a jewel in Australia’s tourism crown — is falling into disrepair, and traditional owners say the federal body that runs the park is to blame.
Things are so bad some traditional owners are threatening to close down parts of Kakadu.
Jonathan Nadji is a traditional owner, a member of the board that oversees Kakadu and a former park ranger. He says he is prepared to shut off one of the park’s biggest tourist attractions, the famous lookout and rock art of Ubirr.
“It’s about time we started making an impact by basically shutting down the park. And I will shut down Ubirr,” he said.
“We should start looking ahead, start sorting this place out, but we will close it to make our point.”
Mick Markham, one of the senior traditional owners for another key destination, Gunlom Falls, says he is also prepared to close down that site.
“We’ve had a gutful. The only way we can show some strength is to close something at the peak of the tourist season,” he said.
Local Murrumburr woman and senior cultural tour guide, Mandy Muir, says Kakadu is in crisis.
“The unhappiness has come to a point that if we don’t sit at the table very soon, things will be taken into our own hands,” she said.
Kakadu is globally significant. It’s on the UNESCO World Heritage list for both its spectacular environment and its cultural importance.
But international visitors have for years been abandoning the park.
International tourists once made up more than half of those coming to Kakadu, but in 2019 — before the COVID pandemic — they accounted for just 17 per cent of visitors.
General manager of Tourism Top End Glen Hingley says traditionally, overseas visitors spend more and stay longer — but they won’t come unless there’s some certainty about what they’ll be able to see.
“International tourism, sadly, to Kakadu has been on the decline, and not because Kakadu is any less of a destination,” he said.
“But part of it was the uncertainty and the irregularity that would happen for tour operators around access announcements and closures of certain parts of the park.”
With international borders still closed, tourism operators are now banking on a domestic boom, but they say action is needed to make Kakadu a destination worth visiting.
Each year, parts of Kakadu are closed because of extreme heat, and then the wet season rains make river crossings and dirt roads impassable.
Even before this year’s wet season closures began, many of the park’s most popular attractions were closed.
The spectacular Twin Falls has been inaccessible since 2018 because a crucial creek crossing has not been maintained.
The popular Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Yellow Water was closed for refurbishment for a year.
This rockpool above the waterfall at Maguk closed in 2019 after a tourist drowned — but the site did not open during 2020 and remained closed.
And the natural infinity pools above Gunlom Falls — another top tourist site — have been closed for nearly 18 months.
Veteran tour operator Sab Lord says visitors have been disappointed at how little they can see in the park.
“I had some clients that actually complained because they couldn’t get to the destinations that were promised,” he said.
“I had to refund some people because there were areas they specifically wanted to go to that should’ve been open and [they weren’t] open.”
Kakadu is home to about 300 Aboriginal people from about 19 clans that share custodianship of particular parts of the park.
The land is managed together by Kakadu’s traditional owners and the federal government agency Parks Australia. But their relationship has been fractured, and traditional owners say joint management is in dire shape.
In one stunning example of how the relationship has been damaged, Parks Australia built a walking track near Gunlom Falls that exposed a sensitive part of a sacred site, against the wishes of traditional owners.
In July last year, a group of Aboriginal park rangers outlined their concerns with Parks Australia in a letter that detailed problems with site closures, maintenance, staff cuts, lack of jobs for local Indigenous people and a series of uncontrolled fires in the park.
In the letter, the rangers said that due to staff cuts there were no rangers available to fight a 2019 fire that caused more than $1 million in damages to houses and equipment.
And in December, the gravity of the threats facing Kakadu were outlined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the body that monitors World Heritage sites.
It said Kakadu was deteriorating and under “very high threat” from feral animals and weeds, and “high threat” from fires.
Curtin University botanist and land rehabilitation expert Professor Kingsley Dixon says Kakadu’s World Heritage status is at risk.
“If we continue to alter landscapes and not manage it, we may find ourselves with a weed-infested and pest-ridden park,” he said.
Jonathan Nadji says more staff are urgently needed in the park.
“We’re understaffed here and that’s what we really need, we need more staffing,” he said.
“Management is making their own decisions without talking to traditional owners.”
Tour guide Mandy Muir agrees too many decisions are being made from afar.
“Experts are telling us that the park has been deteriorating probably [for] a number of years now,” she said.
“It seems like it’s being run from far and beyond, meaning Canberra. We need people on the ground, at the grassroots level, dealing, talking with our people.”
In a briefing note sent to Environment Minister Sussan Ley, a top bureaucrat found “a relationship breakdown on many levels” and “widespread feelings of despair” in Kakadu.
Soon after the letter was sent, the director of National Parks quit and two other executives were transferred out of the agency.
The federal government has promised to spend $276 million over 10 years for upgrades across Kakadu, including remediation work in the town of Jabiru.
In a statement to Four Corners, Parks Australia said Ms Ley was listening to traditional owners and significant changes were underway, including shifting a key position to Darwin, hiring a training officer, and investing in programs that aim to help local Indigenous people find work and advance their careers.
Amid these tensions, there are huge changes coming to Kakadu.
Processing of ore at the Ranger uranium mine, which sits within the park, finished last month, and the mine’s vast pits will be filled in over the next five years.
The future for the town of Jabiru, built in the 1980s to service the mine, is uncertain.
Each month its population of 1,000 shrinks further as miners and their families leave for good.
To survive, Jabiru must reinvent itself.
There are plans to transform the town into a tourism hub to help replace the $8.5 million in annual royalties from the mine, though it will be no small task.
With its empty shops and ageing facilities, Jabiru is rundown and dated.
The makeover would cost an estimated $446 million and it would be funded by the Federal and Northern Territory governments, as well as private enterprise.
It would redesign Jabiru into an attraction in its own right, with eco lodges, glamping, a new visitor centre and even a beach for swimming — as long as locals can work out a way to keep the crocs out of the lake.
But there’s scepticism about the plan from some senior community members, including John Christophersen.
“I would not be putting all my eggs in the tourism basket,” he said.
“A lot more effort needs to be put into the health of our people, the education of our people, employment of our people.”
Not far from Ranger and Jabiru, on the banks of Magela creek, families fish and hunt like they’ve been doing for generations.
Mirarr traditional owner May Nango wants to preserve this way of life for her grandchildren.
She’s worried about the long-term impacts from the uranium mine.
Speaking in Kunwinjku language, she fears for Kakadu’s future and says the impact of the mine on the park must be monitored.
“They should look after the land. They should communicate with us what’s happening,” she said.
Glen Hingley says Kakadu deserves better.
“This is a place that needs to be funded for future generations, not just the folk whose land it is and whose families and future families are on there,” he said.
Mandy Muir is calling on the federal government to return to Kakadu to work with the traditional owners.
“We’re waiting, the table’s set up already, waiting for the people to sit in it. Not in that office up there. On country.”
Photography: Harriet Tatham
Cinematography: Louie Eroglu ACS
Digital Producer: Brigid Andersen
Research: Naomi Selvaratnam