Gunlom Falls (we’ve been told it was also called the UPD Falls) seemed to us like the quintessential Australian Outback waterfall complete with a 30m drop into a very wide plunge pool that was free of Saltwater Crocodiles. Fringing this big plunge pool was a coarse sandy beach bathed in warm tropical sun with gum trees protruding over the pool. To Julie and I, this was the most idyllic spot to chill out by a waterfall as we showed up early enough in the morning to have it to ourselves. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones who thought of this place as an ideal Outback getaway spot. I recalled seeing one of the TV syndications of the movie “Crocodile Dundee” and immediately recognized the swimming hole that the main characters were at. It was too bad that the falls was dry in the movie.
Speaking of dry, it turned out that the timing of our waterfall was fortunate. Our visit to Australia’s Top End occurred in June 2006. That happened to be the start of the Dry Season, but that particular year also happened to be a month after a freak and unusually late cyclone (I believe it was Cycone Monica) had hit this part of the country. So the flow you see in the photos here might be a bit on the high side for this time of year. Moreover, this happened to be the lone waterfall in Kakadu National Park that we were able to visit by land considering all the rest of the 4wd roads were closed due to the threat of Saltwater Crocodiles. The access to Gunlom Falls was largely because its access road didn’t really require a high clearance 4wd (though it would certainly help in some of the rougher spots; see directions below).
As for the road closures, it turned out that Gunlom Falls was also the replacement waterfall for land tours to Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls. We found this out the hard way and had to fight real hard to ensure that we weren’t forced to pay for a re-visit to Gunlom Falls after having pre-booked that tour prior to arriving to the Top End (then cancelling once we learned of the intent to replace the attractions with this already-seen waterfall).
As you can see from the photos on this page, we were pretty much looking right against the sun whenever we gazed upon the falls. We showed up at around late morning to midday, and the harsh light combined with the position of the sun made for very difficult conditions to take photos. If I had to guess when would be the better time of day to show up and take photos here, it would be in the afternoon when the sun would’ve had a chance to get lower on the horizon and possibly provide some warm backlighting on the falls.
In addition to taking photos, we did notice that there were trails that allowed us to go to the top of the falls. The trail looked steep and the heat from the height of the day conspired to keep us from going up there. However, we learned after the fact that there was another attractive swimming hole above the top of the falls as well as another smaller waterfall spilling into it. We also missed out on the view over much of the sacred Aboriginal bushlands from the edge of the escarpment. So, I guess we’ll have to come back one of these days to complete the Gunlom Falls experience.
Getting to the falls requires driving some 39km (each way) on wide but rough, bumpy, dusty, and washboarded unsealed roads. I remembered that a 2wd can definitely make it with a little careful driving. Since we had hired a high clearance vehicle, then we didn’t have to worry so much about the obstacles as much. That said, conditions can change year after year as the Wet Season monsoons dump heavy rains and can flood the track (thereby beating it up and creating new obstacles). So while it may have been doable by 2wd passenger vehicles during our visit, there’s a chance it may not be in other years.
As for navigating, the signposted turnoff for Gunlom Falls leaves the Kakadu Highway (Hwy 21) about 100km south of Cooinda and about 70km north of the junction with the Stuart Highway (Hwy 1) at Pine Creek. Once on the unsealed road leading to the falls, you drive about 30km or so to a T-intersection before turning left and following the unsealed road to its end at the car park for the falls.
For context, Pine Creek was 225km (about 2.5 hours drive) south of Darwin and 164km (over 2 hours drive) southwest of Cooinda. Coming from the other direction, Jabiru was 57km (over 30 minutes drive) northeast of Cooinda and 253km (under 3 hours drive) east of Darwin.
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