Kakadu’s Jeffrey Lee plans to invite tourists to Koongarra despite ongoing park closures: ABC

By Jane Bardon

Enhancing tourism to be key part of Kakadu’s future (Jane Bardon). Click image to view story on ABC website

  • In short: Djok traditional owner Jeffrey Lee has stopped uranium mining on his land at Koongarra and now wants to invite tourists to visit.
  • The proposal has excited tour operators who are frustrated by the ongoing closure of some of Kakadu’s most popular attractions.
  • What’s next? Mr Lee is seeking advice on establishing his small tourism business.

After years of frustration about the lengthy closures of key attractions across Northern Territory’s Kakadu National Park, visitors may soon get the opportunity to see an area that has never been opened to the public.

A decade after persuading the federal government to add his uranium-rich land into Kakadu, Djok traditional owner Jeffrey Lee wants to start inviting tourists to Koongarra.

He refused to accept hundreds of millions of dollars in uranium mining royalties because he wanted to protect the rock art, springs, plants and animals he would like to show travellers.

Jeffrey Lee stands at a gate on a dirt road in Kakadu.
Jeffrey Lee wants to open his land at Koongarra to small tours he would run.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

“There’s a lot of other ways we can make money, than destroying country, by getting visitors from overseas and Australia,” he said.

“I’d like visitors to come and learn about our rock art and culture and have a swim.”

Jeffrey Lee points to rock art on a rock wall in Kakadu.
Koongarra’s rock art sites would be opened to the public under Jeffrey Lee’s plans.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

The 55-year-old retired park ranger said initially he wanted to permit small numbers to visit Koongarra, on guided tours he would lead.

But first he needed advice about how to establish a small tourism business.

“This is my first time, and this is where I’m looking where I can get advice from other family who already got tourism on country,” Mr Lee said.

“I don’t know much about that tourism side.”

Jeffrey Lee holds a stone inside a rock structure in Kakadu.
Stone axes and spear tips made thousands of years ago remain in some of Koongarra’s rock shelters.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

The potential of opening another area of Kakadu to tourism is exciting to tour operator Greig Taylor.

Visiting Mr Lee’s Burrungkuy Nourlangie Rock area, which is already open to the public, is one of his tour highlights.

“Any access that we can get to any part of Kakadu is a bonus, and the tourism industry is looking for partnerships,” he said.

“If Jeffrey is keen to engage and work with the industry in developing a product, we’re right there.”

Greig Taylor guides a tour with two people at Nourlangie rock in Kakadu.
Tour operator Greig Taylor says he welcomes new areas opening in Kakadu.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

Mr Lee said he might consider a partnership, but would prefer his and most other Kakadu operations to be run by its Bininj and Mungguy people.

“In future I’d like to see more Bininj running their own tour,” he said.

“We want more Bininj rangers to be stepping up the ladder; I want to see Binning running the park.”

Mr Taylor is particularly keen to see more areas of Kakadu opened to tourism because two of its most popular attractions, Gunlom Falls and Twin Falls, have been closed for five years.

The federal government’s Parks Australia, which jointly manages Kakadu with traditional owners, has also struggled in recent years to repair wet season road damage and remove crocodiles from other popular sites including the Jim Jim Falls in time to get them open for the peak tourist season starting in June.

“Last year we didn’t even get those areas until the second week of the school holidays, that’s just not acceptable or sustainable from a tourism perspective,” Mr Taylor said.

“So there needs to be more human resources, and maybe they need to replan their work scope so we can get these sites open to visitors.”

In a statement, Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said: “Part of the reason the park is opening later is due to the wet season running later.”

The wet season did run later in Kakadu in 2023 and 2022, but not in 2021 or 2020.

Queensland tourist Kristy Hendrie said finding some areas closed had been disappointing.

“It’s been beautiful, but a lot of the waterfalls and the waterholes that we wanted to go to were closed,” she said.

Kristy Hendrie
Kristy Hendrie said there were more places she would have loved to go in Kakadu.

On Wednesday, Parks Australia announced it would plead guilty in Darwin Local Court to prosecution by the NT’s sacred sites watchdog.

Director of national parks Ricky Archer released a statement offering “deep and sincere apologies to traditional owners for the wrongs of the past” and an assurance “lessons learned from this situation will improve how Parks Australia executes projects”.

Wurrkbarbar senior Gunlom custodian Joshua Hunter said traditional owners were now considering reopening Gunlom, possibly next year, but first wanted assurances they would get compensation and other financial assistance.

Joshua Hunter
Joshua Hunter is asking the Commonwealth for compensation and wider financial assistance.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

“We’ve sacrificed our area to provide a visitor friendly place for everyone to visit so we’re really looking forward to what the government will put on the table before we re-open Gunlom,” he said.

“We’ve lived our two decades in poverty, there were times when my own mother lived in a caravan just outside of the Gunlom road, and they preferred to spend money on fixing the road for our visitors, while traditional owners lived many years in poverty.

“We’re in this deal together, and they should come to the table with better living standards, better funding and better opportunities for us to thrive as indigenous people.”

Ms Plibersek said she “will take all steps necessary to repair the relationship with the traditional owners of Kakadu”.

She added her government is “fixing 212 homes in Kakadu” and its May budget included “$11 million for remediation of Jabiru”.

Asked whether it is assisting traditional owners start more tourism businesses, Parks Australia provided a statement that it has facilitated “workshops between the tourism industry and Bininj and Mungguy and business development workshops”.

The Gunlom dispute has heightened tension over the park’s joint management among traditional owners who have felt they have not been given enough say about how Federal Government funding is spent in Kakadu.

Traditional owners closed the popular Ubirr lookout for the 2021 season.

The closure of some areas of Kakadu to the public has concentrated visitors into areas that remain open including the Ubirr lookout. (ABC News: Jane Bardon)

Parks Australia said “Bininj and Mungguy are consulted on park management in accordance with consultation guidelines developed by the Kakadu Board”.

Jeffrey Lee said he was watching how the government was prepared to deal with traditional owners now.

“We can close things; we can close half the park,” he said.

“If I say I want to close my area, it can be very difficult.”

A road sign with Kakadu destinations showing closed roads.
The federal government said delays in opening key Kakadu destinations have been because crocodile surveys were not yet complete.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

But the Djok traditional owner said he would prefer to work with the federal government to achieve his tourism plan.

“If people from Canberra can walk with us, and help us mob start our business, and look after country the way we want to look after country, that will change a lot of things.

“I know it takes time, but in the future, it’s going to happen.”