The South Alligator River, Northern Territory of Australia, has a macrotidal estuary. Tidal influence (spring tidal range 5–6 m at the mouth) extends 105 km up the channel. It is dominated by freshwater in the wet season (December-April) with a salt wedge near the mouth, but is well mixed and becomes saline throughout the dry season. The tidal channel can be divided into four different channel types: an estuarine funnel, a sinuous meandering segment, a cuspate meandering segment (in which the inside of bends are pointed) and an upstream tidal channel. The distribution of morphologically defined land classes and morphological units within each land class on the floodplain flanking the estuary differs from one channel type to another. Several stratigraphic and morphostratigraphic units have been recognized from drill holes on the coastal and deltaic-estuarine plains, and a model of development is proposed on the basis of extensive radiocarbon chronology and palynology.

The coastal plain has prograded with most rapid sedimentation between 5000 and 3000 yr BP. A similar pattern of progradation is identified in the estuarine funnel. In the sinuous segment of the estuary the channel has migrated laterally across the floodplain. Previous channel positions are indicated by palaeochannels and the meander tract is occupied by laminated channel sediments. Within the cuspate segment there are numerous sinuous palaeochannels on the plains. In the upstream segment, the channel and palaeochannels have long straight reaches with irregular bends and discontinuous levées, and channel avulsion is indicated.

Mangrove mud is a widespread stratigraphic unit throughout the plains. The initial phase of development is a transgressive phase. 8000–6800 yr BP, when mangrove forests extended landwards into a pre-existing valley as sea-level rose. As sea-level stabilized, the transgressive phase was followed by a widespread mangrove phase, termed the ‘big swamp’ 6800–5300 yr BP. The mangrove forests disappeared from most of the plains as vertical accretion continued, and were replaced by grass and sedge-covered floodplains. During the sinuous phase, about 5300–2500 yr BP, the channel migrated laterally and eroded the deltaicestuarine plain and deposited lateral accretion deposits (laminated channel sediments). Part of the channel of the South Alligator River has then progressed from sinuous to cuspate in form, and erosion of river banks has occurred. Transgressive and big swamp phases occurred under rising and stabilizing sea-level, respectively. Later morphodynamic channel adjustments occurred under conditions of stable sea-level. The depositional model has direct application to other estuaries in northern Australia, and may be applied to other areas where sea-level change has been similar.