In the ancient outback of Australia’s Northern Territory, a sense of spirit and adventure is continually unveiling itself.
WORDS: Michelle Hespe PHOTOS: Ant Ong
Where the wild things are
There is a tiny red-crested bird with stick-like legs completely out of proportion to its body, walking confidently across lilypads in Kakadu National Park. It looks as though it’s wearing a little red cap and a brown suit jacket, but that’s not the most fascinating part of the Lily Hopper’s body: it has five twig-like toes that fan out wider than its body so it can evenly disperse its weight. This means it can walk on water and, as it dashes around, there is barely a ripple. But things change quickly in the wild, and suddenly the scaly snout of a saltwater crocodile breaks through the water and it lunges at the bird, teeth visible to everyone aboard the boat tour.
There’s a thundering clap as the crocodile’s jaws meet one another, sans bird snack. Everyone is staring in open-mouthed silence as the lagoon fills with a crescendo of bird sounds – wings in rapid motion, webbed feet scrabbling, squawks, cries and whistles clashing.
“Whoah,” says our guide as the boat glides further into the wetlands of Yellow Water Billabong. “I didn’t think they’d bother going for something that small, although someone told me they saw a croc eat a Lily Hopper last week.”
As the unsuccessful croc disappears into the murky water, a buffalo makes it way down to the water’s edge, its eyes a flash of yellow-green before it submerges. u
Buffalos are common in the national park, and a creature that many locals don’t like. In the 1800s, English settlers introduced the Kakadu buffalo just north-east of Darwin, bringing it over water from Timor. But when their settlement was abandoned, the lumbering beasts were set free, their numbers rapidly multiplying until they became a pest – kicking off a buffalo boom that continued for around 180 years. Today, due to culling, buffalo numbers have gone down but many local people have requested that they are not all killed, as they make good hunting fodder. However, the animals also do a lot of damage to the environment, trampling over native species and causing erosion, and so the buffalo debate continues.
I wonder why a croc would go for a tiny bird when it could have a go at a buffalo. The guide reads my mind. “You’d have to be a big croc to take on a buffalo,” she says. A woman sitting behind me laughs: “That bird would be like a bit of popcorn to a saltie.”
Never smile at a crocodile
Yellow Water Billabong is the region’s most famous wetland, located at the end of Jim Jim Creek, which flows on from South Alligator River. It’s a birdwatchers’ paradise - its wetlands, river channels, floodplains and swamps are home to more than 60 bird species. Even more excitingly for a twitcher, there are some 280 species of birds in Kakadu, which is a third of all Australian birds.
As the boat ploughs deeper into the wetlands, we’re surrounded by a flotilla of pink lotus flowers, their thick green leaves forming a tarp over the water, which we’re told, is teeming with barramundi – the ultimate souvenir for many visiting this part of the world. The boat rounds another bend u in the river and before us spreads a wetland hosting a festival of birds. In a space of less than a kilometre square, there are majestic sea eagles; plumed, wandering and whistling ducks; magpie geese; pied herons; white Australian ibis and an eye-catching Azure kingfisher.
“Here’s a tip that the Indigenous people have long been savvy to,” says our guide. “Catch the dirty magpie geese, as they are the ones that have been digging around in the mud eating water chestnuts. That means they have a belly full of them. They’re already stuffed!”
Alongside us now, on the riverbank, is a female saltwater crocodile. Her scales are a blonde-brown, golden even, as she slips into the water. From behind us, a large four-metre male appears. His movements are swift and determined as he glides up to her. She makes a snorting sound, which our guide says is a sound of submission, but the male swims right on by, both of them eyeing one another off, their precise movements strong yet graceful. “We might’ve had a scene there as we’re now moving into mating season, but it seems the big croc wasn’t interested,” the guide says, laughing at the lady’s expense.
In 1971, saltwater crocodiles were protected, as there were only about 10,000 left in the wild due to people hunting and killing them. Today, however, there are around 100,000 crocodiles in the Territory, and usually one human life is lost to them every two years or so. Sadly, in 2014, there were four deaths. “The deaths are almost always because someone is being silly,” says our guide. “Swimming in their territory or fishing right on the bank. People think because numbers aren’t high, it’s safer to swim.”
From Yellow Water I hit the long, empty, dead-straight highway that defines driving in the Australian outback – a clean slice through searing red landscape that burns brightly against the sky. When you’re on those roads looking out at the endless landscape covered in spinifex, swathes of spear grass and clumps of pandanus, it’s hard to comprehend that only short drives away the land drops dramatically into gorges, and climbs up into toasted orange and blood-red jagged escarpments above wetlands where hilltops shimmer in the heat.
That’s the kind of landscape that makes up Ubirr, a special place in Kakadu where the hundreds of pieces of rock art tell stories of creation, life and the traditional foods in the area.
Climbing up the rocky outcrops of Ubirr for sunset is a rite of passage. Sitting on the ledge above a landscape so wide and spectacular in its untouched beauty, it’s hard not to be swept up by the ancient magic in this part of the world. It’s easy to imagine Indigenous Australians – the Gagudji people in this area – sitting on the same ledge, spears in hand, talking and resting as dusk fell and kangaroos emerged to graze the open plains.
Australia's ancient heart
In the bushland at the base of Ubirr lookout are remarkably intact cave drawings depicting the type of animals hunted by traditional people. The area had an abundance of resources – drawings of fish, waterfowl, mussels, wallabies, goannas, echidnas and yams cover the cave walls and crevices. Looking up into one of the rocky outcrops where people would have once taken set up camp, there, at the height of three-storey building, is a painting of a spirit in the immense ceiling overhang. How the work of art could have been painted in that completely out of reach place is perplexing. The overhang can’t be reached from the ground above the cave, and certainly not from below. The traditional owners say it is a painting by Mimi spirits. Stories tell that the spirits came out of the cracks in the rocks, pulled the ceiling rock down, painted the sorcery image, then put the rock back into place.
A few hours back down the road is Darwin: home to most of the Northern Territory’s population, with more than half of the states’ 240,000 people living there. It’s Australia’s northern-most capital city and it’s surrounded by outback, ocean and other natural wonders such as waterfall-rich Litchfield National Park.
One local man who is the best ambassador that the Northern Territory could hope for, is Matt Wright, known for Outback Wrangler on Nat Geo Wild.
Matt grew up in Papua New Guinea, Cairns and South Australia, before making his home in the Northern Territory. He was playing with snakes and anything that crawled or slithered while other kids were into Barbies and toy cars. He’s a chopper pilot, crocodile-egg collector, wild-animal relocator and all-round great Aussie guy. He’s at ease when he’s shooting through the skies in a small plane or a chopper, or when he’s spending time with dangerous animals.
To share the wild world that is his playground and workplace, Matt has launched a business called Outback Floatplane Adventures. Matt’s tour has been voted number one experience in the Top End and it’s not hard to see why. A typical day with Matt includes a small plane ride from Darwin, a BBQ lunch on a boat in the river, on the roof of which Matt lands his chopper to take guests on joy rides out into the surrounding outback and wild bushlands. Add to that an exhilarating ride on an airboat down Sweets River (where the notorious five-metre saltie called Sweetheart was removed after killing people at will), through swamps and rainforest, barramundi fishing and crocodile meetings.
About 170km from Darwin in the Mary River National Park Wetlands, is a place that adds a taste of luxury to an outback adventure. Wildman Wilderness Lodge is an ideal base from which to explore Kakadu and to embark on an adventure with Matt, especially if you catch a small plane to the lodge. u
Wildman is spread out like a meandering homestead on red dirt plains, with 15 large safari-style glamping tents (with fans, floorboards and ensuites) and 10 air-conditioned luxurious cabins (called Habitats). Its pool beneath the sprawling sky and the open-plan restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows, are a welcome oasis in the desert, overlooking the airstrip where guests can fly in for lunch or for a longer stay.
Wildman is an impressive example of recycling, with its core buildings and cabins created from the materials, fixtures and structures that once made up Wrotham Park Station resort in Far North Queensland. When the station closed down in 2009, a team of builders dismantled the resort and moved it by 18 triple road trains across the outback, to where it now stands, resurrected on the wetlands of Mary River.
Guest can simply relax, surrounded by an abundance of wildlife and wonderful outback terrain, or they can partake in Wildman’s tours, such as Home Billabong that takes in the wildlife, including crocs, or a fishing trip aimed at hauling in a prized barramundi. At dusk, guests can also head to Leichardt Point, where staff set up a table of cheese and nibbles, and crack open some bubbles and beers to watch the sun set over the wetlands. As the sun slips towards the horizon, its last rays dousing the swamps, speargrass and spinifex in a golden warmth, kangaroos, wallabies and birds play on the plains. Looking out at it all – that seemingly never-ending expanse of land that is the Northern Territory Outback – is as close as you can get to touching the ancient spirit of Australia.