Love in the trop­ics

MATT and Kaia Wright open their Top End home to talk about their crazy courtship, get­ting mar­ried and life in the bush — pet snakes and all


IT was a warm and quiet af­ter­noon in 2014, and com­mu­ni­ca­tions grad­u­ate Kaia Wright was re­flect­ing on life in some pretty lush sur­round­ings. She was with her friends, in a boat an­chored off West­ern Aus­tralia’s pic­turesque Rot­tnest Is­land en­joy­ing nib­bles and cham­pagne. Kaia had been sin­gle for much of the year, and now her girl­friends were ask­ing when she planned to re­turn to the dat­ing cir­cuit. Af­ter a few more sips of cham­pagne, she made a dec­la­ra­tion. She was not go­ing to go look­ing. In­stead, she pro­nounced, “I’ll just hope an an­gel will fall from the sky.” What hap­pened next is ridicu­lous, corny and ap­par­ently true. That same af­ter­noon, Matt Wright was on a mis­sion. He should have been back home in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory, fix­ing a mess in Dar­win. In­stead he was way out-of-area, on a dash to take care of a loom­ing dis­as­ter with a way­ward as­so­ciate who was also par­ty­ing at Rot­tnest Is­land. Ham­mond could hear a chop­per com­ing, its ap­proach shat­ter­ing the sea­side am­bi­ence into a mil­lion bits. Matt was on-board. “Ran­domly,” Kaia tells, “this chop­per just flew in and landed in front of us. (Matt) was all booted up. He changed into some shorts and jumped in.” His en­try into her life is noisy and raw — in other words, the very essence of Matt Wright, Outback Wran­gler. The two started chat­ting; the cir­cum­stances were so bizarre a con­ver­sa­tion felt ap­pro­pri­ate. Even­tu­ally, they would swap con­tact de­tails. Kaia noted “Big Kid” against his num­ber in her phone; Matt wrote “Kaia Leg­end” against hers. Three years later, those la­bels re­main. So too does that ini­tial con­nec­tion; last month, the Big Kid and the Leg­end got mar­ried.

CROC­O­DILE egg col­lect­ing sea­son came early this year. The start col­lided with their wed­ding day, so they both had to step back into work a mere 48 hours af­ter ex­chang­ing their vows at a re­treat near WA’s Mar­garet River.

The hon­ey­moon will have to wait un­til next year.

But six days be­fore they wed, the pair take some time to meet with Fron­tier at a Mel­bourne ho­tel for break­fast and a chat.

Matt, a suit­case jammed with good clothes back in his room, emerges in the same gear as the day be­fore. And the day be­fore that, Kaia re­veals with a laugh.

Matt, 38, spends a lot of his time on­screen thigh-deep in North­ern Ter­ri­tory la­goons, but it’s the city stuff — the fuss, the clothes, pre­ten­tious peo­ple — that makes him feel like he’s up to his neck.

“The bird what?” He screws up his face. Kaia, 27, has just told him he will be spend­ing Mel­bourne Cup in the celebri­ty­filled Bird­cage mar­quee a few days later.

“He’s ac­tu­ally a shocker,” says Kaia. “He went to sleep at the AFL Grand Fi­nal two years ago; we left af­ter the first quar­ter. He’s re­ally not into sport. Then we walked through the Mel­bourne city cen­tre, which was empty be­cause ev­ery­one was watch­ing the game.”

He chimes in: “Yeah. That’s when I like cities — when ev­ery­body’s at home and I have the streets to my­self. Paris, New York, Lon­don … they’re all just build­ings and cars. They’re all the same.”

Matt is more Mick Dundee than Steve Ir­win. His like­ness to Ir­win ex­tends to

croc­o­diles (specif­i­cally) and wildlife con­ser­va­tion (gen­er­ally), but he is not one for spout­ing tea towel-ready one­lin­ers like, “Crikey, it’s a big one!” In­stead he wan­ders through half­s­to­ries in a re­laxed Aus­tralian drawl.

“Steve was great. What he’s done is great. But he had a to­tally dif­fer­ent out­look and at­ti­tude. We all sort of work for the same end goal, but we do it in our own ways,” says Matt.

In 2011, Na­tional Ge­o­graphic com­mis­sioned Outback Wran­gler, a se­ries with Matt as the star. The world likes an Aussie dan­ger man, some kind of rough-and-tum­ble Outback hero.

But Matt thinks of him­self as an en­tre­pre­neur and con­ser­va­tion­ist be­fore he does a celebrity; he is not fussy about his fame.

“I didn’t set out to do TV. I set out to make a ca­reer. For­tu­nately what I’ve done in that ca­reer is quite in­ter­est­ing for the rest of the world to see.” Outback Wran­gler chron­i­cles Matt’s work re­lo­cat­ing croc­o­diles out of harm’s — that is, hu­mans’ — way.

But there’s more to Matt Wright Inc than that. He runs three he­li­copters and has his in­struc­tors’ li­cence (mates joke that he will not drive any­where he can fly); he and his team col­lect up to 40,000 croc­o­dile eggs a year for the croc­o­dile farm­ing in­dus­try; he helms a suc­cess­ful tourism ven­ture in Dar­win.

His smarts have won him a life that would sur­prise his high school teach­ers.

He spent much of his youth on the Fleurieu Penin­sula south of Ade­laide, and promised his mum he would fin­ish his school­ing.

But he did not stick around long enough to see his Year 12 re­sults; he still doesn’t know what they are. Aca­demic suc­cess didn’t bother him; he wanted to make his own way.

“I had too much en­ergy,” says Matt. “I wanted to get out and do stuff.” He was just try­ing to make a buck while he worked out what he re­ally wanted to do, hop­ping from job to job.

He “scrubbed sh*t houses” and did house­keep­ing in Falls Creek, Vic­to­ria; did a mus­ter­ing stint at a mate’s cat­tle sta­tion near Bourke, NSW; headed to Kings Canyon in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory and even­tu­ally ended up in Alice Springs.

He thought about a trade, but that didn’t hap­pen. In­stead he joined the army and then worked on an oil rig.

“I had a fight with a driller who was smok­ing too many bongs on the job,” Wright re­calls.

“It was get­ting a bit dan­ger­ous. But I’d saved up a bit of money and thought maybe I could do my chop­per li­cence.”

He was only 19 at this point, but wanted to land a job that would pro­pel him into some­thing sound for the fu­ture.

The first time he sat in a chop­per, he tells, “I had a grin from ear to ear. Thought it was the best thing ever. I didn’t know how it worked or how to con­trol it, but I knew I just wanted to do it.”

A ca­reer had opened up, and along with it not just the NT but the whole of Aus­tralia. Sud­denly, the vast outback was his per­sonal play­ground. Matt does not shy away from the Dundee com­par­isons; he reck­ons they are partly cor­rect, and ad­mits to be­ing chuffed when he met Ho­gan at a func­tion in Los An­ge­les early this year (Matt is one of Tourism Aus­tralia’s global am­bas­sadors).

Un­til re­cently he mus­tered cat­tle from his chop­per, and when Kaia took her first trip to his turf, he took her out for a try.

Part­way through the ad­ven­ture, he turned around to the back seat and saw her look­ing sick; she wasn’t ac­cus­tomed to his usual tac­tic of fly­ing by the seat of his pants.

So he set her down at a wa­ter­hole un­der a tree. He as­sured her there were no crocs in there. She rolled up her dress and slept off the sick­ness, wak­ing to a wal­laby’s face just cen­time­tres from her nose. Her vi­sion was blurred, and she be­lieved she was about to be eaten.

“I have never felt my heart jump out of my chest so hard,” Kaia says with a laugh.

“I jumped and bolted. I feel so lucky to be able to live this life. It’s so full. There isn’t a mo­ment to stop but I still get to be in the in­cred­i­ble Aus­tralian na­ture.”

That first visit to Dar­win, Kaia had just come back from Lon­don, where she had gone to check out a job; she’d planned to live in Eng­land for a while.

When she called back in on her way back to Fre­man­tle, Matt asked her straight out: “Shouldn’t you just come and live here?”

He now ad­mits, “I knew if she went to Lon­don I’d never see her again.”

So she did. Soon she was wak­ing to his pythons Olive and Pop­eye on their bed. He plonked her into swamps, told her to “jump” from the hov­er­ing chop­per and to catch a porky lit­tle feral pig that he didn’t need — he just wanted to en­joy the spec­ta­cle of see­ing her chase it.

She fell face down in the mud, pro­vid­ing the en­ter­tain­ment, but the pig es­caped.

“I knew she’d fall flat be­cause she was wear­ing thongs. It was great.”

He laughs at the mem­ory, and she swats his arm in re­tal­i­a­tion.

Kaia may have seemed im­prac­ti­cal for the tough­ness of the Top End, but Matt liked it — she was bois­ter­ous, and so much fun.

Plus, he says, she boasted the brains in the duo. And be­sides, she ac­tu­ally grew up around the Kim­ber­ley. Her par­ents worked in com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment from Derby and Broome, and her early days were ba­si­cally spent in the bush amid towns where, five min­utes from the edges, the si­lence is so loud you think some­thing’s wrong with your ears.

So Matt reck­ons en­tic­ing Kaia to his wran­gling life wasn’t about him drag­ging a city girl to the outback, but more akin to what he does with out-of­place wildlife.

“I took her back to her nat­u­ral habi­tat,” he cracks, “not the other way round.”

On Novem­ber 10, the pair mar­ried; the cer­e­mony was re­laxed, be­fit­ting a ca­sual cou­ple who pick up friends from ev­ery place.

There were ringers from far­away cat­tle sta­tions, celebri­ties from Syd­ney, peo­ple from re­mote Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties and some very proper Bri­tish rel­a­tives.

“It was a per­fect day,” says Matt. “Ev­ery­body had so much fun even though a lot of us were from dif­fer­ent world.”

The pair had prac­ticed the fi­nal dance duet from Dirty Danc­ing sev­eral times a week ahead of the day; Matt, a touch wooden but re­mem­ber­ing ev­ery move, made his mus­ter­ing mates chuckle. “We even man­aged the over­head lift to­wards the end,” says Kaia. “It was a bit wob­bly, but we did it.”

Matt, so quickly back into croc­o­dile work af­ter the wed­ding, says there is no such thing as a “spare day” for he and his now-wife, and that is by de­sign.

His phi­los­o­phy is sim­ple: “You only get one shot at life. This is it. You can al­ways make money but time is the most valu­able thing you have. And I’m try­ing to use ev­ery sin­gle bit of it.”

‘‘ This life is so full — there isn’t a mo­ment to stop MATT WRIGHT

Matt and Kaia Pic­ture: MICHAEL FRANCHI

Matt wran­gles another croc

Matt and Kaia wed on Novem­ber 10 in WA Pic­ture: STEVE WISE/27 CRE­ATIVE

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