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