Wild at heart

The land­scape is the star at­trac­tion at a new wilder­ness lodge in the Top End

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination - SU­SAN KUROSAWA

IT is 7am and all is crisp and cool. In less than an hour the sun will be full and golden, and we will strip off jack­ets and scarves. But for now the sky is slowly light­en­ing and a dozen mag­pie geese fly past, honk­ing their heads off as if an­nounc­ing the day.

We are on a bil­l­abong cruise aboard a flat-bot­tomed boat with Neddy Tam­bling, a ranger at Wild­man Wilder­ness Lodge in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory’s Mary River Wet­lands, which opened on April 1. Tam­bling is from the Uwiyn­mil mob and he knows this fresh­wa­ter swamp, the an­i­mals, the sto­ries and the broader song­lines that criss­cross the vast ex­panse of the Top End.

Thanks to his ex­pert com­men­tary, we will dis­cover the se­crets of this shin­ing wa­ter­way; due to his un­fail­ing spot­ting abil­i­ties, we will see the evil snouts of crocs, bur­dekin ducks sud­denly tak­ing off in a flurry of squawks, and tiny azure king­fish­ers so small and swift they ap­pear like flashes of blue light. He will tell us a story about how his mate Stephen cut down a branch with a ma­chete and got at­tacked by green ants, and he will laugh so hard that we can’t help but join in un­til the boat rocks.

The wa­ter rip­ples with fish: bar­ra­mundi, cat­fish, saratoga. Tam­bling says he’d like ‘‘to wet a line’’ to­day as our boat creeps be­side a pan­danus-lined bank and we see the tell­tale slide marks of fresh­wa­ter crocs, a wild pig the size of a baby hippo root­ing for chest­nuts, a con­gre­ga­tion of egrets as straight and taut as bal­leri­nas.

The bil­l­abong is dot­ted with pink, mauve and white wa­terlilies, dancing drag­on­flies cre­ate a shim­mer­ing halo above our lit­tle boat and, just when it couldn’t get any bet­ter, we see a sea ea­gle perched atop a bare tree; the snowy-breasted bird sits stat­uestill, sur­vey­ing a world of green in all its den­si­ties and sun­striped re­flec­tions.

‘‘That’s Big Arse’s girl­friend,’’ says Tam­bling, who we now re­alise is look­ing the other way. So fo­cused have we been on the bird that we have failed to no­tice a thump­ing great croc that’s eyeing off a ju­ve­nile night heron. Tam­bling has told us ear­lier about Big Arse, the big­gest and mean­est croc here­abouts, but his girl­friend, equally broad and ugly, has no spe­cial name. Per­haps just as well.

Wild­man Wilder­ness Lodge is 90 min­utes south from Dar­win, but that’s belt­ing down the Arn­hem High­way at ‘‘Ter­ri­tory speed’’, says en­thu­si­as­tic gen­eral man­ager Cameron Harms, who is hands-on in more than the usual fash­ion. The for­mer man­ager at the now de­funct Wrotham Park Sta­tion west of Cairns in far north Queens­land, he has over­seen that camp’s dis­man­tling, 28,000km move and re­lo­ca­tion on this new site. He’s pas­sion­ate about the suc­cess of the mam­moth re­cy­cling ven­ture and proud of Wild­man’s se­ri­ous green agenda, its en­vi­ron­men­tal best-prac­tice tech­nol­ogy, so­lar power, wa­ter and sewage treat­ment, and its light foot­print.

Such an am­bi­tious pro­ject could seem laced with folly, but some­how it has worked, de­spite un­sea­sonal rain and the unimag­in­able po­ten­tial for de­lays. It has taken a few years but the orig­i­nal 10 free­stand­ing habi­tats from Wrotham Park are in place, and in ad­di­tion to this ac­com­mo­da­tion there are 15 spacious can­vas tents, stand­ing in two rows like a small gar­ri­son. The habi­tats are air­con­di­tioned and rather chic, fea­tur­ing evoca­tive framed land­scape pho­tog­ra­phy by Grenville Turner, but the tents, al­though with a cheaper tar­iff, are the real sa­fari deal.

Rem­i­nis­cent of un­der-can­vas quar­ters at African camps, the tents are sur­pris­ingly large and some come with in­ter­con­nect­ing decks for fam­i­lies or groups and with ex­tra trun­dle beds in a meshed an­nexe. The decor is penny-plain, which feels just right, and the pale khaki tow­els and bed­li­nen and the muted bush colours of the soft fur­nish­ings cre­ate an ap­pro­pri­ate di­a­logue with the wide brown land­scape.

There are black­butt floors, an ef­fec­tive ceil­ing fan and meshed win­dows pro­vide ven­ti­la­tion; a com­pact bath­room and dress­ing area in­cludes cor­ru­gated-tin trim­mings and a smart shower re­cess with good wa­ter pres­sure. In­sect spray is thought­fully pro­vided, as is a torch for noc­tur­nal wan­ders.

There’s no tele­vi­sion set (who needs one with the Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel vir­tu­ally on your doorstep?) and, hooray, mo­bile phone cov­er­age is patchy.

I would like to see a bit more at­ten­tion to de­tail in these lodg­ings, al­though ad­mit­tedly it’s early days. A wa­ter jug in the fridge, ful­l­length mir­rors, toi­letries made with na­tive botan­i­cals rather than a ubiq­ui­tous ho­tel brand, more seat­ing in the oddly bare an­nexe — it would take very lit­tle to raise things a notch or two, and mas­sages and spa treat­ments based on in­dige­nous heal­ing prin­ci­ples should be part of the mix.

For now, it’s all rather dusty at Wild­man but pro­gres­sive land­scap­ing will soften the lodge’s grounds into some­thing of an oa­sis; swamp blood­woods and quick-grow­ing gre­vil­leas are be­ing planted to cre­ate screens be­tween the tents and af­ford more pri­vacy and splashes of colour.

The food is fully evolved, how­ever, thanks to the ex­per­tise of head chef Aaron Lee, who’s ex Wrotham Park and a cham­pion of na­tive herbs and sea­son­ings such as wild mint, lemon aspen, wat­tle seed and the sour-sharp Kakadu plum. Ex­pect to be served Territorian-sized steaks, wild bar­ra­mundi wrapped in pa­per­bark and the likes of lemon myrtlerubbed cala­mari or beer-bat­tered soft-shell crab, all served with de­li­cious and plen­ti­ful lodge- baked bread and ci­a­batta rolls.

A fire-pit on the west-fac­ing deck, just be­side a small in­fin­i­tyedge pool, is the per­fect gather­ing place for cock­tails as the sun sets over the flood­plains.

Start the day with a Jacka­roo or (barely smaller) Jil­la­roo break­fast in the at­trac­tive and airy din­ing room ( also re­pur­posed from Wrotham Park), and don’t look back. But for some de­mented rea­son, al­though break­fast and din­ner are in­cluded in the tar­iff, there’s an ex­tra charge for desserts. It makes no sense — and calls for an­other tweak.

Wild­man of­fers a full pro­gram of ac­tiv­i­ties, all at rea­son­able cost and eas­ily achiev­able thanks to its for­tu­itous po­si­tion, about mid­way be­tween Dar­win and Kakadu Na­tional Park.

You don’t need a four-wheeldrive ve­hi­cle to ven­ture here, as only the last short stretch is on un­sealed road, which is a great sell­ing point; well-priced in­tro­duc­tory of­fers for Ter­ri­tory res­i­dents have been pop­u­lar and the word is spread­ing fast.

Short lo­cal ex­cur­sions from Wild­man will soon in­clude rock­hole cruises, an air­boat ride on the Mary River with guide-cap­tain Rob rip­ping through float­ing fields of lo­tus and dodg­ing what he calls ‘‘dive and duck birds’’. The river has Aus­tralia’s largest num­ber of es­tu­ar­ine crocs and bird-spot­ters will be in winged heaven as there are about 70 va­ri­eties. Each morn­ing I spy clouds of corel­las and black cock­a­toos bustling over my tent as if on or­ches­trated cue.

Well-named ag­ile wal­la­bies move about with ca­sual ease, one even hop­ping up the wooden steps to my tent and then al­most backpedalling like a car­toon char­ac­ter when I open the door.

Tam­bling es­corts in­ter­pre­tive na­ture walks around a small area of the lodge’s im­me­di­ate es­tate that in­cludes a colony of ter­mite mounds and a glade of peel­ing pa­per­barks. He ex­plains bush tucker, edible berries, which of the long and hard leaves are best for mak­ing spears, and the ecol­ogy of the flood­plain.

As the sun goes down in a blaz­ing scar­let ball, we stroll to a glade where a ta­ble is set up with sparkling wine and canapes topped with sprigs of lemon myr­tle.

There’s that la­conic, she’ll-beright attitude to life up here; more than one staff mem­ber tells me about NT time.

The ini­tials can stand for, they gig­gle, Not To­day, Not To­mor­row, Not Tues­day, Not Thurs­day. So it’s the Top End ver­sion of manana, or Fiji’s fa­mously ten­sile Bula time, and it all makes com­plete sense in this go-slow cli­mate where timeta­bles can be thrown to the winds and, as Tam­bling con­fides with a beam­ing smile, 20C is ‘‘a cold snap’’. Su­san Kurosawa was a guest of Wild­man Wilder­ness Lodge.

A wa­ter buf­falo near the Wild­man Wilder­ness Lodge in the Mary River Wet­lands

The sa­fari tents are rem­i­nis­cent of un­der-can­vas quar­ters at African camps

Ranger Neddy Tam­bling pro­vides ex­pert Top End com­men­tary

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