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