Out­back Aus­tralia:

Set­ting off on a sun­set game drive. En­joy­ing a sun­downer with wilder­ness views. Drift­ing off to sleep to the sound of gi­ant, lum­ber­ing crea­tures just out­side the door ...

Expat Living (Singapore) - - Contents - BY SHAMUS SIL­LAR

An ex­tra­or­di­nary sa­fari ex­pe­ri­ence near Kakadu

I’ve been do­ing all those things, but no, I’m not in Africa. I’m much closer to Sin­ga­pore than you might imag­ine. Ba­murru Plains is a lux­ury sa­fari lodge in Aus­tralia’s “Top End”; it’s reached via a 4.5-hour di­rect flight from Changi and a 30-minute con­nect­ing flight from Dar­win. I’ve booked a four-day “Ul­ti­mate Wilder­ness Ex­pe­ri­ence”, which is the ideal way to get a taste of the area’s unique flora and fauna – and a taste of the five-star food and wine that guests are treated to each night.

DAY 1 Far from be­ing an in­con­ve­nient ex­tra e leg of travel, the short flight in i the Cessna 5- seater plane from f Dar­win Air­port to Ba­murru Plains is a high­light of my trip. We pass above the un­du­lat­ing wa­ter­ways and man­grove flats of the Adelaide and Mary Rivers, a kalei­do­scope of blues, greens, yel­lows and browns. It quickly be­comes ob­vi­ous why w these land­scapes have in­spired lo­cal Abo­rig­i­nal painters for thou­sands of years.

Our des­ti­na­tion is Swim Creek (don’t get any ideas from the name – this is croc­o­dile coun­try!) and our young pi­lot Liam ex­pertly guides the light plane onto a dirt-and-dust airstrip in the mid­dle of nowhere. Wait­ing there is Macca, the Ba­murru man­ager; after in­tro­duc­tions, we climb into his Land Rover for the 15-minute drive through bush­land to the lodge.

Ba­murru Plains is part of the Wild Bush Lux­ury col­lec­tion of re­mote Aus­tralian prop­er­ties and ex­pe­ri­ences. It’s set in a pic­turesque cor­ner of the North­ern Ter­ri­tory’s largest buf­falo farm, with just ten sa­fari bun­ga­lows – so, 300 square kilo­me­tres of wilder­ness is shared by just 15 or 20 guests at a time.

Po­si­tioned right on the edge of a vast flood­plain teem­ing with wildlife, the pri­vate bun­ga­lows are su­per com­fort­able, with en­suite bath­rooms, plenty of nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als, and dé­cor en­com­pass­ing old ex­plor­ers’ maps and indige­nous art. Rather than solid walls, three sides of the bun­ga­lows are floorto-ceil­ing mesh screens. This makes for an “at one with na­ture” vibe – like you’re shar­ing the wilder­ness with the an­i­mals rather than in­trud­ing.

With an hour of sun­light left, I set out with Macca’s col­league Justin and four other guests on a sa­fari drive. As our open-topped ve­hi­cle me­an­ders past

count­less cute wal­la­bies and some gi­ant buf­faloes wal­low­ing in cool mud, Justin in­tro­duces us to the lodge sur­rounds and fea­tures. These in­clude The Hide, a six-me­tre-high raised cabin hid­den away in the paper­bark for­est. It’s a prime spot for watch­ing birds and other wildlife, and guests can even ar­range to sleep here overnight to en­hance the ex­pe­ri­ence.

We end up on a spit of land slightly el­e­vated from the flood­plain, with wa­ter on both sides. As we ad­mire the scenery, Justin cracks out the wine, beer and canapés. The lat­ter in­clude lightly fried balls of croc meat (which I dub “croc-ettes”) – very moreish!

With our ap­petites stoked, we re­turn to the bun­ga­lows to freshen up, be­fore meet­ing in the main lodge for din­ner. All meals and bev­er­ages are in­cluded in the rates, and it’s an open bar where you can pour your own drinks – I go to make a G&T but Macca is one step ahead of me and slides one across to me with a smile.

Ba­murru’s res­i­dent chef is Made (pro­nounced “ma-day” – he’s In­done­sian), and the food is world-class. Tonight’s din­ner, served on a sin­gle long din­ing ta­ble that gives guests the chance to min­gle, is a del­i­cate ce­viche of lo­cally caught bar­ra­mundi – the rivers here are laden with this de­li­cious fish – fol­lowed by a per­fectly cooked Black An­gus steak with Tus­can veg­eta­bles, and a pimped-up bread-and-but­ter pud­ding. With all that un­der the belt, of course I sleep bril­liantly, wak­ing briefly at 4am to see a spec­tac­u­lar full moon dis­ap­pear be­low the hori­zon. A few hours later, I open my door to the or­ange glow of morn­ing and a dozen g graz­ing wal­la­bies just a few me­tres away.

DAY 2 The small hand­ful of guests at Ba­murru fol­low dif­fer­ent daily sched­ules. This means the break­fast ta­ble each morn­ing is full of ex­cited chats (over out­stand­ing eggs bene­dict and plenty of cof­fee) about the var­i­ous ac­tiv­i­ties in store for the day.

To­day, I’m with a group of four who’ll be en­joy­ing one of Ba­murru’s sig­na­ture ex­pe­ri­ences: an air­boat sa­fari. If you’ve not seen an air­boat, it’s a flat-bot­tomed ves­sel with an air­craft-type pro­pel­ler at the back, ideal for get­ting around shal­low waters. (If you’re my vin­tage, you might re­call them from the TV show Gen­tle Ben, set in the Florida Ever­glades.)

Justin is our guide, and at 9am, with head­phones on to muf­fle the sound of the pro­pel­ler, we glide off into the lily-cov­ered wa­ter to ex­plore a se­ries of swamps and bil­l­abongs. The birdlife is gob­s­mack­ing. Out in the open wa­ter, there are count­less egrets and ibises, and flocks

“The birdlife is gob­s­mack­ing – count­less egrets and ibises, flocks of plumed whistling” ducks, two-me­tre-tall jabirus

of plumed whistling-ducks. I spot a jabiru – well, it’s hard to miss: two me­tres tall, stand­ing in a gi­gan­tic nest on a tree­top. When Justin cuts the en­gine and we glide into a tran­quil in­let, we spy smaller rain­bow bee-eaters and vi­brant blue king­fish­ers. Tiny frogs jump from lily­pads into the wa­ter with a plonk. It’s mag­i­cal stuff.

We’re also in­tro­duced to the bird that gives the area its name: the mag­pie goose, or ba­murru in the lo­cal Abo­rig­i­nal di­alect. They’ve re­cently nested, Justin tells us, so there are goslings about. “The crocs try to eat them,” he adds.

Ah, croc­o­diles. On such a serene morn­ing, I’d al­most for­got­ten about the men­ace lurk­ing be­low the wa­ter – it’s a timely re­minder to keep our hands in the boat!

After a mas­sively mem­o­rable morn­ing, we’re back at the lodge in time for lunch, and Made is fir­ing on all cylin­ders again: he’s made smoked salmon quiche topped with caviar and a side of broc­col­ini – I wash mine down with a frosty Coop­ers beer (okay, a cou­ple).

We have a few spare hours after lunch; time to check the emails, per­haps? Fat chance. There’s no Wi-fi here – and what a glo­ri­ous thing that is in this day and age! In­stead, I loll about in the in­fin­ity pool and read a book (one with real pages).

Our late af­ter­noon sa­fari is dif­fer­ent again from the morn­ing’s ex­pe­di­tion; we board the open-top jeep and head for Pan­danus Point, a pic­turesque finger of land on the western edge of the prop­erty, dot­ted by stumpy pan­danus palms. Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple use the plant for every­thing from medicine and food to paint­brushes and torches; the buf­faloes use the trunks as scratch­ing posts. We stop in time for the sun­set, en­joy­ing bub­bles and nib­bles in what feels like the re­motest part of the world.

Back at the main lodge, Made has gone on leave for a cou­ple of days. Just as we’re wor­ry­ing that we’ll miss his amaz­ing food, his re­place­ment Pa­trice serves up per­fectly cooked scal­lops on spiced pump­kin puree for din­ner. Yum.

DAY 3 Ba­murru Plains is just west of Kakadu Na­tional Park, one of Aus­tralia’s nat­u­ral icons. To­day, I’m in for a treat, with a full-day Kakadu ex­cur­sion, ex­plor­ing silty rivers, rocky es­carp­ments and an­cient art.

After the quick drive to the Swim Creek airstrip, we board a five-seater plane for the 30-minute flight into Kakadu. It’s stun­ning again, tak­ing us over the West Al­li­ga­tor River (er­ro­neously named by an early ex­plorer who didn’t know his crocs from his ga­tors) and down to the small town of Jabiru. I’m in the front seat next to the pi­lot, and it’s in­ter­est­ing to watch him at work on the con­trols.

Justin is at Jabiru to col­lect us in Ba­murru’s new state-of-the-art RV (he has driven the 2.5 hours from the lodge to meet us), and we set off for the fa­mous Ubirr re­gion. Kakadu is mas­sive – half the size of Switzer­land – and Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple have lived here for 50,000 years. Over that time, they’ve left an as­ton­ish­ing ar­ray of rock art, and the cave walls of Ubirr are home to a rich clus­ter of paint­ings. The sto­ries be­hind the “x-ray”-style depic­tions of fish, tur­tles, kan­ga­roos and peo­ple are fas­ci­nat­ing. We also hike to the top of the rocks for panoramic views of the sur­round­ing flood­plain; no won­der this spot has fea­tured in Croc­o­dile Dundee and other films.

After a light lunch in a nearby grove, we join a group of “reg­u­lar” tourists for a cruise on the East Al­li­ga­tor River. Our Abo­rig­i­nal guide Rob­bie ex­plains the his­tory and cul­ture of the area, from sto­ries of the Rain­bow Ser­pent to the many uses of the plants and trees we see. The cruise is called Gu­luyambi, which means paper­bark; Rob­bie says the soft lin­ing of the bark is used as swad­dling for ba­bies.

Of course, we’re all keen to glimpse a croc­o­dile too, even if it’s a lit­tle early in the sea­son for mass sight­ings. With my prime po­si­tion at the front of the boat, I’m well placed to spot their knob­bly heads emerge from the muddy wa­ter. Soon enough, I do just that; “There’s a croc! Over there!” I shout. The tourists gasp and crane their necks to look.

After a quiet pause, Rob­bie turns to me. “Not croc­o­dile,” he says with a wry smile. “Log- odile.”

Cue an erup­tion of laugh­ter from ev­ery­one in the boat. Sure enough, my vi­cious “croc” floats by in all its wooden glory. Red-faced, I de­cide to leave the wildlife iden­ti­fi­ca­tion to Rob­bie the ex­pert from now on.

We do spot real crocs, though – dozens of them. They’re mostly tucked away in the cool veg­e­ta­tion on the shore, though a cou­ple drift past our boat and flash a toothy grin. The cruise also takes us out of Kakadu and into Arn­hem Land, where Rob­bie demon­strates some tra­di­tional hunt­ing meth­ods; his spear-throw­ing abil­i­ties are in­cred­i­ble.

We drive rather than fly back to Ba­murru, and it’s a pleas­ant trip in the comfy RV, with the red and ochre colours of Kakadu com­ing to life as the sun sets low in the sky. We’re back at the lodge just be­fore 7pm, time enough for a crisp white wine on the deck be­fore clean­ing off the out­back grime and set­tling in for another sen­sa­tional meal. Sto­ries of the day are swapped among the guests – my “log-odile” anec­dote gets a good laugh.

DAY 4 To­day, my Ba­murru ex­pe­ri­ence comes to an end, but there’s plenty of time be­fore my 11am Cessna flight to Dar­win for one more ad­ven­ture. This time, it’s a quad bike tour of some dif­fer­ent parts of the prop­erty, fol­low­ing nar­row trails that the sa­fari ve­hi­cles can’t ac­cess. We zip past wild brumbies, uniquely pat­terned Ban­teng bulls and tow­er­ing ter­mite mounds, paus­ing for photo opps and to en­joy a fi­nal slice of the out­back’s deep si­lence be­fore re­turn­ing to civil­i­sa­tion.

At 11am, my bag is col­lected from my room and I’m driven to Swim Creek airstrip for the short hop to Dar­win Air­port. From there, a per­fectly timed 3.45pm Sin­ga­pore Air­lines has me touch­ing down in Changi be­fore 7pm.

On a prac­ti­cal level, leav­ing Ba­murru Plains is a cinch; emo­tion­ally, not so much! This beau­ti­ful place very quickly grabs hold of you and turns you from an in­ter­net-needy city-dweller to some­one who’d be happy to stare out at a flood­plain and its wildlife for the rest of your days.

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