Exotic wildlife, ancient aboriginal culture and a pristine wilderness reveal their secrets on a luxury road trip around Australia’s top end
Our guide, Connie Cupitt, is waiting for us with a beaming smile and a handshake as firm as a drover’s mate. “Welcome to Corroboree Billabong,” she says, as we board our safari-style cruise boat for a tour of the Mary River Wetlands.
Her well-worn Akubra, forest-green shirt, denim shorts, sturdy shoes and tanned skin suggest a no-nonsense, in-charge personality, and she wastes no time outlining her boat captain’s rules.
“Lifejackets are at the front of the vessel, no standing while the boat is moving, no sudden movements or loud talking when we’re up close to the riverbank, and your arms in the boat at all times,” she says. “Even when you’re pointing at something.”
She is, of course, deadly serious and rightly so. The impossibly lush Mary River Wetlands may look like a pristine and exquisite Garden of Eden, but this vast maze of low-lying waterways and floodplains is home to the world’s largest concentration of saltwater crocodiles – very hungry saltwater crocodiles – and Connie is not one to mess with them.
Located about 100 kilometres southeast of Darwin, these fragile wetlands play a crucial role in sustaining Australia’s unique bird population. More than 280 species reside in, or migrate through, the area, its billabongs flanked by tropical woodlands and covered with floating carpets of pink sacred lotus lilies and yellow-white water lilies.
Within minutes of drifting along the river, we’ve spotted jabirus, brolgas, egrets, herons, kites, spoonbills, terns, cormorants, kingfishers and magpie geese. Not one, but two pairs of nesting sea eagles have swooped over our boat – no doubt eyeing any fish surfacing in our wake – with Connie referencing the birds by name as if they’re her children.
A little further along, the ‘salties’ start appearing – at first relatively small, immature and solitary, but quickly growing in size and number to the point our heads are turning rapidly from left bank to right as we try to absorb this living David Attenborough documentary.
Connie gives us a lesson in bush-tucker survival, pulling fist-size pods from banks of lotus lilies fluttering in the breeze and offering us a taste of the bittersweet and moisture-filled seeds.
For 90 minutes, we’re captivated by her infectious enthusiasm for this monumental but delicate landscape, and we’re alone but for the birds, crocs and occasional passing barramundi.
Our memorable morning wetlands cruise is on the second day of a five-day ‘Kakadu’s Ancients Secrets’ road trip adventure by leading luxury Australian tour company Inspiring Journeys.
Our round-trip adventure from Darwin covers about 1600 kilometres of the best the Top End has to offer, taking in an array of outstanding natural and cultural landmarks: Litchfield National Park, Marrakai Track, Mary River Wetlands, ancient Aboriginal artworks at Ubirr and Nourlangie, an optional flight over Kakadu National Park and neighbouring Arnhem Land, Nitmiluk National Park, and the primordial beauty of Katherine Gorge.
Along the way, we swim under waterfalls cascading into serene rock pools, watch fiery sunsets from rugged escarpments, view rock art dating back tens of thousands of years, wallow in mineral-rich natural hot springs, learn about the mythical spirits of Aboriginal ‘Dreamtime’ stories, try our hand at the fine art of rarrk painting, and meet a cast of Top End characters appear to have stepped straight out of Crocodile Dundee.
My fellow adventurers are a friendly and easy-going group of 14 like-minded travellers aged in their 50s, 60s and 70s – all from various parts of Australia and New Zealand – who bond quickly and make the journey a fun and enjoyable experience.
Our vehicle is a solid but comfortable and fully air-conditioned Mercedes-Benz 4WD truck, fitted with 22 aircraft-style recliner seats upholstered in tan leather, oversize windows for viewing the passing scenery, a compact fridge stuffed with cool drinks and sweet treats, and a restroom at the rear.
The entire trip is managed seamlessly and efficiently by our calm, personable, capable and extremely knowledgeable driver-guide, Gordon Smith, who takes care of every detail from luggage to picnic lunches and tour scheduling, all the while providing just the right amount of informed commentary – along with some Aussie larrikin banter – to keep us amused and entertained on the sometimes long stretches of driving.
And cast aside any notions of camping. Our accommodations include two excellent luxury lodges in sublime wilderness settings – along with a larger hotel of dubious quality (more on this later) – offering very welcome respite after long, hot and dusty days of road touring, sightseeing and exploring.
Our trip departs Darwin on a cloudless Sunday morning in August – the height of the Northern Territory ‘dry season’ (May to October) and the best time to explore the Top End. With average temperatures ranging from 21 to 32 degrees and low humidity, warm, dry sunny days give way to cool, crisp and clear nights, invariably under an ink-black canopy of flickering stars.
After a quick tour of central Darwin, we head south for the Finniss River and Litchfield National Park, the city’s urban sprawl soon giving way to savannah woodlands, mangroves, sand palms and stringybarks.
As the temperature climbs, we stop at scenic Florence Falls and Wangi Falls, where we swim in refreshing freshwater pools surrounded by tropical monsoon rainforest. After a picnic lunch in the small town of Batchelor, we head cross-country on the unsealed Marrakai Track through vast cattle stations and rugged backcountry to the Mary River region.
Our first night is at Wildman Wilderness Lodge, a wonderful luxury retreat offering glamping-style permanent safari tent and suite accommodations, set on a wide tree-lined floodplain dotted with termite mounds and wallabies grazing beside the private airstrip.
There’s just time for a cool dip in the lodge’s plunge pool before sundowner cocktails by the fire pit – as the sky turns from cerulean blue to pale gold and rose pink before a final flourish of vermillion – and a gourmet three-course dinner in the lodge’s chic and contemporary dining room.
After a leisurely breakfast, we’re back on the Arnhem Highway heading to Corroboree Billabong and our memorable river cruise, before arriving at the entrance to Kakadu – arguably the jewel in the crown of Australia’s national parks – and the Holy Grail of our road trip.
Kakadu covers almost 20,000 square kilometers, an area
the size of Belgium, and was designated a national park in three stages in 1981, 1987 – the same year it gained UNESCO World Heritage List status – and finally in 1992.
It’s one of the very few places honoured both for its outstanding natural values and as a living cultural landscape: Aboriginal people have inhabited Kakadu continuously for more than 65,000 years, dating back to before the last ice age.
The name Kakadu comes from an Aboriginal language called Gagudju, one of the languages spoken in the area at the beginning of the 20th-century, and at least three languages – Kunwinjku in the north, Gundjeihmi in the central region and Jawoyn in the south – are still spoken today.
The park’s unique biodiversity, natural beauty and variety of landforms, habitats and wildlife are staggering. Kakadu is home to 68 mammal species, almost one-fifth of Australia’s total, more than 120 reptiles, 26 frogs, 300 tidal and freshwater fish species, 2,000 different plants, and more than 10,000 species of insects.
Some of these species are either threatened or endangered, many are found nowhere else in the world, and there are still others yet to be discovered.
The park comprises seven distinct regions – South Alligator, Jabiru, East Alligator, Nourlangie, Yellow Water, Jim Jim and Twin Falls, and Mary River – a sweeping landscape of savannah woodlands, monsoon vine forests, hills and ridges, stone country, tidal flats, and exquisite floodplains, rivers and billabongs – its accessibility entirely dependent on the weather and type of vehicle you are travelling in.
And Kakadu doesn’t give a flying frog for any white fella’s four seasons. The park’s Bininj and Mungguy people recognise six different seasons when the landscapes undergo dramatic changes driven largely by the weather.
Our tour takes in five of the seven regions – Jim Jim and Twin Falls are too far to include in our timeframe – but our itinerary features a treasure trove of natural and cultural wonders.
The second half of day two features the exquisite Mamukala Wetlands and a tour of Ubirr’s ancient Aboriginal rock, culminating in a climb to the top of the rugged Nadab Lookout for a stunning sunset over the floodplains.
Our overnight stay in nearby Jabiru is disappointing. The widely hyped Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel – designed in the shape of a croc – has seen better days, but the buffet dinner is plentiful and the beer chilled, so we retire to bed and overlook the outdated rooms and facilities.
Things improve dramatically on day three when we all decide to book the optional Kakadu Air scenic flight, delivering a breathtaking bird’s-eye view of the park’s rivers, waterfalls, rock formations and escarpments as well as the vast, inhospitable yet hauntingly beautiful expanse of Arnhem Land.
Next stop, Nourlangie and its ancient rock art galleries, to Namarrgon or Lightning Man, the creation ancestor responsible for the dramatic electrical storms on the Arnhem plateau.
A broken hose clamp as we’re en route to Gunlom Falls forces an unscheduled stop at Warradjan Cultural Centre – as luck would have it, one of the best Aboriginal arts and crafts galleries in the park – but Smith is on the case and gets us back on the road in time to reach Nitmiluk National Park by sundown.
Our home for the next two nights is Cicada Lodge, another beautiful luxury bushland retreat, set close to the Katherine River system. All 18 rooms are a study in contemporary bush chic with indigenous artworks, rich stone colours and louvered doors opening to private decks and wilderness beyond.
The lodge’s centrepiece is its stylish restaurant and pool deck, the ideal place to chill after a long day on the road, and the service is faultless from your first welcome glass of Champagne to the innovative menus designed around modern Australian food with a regional twist – think bush bananas, freshwater prawns and native herbs.
Day four heralds a visit to Top Didj, an engaging Aboriginal cultural centre where Manuel Pamkal weaves his special brand of magic on the didgeridoo, teaching us the fine art of rarrk painting, using a special brush from a reed called julk, and showing us how to throw a spear (we all fail miserably).
Lunch is spent wallowing in shallow natural hot springs, but the best is definitely saved until last. Following a late-afternoon cruise taking us deep into the prehistoric chasms of Katherine Gorge, our boat is transformed into a white-tablecloth and candlelit dinner cruise just as the sun is setting. Most of our group rate the unforgettable evening as the highlight of the trip.
Our final day is spent along the Stuart Highway visiting Edith Falls, paying our respects at the very moving Adelaide River War Cemetery, and enjoying a cold beer with a not very moving (read: stuffed) buffalo called Charlie at the Adelaide River Hotel.
The star buffalo in Crocodile Dundee, Charlie is now at rest on the bar of the knockabout pub – the only piece of Australian kitsch on our entire road trip.
As Darwin appears on the horizon, I’m sad to leave behind Kakadu’s pristine wilderness for the urban concrete jungle and, for a fleeting moment, I wonder how the crocs in Corroboree Billabong are doing.