Billabongs, Barramundi and Big Arse

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It was dawn and cold on the billabong and as thin sunlight began to penetrate the density of the freshwater mangrove trees, a silent drama played out on the water’s edge.

A young, brown-flecked night heron was poking around in the mud seemingly unaware that, just metres away, it was in the cross hairs of the motionless mistress of Big Arse.

Big Arse is an elderly five-metre salty who, together with his smaller nameless girlfriend, inhabits the Mary River Wetlands in the Northern Territory, reputedly the largest concentration of saltwater crocodiles in the Southern Hemisphere.

Nameless girlfriend remained motionless, the night heron ignored her and the small punt carrying half a dozen bleary-eyed tourists continued its sunrise tour of Home Billabong, part of the luxurious Wildman Wilderness Lodge, about half way between Darwin and Kakadu National Park right on the edge of the Northern Territory’s most magnificent wetlands.

Owned by Indigenous Business Australia (IBA) and managed by Anthology Travel, Wildman Wilderness Lodge began life in Queensland as the five star Wrotham Park Lodge on a cattle station 350km west of Cairns before the Global Financial Crisis burst its bubble.

Instead of pulling the plug, the owners dismantled the buildings, loaded them onto triple-truck “road trains”, transported them 2,800km to the Mary River Wetlands and reassembled them with only a few additions.

The result is a stylish eco-lodge with the 10 transplanted air-conditioned habitats (cabins) and 15 African-style tented cabins, all large, luxurious, with private decks and uninterrupted views across to the wetlands.

Neddy Tambling was the lodge’s indigenous ranger and was our guide on the billabong tour armed with a rollicking sense of humour and unquenchable enthusiasm. A member of the local Uwiynmil clan group, Neddy knew the wetlands like his own backyard.

Gliding through pretty water lilies he pointed out crocodile slides in the mud, how file snakes live in the water under pandanus trees, a regal sea eagle and the iridescent beauty of kingfishers flitting through black wattle trees.

We saw a wild pig tilling the mud like a demented farmer, Burdekin ducks, a heron as rigidly erect as a Coldstream Guard and, on the distant wetland a cantankerous looking wild buffalo returning our gaze.

On the way back, we noticed the night heron had gone and Big Arse’s mate hadn’t shifted an inch. Punting on the billabongs was one way to see the wetlands; another option was to see the bigger picture by helicopter.

Flying low above the blue and green “wetscape”, pilot Phil O’Driscoll swooped across the open woodland, paperbark forests, pandanus swamps, floodplains and more billabongs.

Beneath us was a vast open zoo, flocks of magpie geese, cockatoos, wild pigs, horses, sun-damaged fishermen in dinghies on the twisting Mary River and the unseen but ever-present crocodiles.

We landed on a soggy bank where Rob Townsend was waiting to whisk us around the floodplains on his airboat, the sort of propeller-driven monster you find on the Florida Everglades.

This one packed a big muffler-free Chevrolet V8 engine that sent it snarling like a bullet over the water and the water lilies. It was an oddly exhilarating experience.

Crocodile snouts appeared and disappeared beside us, grazing brumbies (wild horses) looked up startled, magpie geese scarpered out of the lily pads and, in our wake, the occasional jabiru glanced at us with unconcealed disdain.

Wildman Lodge has a large central complex with reception, restaurant, a spacious lounge bar and conference room and, outside overlooking the wetlands, an outdoor lounge deck with a fire pit, sumptuous sofas and an infinity-edge pool.

On one side was the row of habitats; on the other, the row of 15 tents of which the fourth was mine, spacious, with cedar furniture and polished blackbutt floors, fan-cooled, surrounded by roll-up African canvas and insect nets with a fluffy king-size bed, bar-fridge (empty) and ensuite and bathroom done in the finest corrugated iron.

We joined Neddy again for a sunset walk around a sea of termite towers to the edge of the wetlands where he described the intricacies of catching, dispatching and cooking goannas, file snakes and turtles, all of which made me inexplicably hungry.

Then along came Wildman’s executive chef, amiable Aaron Lee, who turned up for a cooking demonstration using the fire pit on the outside deck.

Lee showed us how to cook ocean trout and scallops in a dutch oven over coals using rosemary, lime and lemon myrtle. Wonderful food, but not a patch on the pan-fried barramundi he dished up later for dinner.

Alone at the canvas tented cabin I shared my private deck with a cold beer and a cacophony of cicadas watching a mob of pretty little agile wallabies fossick through the grass.

Somewhere nearby frogs were croaking and in the distance a dingo wailed at the stars as I recalled Neddy’s earlier advice. “If you see a buffalo,” he said seriously, “run up the nearest tree.”

Well, there wasn’t a tree and, as far as I could see, there wasn’t a buffalo. It seemed like as good a time as any to move inside onto the plush king sized bed.

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Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2013 (Copyright Agency Limited)

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