Buzzing over Arnhem Land in our chopper we can see saltwater crocodiles sunning themselves on the riverbank. From up here they look dinky, their dinosaur tails curled as delicately as question marks. We skim over the dramatic Stone Country, then burn up the East Alligator River, a switchbacking tidal behemoth as circuitous as a snake’s path. The landscape segues into the vastness of Mikinj Valley with its floodplains, creeks and billabongs creating a patchwork symphony in limes, emeralds and ivy greens. Cane grasses and spike rushes are ringed by the melaleucas, bloodwoods and stringybarks of swamps.
This Australian Outback is far from the barren red earth and dust of the popular imagination: it exudes a verdant wetness that seems to breathe the essence of life, even though this is the end of the dry season. By the time ‘the wet’ arrives in November, the landscape will be laced with lightning and thunder, spectacular afternoon son et lumieres rolling across cobalt skies. Then crocodiles will scatter, making this mysterious domain even more dangerous. Creeks and billabongs will swallow everything.
This is a land of myriad birds – storks competing with jabirus, herons with geese. And it changes with the light. At sunset, everything glows: trees, termite mounds, grass, roads; even the dingoes take on a cerise hue. We plunge down to land on a milky white beach on the river.
The sun is vicious, the air muggy, and sweat pricks my skin, but only someone with a death wish would swim here.
For an instant sense of the vastness and diversity of Australia’s sumptuous Top End, it’s best to get into the air, whether in a fixed-wing or helicopter. The blinding evolution and erosion of 1.8 billion years is laid out on a platter. Our helicopter took off from Jabiru in Kakadu National Park, where from the air you can see the ravages of its vast uranium mine. Kakadu is as flat as a pancake, save the escarpment and Stone Country, but it has six ecosystems, including stone country; monsoonal rainforest; riverine systems and flood plains and the southern hills and ridges. Much of it has no roads.
We hovered over the Yellow Water billabong that feeds into the tidal South Alligator River, then flew over the vast fissure of escarpment that divides Kakadu from Arnhem Land on the latter’s western border. Then we stopped at the Injalak arts centre, a powerhouse in an unassuming outpost. The centre produces bark paintings, painted didgeridoos, dilly bags, fishing baskets and even dugout canoes. From here, indigenous art flows to dealers around the world; these artists have exhibited in London, Paris, New York and at the Venice Biennale. Older artists stay true to the Rarrk style of the Top End, known for its cross-hatching lines that differ from the dot paintings of central Australia.
I’m travelling with Lords Safaris, run by Sab Lord, which asks the traditional owners of this land to interpret the world around us. A young indigenous guide takes us up to Injalak Hill and shows us the ancient rock art galleries. From here, Injalak is a few insubstantial houses in the dust, dwarfed by floodplain. Layered paintings over up to eight millennia tell of Yingana, the Creation Mother, and Andungun, an evil spirit who eats people. The government’s Protector of Aborigines, Baldwin Spencer, wrote in 1912 about indigenous groups going up the hill every night, with smouldering fire sticks for light.
‘There’s the community,’ says Sab. ‘And then there are the bureaucrats.
‘The local people here are bush people. They don’t do houses and bathrooms and kitchens and complicated food. They sleep together in the open, they shoot wildlife and cook their dinner on campfires; their children sleep rough and tumble in the open with dogs. And they know all the things we don’t.’
Lords Safaris can take you camping in the wild – deep in the bush with the call of dingoes uncomfortably close, or in a camp where fanatical heli-fishers discuss tactics for catching 6ft barramundi over the evening’s rissoles. Or there’s Lords Safaris’ private bush camp in the heart of Kakadu, where I am staying. When you ‘camp bush’ with Sab, he will barbecue the kangaroo steaks, set everything up and pack it away. The rooms are permanent, solar-powered tents with raised floors, twin beds, sheets, pillows and fans. The idea is to enjoy the magic of bush sleeping and starry skies while remaining critter-proof. It’s camping, but for proper softies.
My next overnight stop is the only true option for style in these parts. Bamurru Plains, an upmarket safari retreat lightly built of timber on a floodplain on the western cusp of Kakadu National Park. The area brims with crocodiles, and statuesque magpie geese breed prolifically here.
The restful bungalows have floor-to-ceiling mesh so you can watch the wallabies leap and the buffalo roam. There’s no television, phone or minibar; the point is to be at one with nature.
Bamurru Plains is especially great for families, for whom the Kingfisher Suite, three times the size of the other rooms, has now been built. Children – who are admitted from age six upwards – sleep on swags on the floor.
I join a late-afternoon game drive past families of wallabies and buffalo. Bamurru leases its land from a working buffalo station called Swim Creek, and its 6,000 buffalo and 2,000 head of Brahmin cattle, which thrive off the aquatic vegetation, roam free.
On the other side of the floodplain we arrive at Pandanna’s Point, studded with termite mounds. Rock-hard from a combination of soil and the excreta and spit of termites (a crash into one can total your car) and honeycombed with chambers, they are everywhere you look. They routinely rise more than 6ft – you can find 20ft giants – and they might stay operational for up to 100 years.
At Bamurru Plains, it’s de rigueur to head out in their airboat on to the floodplains. The closer you get to the coast, the bigger the rivers get and the more crocodiles you’ll find. What I see most of, though, are the beautiful wings of magpie geese in flight as we career around this Irish-green, glassily still world. In the paperbark swamps that edge the floodplain, tranquillity reigns when you cut the engine – there is only the sound of wind in leaves, and the delicate plop of black-winged stilts walking on their long stilt legs. Then two buffalo bulls thunder past in the water, chasing each other.
At sunrise we visit The Hide: a platform made from a shipping container on its side. Below are dozens of brumbies and foals. Australia has about 40,000 wild horses, the remnants of days when stockmen had no quad bikes or helicopters. We watch the sun rising to the soundtrack of insects buzzing and a chorus of birds – so many of them, from glossy ibises and black kites to a beautiful reptile-eating forest kingfisher standing sentinel on a dead tree.
Amid this wilderness, Bamurru has civilisation in spades. You eat communally here, and it’s an event – prefaced by drinks on the inviting pool deck at sunset. We feast on lemon and ginger smoked barramundi fillet in an orange and pancetta salsa, hazelnut stuffed duck breasts with julienne zucchini, potato rosti and cabernet jus, and fancy puddings like zabaglione orange mascarpone,. This coming May, chef James Villes is hosting a foraging, cooking and dining weekend.
Finally, I set out with Dean Hoath of Lords Safaris to explore Kakadu from the ground. We walk through monsoonal rainforest to the Maguk waterfall, which thunders into a deep, croc-free creek (the shallow creek line up to this point deters them – as do the crocodile traps). The landscape is gently inscribed with the soulful yellow, white and red ochre fragments of indigenous creativity. At Burrunggui, or Nourlangie Rock, where the Arnhem Land escarpment throws up its last hurrah, the underbelly of sandstone is painted with the ancient art of the Gundjeihmi-speaking people, just one of 5,000 listed art sites in Kakadu National Park that recall the Aboriginal Dreamtime. Here is Lightning Man, Namarrgon, the sacred, dangerous Dreamtime ancestor who controls the violent lightning storms of the Top End’s wet season.
Rock art is notoriously difficult to date, but this gallery includes drawings of Tasmanian Tigers, extinct here for at least 3,500 years.
I leave for Darwin in Air Frontier’s Cessna 210. The 20-something can-do pilot tells me this is a great place to build up her flying hours, because the wet is so challenging. She adds that her clientele varies somewhat, from Pippa Middleton and her husband, James, who visited Bamurru this year, to local workers anxious to get home.
My thoughts are elsewhere, still with the pictures under that rock where wallabies linger at dawn and dusk. Scientists now believe Homo sapiens of 40,000 years ago was graphically literate before he could speak. Those ghostly images are ancient proof that humans have long been spurred to dream in this spiritual, unending landscape.
More fun ways to explore the country
From £14,350 (Dh67,687) per person based on two sharing, including all international and domestic flights and two nights in Darwin, three nights with Lords Safaris, including one at Bamurru Plains, one night in Cairns, four nights on Lizard Island, two nights at Longitude 1310 Ayer’s Rock and three nights B&B in Sydney (020 7386 4610; theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk).
Here’s some exciting ways to experience this staggering natural environment.
This year, Uluru’s top resort got a multi-million dollar facelift, in time for the 30th anniversary of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines. There’s a brand-new spa inspired by the Anangu people and a new dune-top bar immersed in the desert landscape. The Dune Pavilion uber-suite costs from A$2,400 (Dh6,460) per person per night, all inclusive (longitude131.com.au).
The Cobourg Peninsula is a coastal wilderness northeast of Arnhem Land replete with marine turtle, manta rays, dolphins, sharks and crocodiles. Last year, eight new permanent tents were installed at the Cobourg Coastal Camp, which means that from April to mid-November it’s the perfect jump-off point to explore deserted beaches and the ruins of Victoria Settlement, a third failed British attempt to settle Northern Australia in the 19th century. A five-day Kakadu, Arnhem Land and Cobourg Peninsula Tour with Venture North costs A$3,290 per adult (venturenorth.com.au).
KING OF GLAMPING
To enjoy life on a working camel station without having to chuck a swag on the ground, Kings Creek Station near Kings Canyon has unveiled three new permanent tents with escarpment views and king-size beds. Each tent has its own deck with outdoor bathroom. Guests can try quad bike, heli and camel rides, and camel burgers. A$950 per night including food and drink (kingscreek-station.com.au).
ULURU ON THE BUSES
Surreally, a double-decker bus is now taking people around the base of Uluru. A five-hour tour costs A$250 per adult including food. Private hire prices on request (Ulurufork-andview.com.au).
LIGHTING UP THE DESERT
In 2016, British artist Bruce Munro, best known for immersive large-scale light-based installations, created his largest and most remote work at the foot of Uluru. As darkness arrives, and the rock falls into silhouette, 50,000 stems topped with glass spheres cast their undulating solar powered light over an area totalling four football pitches. From A$39 per adult (ayersrockresort.com/au/fieldoflight).