Out of range

Author: paul toohey
Photography: anson smart

Gentle Ben was the story of a boy on the Florida Everglades whose best friend was a black bear. That bear seemed a pretty idealistic best mate for a boy to have, but young blokes were less interested in bear interplay than the boy's dad, played by Dennis Weaver. He was the head park ranger. More importantly, he had an airboat. With a dirty great V8 and propeller hanging off the back. That machine was unthinkably magnificent. Poachers had nowhere to hide.

I came late to helicopter flight. When I did, a few years ago, I became more entranced with the miracle of overhead rotor ascension than the story I was supposed to be pursuing. I need to issue myself the same caution with airboats. Bamurru Plains, a fledging luxury bush resort in the Mary River wetlands, two-and-a-half hours by road or 20 minutes by light plane east of Darwin, has two airboats.

They need two. If one were to break down - and that is not improbable, they are crude vehicles, little more than enlightened dinghies - you wouldn't get out in a hurry. A conventional boat would never be able to cut through the spike reed to rescue you, and large beasts inhabit those wetlands. Even though the fresh water is dropping at this time of year, and will eventually totally drain to the sea leaving a parc-hed earth, the water was still, in early June, holding. The resident water buffalo can, by and (very) large, be shooed off but the saltwater crocodiles are not compliant. And a human finds it hard to run in metre-deep water.

After taking the turn-off on the Arnhem Highway and heading past Mary River's famous Shady Camp (said to offer the best land-based barramundi catching in the north, so much so you are forbidden from having more than one single hook on a lure, to give the suicidal critters a chance), you will reach an unmarked gate at the entrance to Swim Creek Station. You will park your vehicle and when, by pre-arrangement, you are met at the gate, you will be asked, annoyingly, to leave your vehicle and jump in the Bamurru vehicle to head to the resort. It's annoying because you know you should have done what the resort advised: take the light plane. Also because there's no shade for your car and the assurances that some bush mongrel will not strip the abandoned vehicle for parts are not comforting. But it's a working buffalo property - the animals are sold on the live trade to Asia, and to the growing mozzarella herds of southern Australia and New Zealand - and they can't have fools wandering about, colliding with livestock.

The great inland explorer John McDouall Stuart arrived at these wetlands in 1862 and engraved a tree, which has since gone the way of all things. This is a land devoid of the rock formations of other coastal Top End areas which, with their art galleries, provide hard evidence of Aboriginal inhabitation. Swamplands have a way of destroying all old tracks, and the creation of pastoral leases pushed Aborigines away. But no-one would ever suggest Aborigines did not live here.

From the spacious deck of the Bamurru lodge, maybe with a vodka-oyster shooter in hand, it's not hard to imagine our underrated ancients giving these wetlands a thorough working over, raiding magpie goose nests, spearing barramundi and catfish, sneaking up on sitting ducks, going home to sleep on paperbark platforms, smoky fires beneath to repel the mosquitoes which form their own raiding parties at sunset. This was easy country for Aborigines. Fat country, they might call it. It still is. If not more so. The introduced brumbies and buffalo like to spend their days standing together in groups, with no apparent interspecies tension, a few hundreds metres from the resort's edge, waist-deep, cool and untroubled. At night they wander onto the grasslands around the cabins, perhaps to escape the saltwater crocodiles which hunt at night and account for great herd attrition in these parts.

Swim Creek's Norm Fisher (whose family, after much touch-and-go negotiation, allowed the resort to operate on its lease) tells of having in days previous shot a "poor bastard" of a horse which had its jaw ripped off by a croc. My science on buffalo movement is not precise; they don't all come onto dry land of an evening. Taking off with Barry Jenkins, the Bamurru tour guide, at 6.30am - pre-light - on the airboat, we find small groups of water buffalo four or five kilometres deep into the wetlands, a long way from safety. Presumably they take any high ground they can find out here, of an evening, to avoid attack. They're tough creatures and, for reasons I cannot properly explain, they, as an introduced species which churn mud and leave deep wallows, do not offend the eye. They seem to fit.

This entire property, then part of Point Stuart Station, was shot out of buffalo in the ferocious but necessary Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign of the 1980s. The property to the south of Swim Creek, Melaleuca, was once owned by Rodney Ansell, about whom the Crocodile Dundee films were made. Long after Ansell moved off Melaleuca, he went on an amphetamine-fuelled rampage and killed a cop and wounded two others before he himself was gunned down. They seem a little reluctant to discuss this at Bamurru. The station owners have started again and one of the environmental benefits of having a worked buffalo herd like Swim Creek's, as distinct from the wilder, unmanaged herds of east Arnhem Land, is that these animals are constantly moved on, mustered, sold, replaced. They damage the reeds and eat the lilies, but not so badly.

The floodplains are not a declared heritage area, but the resort is mindful of keeping a low-key presence. An airboat with a 454 Chev creates a lot of afterblast and the Teflon-bottomed punts leave their mark. Drivers wisely keep to the clearly delineated (by flattened reeds) 'roads' they have created, declining to tear all over the place.

The Mary River floodplains are said to be home to the highest concentration of saltwater crocodiles in the world, and while we saw just one miserable saltie - a young five-foot female at that - crocs are fiendishly secretive. You just know they're here. And so are the jabirus, brolgas, kingfishers, flycatchers, babblers, parrots, lorikeets, hooded parrots, raptors, plumed and wandering whistling ducks, and the magpie geese ('bamurru' means magpie goose), a crocodile's favourite food.

Magpie geese nest on exposed collections of reed all over the place. Their shows of protection for their young are pathetically loving and pointless. They have a trick, which may - forgive my speculative anthropological meanderings - have been learned from dealing with sneaky Aborigines, rather than other predatory animal forms.

For better or worse, a male magpie goose has two wives. When the airboat approaches a nest with chicks, the exact same performance is repeated over and over: Wife One pretends she's injured and flaps about, allegedly and helplessly wounded, in order to draw attention away from the chicks (it's a common bird ruse, the world over). Then she flies off. Wife Two does the same. As a last resort, the husband-father pulls the same stunt - and flies off. Like parents everywhere, at least they give it a shot.

I'm not sure what the moment was that convinced me about Bamurru. It certainly wasn't taking an afternoon drive in a decapitated LandCruiser troop carrier, and arriving at a designated point in the paperbark forest where folding chairs and a table happened to be awaiting our arrival, with alcohol and cheese pulled from an Esky. I understand the obligation to provide such a service, but indulgence can be overdone.

Maybe it was the high-pitched, squealing yelp of bush pig being rudely serviced by another bush pig outside our luxurious cabin at three am; or getting up in the night to take a leak and encountering a buffalo - they possess the nicest faces in the animal kingdom outside the simians - looking up, seemingly desperate to understand the human condition. Or the night brumbies, who've never known the rounding yard or the bridle, who don't like people too much by day but, by their willing evening proximity, hint at a long-lost propensity for domestic servitude.

If it is thought I have dawdled too long on the physical environment, rather than the structures and services offered at Bamurru, I would argue that the perspective is the correct one. The place only works because of its location.

It is not cheap. I could never afford to pay $1700 a night, for a couple, to come here. Even if I could, I wouldn't want to. I'm a Darwin resident so I would be more inclined to invent, rather than indulge in, a bush retreat. But that is not to say the place should not exist. And it does not mean I was unable to set aside belief and enjoy it.

The Bamurru crew is doing something that's never been done before in the Top End. Which is pretty remarkable. The Territory has forever been banging on about 'unique' and 'wetlands' and 'wilderness' and 'you'll never-never-know'. But that's been about hotels and day tours. Incredibly, no-one has ever before offered a non-hotel, up-close, intimate, expensive, limited guest, chef-catered, 24-hour open-bar, all-tours-inclusive experience like this before.

There are at this stage just three cabins and a main lodge, although there are plans to build another six cabins over the coming wet season. It must have been tempting for the makers to do what so many do in the tropics, and go Bali. Instead, they have held their nerve and created a very clean Australian bush look without relying on the usual trinkets - rusty ploughs, cobwebbed saddles - to make the point.

The lodge and cabins - personal, private and deeply comfortable, acting as individual nature-watching hideaways - are set off the ground on old steel bore casings, unpainted and left to the weather, along with great native cypress pine logs, well-regarded in the tropics for their natural white ant-repelling qualities.

Chef Darren Powell cooks way too much. Chilli mud crabs, emu-croc-buffalo pies, beggar's chicken, whole reef fish, his own bread… all dinners running to four extravagant courses (not to mention airboat breakfasts on the wetlands and barbecue lunches) and really, after two days and nights of this you're beginning to eye off the escape routes. You're not assisted by alternating maître d' Graham Smith and Kat Mee, who keep ever-attentive eyes on your wine glass. English-born Smith has an interesting pedigree - he managed The Harrington Club, Rolling Stone guitarist Ronnie Woods' private London nightclub. He's seen Mick sweep in with entourages of models; and secret service men sweep the joint ahead of the arrival of the Princes.

In Bamurru's first months they've had English High Court judges and other sub-royal types who demand to be addressed by their titles, as well as wealthy Australians and the inevitable garden-variety journalists who don't pay their way. You won't screw too much guest gossip out of Graham; discretion is important. "We have a code of silence," he says. "Luckily, out here, we've got no-one to tell."

Bamurru's owner, Charles Carlow, doesn't like to broadcast the fact that he is, while Australian-born, the next Earl of Portarlington and is known, in peerage terms, as Charles George Yuill Seymour Dawson-Damer, Viscount Carlow. He prefers Charlie.

"There's never been anything that's been aimed at the high-end market, for people who want nature and all the comforts and soft touches with it," he says. "I lived in Africa for several years and this has come out of that experience. I'm specifically interested in the nature side of things. I've seen how well they do it there. We pulled a lot of African concepts for Bamurru but it had to be Australian in its style. If people are coming from overseas and have decent budgets, and they know the standards of Africa and Latin America, they don't want to stay in a hotel in Kakadu.'' Charlie acknowledges that Australian wildlife is somehow more subtle than Africa's showy creatures. "A lot of it's nocturnal which makes it harder. The guides are the key at the end of the day; you can drive through this place and miss it if you're not looking. It's a very specialised environment. But when it's explained properly, it really engages people. You don't have to work so hard for your wildlife, and the birdlife here is as good as anywhere in Africa."

We were rolled out of the joint, and made a bolt for a simpler life. My car, for the record, was still there.


Getting there

Bamurru Plains is 20 minutes by light airplane from Darwin airport, or 20 minutes from Kakadu National Park. By road, it's three hours' drive from Darwin, and 2.5 hours from Jabiru (Kakadu National Park). Guests may drive but must leave their vehicles at the entrance of the property, where they will be picked up by a member of staff for the 20-minute drive back to camp. Visit www.bamurruplains.com or phone 1300 790 561; (02) 9571 6399.

For more information on the Northern Territory visit www.travelnt.com.

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