Wet & Wild

Author: rob ingram
Photography: julian kingma

There was movement at the station all right. When the acclaimed-but-doomed luxury lodge at Wrotham Park Station, 300km west of Cairns, folded in 2009, the resort infrastructure was dismantled, loaded onto 18 triple road trains, and transported 2800km across Australia to the fringes of Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory.

In the world of eco-tourism, recycling earns big brownie points - but this was recycling on a breathtaking scale. When the buildings were unloaded in their new setting on the Mary River wetlands, they constituted nearly 80 per cent of Australia's newest nature-based tourism experience - Wildman Wilderness Lodge.

The main lodge facility and the "habitat" eco-cabin accommodation might be familiar, but Wildman and Wrotham Park are two very different concepts. Wrotham opened with five-star pretensions and a one-to-one ratio of staff to guests which could only ever have been sustainable with around 80 per cent occupancy. It had a limit of 20 guests and a tariff of $800 per person including meals, drinks and activities.

Wrotham's image was luxury lodge lifestyle - fashionista food, infinity pool, exotic cocktails and banana lounge siestas - which a stylist had whimsically superimposed on a dusty cattle station backdrop. Wildman is the brave new emblem of Australian experiential tourism which encourages travellers to participate in activities providing an insight into cultures, communities and environments. The lodge provides sophisticated accommodation as a base for a wide spectrum of experiences in a spectacular setting. Guest capacity has been increased to 50 with the addition of stylish tent accommodation borrowed from the African model of wilderness safaris.

The Wildman Wilderness Lodge setting is an easy two-hour drive from Darwin - all but the last 7km are on sealed highway. The Mary River wetlands extend over 1300 square kilometres of freshwater flood plains within a catchment area of more than 8000 square kilometres.

The lodge is not much more than 20km, as the crow flies, from the closest boundary of Kakadu National Park. A World Heritage site for its cultural and natural significance, Kakadu is an international byword for cultural landscape management. But when people in the Northern Territory speak of the Mary River wetlands they do so with lowered voices, as if to indicate that while Kakadu might belong to the world, they'll keep this one to themselves. Many regard it as more precious than its famous neighbour, and certainly it's no less significant to its traditional owners, whose ancestors' dreamtime journeys are recorded in the distinctive landscape. Indigenous elders often speak of "listening" to the land and "feeling" it. And even for the white fella, the landscape hums with a spirituality no louder than a dragonfly's wings but far more resonant.

From the decks of their cabins or tents, Wildman guests look out on a landscape that teasingly promises more than it immediately delivers. Or rather, two landscapes, because the wet season and the dry season paint two very different canvases. Just 100 metres away, though, bizarre conical termite towers and smaller caramel-coloured wallabies peer out over the top of tall grasses, and trees that look like the gnarled inhabitants of Middle-earth stand around in gossiping groups. Beyond is the Mary River flood plain and the remarkable wetland landscape that delivers everything that the deck views promise - and more.

At nearby Mistake Billabong a vast field of lotus lilies sways in a silent tamouré. I can't get a definite answer as to why it's called Mistake Billabong, but a graphic warning sign suggests swimming with the crocs would be an error. After all, the Mary River has the highest concentration of estuarine crocodiles anywhere in the country. Adjust your focal length and there's always something new to see. Paperbark swamp and freshwater mangroves. Savanna woodland and eucalypt glades. The distinctive bad-hair-day pandanus and the mad disarray of the banyan fig.

And wildlife. An open zoo of wildlife. Wallabies and water buffalo and dingoes and monitor lizards. Estuarine crocodiles, barramundi, tarpon and mullet. And birdlife. Everywhere but in the huge sky, it seems. Brolgas, herons and jabiru striking elegant cocktail party poses. Magpie geese and radjah shelducks deep in forensic investigation. Cockatoos and corellas waddling along the dusty roadside like Polynesian mamas returning from market. Blue-winged kookaburras thinking twice about diving in, like scared kids on the high board.

And there's the shy presence of the traditional owners too, something that gives Wildman a head start in a tourism sector that demands values and principles and integrity. Wildman is owned by Indigenous Business Australia and the area's traditional owners. As profits grow, the stake of the local communities will increase until they are able to operate the venture themselves.

The management strategies for Wildman Wilderness Lodge are being handled by respected Australian tourism figure Grant Hunt, who, coincidentally, developed the Voyages Hotels & Resorts portfolio of properties that included Wrotham Park Lodge. "Not my call, that one," he says. "I always had misgivings about Wrotham, but I've been convinced of the potential of the Wildman site since I first visited it in 1999."

A committed conservationist, Hunt's passion is nature-based photography. And he regards the Mary River site as "a peerless representation of wetland ecology".

"It is a sensitive eco-system, and because of salt water intrusion it won't remain like this forever," he warns. "It is a privilege to play even a small part in showcasing it to as many people as possible."

Hunt knows what he's talking about with regard to sustainable tourism. He is acknowledged for pioneering social responsibility auditing within the travel industry, and at Voyages he reviewed the company's properties' role, responsibilities, actions and outcomes in this area, producing Australia's first such report on tourism, community and environment.

"Northern Territory is a world leader in indigenous tourism," he says. "That brings with it a lot of responsibilities. At Wildman we are looking at providing Aboriginal cultural tours and content that will advance the awareness of the cultural and social anthropology of the indigenous people. A side benefit is providing employment and building pride within the local communities, in reclaiming a lot of history that has been lost, and even in creating harmony and focus among communities that have had past differences. If we show integrity in the way we undertake our community and environmental responsibilities, the public will get the message and their Wildman experience will be all the more rewarding."

Essential to that experience is crocodile spotting on the Home Billabong sunset cruise or the Mary River Rockhole cruise. A full-day tour into Kakadu National Park presents access to ancient rock art sites and the awesome Arnhem Land escarpment, plus birdlife and wetlands viewing, a short rainforest walk and the option of a swim in a waterfall-fed swimming hole. For many, the highlight will be fishing for Australia's greatest freshwater sports fish - barramundi, saratoga and tarpon. Quad bike tours are yet another option for exploring the area.

During our stay, a couple of acquaintances of the management stop by. David Walker, whose Woolner and Marrakai stations make his family the biggest private landholder in the area, has cut across the flood plains in his airboat. This is a flat-bottom tinnie powered by a big-block Chevy V8 driving an aircraft propeller - and that adds up to excitement. We scoot through the lush wetlands and out to Mary River itself riding over lily pads and floating grasses like a ride-on mower gone feral, then dawdle back through ghostly sunken forests.

Matt Wright drops in in his Robinson 44 helicopter. Wright wears a sort of Action Man aura, having built a heroic reputation as a gun mustering pilot in North Queensland. He proves an ace at aerial camp drafting, giving us a close-up of wetlands wildlife by chasing water buffalo across the flood plain, rounding up feral pigs, flying in formation with sea eagles, and making crocodiles snap at the chopper. From the air, the wetlands slowly change from a camouflage of infinite shades of green and blue to a vast mosaic of dreamtime design in subtle pigments - rivers and channels becoming snakes and tracks, and clumps of grasses and trees looking like the waterholes and campfires in sacred Papunya dot paintings. Cross your fingers, too, for an aerial tour.

Like Grant Hunt, Wildman general manager Cameron Harms and chef Aaron Lee have Wrotham Park in their CVs. Harms shared none of Hunt's misgivings about Wrotham Park. A proud Queenslander, he loved the epic proportions of the cattle station, where 40,000 head of Brahman cattle roam over 597,000 hectares of land. And with the introduction of activities that allowed guests to get among the mustering action, occupancy was on the rise. Harms says it was the GFC that brought it all undone. None of this, however, dilutes his enthusiasm for Wildman. Harms, his wife Joan and their two-year-old son Hunter have taken to their new setting like whistling ducks to a wetland.

"It will be both a pleasure and a privilege helping to showcase the Mary River wetlands because you know guests will be impressed and that they'll take away lifelong memories," says Harms. "We're surrounded by so many experiences - both cultural and ecological - and there's the added privilege of being able to work with the traditional owners. I really believe Wildman can become an icon of Australian tourism."

The lodge has three types of accommodation. There are 10 free-standing air-conditioned Habitat cabins with premium quality furnishings, king-size beds and ensuite bathrooms; 10 safari tents, each of which is cooled by a ceiling fan and has a private bathroom and luxury bedding; and five tents configured for family groups and sleeping up to four.

Grant Hunt has drawn inspiration from time spent on the African safari lodge circuit and many of his ideas have been translated into the final Wildman product by Justin Long Designs and Pike Withers, the architectural and design firms behind the original Wrotham Park. Stylish interiors in natural colours from the region create a resort lodge in harmony with its setting. The main lodge building has been informally zoned to provide amenities for families and groups at one end and restaurant and bar spaces at the other.

In the kitchen, chef Lee will be reinforcing the indigenous element of the Wildman experience. "The setting and the long Aboriginal connection with the place give me an opportunity to introduce some bush tucker ingredients," he says. "Sometimes the 'creative native' thing can look a bit contrived, but here indigenous guys in the team like Neddy Tambling have been teaching me how to find and use things like wattle seed, native mint, Kakadu plum and lemon myrtle." Lee aims to add to the sense of adventure by offering a tasting plate of buffalo, crocodile, barramundi and prawns. "Overall, the food will be about freshness, about quality produce with regional relevance," he says, "but expressed in a more relaxed way than Wrotham's fine dining."

Wildman Wilderness Lodge is not just impressive, it's important. This timeless landscape's time may soon be up. Climate change, encroaching salination and mimosa infestation are all taking their toll on the wetlands. This is a delicate eco-system in a dynamic landscape. It's the natural habitat of fire, flood and tempest. Now is a critical time for the Mary River. But then, time is a more than usually fluid concept in the Northern Territory. The never-never and the dreamtime live on in the timelessness that exists here.

Awaiting a delivery of supplies to Wildman, general manager Cameron Harms slumps down beside his dog Diesel, sighs resignedly, and says, "NT stands for Not Today, Not Tomorrow; Not Tuesday, Nor Thursday."





THE FINE PRINT

STAY
Accommodation, dinner and breakfast at Wildman Wilderness Lodge (per person, twinshare) costs $285 in Habitat cabins, $215 in safari tents, and $243 in family tents, plus $65 for each extra person in a family tent. Mary River wetlands, Northern Territory, (08) 8978 8955.

GETTING THERE
The lodge is 170km from Darwin along the sealed Arnhem Highway and Point Stuart Road. The lodge operates land transfers from Darwin on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and can also arrange transfers via hire car, bus, fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter.

WHEN TO VISIT
Wildman is open from 1 March to 30 November each year, and closed during the wettest months. The most comfortable time to visit is during the May-September dry season, but the fringe wet season has benefits in the beauty of the lush vegetation.

DO
Home Billabong cruise
Sunrise and sunset cruises on the lodge billabong. Allow two hours. Adults $55, children (13 years and under) $35.

Mary River Rockhole cruise
Mid-morning and sunset cruises on the Mary River viewing crocodiles and wetland birds and enjoying views over the vast flood plain. Drinks and canapés are served on sunset cruises. Allow three hours. Adults $95, children $60.

Full-day Kakadu tour
Leave the lodge at 7.30am and travel through flood plain and billabong scenery to Nourlangie Rock to view rock art and the Arnhem Land escarpment. Stop for a picnic lunch at Anbangbang Billabong, visit Barramundi Gorge for a rainforest walk and swim in a waterfall swimming hole. Adults $220, children $145 (plus national park entry fees).

Wildman 4WD track and Rockhole tour
Leave the lodge 2½ hours before sunset and travel through paperbark forest and pandanus swamps along the fringe of Connellan Lagoon. See crocodiles, buffaloes and sea eagle nesting sites, cruise Rockhole waters and return for dinner. Allow three hours.

Leichhardt Point sundowner tour
Leave the lodge an hour before sunset and drive along the Connellan Lagoon shoreline to Leichhardt Point for refreshments and views of the wetlands at sunset.

Guided flood plain and billabong walk
A short interpretive walk through the termite fields to the flood plain for an insight into the wetlands eco-system.

Home Billabong fishing
Guests can fish for barramundi on lures with an experienced guide. Gear provided; catch and release. 

Private tours
The lodge can advise on private touring and fishing options and can provide fishing gear and picnic lunches.



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