Melanie leads me through to the lounge, places a welcome drink on the table and asks: “Did you see Big Arse?”
I hope she’s not referring to someone’s posterior.
“The croc,” Mel, the front office manager, says, assuming I’ve seen the framed photograph of the monster of a salty that lives near Wildman Wilderness Lodge in the Northern Territory’s Mary River wetlands, a boomerang throw from Kakadu National Park.
She shows me the picture of the five-metre reptile that has a set of fangs like a wild boar’s tusks.
I suddenly feel apprehensive. And who can blame me? It’s not everyday you share your holiday with crocs, water buffalo, king browns, dingoes and aggressive mosquitoes that transmit various viruses.
Was the Top End really a wise choice for a getaway for my urbanised self, partner and our two-year-old daughter?
Rewind two hours and we’re hurtling out of Darwin along the Arnhem Highway enjoying the novelty of a 130km/h speed limit. We were having such a lark belting along the parched red earth under a blazing egg-yolk sun that we failed to stop to pick up essentials, such as insect repellent.
But fortunately Wildman seems to have thought of everything.
“There’s a basket in your tent that contains a wind-up torch, mozzie spray and a hairdryer,” Melanie says.
“Also there’s no phone in the tent but if there’s an emergency use the phone outside the main lodge’s bathroom.”
I wonder if the monster croc will be kind enough to stop chasing me while I place a call to the emergency services?
Overhearing my conversation with Melanie, a recently arrived guest with a British accent asks: “Does that crocodile ever come close to the tents?”
“No,” she says with a smile.
This raw and sparsely populated slice of the Top End is home to the greatest concentration of estuarine crocodiles and water buffalo in the Territory. They share their space with hundreds of agile wallabies and kangaroos, pandanus palms and melaleucas, and birds of prey that circle in the baby-blue sky.
The solar-powered Wildman Wilderness Lodge sits lightly on the earth, and is possibly one of the greatest examples of recycling in Australian tourism. The core buildings of Wildman were once known as Wrotham Park Station, an isolated retreat in far north Queensland. The camp was dismantled, transported 2800km and reborn in this site last year.
The African-style safari retreat is now made up of the 10 chic air-conditioned cabins from Wrotham and 15 new canvas-and-mesh ensuite tents that extend either side of the main pavilion that has a pool overlooking a bush airstrip.
Once installed in our surprisingly large tent (there’s a queen-size bed, a bunk bed and a trundle bed, perfect for families) it’s time to go walkabout, or rather driveabout.
We continue east into the wilds of Kakadu, a park about one-third the size of Tasmania.
During the wet season, which runs from December to March, rivers flow, plains flood and waterfalls roar. Although it’s April, officially the dry season, many roads are still closed due to flooding.
One place we are able to access is Nourlangie (Anbangbang), an outdoor art gallery.
With some hesitation we embark on a bush walk with a toddler in 36 degree Celsius heat to look at the rocky overhangs emblazoned with art.
It’s worth every breath-sapping step to see the chalky spirit figures, ochre hand stencils, giant grasshoppers and a two-masted sailing ship with anchor chain and a dinghy trailing behind.
After pondering what life would have been like for Aboriginals who lived here at least 20,000 years ago, we are transported to the present day as we climb into our air-conditioned 4WD and dart back to Wildman for dinner.
There are just eight other guests staying at the lodge with us, a multi-generational family of six from Melbourne and the British couple.
Citronella candles and an outdoor fire have been lit, boutique beers are being poured and smoked crocodile salad is being cooked and served, followed by simple but perfectly-seared fresh local barramundi and an inspired dessert of wattle-seed pavlova with Kakadu plum confit.
My feet are bare, I’m wearing shorts, my daughter is delighted by a small lizard crawling on the window and my mobile phone has no service.
We may be in a place where large reptiles consider us fair game, redbacks wait for us on the dunny and box jellyfish want to bite us at the beach but this holiday is proving way more enthralling than life endangering.
As we dawdle back to our mesh home with our wind-up torch, the full moon battles it out for attention with a million stars.
There’s no noise save for the percussive hop of a wallaby, the chirp of a cricket and the babbling of our daughter.
I listen closely and trying to decipher what she’s saying. It sounds something like: “Where is Bi… Arsssss, Bi… Arsssss”.
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: Virgin Australia has direct flights from Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth to Darwin (www.virginaustralia.com). Wildman Wilderness Lodge is 170km from Darwin along the sealed Arnhem Highway. For those who don’t wish to self-drive, Wildman offers a door-to-door transfer from Darwin hotels and airport for $125 per person one way. Fixed-wing and helicopter transfers are also available upon request.
STAYING THERE: Wildman Wilderness Lodge, Mary River Wetlands (08 8978 8955; www.wildmanwildernesslodge.com.au). Tents that sleep two start at $245 per night ($115 extra adult, $90 child); free-standing habitats that sleep two start at $315 per night. Includes three-course dinner and breakfast daily.
NEED TO KNOW: There is limited mobile phone coverage and no televisions at Wildman. Complimentary wi-fi is available in the main lodge building.
TOP FIVE TOURS AT WILDMAN:
- Home Billabong Cruise: A one-hour tour of Wildman’s own Connellan Billabong. See crocs, birds and more.
- Mary River Rockhole Cruise: Glide down the vast Mary River and venture into sheltered billabongs.
- Culture Walk: Join an expert guide for a walk to the edge of the wetlands, meandering through fields of termite mounds and freshwater mangroves.
- Quad-bike tour: Guided tour of Wildman from Connellan Billabong to Leichhardt Point.
- Leichhardt Point sundowners: Watch the sun set with a drink in hand near the lily-covered wetlands.
- The writer was a guest of Virgin Australia and Wildman.