Snapping up a croc of gold

Nourlangie badlands, Kakadu National Park Australia
Nourlangie badlands, Kakadu National Park Australia

Gliding through a wilderness flanked by free-flowing rivers and giant escarpments, I imagine nature’s bounty has never seemed so generous.

I am in Australia’s remote Northern Territory (NT) for a five-day trip that will take me through sacred Aboriginal lands, crocodile-filled rivers and some of the most undisturbed and spectacular scenery on the planet.

This was, I suspect, part of the motivation behind Ray Mears’ trip to the NT, where he filmed his latest TV programme, The Australian Wilderness.

I begin my own tour of the so-called Top End, the extreme north of the area, with Venture North Safaris. A heavy duty 4X4 whisks me from port city Darwin to the rough, open road towards Kakadu National Park in Arnhem Land on a three-hour drive.

My tour guide is Dave McMahon, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the flora and fauna of the region. As we judder along the dirt road towards our first stop, I take in the varied landscape. Some parts are arid and desert-like, and others rich in all manner of lush green plant life; pandanus trees weep under the sun, manicured mango farms and enormous termite cathedrals line our corridor south.

Wallabies, buffaloes and wild horses, as well as egrets, kookaburras, darters and kites - the Top End boasts 400 different bird species - are all spotted before we reach the Corroboree Billabong, a tributary off the Mary River Wetlands.

Here, we take a 1.5-hour river cruise on a safari boat and come face to face with the Top End’s most infamous natural born predators: Crocodiles. There are over 100,000 wild crocs in the NT and they’re found in almost all rivers, creeks and even the sea, making most water un-swimmable for humans.

On board our boat, and at a safe distance, several freshwater and saltwater crocodiles lounge in the sun along the bank, occasionally disappearing under the water and then resurfacing moments later.

Back in our vehicle we head towards Injalak Hill which, along with Ubirr, is one of two sublime Aboriginal rock art sites in and around Kakadu.

We are taken aback by the 20,000-year-old paintings that feature an abundance of animals - barramundi, crocodiles, water snakes, birds, catfish and long neck turtles - testament to Aboriginal life and sacred traditions through the ages, giving us a glimpse into one of the oldest cultures on the planet.

With the day half gone and our bodies flagging under the scorching sun, we make our way on foot along Barramundi Creek to Maguk and a natural plunge pool, one of the very few places where people can swim in croc-free waters in Kakadu.

We snorkel under a glistening waterfall, where rainbowfish, grunter, black catfish and archerfish swim, and refresh ourselves before spending the night in Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel in Jabiru which is, in keeping with the theme, shaped like a crocodile.

The following day, the adventure really begins to pick up pace with a four-hour drive through thick bush to a remote coastal outpost that falls inside Garig Gunak Barlu National Park and sits on the Cobourg Peninsula.

Our home for the remainder of the trip is Cobourg Coastal Camp, a retreat that combines glamping and bush living, with hearty Aussie hospitality thrown in. An assortment of deckchairs overlooking a rugged cliff and the clear sea below greet us on arrival, and a glimpse into the distance confirms that we are the only people for miles.

Crocodiles, black reef and bull sharks, and stingrays, mingle in the water - and our vantage point at the camp affords us the opportunity to watch them from above.

In a previous life, Dave worked as a fine-dining chef and, over the course of our stay, he rustles up some sumptuous meals. One night he cooks wild caught buffalo sausages from Gunbalanya, and the next he prepares delicious Queensland steak with potatoes and greens.

The coastal location means that we are also able to enjoy an array of fresh seafood, including oysters and garlic and butter-drenched cockles, all of which we devour as the sun sets.

Cobourg is at its most alive at night, when lizards, sugar gliders (small possums) and bandicoots come out to play, making for an interesting journey from the main communal dining area to our elevated safari tents.

All the tents are elevated and boast sea-facing balconies complete with seating, so you can really soak up the natural beauty of the camp and its wild surroundings.

They comprise two beds and mesh walls and door, meaning it’s an airy lodging, which it needs to be, as there is no air conditioning.

Thankfully, torches are provided and the clear night sky is ablaze with twinkling stars. Being accustomed to city living, the shuffling of nocturnal animals on my doorstep is disturbing at first. But before long, I settle down as the calming sound of waves gently lapping the shore sends me to sleep.

There are no supermarkets in the outback and nipping out to buy something for dinner is not an option, so we turn to primordial modes of sustenance: fishing and hunting. One afternoon is spent with Dave leading our troop to catch dinner with fishing rods, and the next is spent attempting mud-crab hunting at Lizard Bay with spears in Aboriginal fashion.

Quickly, I conclude that I would starve to death if left on my own with a spear and fishing rod. Dave, on the other hand, catches fish after fish - mackerel, barracuda, the list goes on - and spears a good number of crabs too. In an attempt at redemption, I pick an abundance of cockles, which supplements Dave’s haul nicely.

The resulting dinner is superb, the fish battered and the crabs and cockles cooked to perfection. But it’s the after dinner didgeridoo jam session that makes the night. The coastal camp has at least three of the instruments, and everyone has a go at blowing out a tune, some with more success than others.

It’s a privilege to experience this remote part of Australia - in particular the Aboriginal culture. Stunning wilderness, ancient culture and a sense of adventure make this a very special place.

How to get there

Venture North Safaris offers a range of excursions from May to October, with the five-day tour of Kakadu, Arnhem Land and Cobourg Peninsula starting from AUS $3,290 per person (£1,931) on twin share, and includes full board and all touring (but not alcoholic drinks). Visit venturenorth.com.au

For more information about the destination, visit northernterritory.com