Out onto the Wildman Plains – Days 144 to 156 of 180
It has been sometime since I read Tom Cole’s diary & letters when he rode the Wildman Plains hunting water buffalo & crocodiles between 1925 and 1943 (Riding the Wildman Plains – The Letters & Diaries of Tom Cole – Published 1992). I have always enjoyed a good yarn about the bushies way back when and even though it was a tough life they enjoyed themselves. He also wrote ‘Hell, West & Crooked’ & ‘Crocodiles & Other Characters’. So, I was following in his footsteps but with a lot more comfort in a modern 4WD & a luxury offroad trailer on paved roads which was better than a horse and swag that was used back in those days.
My first stop was at the Mary River Wilderness Retreat. Here I was to spend the next 5 nights as I planned what to do next. This resort/caravan park was in the process of being sold so unfortunately did not have a restaurant but did have a pizza making facility. But even better the Bark Hut Inn was only 2 klms up the road and they had beer on tap and excellent meals so that was dinner sorted for most nights.
The staff here were very helpful but if I stay here again it will not be on site 10 as it received full sun all day even though it was sited in amongst the trees. The receptionist Penny was horrified when I told her and wanted to move me but once you have setup and unpacked this becomes a pain to move. As it was only for a few days I would survive as most days I would be out and exploring.
First up was to see what was on offer locally – there were bush/bird walks within the resort and a lot of wildlife around my campsite. These included the Agile Wallabies which were in a big mob. In the trees around me where Whistling Kites, various honeyeaters, Rainbow Bee-eaters and Straw-necked Ibis. Supposedly there was also Gouldian Finches spotted here in the past few weeks so I would need to be on the lookout for them. The resort was on the banks of the Mary River which has the highest concentration of crocodiles per square kilometre in all of Australia. To make that point as I was setting up camp, I could hear one barking in the river – good start as long as they didn’t walk up into the campsites!
When talking to Penny at the resort she suggested that I do some tours with Wetland Cruises on Corroboree Billabong. Great advice as this company had been voted number one tourist operator for the past couple of years. I initially signed up to do two cruises – lunch & sunset but came back and signed on to do a dawn cruise as well. These were the best money I had spent so far as someone else would provide the boats and guides. It was only a 30-minute drive back towards Darwin before turning down to the billabong to meet the boat. I staggered the trips so I did one every other day with a gap for the last to be done on a Monday as they cancelled the Sunday trip.
The sunset cruise was first and the weather turned it on with a beautiful cool breeze blowing from the start. The boats are quite large flat-bottomed punts with a capacity for 26 passengers plus the guide/skipper. Most cruises lasted 2 to 2 ½ hours so plenty of time to photograph to my hearts content. I made sure I was there early so I could grab a seat up the front to have an uninterrupted view of whatever was out there. Corroboree Billabong is part of the Mary River system so therefore there were lots of crocs for starters but the birdlife was also incredible. That first trip I saw Black-necked Storks (Jabirus to us mere mortals), White-bellied Sea Eagles, Australasian Darters, Whistling Kites, Egrets, Jesus Birds (I know I should say Comb-crested Jacanas but when you see them literally walk on water it’s other name is more appropriate). There were also Azure Kingfishers, Water Buffalos and an endless supply of crocs both estuarine (salties) and freshwater (Johnstone River) crocodiles.
I was amazed at how close we could get to the birds and animals without them being really spooked. As they are running these cruises at least three times a day and 6 days a week the animals & birds probably regard us tourists as part of the daily parade and no threat to them. The sunset over the plains and behind the pandanus trees was something special to witness and a joy to see. It was the end to a perfect day. Time to drive back up the road for a couple of pints of lager and dinner at the Bark Hut Inn. One thing you notice this far north is that there is no twilight. The lights just switch off once the sun goes below the horizon. This is a bit disconcerting to a Victorian who is used to long twilights at the end of the day.
Two days later I was back to do the lunch time cruise. This time it was the same suspects but in brighter light but I still managed to get some good shots including the boss croc of the billabong all 5.1m of him.
Male crocodiles never stop growing but females top out at around 3.5 to 4m. The largest crocodile known in Australia was shot by a female croc hunter Krystina Pawlowski in 1957 near Normanton in the Gulf of Carpentaria reputedly 8.6m long (that is 28ft long in the old scale – so bloody big). Sadly, there were no photos taken and it was too large to skin (why not you ask – no idea but if it was me, I would have tried). While stories about this near-mythical-sized beast are popular in Australia, the size of this crocodile has never been confirmed and still draws skepticism from researchers.
My final cruise which left the dock at 6.30am meant a very early start on the day I was supposed to pack & leave. Penny told me not to rush as they were not that busy but I also did not have confirmation of my next place of abode at Point Stuart at the time.
Of all the cruises this was probably the most disappointing as you do not see much action as it is too cold for the crocs and many of the birds slept in as well. However, the highlight of this cruise was to find another birding lifer for me – a Lemon-bellied Flyrobin. The two hours flew by and then it was the drive back to pack up. I was almost done when the resort manager came down to tell me that I needed to be out by midday as there was a COVID lockdown for the next three days coming into effect that day. I was out of there at 1145 heading for Point Stuart lickety-split.
The drive down to Point Stuart only took an hour or so the last 20klms on dirt. Initially I was to stay here for 4 nights. But due to the COVID lockdown I added an extra 4 nights as a precaution whilst I planned my next move.
I absolutely loved this place as it was very quiet (due to COVID) which was probably not good for business but suited me. For my stay there was never more than a dozen guests for a resort with a capacity for 200. On the third day I went for a cruise in the lodge’s boat with two other guests out on the freshwater side of the Mary River down at Shady Camp about 30 klms away from the lodge.
I met a large salty called Fang due to part of his snout being bitten off in a fight. Talk about close and personal when over 4.5m of salty sidles up to the side of the boat looking for a free feed.
All the other usual suspects when it came too birdlife. A very enjoyable 1 ½ cruise which nearly ended up very embarrassing for the lodge when we ran out of petrol for the outboard. Our guide was not impressed as he struggled to get back to the boat ramp. I had suggested that he might have to emulate the Jesus Bird and walk across to the shoreline – not likely with all the salties in this stretch. We eventually got back to the ramp all in one piece – I think our guide was going to chew some pieces out of the last person to use the boat and not re-fuel it! He had told me that it was quite good fishing around the ramp so I decided to come back here the next day and give it a try in the early morning. The other couple had expressed an interest in seeing water buffalo so our guide offered to take us out to paddock where they had separated the bulls from the cows. So we piled into the safari vehicle for a short drive through the bush where the water buffalo were feeding and wallowing in a billabong. They were huge!!! Remember the water buffalo from the movie Crocodile Dundee? Well I didn’t hop out of the truck and try and hypnotise this lot but I did take lots of photos.
Also interesting at this resort was a small herd of Banteng Cattle. These are an Indonesian breed of cattle which are quite distinctive in colouring. Despite being a non-native species, the feral Australian Banteng has adapted positively. The males are black / dark chocolate brown and the females are buff. They have a distinctive white patch on their rear and can weigh up to 400 to 900 kg (880 to 1,980lb). The horns of females are short and tightly curved, pointing inward at the tips, while those of males arc upwards, growing 60 to 75 cm (24 to 30 in) long, and being connected by a horn-like bald patch on the forehead. When the NT was first being settled these cattle and water buffalo were imported as they were suitable for the floodplains in this part of the country. When the settlement of Point Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula was abandoned in 1849 so were the cattle & buffalo. They thrived to say the least and you can go on hunting safaris to shoot them – in my case only with a camera. As these are in such an isolated area of Australia they are disease free and there is talk of sending some of the Banteng back to Indonesia to strengthen there herds. We can add these species to the long list of other feral species introduced by my forbears from the UK but these may prove more useful than foxes, rabbits & sparrows.
Early next morning I drove back to Shady Camp to fish above the river barrage. Parked the car and setup the rod to a beautiful dawn with no one else around – lookout barra(mundi) here I come! I was about 10 metres from the spot I had chosen to fish without a ripple on the water when a large pair of nostrils followed by over 3.5mtrs of salty surfaced and gave me the evil eye. Well, that was a quick fishing trip! I decided that he could keep that spot of river and I would retire and fish elsewhere. It does pay to be crocwise up in the NT (& NW of WA as well). The tide was wrong to fish the saltwater side with the water down a long way. The rocks were far too slippery for me so off I went looking for birds to photograph.
Decided to return back via the lodge but this time visit the once very up-market Wildman Wilderness Resort. In its heyday this was a very flash (and expensive) retreat that is sadly now in ruins. The beautiful safari style accommodation is now open to the sky with the canvas roofs in tatters. The only thing still working are the solar pumps that keep the infinity pool from turning to green sludge. It even has its own private airstrip!! When I spoke to the manager at Point Stuart about it he told me that the canvas they had used was not suitable for tropics and was sun damaged within three years. The canvas used at Point Stuart for their safari lodges was 20 years old and was in the process of being replaced that year. Sad end to a stunning looking resort abandoned to the bush.
There was little or no reception for phones where I was but back up on the Arnhem Highway near the Jim Jim Track turnoff the army had Telstra build a 4G tower which is in the middle of Whoop Whoop but that worked to my benefit. So every 2 or 3 days I would take the 20 minute drive back to the highway to find out what was happening in the world and download mail.
I had finally made the decision that Queensland was now ruled out due to the spike in COVID cases in NSW plus the fact that Qld Police had taken a dislike to any vehicle with VIC rego. Time to take my money elsewhere like WA where I was still welcome. Applied for my G2G pass which came through straightaway for entry into WA on the 29th August.
My sojourn at Point Stuart was at an end. Lockdown in Darwin & Katherine was also at an end so I could go to WA which I was really looking forward to – the hunt for Gouldian Finches was on! Next time the story of the trek west.