A conservation lodge nestled beside Kakadu National Park surrounds its guests in the age-old rhythms of the bush.
It’s 3pm and I’m basking in my private infinity pool overlooking a vast shimmering floodplain. I’m completely alone... apart from the buffalo lumbering in the middle distance, white cockatoos screeching overhead, three wallabies who stand motionless checking me out and who knows how many other creatures that I’m too unskilled to detect.
On the 30-minute charter flight from Darwin, soaring over mangrove-fringed waterways, tidal flats, paperbark and monsoon forests and the serpentine Mary River, my husband spots a huge crocodile on a creek bank, just before we reach the airstrip. As we land, I ask the pilot about the two sizable birds observing our arrival. “I don’t know what they are,” he tells me, “but they stole my parking spot.”
Guide Rufus, aka Roo, a Brit in his mid-20s who cut his teeth in Africa’s safari lodges, is waiting to take us to Bamurru Plains, on the traditional lands of the Limilngan people, in an open-top LandCruiser. “Oh, yeah, they’re Australian bustards, also known as plains turkeys.”
We drive past the buildings of Swim Creek Station, whose owners still raise cattle and buffalo, and alongside ranks of solar panels that provide 75 per cent of Bamurru’s power. Then the lodge reveals itself: a cluster of mesh walled timberand- steel buildings raised slightly above the land, in all the muted colours of the bush.
A cheery woman greets us inside. “Welcome to Bamurru,” she says with a smile. Turns out she’s actually a guest, clearly feeling right at home. Behind her there’s an enormous deck, a swimming pool, firepit and several seating zones to maximise views, comfort and privacy. And beyond all that, the 300-squarekilometre Swim Creek floodplain, studded with termite mounds and scattered with spiral pandanus.
Roo briefs us in the main lodge, which is filled with First Nations artworks and a library of reference books. We’ll join the other guests – only 26 at any one time – for meals and the guides will share the next day’s plan, usually an airboat ride and safari drive. “Oh, and don’t walk alone in the dark” (buffaloes roam the grounds after sundown). “And don’t get between a mama buffalo and her baby.” Right.
“Sharing and educating our guests about the local environment and conservation challenges is key to our experience,” says Amanda Byrne, general manager of Wild Bush Luxury, Bamurru’s parent company. It applies a 4Cs framework (Community, Conservation, Culture and Commerce) at all of its destinations, which include Arkaba Homestead and Arkaba Walk in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges and Tasmania’s Maria Island Walk.
“We invest in field guide training and offer guided activities to support this so our guests come away with a deeper understanding and connection to the landscapes,” she says. “If initiatives are to be implemented then we’ll review them with the 4Cs lens to ensure it fits our core philosophy of contributive tourism.”
Our visit is towards the end of the dry season and we’re staying at Jabiru Retreat, which opened in May and brings Bamurru’s number of dwellings to 12. The suite comprises a pair of spacious rooms linked by a long elevated walkway, with a roomy deck, living and dining areas, and a minibar stocked with alcoholic and soft drinks and a cheese platter. Plus, there’s the infinity pool and wild views.
“We’re led by the distinct seasons of the tropical Top End and the radical changes in the landscape in wet and dry seasons,” says Byrne. All the rooms are cooled by ceiling fans, with mesh walls that don’t get in the way of breezes or vistas.
A low-impact approach also informs meals. German-born head chef Matthias Beer, who honed his craft at El Questro Homestead in the Kimberley and Uluru’s Longitude 131º, aims to showcase Australian produce “so the environment is reflected on the plate”, he says. Barramundi is smoked with paperbark from the surrounding area and served with desert lime compote. “We let guests know where the produce is from, to share our love for Australian producers. We’re looking to introduce more local meats and more native flavours to our menu.”
Our fellow guests – mostly Australians, a Dutch family and a Swiss couple – share our enthusiasm for the food. One pair, Kiwis via Sydney, are training for the New York Marathon. Already full from this gastronomic adventure, they tell me that perhaps the prep can wait.
Following another meal (a light lunch of pasta with chicken and rocket and a dry Clare Valley riesling), an airboat trip is like a magic carpet ride over a watery meadow. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of plumed whistling ducks fill the sky as we pass countless dark-purple swamphens and magpie geese (bamurru in Gaagudju, one of the local Aboriginal dialects). A brown-and-black snake-necked darter spreads its wings to dry them in the afternoon sun before taking flight. Water buffaloes emerge slowly like massive rocks from the reeds, bellies full, unperturbed by our presence.
Our guide, Sam, steers the boat through spikerush and swathes of miniature snowflake lilies, mauve-and-white native lilies and Barbie-pink lotuses, until we reach a light-dappled paperbark-fringed lagoon. Above us is an armchair-sized eagle’s nest and the white-bellied sea eagle herself. I’m updating the booklet I found in our room, Bamurru Plains Species Checklist: Birds, Mammals, Reptiles, Frogs and Trees, and I’ve already identified 17 species.
At aperitivo time, Sam produces a tray of natural oysters on the shell with lime wedges, one-bite quiches and lime-saltsprinkled watermelon skewers to go with cold beers and an Adelaide Hills white. But can he produce a crocodile sighting? He brings the boat smoothly to a spot where we see a head and the hint of a body belonging to an estuarine croc. About two metres long, Sam reckons. I add another tick to my book.
Image credit: Helen Orr, Peter Eve