Top End safari

The raucous gabbling of blue-winged kookaburras wakes me at first light. Through the mosquito netting I can see the spiky outline of pandanus trees and a grassy floodplain that spreads to the horizon. Making my way to the main lodge for a dawn breakfast I take care to avoid steaming buffalo deposits along the path. I’m walking on the wild side in Australia’s Top End yet feel I could be in Africa.

IMG_0316Swim Creek Station on the Mary River, about 200 km east of Darwin, is a massive working property for buffalo and cattle. The luxury wilderness camp Bamurru Plain on the property is similar to an African safari lodge yet distinctly Australian in character, thanks to an adept use of weathered, corrugated iron and dark hardwoods – not to mention those cackling kookaburras.

IMG_0189The walls of each Bamurru bungalow are made of a special netting which is see-through from inside, yet opaque to anyone outside. Buffalo, brumbies and Brahmin cattle regularly wander through the camp, day and night, and often graze placidly right outside my room. Nine bungalows are strategically placed either side of the central  dining room and lounge. There’s a wooden deck with a small swimming pool overlooking the floodplain. With a cold beer in hand while watching buffalo silhouetted against the fiery crimson of a Top End sunset I most definitely feel I’m on safari.

IMG_0246The month of May, the end of “the Wet”, is an ideal time to visit the Top End. With so much ground water lying about we are able to explore with ease, skimming across the floodplain in a V8 air-boat. Bamurru is an Aboriginal word for magpie geese and there are thousands of these majestic birds breeding among the grasses. Our noisy propeller-driven passage clearly disturbs some geese although others remain unperturbed. The birdlife at Bamurru is equals to anything I’ve seen in Africa. Flocks of whistling ducks inhabit a low barrage immediately in front of camp. They regularly take to the air in a seething, whirling brown cloud then settle again with pinpoint precision.

IMG_0483Buffalo splash through the shallows in search of higher, dryer land. We  watch others wallow contentedly in deep hollows of churned grey mud. Thick mangrove forests at the farthest edge of the floodplain are all that separate us from the immense mud flats along Australia’s northern coastline. The Mary River region is known for huge saltwater crocodile population and we are acutely aware these secretive, stealthy predators are constantly lurking unseen nearby.

IMG_0272Our air-boat takes us deep into huge paperbark swamps festooned with lilies of various hues, a dazzling profusion of white, blue and mauve. With the engine off, we float through a silent waterlogged forest of peeling tree trunks. Bamurru’s fantastic birdlife, buffalo and crocodiles have hit my safari sweet spot, as does the opportunity to learn about local ecology. Wherever it may be, in whatever country, the wilderness is often the best place to be.

Find out more: Bamurru Plains

Danger down under

There’s long been the hoary old cliche of Australia as a treacherous travel destination. A place with more things that can kill you in a very nasty way than anywhere else –  all thanks to its impressive roll call of threatening resident creatures plus dangerous ocean rips and a host of other potentially fatal possibilities.

Now add to that parade of formidable foes a stupendous listing of the country’s myriad poisonous plants, fungi and bacteria, in numbers so prolific they fill a 976-page tome.

Australia's Poisonous Plants, Fungi and CyanobacteriaPublished by the the CSIRO, Australia’s National science agency,  Australia’s Poisonous Plants, Fungi and Cyanobacteria (US$205) is “the first full-colour, comprehensive guide to the major natural threats to health in Australia affecting domestic and native animals and humans”.

The author is retired veterinarian toxicologist Ross McKenzie, who will now forever be known as Toxic Ross. He says more poisonous plants continue to be discovered.

This impressive publication will no doubt add even more ammunition to those who like to rave on about all the spiders, snakes, jellyfish and other wriggling, biting beasties lying in wait for unsuspecting visitors to the great southern land.

Such scaremongering does make for arresting copy along the lines of: “If the Great White don’t get ya, the Red Back will!”

Top-selling travel scribe Bill Bryson in his 2000 travelogue Down Under (published in the USA as In a Sunburned Countryconsistently milked the theme of dangerous nasties. Imagine his prose if he’d also had this immense toxic plant guide handy.

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