A TOP SPOT IN THE TOP END
Go croc-spotting and fish for barra while you explore the wild beauty of the Mary River Wetlands
WORDS BY LORRAINE HOLLOWAY, PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN AND LORRAINE HOLLOWAY
A trip to the Top End is always an experience, and it’s even better when you find new places to explore. When several keen fisherman told us: “If you are going to catch a barra anywhere, you will at Shady Camp!” we decided that we had better head for the Mary River Wetlands, located 110km southeast of Darwin, to try our luck. We discovered a lush, exciting tropical wonderland that is sure to thrill both the photo-obsessed traveller and the keen angler.
I recommend that you schedule your trip towards the end of the dry. You’ll find that the Arnhem Highway, which takes you into Kakadu, offers travellers many choices for a stopover in the area’s wetland. The first that we visited was the Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve. With all-weather access, and located approximately 35km from the turn off of the Stuart Highway, this is a great spot for a bushwalk. You can take either of two trails: the Monsoon Forest Walk or the Woodlands to Waterlily Walk, both around 2.5km and graded as easy. Drive across the dam wall access, with its shaded bird viewing platforms, or view sunset at the Pandanus Lookout, with views over the dam. Walking along the dam wall (which is actually more like fairly low embankment – a leftover from failed ricegrowing experiments) is not recommended due to the number of estuarine crocodiles that inhabit these waters. Much of the wildlife on the outskirts of Darwin live in this conservation area, and unlike many wetland areas, it can be accessed throughout the year.
At Beatrice Hill, a little further along the Arnhem Highway, you come to an imposing structure high on the hill, overlooking the Adelaide River. This is Window on the Wetlands, a centre that includes interactive displays and information on the ecological processes, seasonal changes and issues with feral animals in the area. Beatrice Hill is the highest point on the lower Adelaide River floodplains and is a perfect place to view the flooded wetlands during the wet.
Once you hit the Adelaide River Bridge, there are several opportunities for taking a jumping croc cruise. We booked ahead, online, with Adelaide River Queen Cruises. The one hour cruise – we chose the 11.00 am tour – is offered four times daily on the heavily croc populated Adelaide River. Hungry crocs with names like Agro, Amber and Steady Eddie swim beside the boat and are enticed by tour operators to jump for their snack! Fortunately, the boat had two decks, and we were seated on the top deck, which we felt was better for viewing; however passengers with children are encouraged to be seated on the lower deck, behind glass. There is plenty of room in the parking area for big rigs, and the kiosk sells coffee and snacks while you wait for your tour.
After you have taken your cruise, drive a little further along the highway and turn off at the Leaning Tree Lagoon Nature Park. This is a favourite with kayakers, who enjoy skimming through the waterlilies that fringe the lagoon, trying to catch a glimpse of Pigmy Geese or Spoonbill Pelicans.
Keep in mind, though, that the Adelaide River Coastal Flood Plain is famous for another reason – it lays claim to the largest concentration of saltwater crocodiles across the entire globe. Gulp. That means that you have no way of knowing what lurks beneath the surface of this tranquil lagoon, especially at during the wet season (when the lagoon may be closed to the public anyway). Take care whenever you are on or near the water.
BARK HUT INN
Approximately 65km from the Stuart Highway is the Bark Hut Inn on Annaburroo Station. This 1960s “pub” was built by Terry Baldwin, who was enterprising enough to buy Annaburroo despite the fact that he was surrounded by crocodiles and buffalo. Maybe the abundant supply of barramundi was the clincher! Tourism boomed in the 1980s following the establishment of Kakadu National Park and the Ranger Uranium Mine, and the Bark Hut Inn reaped the benefits. These days, travellers can stay in villas, budget rooms, or in the caravan park. Thanks to its location, the inn makes a perfect base from which to explore the area. The restaurant and bar open early (around 7.00 am) and fuel and souvenirs are available. Make sure you check out Jack and Jill, resident buffalos, who live behind the inn!
MARY RIVER NATIONAL PARK
Covering an area 1300 square km, Mary River National Park is the largest wetland expanse in Australia. The park is accessible all year (4WD during the wet), and is renowned for its birds and wildlife – especially that huge population of salt water crocodiles! Even though there are quite a few fishing spots to choose from, Shady Camp seems to get a big thumbs up from most anglers.
Located 153 km from the intersection of Stuart & Arnhem Highway, the campsite is 53km off the Arnhem Highway. At the time of writing, the first 25k is bitumen but the remaining 28km is not, so be prepared for dust, ditches, potholes and corrugations. There is ample room for large rigs to park, and plenty of shady spots for those who don’t need the sun to charge their batteries. This popular fishing spot, with boat ramps on both the fresh water and tidal sides of the barrage, has picnic areas, long drop toilets, and a croc and bird spotting platform. Fishing charters are also available on the Mary River.
The wildlife here is amazing. During the short walk to the bird spotting platform you will more than likely startle the wallabies, grazing in the shrubbery to the side of the path. They appear to be used to humans, and wander around the campsite at will. Pandanus trees abound in the camp site, and whistling kites swoop around them most of the day, in search of small rodents. The silence at night is broken only by barking owls, sounding remarkably like a couple of stray dogs. Jacanas gently walk over the lily pads, while blue winged kookaburras are always on the lookout for a feed. Just on dusk you will be entertained by a cacophony of curlews, kookaburras and corellas. Pelicans gracefully float around the water, teasing the crocs lurking in the depths or wallowing in the mud. Apparently barramundi are also in residence, but if you can’t find any, just enjoy the rest of the wild life.
More than 20 barrages were built in the area in the area to prevent saltwater entering the fragile freshwater wetlands and fish ladders constructed for young barramundi, assisting them to go upstream after starting their life in the salt waters of the river system.
Care should be taken while fishing at Shady Camp. With a high concentration of salties on both the tidal and freshwater side of the barrage, you are sure to have silent company while trying to entice a barra onto your hook. Swimming is not advisable, despite the lure of the beautiful water on the fresh water side. Night-time entertainment, apart from star gazing, is of course croc spotting! Their eyes glow an eerie red in the beam of a torch, and we counted at least 15 the night we went, including one “big daddy” who chose to lie across the barrage.
Other popular fishing spots in the national park include Corroboree Billabong, Hardies Lagoon, the Rockhole and Wildman River. As for the barra, we didn’t manage to catch any, but we were content simply to enjoy the beauty of the National Park.
Do yourself a favour: visit the Mary River Wetlands, and be blown away by the wildlife and the tranquillity in this unspoiled area. Oh, and good luck with those elusive barramundi!