Taking It To The Top
by Dominick Merle
I'm on a tiny desert island in one of the most remote areas on earth, and someone is pouring me champagne as I watch the sunset over the Arafura Sea.
That may sound like the beginning of a very bad novel, but there are actually a small group of us, guests of the Seven Spirit Bay Wilderness Lodge a short hop away on Cobourg Peninsula. We were brought to this spot by boat for a nightly ritual, described as "champagne and nibbles." It was Australian sparkling wine, in fact, and someone forgot the "nibbles," whatever they were.
But there we sat on folding chairs, six in a row, as the boatman, who doubled as waiter, poured away. We would have been a strange sight to any-one else but the boatman, who brings a new group here almost every night.
Tonight's merry group included myself, my wife Susan, her sister Barbara (a transplanted Californian and now a Sydney resident or "Sydney-sider"), a middle-aged couple from Texas and a Spanish lady from somewhere near Barce-lona. All we needed were party hats and balloons.
But the sunset was spectacular, or perhaps it was the wine, and later we returned to the lodge for a mixed-grill dinner of kangaroo, crocodile and buffalo. After a few more drinks, everything tasted "just like chicken."
In 25 years of knocking around as a travel writer, I had never even heard of this spot before, let alone the Arafura Sea, a small body of water between Australia and New Guinea. This is the very tip of the Northern Territory, in the so-called Top End of Australia, in fact much closer to Jakarta and Singapore than to Sydney. The Northern Territory is about the size of Texas, the Top End roughly the size of Ohio, the Cobourg Peninsula is a tiny dot in the Top End, and Seven Spirit Bay is in the boondocks of the Cobourg Peninsula. That's about as remote as it gets.
Aborigines here go back anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000 years, depending on what you read or to whom you talk. Today, only a handful of tribes remain, and they are nomadic. But they have left their mark in many ways, as we would soon discover.
Getting to this remote part of the world is an adventure in itself. We began with a six-hour "warm-up" flight from Montreal to Los Angeles, then settled down for our 15-hour flight to Sydney. Next came four more hours by air to Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory, followed by a 45-minute flight by light aircraft to Seven Spirit Bay, and a 45-minute ride on a four-wheel-drive vehicle to the resort compound.
Because of the tree coverings, the lodge is barely visible from the air. But you will hardly be roughing it. As one guest wrote in the brochure, "Here you can sip Chardonnay and watch the crocodiles."
In layout, the lodge suggests a Polynesian paradise. The main building overlooks a saltwater lagoon pool. Scattered throughout the resort are 24 six-sided wooden cabins with louvered walls that offer a panoramic view of the bush or sea. You can see through the louvered walls, but no one, or nothing, can see in. It felt a bit like being in a zoo, only this time we were in a cage and whatever was out there - kangaroos, wallabies, reptiles, crocodiles -were being amused by us.
So where's the bathroom? Just down the path, in another six-sided structure. It had all the modern conveniences, including a huge showerhead that covered you like gentle rain (although had it not been for the spiffy new appointments, this would have been called an outhouse in the old days). Half the area was uncovered, opening onto a small private garden.
After our welcome drink, the six of us were off on our one-day safari by four-wheel drive and by foot.
Being at the end of the wet season, it was not a banner day for viewing wildlife. The odds against seeing a croc were about 10 to 1, our guide told me. We beat the odds, observing a full-grown crocodile closing in on a bird on the bank of a nearby lagoon. The bird flew off.
"That wasn't a galloper," the guide said with a giggle, "or you would have just seen a pile of feathers." He went on to explain that a certain type of crocodile can actually raise itself on its hind legs and gallop for a few steps in pursuit of prey. I thought about that remark in the middle of the night while I was walking down the path to my "bathroom garden."
The sighting boxscore on kangaroos was one and a half: one in the bush and a tiny one that had become a pet back at the main lodge. But we did observe strange species of birds and lizards, and learned of the so-called curative powers of many jungle plants. "It's like one big chemist shop [Australian for drugstore]," our guide said.
After our day in the bush, that saltwater lagoon pool was irresistible. Then it was off to our champagne at sunset, and back to the lodge for our exotic mixed grill of crocodile, kangaroo and buffalo. The pet kangaroo kept nibbling on a cracker nearby during our carnivorous feast. It made us feel a bit savage.
Early the next morning, we boarded another light aircraft for a 30-minute hop to Mount Borradaile in Aboriginal Arnhem Land. Our safari this time would include hiking, a four-wheel drive vehicle and small boat, and our guide, Max Davidson, who is quickly becoming a legend in these parts.
A former jackeroo (ranchhand) and buffalo hunter, Max is exactly what you think a safari guide should look and act like. He has shocking white hair and beard and wears a battered but beautiful Outback hat that looks like it never comes off.
I saw him scoop water out of the freshwater lagoon with one hand while he piloted the small motorboat with the other, and then casually gulp down a few cups. The rest of us had canteens. We were hea-vily covered with insect repellent. Max hardly ever touches the stuff.
But beneath that rough exterior lies a tender soul. Max and his wife Philippa arranged a unique deal to set up camp in Arnhem Land, the largest Aboriginal reserve in Australia. In 1986, the traditional owners of the land, the Ulba Bunidj tribe, granted them a lease on 270 square miles of this pristine wilderness. As part of the agreement, Max is restricted to a maximum of 70 guests a week.
One of the richest Aboriginal culture sites in Australia, Mount Borradaile has hundreds of rock art paintings that record, some say, more than 50,000 years of Aboriginal occupation. Numerous caves and labyrinths contain sleeping platforms and cooking areas. Other caverns contain piles of skulls and bones.
Max led us on a tour of this vast archeological museum, looking over his shoulder from time to time when one of us lagged behind, just to be sure we were respecting the land, in keeping with his pledge to the Aboriginal owners.
The Rainbow Serpent
One cave contained a large painting of the Tasmanian tiger that once roamed all over Australia. In another cave, an 18-foot-long rainbow serpent is depicted slithering across the ceiling. Max told us this was a sacred place where young boys underwent initiation ceremonies to enter manhood.
Afterwards, on the boat segment of our explorations, we had a minor engine problem. Max's assistant had to get hip-deep in water and pull the small craft through a narrow channel, much like Humphrey Bogart did for Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen. It's an image that will stay with me for a very long time.
The Mount Borradaile camp-grounds are much more down-home and rustic than the trappings at Seven Spirit Bay. A dozen tents encircle the main office and dining room. Nothing fancy - just hot and cold running water and three squares a day. No champagne. No nibbles.
With so few guests, there is also no set itinerary. You change plans on the fly. "What time do you want to have the fish tonight?" Max asks.
Barramundi and Tall Tales
It didn't sound as exotic as buffalo and kangaroo, but we were in for a treat. The fish would be the prized barramundi, a sportfish that can weigh up to 50 pounds. What we would be served tonight was caught earlier in the day. Max encourages catch-and-release fishing, since the crocodiles also take a healthy bite out of the local stocks.
We had barramundi as an appetizer, marinated, and then barramundi as the main course, filleted and fried. I don't recall a tastier meal.
After our second helpings, Max told tale after tale of Aboriginal lore. On a table in a corner of the room were about 12 didgeridoos, the wooden musical instruments carved from eucalyptus trees by the Aborigines. "Go ahead, try them out," Max encouraged.
In addition to being a musical instrument, each did-geridoo is a work of art with its individual carving style and painting. We blew away in horrible discord; Max pretended it was music.
It was now time for our return trip to Darwin to catch our midnight flight to Sydney, the first leg of our long trip back home. A guide would drive us to the dirt landing strip for the arrival of the light aircraft.
Max saw us to the door, and said his goodbyes. He was still wearing that beautiful, battered hat.
For further information on Seven Spirit Bay, see the website: www.sevenspiritbay.com. For details about Mount Borradaile and Max Davidson's safari: .www.arnhemland-safaris.com
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under "Australia."