Wet and wild
MID-afternoon, and here's the predictable downpour. Darwin is steamy.
It's “the wet” and my first visit to the Top End at this time of year. I'm soon to find that it's going to be quite a different experience from travelling in this part of Australia in the much more frequented dry seasons.
Darwin has grown up considerably - these days, the city is a melting pot of cultures, fabulous restaurants and avant guard architecture. But it's not a city experience I'm after.
A small plane delivers me, on a cloudy, rainy morning, to an airstrip on Swim Creek Station, 15km from the western entrance to Kakadu National Park.
Situated on the edge of the Mary River floodplain, the mass of green is dazzling. Long reedy grasses sway in the waters that have engulfed the land. Buffalo and brumbies splash through, revelling in it.
In the next few days, I revel, too, in the heady, tropical blast of colour and motion, in the lushness of it all. It's the Top End as I've never seen it before.
My base for the next few days is Bamurru Plains, a luxury bush lodge just 5km from the northern coastline.
Three walls of my cabin are one-way screens, ensuring privacy while giving me a clear view of the floodplain beyond.
The magpie geese that give the lodge its Aboriginal name flit in and out of the picture, a large floodplain monitor forages in the grass, wallabies graze; the parade of wildlife seems never-ending.
After the 20-minute drive from the airstrip to the lodge, I'm able to tick off 12 species of wildlife from Bamurru Plains' handy booklet of 'likely flora and fauna you'll see on a visit'.
As my guide, Kat Mee, drives and stops at each new sighting, we identify buffalo, agile wallabies, a blue kingfisher, a whistling kite, sulphur-crested cockatoos, cattle egrets and too many more to count.
Next day, we skim across the floodplain on one of the lodge's airboats.
The floodplain is alive with birdlife. We spot a juvenile Jabiru, idly picking in the water untroubled by a young crocodile nearby.
Tiny jacanas (or “Jesus-birds” because they seem to walk on water) skip across lily pads. Our boat glides through fields of crimson waterlilies and gold and emerald reeds.
On my last day, a swish little helicopter lands on the lodge's front lawn to take me back to Darwin - via a day trip to Arnhem Land and Kakadu.
In the wet the road to Arnhem Land is often impassable, so the helicopter - or a light plane - is a necessity in getting to this remote spot.
Airborne Solutions pilot Dave Paesch takes us first to the wonderful Injalak Arts and Craft Centre at Gunbalanya, an Aboriginal community (also known as Oenpelli) near the East Alligator River in Arnhem Land.
The backdrop to the town is a massive escarpment and Injalak Hill, the site of many rock paintings which are a source of inspiration to the artists who live and work here.
At Gunbalanya, guide Garry Djorlom of Two Dogs Dreaming tour leads the way to sacred sites and rock paintings that link to tell a Dreamtime story.
For the rest of the day, I fly across ancient escarpments, land on a white sandy inland beach for lunch, explore otherwise inaccessible rock painting sites, look down on magnificent waterfalls and the scar of the Ranger uranium mine, and marvel - yet again - at the green below us. It is a landscape impossible to do justice to in words or in photographs.
This is an expensive day trip, but worth every cent in my book. The images of Kakadu from the air will stay with me for a long time.