By: Shamus Sillar
Setting off on a sunset game drive. Enjoying a sundowner with wilderness views. Drifting off to sleep to the sound of giant, lumbering creatures just outside the door …
I’ve been doing all those things, but no, I’m not in Africa. I’m much closer to Singapore than you might imagine. Bamurru Plains is a luxury safari lodge in Australia’s “Top End”; it’s reached via a 4.5-hour direct flight from Changi and a 30-minute connecting flight from Darwin. I’ve booked a four-day “Ultimate Wilderness Experience”, which is the ideal way to get a taste of the area’s unique flora and fauna – and a taste of the five-star food and wine that guests are treated to each night.
Far from being an inconvenient extra leg of travel, the short flight in the Cessna 5-seater plane from Darwin Airport to Bamurru Plains is a highlight of my trip. We pass above the undulating waterways and mangrove flats of the Adelaide and Mary Rivers, a kaleidoscope of blues, greens, yellows and browns. It quickly becomes obvious why these landscapes have inspired local Aboriginal painters for thousands of years. Our destination is Swim Creek (don’t get any ideas from the name – this is crocodile country!) and our young pilot Liam expertly guides the light plane onto a dirt-and-dust airstrip in the middle of nowhere. Waiting there is Macca, the Bamurru manager; after introductions, we climb into his Land Rover for the 15-minute drive through bushland to the lodge.
Bamurru Plains is part of the Wild Bush Luxury collection of remote Australian properties and experiences. It’s set in a picturesque corner of the Northern Territory’s largest buffalo farm, with just ten safari bungalows – so, 300 square kilometres of wilderness is shared by just 15 or 20 guests at a time.
Positioned right on the edge of a vast floodplain teeming with wildlife, the private bungalows are super comfortable, with ensuite bathrooms, plenty of natural materials, and décor encompassing old explorers’ maps and indigenous art. Rather than solid walls, three sides of the bungalows are floor-to-ceiling mesh screens. This makes for an “at one with nature” vibe – like you’re sharing the wilderness with the animals rather than intruding.
With an hour of sunlight left, I set out with Macca’s colleague Justin and four other guests on a safari drive. As our open-topped vehicle meanders past countless cute wallabies and some giant buffaloes wallowing in cool mud, Justin introduces us to the lodge surrounds and features. These include The Hide, a six-metre-high raised cabin hidden away in the paperbark forest. It’s a prime spot for watching birds and other wildlife, and guests can even arrange to sleep here overnight to enhance the experience.
We end up on a spit of land slightly elevated from the floodplain, with water on both sides. As we admire the scenery, Justin cracks out the wine, beer and canapés. The latter include lightly fried balls of croc meat (which I dub “croc-ettes”) – very moreish!
With our appetites stoked, we return to the bungalows to freshen up, before meeting in the main lodge for dinner. All meals and beverages are included in the rates, and it’s an open bar where you can pour your own drinks – I go to make a G&T but Macca is one step ahead of me and slides one across to me with a smile.
Bamurru’s resident chef is Made (pronounced “ma-day” – he’s Indonesian), and the food is world-class. Tonight’s dinner, served on a single long dining table that gives guests the chance to mingle, is a delicate ceviche of locally caught barramundi – the rivers here are laden with this delicious fish – followed by a perfectly cooked Black Angus steak with Tuscan vegetables, and a pimped-up bread-and-butter pudding.
With all that under the belt, of course I sleep brilliantly, waking briefly at 4am to see a spectacular full moon disappear below the horizon. A few hours later, I open my door to the orange glow of morning and a dozen grazing wallabies just a few metres away.
The small handful of guests at Bamurru follow different daily schedules. This means the breakfast table each morning is full of excited chats (over outstanding eggs benedict and plenty of coffee) about the various activities in store for the day.
Today, I’m with a group of four who’ll be enjoying one of Bamurru’s signature experiences: an airboat safari. If you’ve not seen an airboat, it’s a flat-bottomed vessel with an aircraft-type propeller at the back, ideal for getting around shallow waters. (If you’re my vintage, you might recall them from the TV show Gentle Ben, set in the Florida Everglades.)
Justin is our guide, and at 9am, with headphones on to muffle the sound of the propeller, we glide off into the lily-covered water to explore a series of swamps and billabongs. The birdlife is gobsmacking. Out in the open water, there are countless egrets and ibises, and flocks of plumed whistling-ducks. I spot a jabiru – well, it’s hard to miss: two metres tall, standing in a gigantic nest on a treetop. When Justin cuts the engine and we glide into a tranquil inlet, we spy smaller rainbow bee-eaters and vibrant blue kingfishers. Tiny frogs jump from lilypads into the water with a plonk. It’s magical stuff.
We’re also introduced to the bird that gives the area its name: the magpie goose, or bamurru in the local Aboriginal dialect. They’ve recently nested, Justin tells us, so there are goslings about. “The crocs try to eat them,” he adds.
Ah, crocodiles. On such a serene morning, I’d almost forgotten about the menace lurking below the water – it’s a timely reminder to keep our hands in the boat!
After a massively memorable morning, we’re back at the lodge in time for lunch, and Made is firing on all cylinders again: he’s made smoked salmon quiche topped with caviar and a side of broccolini – I wash mine down with a frosty Coopers beer (okay, a couple).
We have a few spare hours after lunch; time to check the emails, perhaps? Fat chance. There’s no Wi-Fi here – and what a glorious thing that is in this day and age! Instead, I loll about in the infinity pool and read a book (one with real pages).
Our late afternoon safari is different again from the morning’s expedition; we board the open-top jeep and head for Pandanus Point, a picturesque finger of land on the western edge of the property, dotted by stumpy pandanus palms. Aboriginal people use the plant for everything from medicine and food to paintbrushes and torches; the buffaloes use the trunks as scratching posts. We stop in time for the sunset, enjoying bubbles and nibbles in what feels like the remotest part of the world.
Back at the main lodge, Made has gone on leave for a couple of days. Just as we’re worrying that we’ll miss his amazing food, his replacement Patrice serves up perfectly cooked scallops on spiced pumpkin puree for dinner. Yum.
Bamurru Plains is just west of Kakadu National Park, one of Australia’s natural icons. Today, I’m in for a treat, with a full-day Kakadu excursion, exploring silty rivers, rocky escarpments and ancient art.
After the quick drive to the Swim Creek airstrip, we board a five-seater plane for the 30-minute flight into Kakadu. It’s stunning again, taking us over the West Alligator River (erroneously named by an early explorer who didn’t know his crocs from his gators) and down to the small town of Jabiru. I’m in the front seat next to the pilot, and it’s interesting to watch him at work on the controls.
Justin is at Jabiru to collect us in Bamurru’s new state-of-the-art RV (he has driven the 2.5 hours from the lodge to meet us), and we set off for the famous Ubirr region. Kakadu is massive – half the size of Switzerland – and Aboriginal people have lived here for 50,000 years. Over that time, they’ve left an astonishing array of rock art, and the cave walls of Ubirr are home to a rich cluster of paintings. The stories behind the “x-ray”-style depictions of fish, turtles, kangaroos and people are fascinating. We also hike to the top of the rocks for panoramic views of the surrounding floodplain; no wonder this spot has featured in Crocodile Dundee and other films.
After a light lunch in a nearby grove, we join a group of “regular” tourists for a cruise on the East Alligator River. Our Aboriginal guide Robbie explains the history and culture of the area, from stories of the Rainbow Serpent to the many uses of the plants and trees we see. The cruise is called Guluyambi, which means paperbark; Robbie says the soft lining of the bark is used as swaddling for babies.
Of course, we’re all keen to glimpse a crocodile too, even if it’s a little early in the season for mass sightings. With my prime position at the front of the boat, I’m well placed to spot their knobbly heads emerge from the muddy water. Soon enough, I do just that; “There’s a croc! Over there!” I shout. The tourists gasp and crane their necks to look.
After a quiet pause, Robbie turns to me. “Not crocodile,” he says with a wry smile. “Log-odile.”
Cue an eruption of laughter from everyone in the boat. Sure enough, my vicious “croc” floats by in all its wooden glory. Red-faced, I decide to leave the wildlife identification to Robbie the expert from now on.
We do spot real crocs, though – dozens of them. They’re mostly tucked away in the cool vegetation on the shore, though a couple drift past our boat and flash a toothy grin. The cruise also takes us out of Kakadu and into Arnhem Land, where Robbie demonstrates some traditional hunting methods; his spear-throwing abilities are incredible. We drive rather than fly back to Bamurru, and it’s a pleasant trip in the comfy RV, with the red and ochre colours of Kakadu coming to life as the sun sets low in the sky.
We’re back at the lodge just before 7pm, time enough for a crisp white wine on the deck before cleaning off the outback grime and settling in for another sensational meal. Stories of the day are swapped among the guests – my “log-odile” anecdote gets a good laugh.
Today, my Bamurru experience comes to an end, but there’s plenty of time for one more adventure before my mid-morning Cessna flight to Darwin. This time, it’s a quad bike tour of some different parts of the property, following narrow trails that the safari vehicles can’t access. We zip past wild brumbies, uniquely patterned Banteng bulls and towering termite mounds, pausing for photo opps and to enjoy a final slice of the outback’s deep silence before returning to civilisation.
At 11am, my bag is collected from my room and I’m driven to Swim Creek airstrip for the short hop to Darwin Airport. From there, a perfectly timed 3.45pm Singapore Airlines has me touching down in Changi before 7pm.
On a practical level, leaving Bamurru Plains is a cinch; emotionally, not so much! This beautiful place very quickly grabs hold of you and turns you from an internet-needy city-dweller to someone who’d be happy to stare out at a floodplain and its wildlife for the rest of your days.
Bamurru Plains closes from November to January for the wet season. From February to April, while the floodwaters are still receding, it operates as a specialist fishing lodge, with daily guided fishing (wildbushfishing.com).
See more in our travel section
This article first appeared in the October/November 2018 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.