Airborne Northern Territory pub crawl
Schooners punctuated with stories of crocodiles and helicopter flights - a pub crawl by air is a unique way to experience Australia's top end.
A pub crawl where the designated driver is a chopper pilot? Ben Mckelvey will drink to that.
Taking off in a chopper is like changing the scale of a Google map, with each few metres of elevation representing a click on the "minus" sign. A few moments after taking off from a grimy industrial park south-east of Darwin, a cityscape is revealed on our left, an ocean on our right, and the endless browns and greens of the Northern Territory in front of us.
Ahead of us is possibly the world's greatest pub crawl, largely the exclusive reserve of cashed up miners and Darwin deep pocketers; nine watering holes - from the rustic to the refined - scattered across Australia's Top End in one day, with transport provided by two $500,000 Robinson R44 helicopters. If there's a better one, I've never heard of it.
Joining me are professional adventurers James Castrission (Cas) and Justin Jones (Jonesey), a pair who'd previously kayaked across the Tasman and walked to the South Pole. This mission requires far less exertion and far more lubrication.
After 15 minutes in the air, we touch down at our first pub, the inside-outside Humpty Doo Hotel, a place made famous in bush ballads by Ted Egan and Slim Dusty.
Despite landing on a Tuesday at a time a Sydneysider may deem early in the drinking day, we find the place well populated and share some frosty beers with Woody, one of many locals here baring a beard, tattoos and sun damage.
"What makes a good NT pub?" Jonesey asks.
"Just cold beer, mate," he says. "Nothing flash about this place, but there's cold beer, so it's good enough for us."
Back in the helicopters, we head south-east into the upper tidal area of the Adelaide River. A couple of thousand feet in the air, the remoteness of the land reveals itself, and when we start to descend towards the river, it seems the only thing permeating the endless bush.
We land in a clearing on a tiny island in the middle of the river and walk along an overgrown path to a collection of ramshackle buildings set around a deck and spa bath.
As we approach the main building, our noses are filled with exotic smells, before we hear a booming voice. "Hullo boys," says middle-aged, mulleted Dutchman Kai Hansen, the lone resident of Goat Island (if you don't count his dogs). Hansen is the proprietor of Casey's Bar, surely one of the most remote places in the world to tip a glass.
While we eat barbecued barramundi and drink VB, Hansen tells us that Goat Island is a popular spot for fishermen in the wet season and Darwin residents and their families in the dry season. I assume he means relatively popular.
Full of tall tales and genial humour, Hansen shows us a dented frying pan he says he once used to fight Casey, the resident 3.5-metre croc. When he has dinner guests, Hansen feeds Casey barramundi and caramelised potatoes at a spot just out the front of the bar, but sometimes the 350-kilogram croc prefers the look of the chef to what's on the menu.
"That's quite the food critic," Cas says. "She's just a bitch," Hansen laughs.
From Goat Island we quickly stop in at the Point Stuart Wilderness Lodge, before flying on to the Wildman Wilderness Lodge, a luxury "glamping" resort in the middle of the Mary River National Park.
As we land the helicopters on a red-dirt runway in front of a line of $400-a-night tents, a glamorous woman in a bikini sitting next to a sapphire-blue pool barely looks up.
Over blended margaritas, the manager of the Wildman, Jason Yule, explains that every part of the lodge was recently transported from Cairns to the territory, courtesy of 18 triple semi-trailers.
The Wildman is one of the truly unique luxury stays in Australia, with guests able to enjoy all the amenities of any other five-star resort, but also the ability to explore the Mary River Wetlands on foot, boat or quad bike.
Yule tells me that the summer rains will soon flood the plains around us, and when that happens, the Wildman will be completely cut off, and therefore closed for the season.
"No phone, no internet, and just me and Big Ass for four months," Yule says, referring to the 6.5-metre crocodile who lives in the adjacent billabong. "What an Oxford Street boy like me will do alone in a place like this, I do not know," he adds. From the Wildman we fly to Bark Hut Inn, the last major stop on the Arnhem Highway before motorists hit Kakadu.
An array of Harley Davidson Fatboys and Fat Bobs sit out the front of the Bark Hut as we enter, but these are not the shiny trophy bikes of the city, these hogs bear swags, pockmarks and a caking of territory dust. "If we wanted to be found, do you think we'd be all the way up here?" one of the bike owners says to me after I ask for a photograph.
Paranoid element notwithstanding, the Bark Hut is welcoming and packed with classic pieces of Australiana, including live snakes, dead buffalo, old rifles and beer posters from decades ago.
We take our time stuffing ourselves with delicious locally made buffalo pies and cold beer, until we finally get back into the sky, well behind schedule.
With a curfew of sunset looming, we have very brief stays at the Adelaide River Inn (home of Charlie, the buffalo featured in Crocodile Dundee), Lake Bennett (a favourite weekend escape for Darwinites) and the picturesque Litchfield Hotel.
As we return to the sky after the Litchfield beer, the helicopters start to cast long shadows. We'd planned to hit one more pub before heading back to Darwin, but the sun beats us, so we head north and follow the Darwin River to our destination.
As we land at the Skycity Casino, the yellows and purples of an NT sunset highlight Fannie Bay.
Our last stop is The Cove, a swim-up bar that's part of the casino's new resort development.
After stripping off our sweat and red-dust caked clothes, we swim to the bar, order some mojitos and drink a toast to an extravagant but also unforgettable day.
The writer was a guest of NT Tourism and Airborne Solutions.
Qantas flies from Sydney to Darwin daily. qantas.com.au.
Pub crawling there: Airborne Solutions will tailor a pub crawl around your budget (assuming your budget is more than $1000 a person) and schedule. (08) 8972 2345, www.airbornesolutions.com.au.
Goat Island Lodge, Adelaide River, Northern Territory. Twin rooms from $140 a night. (08) 8978 8803, goatisland.com.au.
Wildman Wilderness Lodge, Mary River Wetlands, Northern Territory (open March-November). Safari tents from $375 a night, Habitats from $515. (08) 8978 8955, wildmanwildernesslodge.com.au.
Bark Hut Inn, Lot 3737, Arnhem Highway, Annaburroo, Northern Territory. Cabins from $140 a night. (08) 8978 8988, barkhutinn.com.