Glamping and the Australian bush are a perfect fit, as Julie Miller discovers on a tour of NT's Top End.
Zippppppppppp! The unmistakeable buzz of a zipper on canvas is the soundtrack to an Australian summer, of family holidays, of smoky campfires and billy tea. It's stepping into a stifling oven shaking off salt and sand, or embracing the chill of a misty sunrise; the portal to the wilderness, of howling dingos and hooting owls, of crashing waves and the vast, silent wonder of a starry sky.
Much as I adore camping, however, I also crave a good night's sleep; and my childhood camping memories are indelibly marred by the ache of sleeping on unforgiving ground.
Enter the portmanteau of glamping – "glamorous camping", ergo camping for wusses like me. All the five-star comforts of home – or even better, a hotel – without the hard work, creepy-crawlies and crotchety bones … but retaining the connection to the elements that only a tent pitched in the great outdoors can provide.
Born on the African savannah, the popularity of safari-style tents has spread throughout the world, with the rise of glamping the latest, unstoppable trend in hospitality. The dedicated glamping booking website, Glamping Hub now lists 35,000 properties worldwide; while the burgeoning glamping market in the US is projected to reach revenue of $1 billion by 2024.
Australia has also embraced the concept with gusto: according to Tourism Research Australia, caravan and camping increased in popularity by 6.5 per cent between 2018 and 2019, with the rise of glamping clearly contributing to those healthy statistics. And of course, Australia is tailor-made for this type of accommodation – not only do we have ideal weather for life under canvas, we also possess wilderness in spades.
As a reflection of its original African roots, there's no landscape more suited to glamping than the Northern Territory's Top End. With its sparse settlements, wide open spaces, red dirt and spiky grasslands, it could easily pass for the African savannah – minus the lions and elephants, of course, but with our own curious menagerie: wallabies, dingos, crocodiles and an avian catalogue to make avid twitchers swoon.
But Top End glamping isn't one-size-fits-all: there's an option for every budget, from backpackers to luxury. During a recent trip to the Top End, I test-drove three glamping outfits, all within three hours drive of Darwin.
After travelling through the timeless expanse of Kakadu's open woodland, arrival into Cooinda is somewhat of a shock. Teeming with up to 1000 people during peak season, this lodge and campground is a veritable city, with its own petrol station, general store and a lively entertainment hub.
Owned by Kakadu's traditional Bininj/Mungguy custodians, but falling under Accor management, the complex offers tours, camping, caravan sites and motel-style accommodation at Cooinda Lodge.
Its latest addition, the Dreaming@HomeBillabong glamping village launched in July 2019, offers the middle ground in both ambience and price, with the rustic appeal of canvas and mesh enhanced by modern motel-like facilities.
Tucked under a canopy of trees bordering the croc-infested Home Billabong, the glamping site features 20 Outback Retreat tents – 10 for couples, and 10 with an annexe for kids. Built on fixed wooden platforms (said to withstand rising waters during the Wet), these hybrid tent/cabins feature one solid wall, sliding glass doors leading to a deck, electric touch lighting, air-conditioning, ceiling fan, a bar fridge and a comfy king-sized bed. All that's missing is an en suite bathroom – with the decision to retain the shared amenities block a deliberate nod to Cooinda's campground heritage.
As a woman of a certain age who makes several nocturnal pitstops, however, I miss the convenience of a private loo; and as I wander to the shower block at 1am, I am a little aggrieved to see the grounds lit up like Christmas, with both pathway and external tent lights ablaze.
Powering all this is a monster generator that rumbles continuously like a plane engine, irritatingly overriding the chirrup of cicadas and the hoot of night owls. Apparently this issue is being addressed, however, with soundproofing being put in place to return the night to its natural ambience.
During daylight hours, however, Cooinda resounds with the happy strains of children splashing in the pool and Aussie rock emanating from a PA in the cheerful beer garden – unpretentious, fun and true-blue Aussie.
The sprawling wetlands of a former cattle station may seem like an unlikely location for a luxury camp – but Wildman Wilderness Lodge overlooking the Mary River National Park captures the wild heart of the Top End with breathtaking simplicity.
The view from the row of cabins and safari tents of the endless horizon stamped with the silhouette of paperbarks and pandanus is hypnotic, the play of light as the sun completes its daily arc reminiscent of an Impressionist painting.
The 15 glamping tents offer next-level comfort – a massive 50 square metres of space accommodating up to five people, with hardwood flooring, sleek furnishings styled from natural materials, a large dressing area and a corrugated iron en suite bathroom. A ceiling fan and flow-through ventilation negates the need for air-conditioning; while a deck provides an elevated platform for watching wallabies grazing at dusk.
The main lodge is the social hub, its air-conditioned lounge and bar serving inventive, bush tucker-inspired cocktails sipped around a firepit or the infinity pool, an icy antidote to the searing midday sun.
Meanwhile, the restaurant serves a buffet breakfast as well as sumptuous three-course dinners showcasing Top End delicacies such as barramundi, crocodile and local beef, paired with an extensive choice of quality Australian wines.
A short walk from the lodge is a billabong where salties lurk and jabirus dance among the reeds. A misty dawn cruise, with commentary courtesy of charismatic bush guide Ralph, is the ideal way to dust off the cobwebs; or salute the sinking fireball with sundowners at a reflective waterhole.
But arguably the best way to appreciate this unsung countryside is from the air, with joy flights following the snaking path of the Mary River to its coastal mouth. Sadly, the damaging presence of feral pigs and bovines reveals careless disregard for this delicate environment; though the incredible sight of massive crocs sashaying through the murky water is reassurance of the dominance of the wild.
Matt Wright is a modern-day Steve Irwin. Star of National Geographic's Outback Wrangler, he's a dinkum Aussie adventurer who tackles problem creatures such as crocs, buffalo and even polar bears, relocating them away from human settlement rather than killing them.
He also has an eye for tourism opportunities, capitalising on his profile to create Matt Wright Explore the Wild, a series of tours combining his love of adrenaline, adventure and the Top End landscape.
His popular overnight Safari Camp Tour is 24 hours of adrenaline-pumping awesomeness, including a waterhole dip, an encounter with Matt's pet three-legged saltie, Tripod, a thrilling airboat ride on a croc-filled billabong and a rollicking helicopter flight, bucking and banking in inimitable NT cowboy style.
But at the end of a testosterone-driven, beer-fuelled day, Matt's delightful safari camp is a haven of tranquility, with a shadecloth platform serving as dining room, bar and chill-out zone overseeing manicured lawns and 10 cute-as-a-button bell tents.
This is glamping in its purest form: tiny, but with all creature comforts covered, including a queen-size bed raised on paperbark stumps, carpet underfoot, ample soft furnishings, and a rustic outdoor shower with stellar views.
And with only a zip between you and the Milky Way, what more could you possibly desire?
Peak season rates at Dreaming@HomeBillabong, Cooinda, are $229 for a couple, $269 for a family. See kakadutourism.com
Accommodation in a Safari Tent at Wildman Wilderness Lodge, with a three-course dinner and breakfast included, costs from $675 a night per couple during peak season. See wildmanwildernesslodge.com
A Top End Safari Camp Tour with Matt Wright Explore the Wild costs $495pp (twin share), including transport from Darwin, all activities, dinner and breakfast. See mattwright.com
Julie Miller was a guest of Tourism NT.
FIVE MORE NT GLAMP-SITES
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KINGS CANYON RESORT
Opened in June 2019, six luxe safari tents at Kings Canyon Resort in the Red Centre immerse comfort-loving guests into the sights and sounds of the outback. See kingscanyonresort.com.au
Mesh screening is the only barrier between the luxe interior of Bamurru's stilted bungalows and the wildlife of the Mary River floodplains, a region often compared to the Okavango Delta. See bamurruplains.com
BANUBANU WILDERNESS BEACH RETREAT
Located on Bremer Island in East Arnhem Land, 15 minutes flight from Gove, this camp features six eco-tents in a tranquil beachfront location, home to the rich Yolgnu culture. See banubanu.com
SQUEAKYWINDMILL BOUTIQUE TENT B&B
Immerse yourself into the moody landscape of the Red Centre in three new elevated eco-tents, located 15 minutes from Alice Springs on the edge of the McDonnell Ranges. See squeakywindmill.com