Fairytale at the lodge

Between the frogs, the crocs and the guides, you'll never be alone in this wilderness.

WHEN I return to my room after dinner, she is waiting by the bed, her black eyes fixed on me, her legs lithe and lean. I approach and she coquettishly moves away. Her pale smooth skin presses flat against the wall. I step boldly closer. Again she flees. But maybe it's for the best; ours is a forbidden love. A human's touch can easily harm a tree frog.

The scene for this unrequited love is Wildman Wilderness Lodge. South-east of Darwin and adjacent to Kakadu National Park, it sits on the Mary River Wetlands. From the wallabies that cluster by the accommodation and alert each other to any danger - "Run, it's the paparazzi!" - to the two Mafioso dingoes that lope in brown suits down the airstrip as if they own the joint, the lodge is an anthropomorphist's dream.

And it's not just me. The day before I arrive, a photo in Darwin's newspaper shows a female crocodile on her back, showing off a smooth belly freshly waxed for the mating season. Gone are the days when a big-toothed smile alone was enough to attract a bloke.

One of the guides at Wildman, Ben Wemyss, tells me (without the Territory's penchant for exaggeration) the Mary River Wetlands boast one of the world's highest densities of crocodiles - about 20 per every kilometre of river, according to one report. Saltwater and the smaller freshwater crocs

co-exist here. Elsewhere, salties eat the (comparatively) shy freshwater crocs. But there's enough food here to keep everyone satisfied.

The beak on a black-necked stork is . . . formidable.

Mind you, crocs will eat anything. Another of Wildman's guides, Neddy Tambling, says crocodiles sometimes swallow river stones, although no one is sure whether it's for ballast or to help crush and digest whatever they manage to put down their gullet.

Tambling, an Aborigine who previously worked as a ranger at Kakadu, grew up here and he barely passes fauna or flora without sharing some curious bit of knowledge. Such as? The beak on a black-necked stork is so formidable even crocs back away from a fight. The seeds of the flowering lotus plants (an invasive species that gets flushed from the waterways each wet season) contain a tasty, nutty seed. And my favourite: during a bushfire, whistling kites watch for rodents and snakes darting out to escape the heat. But if none appears, the fearless bird has been known to clutch a burning stick in its claw and drop it elsewhere to flush out potential prey.

As elsewhere, the fires are for renewal, but an ecological ethos extends to the lodge, too. General manager Jason Yule tells the lodge's own environmental story.

It opened at Mary River in April 2011. Before that, much of the resort was in far north Queensland and known as Wrotham Park Station. The station was sold and, in November 2009, dismantled - from fittings and fixtures, cabins, generators, sewerage, everything down to the restaurant's kitchen sink. All up, about 70 per cent of Wrotham Park was salvaged and loaded aboard road trains for a 2800-kilometre haul to Darwin.

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Wildman now consists of 10 cabins and 15 tents. The 50-square-metre family tents, each with its own bathroom, are fan cooled. In the Territory's hotter months that might raise alarm bells. But the safari-style tents have a dual-layered roof to stave off the heat and the fully fly-screened tents can be opened to the cooling cross breezes and surrounding bushland.

The cushier option is a cabin, complete with an airconditioner and four large windows that offer private views to the west and the thunderheads that barrel in during the wet months. The cabins, with en suites, easily accommodate a couple. Or a single guest and one restless frog.

Wildman's reuse of precious resources from Wrotham Park didn't stop with the accommodation. Executive chef Aaron Lee made the journey, too, bringing an inventive menu that makes use of local ingredients. Pan-fried barramundi is hard to go past but my sweet tooth homed in on Lee's lemon myrtle

ice-cream and a panna cotta topped with wattle seed.

A trip to the Territory, though, isn't solely about being pampered, glorious as that is. Given that the Mary River catchment is about 8100 square kilometres, there's plenty to do. The lodge offers a variety of trips, such as Tambling's early morning boat trip along the Mary River, a ride through the bush on motorised quad bikes or a day-long tour of nearby Kakadu.

Wemyss fills our drive to Kakadu with talk of local history and lore. The route takes us along the Stuart Highway, named for John McDouall Stuart, whose 1862 expedition passed through the Mary River area as he scouted a path from Adelaide to the nation's northern tip.

Inside Kakadu, at Urbirr, one of the nation's best-preserved galleries of rock art, Wemyss points out various styles of Aboriginal painting, many up to 1500 years old, that show the animals that once ranged here, including a beast bearing the distinctive stripes of a Tasmanian tiger. Newer pieces testify to signs of contact between Aborigines and whites. In one, a man stands with his hands on his hips and a pipe in his mouth; another depicts a fellow holding the stock of a rifle.

I'm sure the rifle is no hint but, just the same, the next day I obediently pack up. After I zip my bag, I find my frog admiring the view from one of the windows. I step closer for our farewell but again she hops away. And with it goes any hope for a fairytale kiss that might transform me into a frog so that I might stay forever.

The writer was a guest of Wildman Wilderness Lodge.

Trip notes

Getting there

Wildman Wilderness Lodge is 170 kilometres from Darwin. All but the last seven kilometres are on a sealed road. The lodge offers transfers from Darwin, for $125 a person, one way.

Staying there

The lodge has 10 airconditioned cabins and 15 luxury tents. Cabins cost $315 a person for double occupancy ($515 as a single). Tents cost $245 a person for double occupancy ($375 single), $115 for an extra adult or $90 for an extra child. Prices include breakfast and a three-course dinner. (08) 8978 8955, reservations@wildman.com.au; wildmanwilderness lodge.com.au.

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