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A sustainable stay in Arnhem Land

Cathy Finch ventures into one of Australia’s last travel frontiers, discovering that Arnhem Land is as wild as it is wonderful with a strong sustainable ethos. 

My eyes are met by the allure of a turquoise ocean; skin warmed by the Northern Territory sun. Beside me, a white stretch of soft sand reaches red sandstone escarpments, reflecting vivid pools of colour.

Overhead, magpie geese fly in formation, unperturbed by our chatter below. Chilled beads of water slide down the side of my Green Ant gin and tonic. It’s a tranquil setting, but all is not what it seems.

landscape around Seven Spirit Bay in Arnhem Land
Landscape around Seven Spirit Bay in Arnhem Land

Wild warnings

“Please don’t go walking down to the beach alone,” advises the manager at Seven Spirit Bay wilderness lodge.

“It’s home to a 3.5-metre crocodile. And crocs are extremely clever – skilful hunters. We’d prefer to see you at dinner, if you know what I mean.”

Warning number two, and three, and…:

“Please don’t go down to the jetty, don’t go to the swamp, and definitely don’t go swimming in that remarkable-looking ocean. Don’t yank the lure from your barramundi’s mouth. And, well, don’t try to stare down a buffalo. That has only ever worked for Crocodile Dundee.”

These are just a few of the friendly ‘don’t’ suggestions offered during my 13-day adventure through Arnhem Land with Outback Spirit Tours, exploring a vast, unspoilt region in the northeast corner of the Northern Territory, where nothing is skin deep.

Arnhem Lands mystical landscapes

On the surface, life in Arnhem Land is staggeringly beautiful. But as you journey through this mystical landscape, learning from the oldest surviving culture in the world, the real beauty takes hold from within.

Sometimes it’s the things I can’t see that take my breath away the most. That feeling that ancient reptiles have their eyes on me. The hair that stands up on the back of my neck when passing ochre figures painted on rock walls, knowing this is 2021, but the art dates back 60,000 years.

The privilege of wandering where others walked long before me… While many of these places are not accessible to the general public, Outback Spirit – part of the Journey Beyond group, and operating under stringent eco-principles that offer sustainable tourism – has worked closely with traditional owners and the Northern Land Council in Arnhem Land, to deliver an experience offered by no other through this sacred pocket of the state.

Outback Spirit exploring Arnhem Land
Outback Spirit exploring Arnhem Land

A welcome to Arnhem Land

My journey begins in Nhulunbuy on the Gove Peninsula. I’m welcomed to country by the Yolngu people, a culture that has lived here for millennia. To the guttural, vibrating sounds of a didgeridoo, men with painted, feathered faces move across the sand. They share with us their history and stories through dance, connecting us to the country.

In the background, women have a fire burning. Crushing and boiling the leaves from the butjiringaning tree to release an oily liquid.

As the dancing subsides, I take part in a healing ceremony: the mixture of leaves, oils and water massaged into my joints.

Remote and ravishing

Over the following days, my companions and I journey across the top of Arnhem Land from Nhulunbuy to Darwin. As we go, we check in to four safari-styled lodges in some of the country’s remotest reaches.

Three of these are owned by Outback Spirit, which offer the ultimate in-bush luxury within a logistically challenging environment.

Their retreats – perched on the edge of last-frontier locations – come with every trimming imaginable. Not to mention a list of unique activities to keep you busy.

Our first stop is Murwangi Safari Camp, overlooking the Arafura Swamp. It’s one of the largest contiguous paperbark swamps in Australia.

As we board our boat at sunset, flocks of birds fly high over a billabong carpeted with flowering waterlilies. Two black-necked storks tread tall and strangely relaxed beside a huge saltwater crocodile. Giant white-bellied sea eagles plunge down for fish, buffalos munch and wild horses roam.

As the sky turns fiery orange, silhouetting life on the water, we pop champagne and reminisce about our day spent with local Indigenous guides, learning amid sprawling paperbark forests and huge termite mounds.

crocodile in Arnhem Land
Crocodile sighting in Arnhem Land

Sustainable fishing and community sponsorships

Continuing westwards, there are a lot of bumpy tracks to manoeuvre before we make it to the Barramundi Lodge, near Maningrida.

This is one of the NT’s premier fishing spots, and even the non-fisherfolk in our group get in on the action.

Amid lots of laughter and rod bending, my boat brings home enough barra for dinner.

Sunset drinks are served on the balcony overlooking the floodplains of the Tomkinson River.

Unsurprisingly, we sample smoked barra, tempura barra and barra ceviche… Having bottom fished in the mangroves for these silver monsters and trawled further in the open to bag a beauty, each bite carries with it a delicious story.

Throughout the evening, we hear more of Outback Spirit’s tales of sustainable fishing and the company’s support to the remote, Indigenous communities that surround. They sponsor more than a dozen football teams in Ramingining and Maningrida and give jobs to local interpretive guides. It helps with the preservation of culture. It also ensures visitors are offered an authentic insight into this ancient civilisation and the land they call home.

Fishing in Arnhem Land
A popular fishing region

Art of the ages

Accommodation at our third stop, Davidson’s Arnhemland Safari Lodge, is far more basic. But the rock art that surrounds it is not to be missed.

A labyrinth of dramatic caves and outcrops form galleries of ancient art, the largest and most spectacular is an enormous six-metre-long rainbow serpent, snaking along the ceiling of a sheltered overhang.

It’s a full day’s drive over remote roads and river crossings to arrive at our last stop, Seven Spirit Bay, a wilderness lodge perched on the edge of the Cobourg Peninsula in the Garig Gunak Barlu National Park.

Acquired by Outback Spirit in 2015, the retreat’s villas come with all the creature comforts, alongside impeccable dining experiences in an oasis of tropical gardens.

Committed to preserving these landscapes (some of the most beautiful in the world), lodge staff work hard with green initiatives implemented across water, waste, nature and environmental management plans.

Here, I continue my newly found love affair with barramundi fishing, and enjoy the breathtaking scenery of Cobourg Marine Park.

I also wander through remnants of history at the Victoria Settlement, circa 1838, an outpost built by the British at Port Essington, although disbanded in 1849 due to the many contributing factors of this remote land.

It’s a spiritually diverse, wild, rugged experience with only one ‘don’t’ from me – don’t miss it.

This article originally appeared in volume 40 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. Subscribe to the latest issue today.