Top End Tales

“You’re on.” It’s not hard for your mind to wander when you’re out on the water, line dangling over the edge of a boat. Easier still when disgruntled squawks and chatterings are coming from the neighbouring mangroves. The bird life is plentiful and diverse in Australia’s top end, but the object of my fascination isn’t a flurry of feathered friends. Instead, we’ve disturbed a colony of flying foxes, who, given the early hour, have probably only just settled for their daily snooze.

It’s not just fishing guide Karl’s prompt that draws my attention back to the boat. There’s also an insistent tugging on the line.

“Reel her in,” Karl says. It only takes a second to see what’s on the other end of the line.

“Another moray eel,” he says, peering into the water.

“The same one, I think,” I respond, dragging it out of the water so that he can extract the hook from between the shiny fish’s pointy teeth with the long-nose pliers. The flopping fish is promptly dropped back into the water and slithers down into the murky depths.

You don’t need to know much about hooks, lines and lures to be aware moray eels are not what you come to the Kimberley region of Western Australia to catch. In these estuaries – we’re on an unmapped waterway surrounded by flood plains and mangroves the staff at Berkeley River Lodge called Boab Creek – it’s all about that elusive fighting fish, the barramundi. They’re plentiful in this region, except we’ve come out a bit early today and the tide is on the turn. At the end of a few hours, the boat total is one catfish, one bream and two moray eels – or maybe one moray eel twice. I’ve also lost two hooks to some gigantic sea creature (at least in my mind) that’s latched onto my line and gone on an instant raiding mission.

Many hours at Berkeley River Lodge are spent on the water at a time of day more suited to sparrows and their emissions. Not normally one for early starts, I quickly take to leaving all the blinds open at night and waking up with the sun at about 5am. Subsequently I find myself agreeing with all those who tout dawn as the best time of day. The early morning light warms the isolated dunes, casts a haze over the Timor Sea and Reveley Island and turns everything soft shades of orange and pink. It’s also the coolest time of day, so perfect for adventuring.

One morning we take the boat again, this time to explore around the coast to Atlantis Bay. As we head out past the mouth of the Berkeley River, another boat comes into view. In most parts of the country, coming across the existence of other humans isn’t exactly something to write home about, but here, 150km from the nearest town of Wyndham and with no linking roads, it’s a bit startling. Thankfully, the tub and its crew is known to Jodie Mott, the manager at Berkeley River. The passengers, who are sitting down to breakfast on deck, weren’t expecting to see a boat speeding towards them.

“Where are you from?” one asks as we pull alongside.

“Somalia,” replies one wag. Plans are made for the swapping of supplies later in the day and we speed off again, past the Lodge propped atop sand dunes and parallel to vast white stretches of sand. There’s nothing to do but let the wind whip against your face and enjoy the view.

We pull into a picture-perfect bay, one that even the staff members from the lodge haven’t explored yet. In front of us is every beach cliché you can imagine – except for the abandoned camp sitting above the waterline. On closer inspection, there are a few water cans, a large freezer, a generator and other bits of camping paraphernalia beneath a steel frame that has had the tarpaulin ripped from its bones, probably by a storm. The folks at Berkeley River had heard there might be someone camping out in these parts during dry season, but they’ve never met him (although allegedly this rogue camper raided the food supplies of another guy they do know who spends the dry season up here living the life of Robinson Crusoe).

Back on the water, we divert down a river – a large splash reveals the existence of a croc, probably two metres long, watching us from the shallows – before heading back out to sea. By Eric and Elsie Islands, Karl slows the boat and we stare out into the water, where dugongs and turtles feed in the shallows.

Often places are described as feeling a million miles from the stresses of city life – at Berkeley Lodge that is actually true. Wyndham is the closest evidence of civilisation, and that’s 150km away to the south-east. It might not sound that far away, except there are no roads linking Wyndham – not exactly a thriving metropolis itself – and Berkeley River Lodge. When owners Martin and Kim Peirson-Jones decided they’d build this luxurious outpost in the middle of nowhere, every piece of the puzzle had to be delivered via a 14-hour barge journey. It took two years to finish the resort – a main lodge with pool and 20 villas – with builders and support staff spending much of that time living in tents and battling the extreme elements.

It’s being in such close confines to nature that makes the lodge so special. At the end of wet season (when I’m there), storm clouds are illuminated first by sunset and then by stunning electrical storms. Waterfalls tumble over the red walls of gorges and, on Berkeley River’s signature river cruise, the boat gets parked under them so guests can clamber on to rocks and stand beneath their spray. As we’re leaving Casuarina Falls, someone points over the lip of the boat: “Look, croc!” It’s a tiny baby bumping along the surface, fighting against the wash made by falls and watercraft. Small as it is, it’s still a timely reminder to keep legs inside the boat, as tempting as splashing your toes in the water may seem. In the morning, guests can go for a drive along the beach with Jason, the lodge’s guide, looking for turtle tracks: big ones indicate a female turtle has come ashore at night to make a nest; tiny ones originating from up the beach mean a baby has hatched and made its way to the water.

But for all the surrounding wilderness the lodge itself exudes comfort. Each of the villas has a private deck, air-conditioning and outdoor bathroom with a freestanding tub built for two. The main building is where people go to read, have a sundowner and eat chef James Ward’s outstanding food. Having cooked in the UK with Raymond Blanc and Rick Stein, James was at Bedarra Island before arriving for the opening of Berkeley River. While the logistics of preparing five-star meals this far from a shop would send many into a tailspin, he seems to relish working around issues from an occasional lack of fruit and veg because a cyclone has hit Port Hedland to battling heat that isn’t conducive for the preparation of frozen treats (and you definitely need them up here). There is a garden where he picks some of the restaurant’s produce, fresh eggs from the chickens and the only fish you’ll eat has come out of the sea that day. Set menu dinners – with allergies, intolerances and ‘just don’t likes’ taken into careful consideration – are either a long table affair with other guests or a private tête-à-tête. Aged angus steak with intercostal, potato espuma, brussels sprouts and jus followed by a dessert of meringue, passionfruit, strawberry and cream is a highlight. Light lunches are taken somewhere between the morning activity and siesta, and breakfast is a come-anytime affair. Although, saying that, you’ve never tasted a bacon and egg roll as good as the one you’ll eat while gliding along the river on the fishing boat, the sun bumping the horizon and a shy heron beating a lazy path just above the water in front of you.

 

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