Vivid scenery meets wild animal encounters at Bamurru Plains wilderness lodge against the backdrop of unforgettable silence.
In the twilight between sleep and wakefulness, dogs are heard in the distance. One series of barks is met by another. There are footsteps just outside. Small ones, like those of a child. And much larger ones, like those of a very large beast. Eyes flick open.
For the briefest moment, I wonder where I am. A ceiling fan rotates lazily overhead. Through transparent walls, the sky pinks, accompanied by the growing clamour of thousands of birds. I'm in nature's midst, at Bamurru Plains wilderness lodge, watching a show unlike any I've witnessed before.
I prop myself up on the supremely comfortable king-size bed - its bedhead angled perfectly for the purpose - to watch the Top End dawn. I've woken up in many memorable lodgings over the years - the Peninsula overlooking Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, the Taj with its view of the Gateway to India in Mumbai and the Plaza above Central Park in New York among them - but nothing has been quite like this.
The vast Swim Creek wetland comes into focus. A procession of buffalo, the source of those footsteps heard earlier, walks out of the woodland, headed for a day's foraging and cooling immersion. (What I thought were dogs, I learn over breakfast, were in fact barking owls.) If it weren't for the dozens of wallabies sharing the ground with them, it could be a scene out of Africa.
Bamurru Plains makes no secret of its African safari inspiration. It's apparent the moment we set down on the gravel airstrip after the short but spectacular charter flight from Darwin, which takes us over the floodplain. Waiting to convey us to the lodge is an open-topped four-wheel drive, driven by an attentive young guide who radios ahead to advise of our arrival.
But there's also a distinctive Australian feel. In my Jabiru Retreat bungalow, dark hardwood floors and weathered corrugated iron are reminiscent of a shearing shed. The bathroom features a mesh screened linen cupboard fashioned to look like a Coolgardie meat safe. Even the light switches are rustic Australiana. The attention to detail is exquisite. And there's a pair of binoculars with which to observe the wildlife.
Suddenly, a sound like ripping canvas erupts from the wetland. Thousands of ducks take flight from the earthen barrage that holds the wetland back from the lodge. They've taken fright as an airboat is prepared for the morning's adventure. Time to get up.
On the way to breakfast, I pause at the private deck shared by the two Jabiru Retreat bungalows to allow a group of buffalo to pass through the grounds. These large animals might be the semi-domesticated Asian variety but many have calves with them and their horns demand a respectful distance be kept. The private deck has its own plunge pool and seating - the perfect place to while away a couple of hours in the heat of the afternoon with a good book or by simply watching the animals. But there'll be no checking of emails or social media. Bamurru Plains, quite proudly, has no internet or mobile phone connection available to guests. The idea is for guests to disconnect from the digital world and connect with the natural one instead - and also to connect with each other, free of nagging mobile phones.
There's plenty to talk about because a stay at Bamurru is packed with experiences.
On our first afternoon, we board a safari truck for sundowners and canapes at a spot called Pandanus Point. We stop along the way as the guide points out birds that call the wetland home. We're shown a waterhole favoured by buffalo seeking respite from the heat. But the real treat is the quiet which envelops us when we stop.
Backlit by the setting sun, the pandanus trees and termite mounds lend the scene an ancient air. It's a rare and soft luxury to stop and just be in the moment under the vast Territory sky, turning purple in the tropical twilight.
Days are structured with activities in the relative cool of the morning and late afternoon. Meals are taken around the communal long table in the main lodge. Dinner is a highlight, with three-course meals matched with wines, and lively conversation.
Between activities, guests can cool off in the infinity pool, or simply laze on the deck, in the inviting lounges. Inside, there's an open bar stocked with beers, wines, spirits and soft drinks, but the most popular refreshment seems to be the iced tea that awaits guests as they return from their activities. Sumptuous leather armchairs and sofas and a small library stacked with books relating to the Top End enhance the exclusive, clubby atmosphere. With just 12 bungalows and a maximum capacity of 26 guests, Bamurru never feels crowded.
The jewel in the crown is, of course, the wetland, home to millions of birds, including the magpie geese, the Indigenous word from which the lodge takes its name. Comparisons to the legendary Okavango Delta in Botswana are inevitable, but Bamurru hasn't been tramped over by travellers. And it's only open from March to October, closing annually during the wet.
An early-morning airboat trip takes us into the heart of the wetland. As we skim across the water through the speargrass and water lilies, magpie geese, herons and egrets take flight. Comb-crested jacanas seem to walk on water as they skip between lily pads on their giant feet. As we approach a stand of paperbarks on the edge of the wetland, a majestic white-bellied sea eagle watches us warily from his perch. And as we cross a small patch of open water, we surprise a small crocodile.
The real magic happens when our guide pulls in among the paperbarks and cuts the motor. We've entered a cathedral of nature's making, the towering trees dappling the sunlight and wrapping us in near silence. In the shady hush, we hear disturbances in the water. It could be a crocodile, our guide whispers, or a turtle. A flash of blue on a bough is a kingfisher, on the hunt for breakfast. It's a moment of reverence the six of us on the boat will take back to our busy lives and draw from for a long time.
And that's the point of the Bamurru Plains experience. Our stay is short but the sensations it delivers - the connection to nature and people disconnection from the everyday - are intense. And unlike anything else.
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Getting there: Driving from Darwin takes about three hours. Bamurru Plains' reservations team can book private road transfers and arrange charter flights from Darwin.
Staying there: Bamurru Plains has three styles of accommodation. The new Jabiru Retreat consists of two bungalows sharing a private deck with plunge pool. The Kingfisher Suite has a private dining area and includes swags for children. The Safari Bungalows are designed for two people. Rates are all-inclusive. They range from $5800 per night for the Safari bungalow, all inclusive for two people, to $12,320 for the Jabiru Retreat, maximum six adults.
Explore more: bamurruplains.com
The writer was a guest of Tourism NT.