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Into the Wild

Michelle Pettigrove shares her secrets to escaping the southern winter as she, Frankie J Holden and their daughter Georgia, explore three dramatic top-end destinations.

Wildman Wilderness Lodge

Less than two hours’ picturesque drive south of Darwin, Wildman Wilderness Lodge is situated in the Mary River National Park Wetlands of the Northern Territory. The air is full of honeyed wattle and the calls of hundreds of water birds. Wild buffalo and wallabies also share the resort grounds with humans.
We arrive late afternoon and are treated to an iced tea by the swimming pool overlooking the grassy airstrip. Wildflowers nod in the setting sun and lunar-like ant mounds glow orange as their shadows lengthen.

Behind us the restaurant is set up for the evening, featuring a menu and wine list that wouldn’t look out of place in the city. Kids are not left out either, with a versatile rotation of tasty favourites and not a greasy nugget in sight. Our accommodation here is an African-style safari tent, and Georgia whispers "Yes! This is awesome!" She’s right. With master bedroom, ensuite and separate bunk section, this is camping in style.
A guided drive out to Leichhardt Point Wetlands the first evening gives us a feel for this ancient place. Cormorants, magpie geese, corellas and egrets make a noisy show of retiring for the night and the sun puts on the best performance of all.
A boat tour of the resort’s billabong tiptoes into a diverse oasis, heightened by the chilling appearance of estuarine crocodiles. A bush tucker tour with Daryl, traditional owner, equips Georgia with all the information she needs to stave off mozzies, hunger and the common cold if she’s lost in the bush; she’s delighted.
The winter sun drenches everything, with ambient light lingering long after the 6.30 sunset. Birds fly in straight lines, like black stitches on orange velvet. Corellas screech as the billabong becomes dark and prehistoric, bony crocodiles slinking beneath the water.

Bungle Bungles

Nobody can say for sure how the Bungle Bungles got their name but it’s strangely suited to this geographical anomaly. Over 360 million years of erosion created the huge beehive-like domes, and from the air these orange-and-black-striped monoliths look like barnacles clinging to the underside of an old boat. Everything out here in the Kimberley region of Western Australia is supersized.

Heading to the Bungle Bungles in the Purnululu National Park by plane, we fly over the Ord River and man-made Lake Argyle that holds 27 times more water than Sydney Harbour. Beneath us lie the colossal cattle stations of Lissadell, Durack, and Texas Downs whose footprints dwarf some European nations.
To appreciate the Bungle Bungles’ majesty we walk the Echidna Chasm, a narrow corridor between crowded dome walls. It’s cool in here, the sun only hitting the floor of the chasm for moments each day. The walls are so close it’s easy to touch both sides at once, and looking up we spot a tenacious palm clinging to the cliff. Bruce, our guide, teaches Georgia how to start a fire the old-fashioned way and she spends the rest of the day cracking rocks together and squealing as sparks fly.
Of the 83 gorges in the Bungle Bungles only three are open to the public, a mind-boggling statistic considering it takes half a day to experience one. Cathedral Gorge, surrounded by iridescent native grevillea, is a kid-friendly walk that finishes at a massive natural amphitheatre with a pool in its centre. Alone in the cathedral we test its remarkable acoustics with a sing-along.

El Questro

With over 400,000 hectares of astonishing natural beauty, countless tours and activities, and three exceptional accommodation destinations, El Questro has cornered the market on wilderness adventure. Cruising up the Chamberlain River, the steep cliff faces of cubed rock look like haphazardly stacked children’s blocks, the sunlight burning them bright tangerine. These walls are so high the trees that cling to the edges are mere specks. We motor far into the gorge then disembark to paddle or stand with our heads thrown back, slack-jawed at the wonder of this place. On the way home Georgia discovers the spitting archerfish, the pig-nosed turtle, and resident monster barra who, true to mythology, refuses to be caught.

El Questro Station offers family-friendly camping and cabin accommodation and a generous atmosphere, with a large expanse of grass in constant use for impromptu cricket and footy games. It must be the fresh air but we’re ravenous, and re-fuel while watching blue-winged kookaburras clack in the paperbarks fringing the Pentecost River.
Georgia chooses our next destination by the sound of its name. Zebedee Springs is an easy walk to a chain of thermal pools shaded by elegant livistona palms. The ponds of bath-like water are surrounded by a fairy glen of moss and ferns, and as we slip from pool to pool it’s hard to grasp that this wonderland was not created by an exclusive landscaping firm.
El Questro Gorge is a fun rock-hopping trek that follows a creek past overhanging escarpments deep into the rainforest. Georgia and Frank find the perfect ledge from which to leap repeatedly into a swimming hole, almost giving me heart failure. We still have time to check out Moonshine Gorge, with its broad beach of flat rocks and a large expanse of lily-strewn water. Not another soul in sight, our little family swims, explores, then sprawls in the sun to eat a picnic lunch and wonder how the rest of the world is spending their winter.
With one day left of our northern odyssey we relocate to the fabulous tented accommodation at Emma Gorge where the reception and pool precinct is an oasis surrounded by cool grass and native, bird-filled trees.
Emma Gorge is the hardest walk we’ve done but the spectacular scenery and string of pools along the way make it totally worthwhile. The blue-green pool near the end would be magical enough, but the short walk to the top reveals a droplet waterfall spilling from a 65m semicircle of cliff into a deep pool below. Ferns filled with miniscule frogs edge the pool, and tucked behind the cliff face is a mezzanine of rocks concealing a spa of thermal water. Totally unexpected and utterly delightful.
Back in our tent for the last night, the water just metres away, its murmur blends with evening birdsong to sedate us thoroughly. Georgia asks if we can move in and Frank and I are seriously tempted.

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