Caravan camped by a lake

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Wednesday, 18 Jul 2007

Window on Northern Territory wetlands reveals rare, threatened land system

Saltwater crocs nest Windows  on the Wetlands Visitor centre
Saltwater crocs nest Windows
on the Wetlands Visitor

Window on the Wetlands Visitor Centre perches on Beatrice Hill, one of the highest points on the Adelaide River floodplain, like a colorful cocked hat.

Entry is free to this insight into the nature of the Top End at the Visitor Centre which is open every day from 8am to 7pm. This is Limilngan-Wulna country and tribal people call Beatrice Hill Ludawei.

The three hills represent Turtle Dreaming, Lulak in the Limilngan-Wulna language. This site is an important part of local Aboriginal culture.

Beatrice Hill was named on June 6 1864 by naval officers Hutchinson and Howard when they were surveying the Adelaide River aboard HMS Beatrice. Their ship is thought to have been named after Princess Beatrice one of Queen Victoria's daughters.

Waterbirds explained Window on the Wetlands
Waterbirds explained Window on the Wetlands

The Window on the Wetlands Visitor Centre provides an introduction to the northern coastal wetlands. Details of places to visit, tours and accommodation are available from the Parks and Wildlife staff on duty. 

There are also interactive displays about the ecological processes that occur in the wetlands, seasonal changes and the problems of feral animals and weeds.

Touchscreen computers display detailed information on wildlife and on local Aboriginal and European history.  

From the top floor of the Visitor Centre views across the floodplains are spread before the eye - especially during the early morning or late afternoon.

In the Wet season the flooded wetlands are a lush soup of living things often illuminated by spectacular lightning storms.

The Adelaide River is one of eight rivers in the Top End which have big floodplains in their catchments. Together these floodplains create a great expanse of coastal wetlands. 

Rangers at the Window on the

Wetlands view end of the Dry Window on the Wetlands
Wetlands view end of the Dry Window on the Wetlands

Wetlands Centre impressed on us that it is one of the rarest and most threatened land systems in the world. Collectively they known as the northern coastal wetlands.

The Arnhem Highway 'Gateway' to kakadu National Park crosses five of the eight rivers on the route between Darwin and Jabiru.

The Arnhem Hwy causeway crosses Beatrice Creek near the Window on the Wetlands complex.

In the Dry season buffalo are grazed on the lush pastures and waterbirds flock to one of the few remaining sources of fresh water.

In the Wet season the whole area is under water, buffalo move to higher ground and only the fish and birds remain to feast on the rich animal life of the floodwaters.

Waterbird roll call Window on the Wetlands
Waterbird roll call Window on the Wetlands

Until 1969 the Adelaide River had to be crossed much further upstream at the '45 mile', Tortilla Flats at the '60mile', or at Adelaide River township.

The road and bridge were built to service the Mt Bundy iron ore mine near the Mary River. Later the road was extended to Jabiru and Arnhemland. The sealed access triggered by the Ranger Uranium Mine opened the way to tourism.

Water Buffalo were introduced to the Northern Territory from South East Asia as domestic animals from 1839 to 1848. But they escaped to the wild and bred prolifically on the floodplains.

Most of the wild herds were eliminated in an eradication program in the 1970's and 80's. Now they are managed to produce high quality meat for domestic consumption and export interstate and overseas.

In the 1950's the ambitious Humpty Doo Rice Farming Project was begun but after only a few years the program failed and the land has reverted to natural grassland.

Big buff, Humpty Doo Hotel, NT
Big buff, Humpty Doo Hotel, NT

About 47km from Darwin Humpty Doo was a great postwar agricultural set-back.The joint Australian-US company Territory Rice set out to grow rice in a big way on 303,000 hectares of leases on the subcoastal plain of the Adelaide River.

But the Territory did its worst. Wild buffalo wrecked the paddies and crops. Rats plagued the crops. 

The flocks of birds which love the wetlands loved the rice too and ate it as fast as it was planted. The soil had too much salt and it could not be drained properly. Management was shakey and by 1962 the great Humpty Doo rice experiment was over.

Further along the highway at Annaburroo we pulled into the Bark Hut Tourism Centre because we were hungry. Historically the Northern Territory Arnhem Hwy icon was built to meet the needs of buffalo and crocodile hunters and has evolved to a fairly predictable quiche mix of NT tourism survival atmospherics, art gallery, bar, wildlife sanctuary, visitor info and fast food outlet.

It is about halfway between Darwin and Kakadu National Park.

Lunch  Bark Hut Arnhem Hwy NT
Lunch Bark Hut Arnhem Hwy NT

Accommodation ranges from caravan/camping to backpacker and park cabins.  There is grass and shade.

The Adelaide River weaves its way south from the Van Diemen Gulf at Djukbinj National Park to the Adelaide River Settlement on the Stuart Highway (Explorer’s Way).

The ‘jumping crocodile’ cruises smiling reptile call to action is impossible to miss as it jumps out at the passersby. It is about an hour’s drive south of Darwin, turn left at Beatrice Hill and follow the signs to watch crocodiles being ‘hand’ fed (with meat on a line) and encouraged to jump high in the air.

We prefer their education to remain basic as saltwater crocodiles are mighty hunters and great students of Charles Darwin. The river is also home to a multitude of bird life.

The Adelaide River Settlement is on the banks of the river, 114km south of Darwin.

Jumpin Crocs, Adelaide River, NT
Jumpin Crocs, Adelaide River, NT

Mary River National Park, jumping crocodiles. A blanket of wetlands. Flocks of birds. Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve. The award-winning visitor centre - Window on the Wetlands. Wilderness lodges, camping. And some of the Territory's best Barramundi fishing are the big attractions to the area which unfortunately is just passing scenery for many travellers as they press on to kakadu.

The 1560-hectare Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve, is internationally recognised as one of the most populated biomass regions in the world. The wide variety of animal life, especially waterbirds are best seen early to mid-morning and mid to late afternoon.

The most populated time of the year is towards the end of the dry September to December when the floodplains have receded. The viewing platform is at the end of the road and is the best spot to view the area.

The Mary River National Park and Reserves 150km east of Darwin protects a part of the Mary River catchment. Freshwater billabongs, paperbark and monsoon forests of the river system provide visitors with excellent opportunities for year round wildlife observation, fishing, bushwalking and photography.

Dinghy hire is available at Shady Camp but Parks and Wildlife recommends tours with a professional guide. Apart from the risk of crocodiles it is easy to get lost when the wetlands are flooded.

Please take the crocodile warning signs seriously. Saltwater crocodiles are clever, dangerous hunters and extreme caution and common sense is a must at all times in this area.

Don't clean fish or discard fish carcasses along the water's edge. It is not uncommon to see many crocodiles sunning themselves on the bank late in the dry. It is the crocodiles that aren't obvious that visitors must watch out for.

Parked on the boat ramp, Mary River
Parked on the boat ramp, Mary River

Some areas of Mary River are accessible to all vehicles but several areas within the Park are 4WD only. During the wet season (October to April) flooding can close roads.

The Arnhem Highway is sealed and begins 34kms south of Darwin. Point Stuart Road is unsealed and can be rough - check the conditions.

Caravans can access Corroboree and Annaburroo Billabongs from the highway.

The most comfortable time to visit is during the Dry season (May - September). The Park is less accessible during the Wet season when flooding brings on a period of vibrant storms and lush vegetation growth, increased waterflow activity and crocodile nesting.

Things to see and do

Lilies, Mary River
Lilies, Mary River

Mary River Crossing: On the Arnhem Highway 3 km west of the Bark Hut Inn. A picnic area, toilets and boat ramp make this an ideal site to access the Mary River system. Camping is not permitted.

Annaburroo Billabong: South of the Bark Hut Inn on the Arnhem Highway, a track leads 2km to the Annabaroo Billabong, a collection of bush cabins and campsites including the original, century-old bark hut used by buffalo hunters. It's a tranquil spot where you can swim and canoe in the billabong, and there's also a small shop and a bar. Information on exploring the network of tracks south of the lake is available from the owners.

Rockhole: A popular access point to the channels of the Mary River. A boat ramp and picnic facilities are located here. Barramundi fishing is popular. Camping is not permitted.

Couzen's Lookout: Offers exceptional views of the Mary River. It is only a short walk to the vantage point where the sunsets are stunning. Camping is not permitted.

Brian Creek Monsoon Forest: Easily accessible and situated only a couple of kilometres from the Wildman Wilderness Resort access road. Such diverse patches of rainforest and associated wildlife contrast strongly with the surrounding woodlands.

Shady Camp:  Is a popular fishing area with boat ramp, picnic area, toilet facilities and a good access road. A barrage helps prevent saltwater intrusion into the wetlands while a viewing platform offers excellent views of the river and its many crocodiles. Camping is permitted. Fees apply.

Designed to stop saltwater from penetrating further upstream, an artificial causeway barrage was built in 1987 at Shady Camp where fresh and salt water on the Mary River meet. This has produced some of the best Barramundi fishing in northern Australia.

Mullet school to feed on algae washed down by a rushing stream of fresh water at the end of the Wet. Barramundi and other larger fish follow to feed on mullet. Shady Camp was named by the heroic 19th century Scots explorer John McDouall Stuart at the end of his epic journey across Australia. There may have been shady trees when Stuart called but there are none now.

Mistake Billabong: A popular bird watching spot. A viewing platform gives a shady spot to enjoy life on the billabong.

The Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Services says -

All native plants and animals in the Parks are protected.

Guns and traps are prohibited.

Take care with fire - light fires only in fire places provided and collect firewood before you arrive at your campsite.

Avoid using soaps or detergents in or near waterways as they pollute the rivers and harm aquatic life.

Pets are banned from these Parks and Reserves as they pose a threat to native wildlife and can disrupt other visitors.

Please take all of your litter away with you and dispose of it properly.

Look but never touch Aboriginal artifacts.

A word about cros
A word about cros

Safety: Crocodiles: Inhabit the waters of the Mary River system, making the area unsafe for swimming. Safe fishing practices should be followed at all times.

Visitors should not enter any part of the waterway nor leave any food or fish scraps near the boat launching areas. Do not camp close to the edge of billabongs or river banks, or attempt to get close to these animals for photographic purposes.

Water: Treated drinking water is not provided in this Park. Be on the safe side and take your own wherever you travel in the Territory.

Walking: Prepare well when walking. Sturdy footwear, a hat and drinking water are advisable. Do not walk alone.

More information: Parks & Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory Head Office - Goyder Centre 25 Chung Wah Tce Palmerston NT 0830 PO Box 496 Palmerston NT 0831 Ph: (08) 8999 5511

Editor's Note: Also See -

Accessible Litchfield National Park - swim in the Dry and marvel at the Wet

Around Australia caravan team hit Darwin and fall under the spell of The North

Try Munupi fishing, Tiwi Islands NT style and...

Tiwi art draws creation from the Melville Island land itself

GoSeeAustralias Great Drives of Australia 'Once around The Block please'

Shiver me timbers Ross, Jo and Bill and Carol dream of shorts weather as they caravan towards NT Top End

At Yulara via Outback Australia Ross, Jo, Carol and Bill walk around Uluru and head for Kata Tjuta

Glenda raises Wet Season the Big tropic topic

Be croc wise in Northern Australia

For more information
contact: Garth Morrison
Editor Go See Australia and Go See New Zealand Directory

Arnhem Highway, near Bark Hut Roadhouse
Arnhem Highway, near Bark Hut Roadhouse

Britz - with aircon
Britz - with aircon

Campsites, near Bark Hut off the Arnhem Hwy
Campsites, near Bark Hut off the Arnhem Hwy

Jumping Croc country, Adelaide River Arnhem Hwy, NT
Jumping Croc country, Adelaide River Arnhem Hwy, NT

Just put it in the back
Just put it in the back

Mary River  bakes in the NT sun
Mary River bakes in the NT sun

Ruddy bumps on the way to Mary River
Ruddy bumps on the way to Mary River

Towering termites, Mary River area, NT
Towering termites, Mary River area, NT

Native and imported fauna, Bark Hut, NT
Native and imported fauna, Bark Hut, NT

Termites challenge the tree in growth
Termites challenge the tree in growth

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