“Have you ever seen a python?” our safari guide asks, stopping the truck and hopping out.
Our group of five doesn’t move. Should we really get out when there are snakes slithering about in the bush? And isn’t Australia renowned for its extraordinary amount of deadly creatures?
But this is the Outback, and part of the reason we’re here is to see some of that wildlife up close. So we gingerly step out and trek into the tropical forest behind our guide. He points out the snake, who is desperately trying to hide, and tells us about other reptiles who call this area home.
Later, we see water buffalo, feral pigs, green ants (don’t let them crawl on you!), small wallabies and dozens of birds. We wade through thick eucalyptus forests and hike along cliffs overlooking the deserted coastline. By the end of the day, we’re tired, sweaty, covered in bug bites and thoroughly enthralled with this untamed part of Australia.
We’re deep inside Arnhem Land, a region that few people ever see. This 36,284 sq/mi (94,000 sq/km) Aboriginal homeland is located at the Top End of the Northern Territory, an area twice the size of California and home to only 200,000 people. Access to this untouched natural wilderness is restricted, and guests are allowed in by permit only. There are only a few vendors who are permitted to bring tourists into the region.
I’m just lucky enough to be booked with one of those vendors. My goal is to experience the Outback up close and personal. Yet instead of trekking in with backpacks or staying in tents, I’ve chosen Seven Spirit Bay Wilderness Lodge as my base for exploring this region.
The eco-friendly lodge has a well-earned reputation for combining luxury with the untamed wilderness of the Outback. Due to its remote location, guests must fly in via light aircraft from Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory.
There were only four other guests on my 45-minute flight to Seven Sprit Bay, and so each of us had a window to view the blue waters of Van Diemen’s Gulf below as we passed up to Cobourg Peninsula.
Then suddenly, a tiny strip of land appeared in the thick bush below. We touched down on the narrow, red-dirt airstrip, and were met by our guide. After a short drive along a bumpy dirt road, we arrived at Seven Spirit Bay Wilderness Lodge.
While the environment may be primitive, Seven Spirit Bay certainly is not. Larger than it looks, the upscale lodge was designed to be in complete harmony with the natural environment surrounding it. Hidden among the tropical trees, just yards from the Arafura Sea, is the stylish main building, which houses a lounge/bar, restaurant and library. Meals are also served on the covered patio overlooking the salt-water lagoon swimming pool.
Guests are housed in 23 freestanding octagonal “habitats” which are scattered throughout the property. Although I knew there were others nearby, I felt completely alone in my well-furnished habitat. The louvered and screened walls allowed the ocean breezes in and kept the bugs out, a fact I appreciated due to the area’s tropical climate.
The most surprising find was that each habitat has its own private, outside garden bathroom. The restroom has appointments like any other hotel restroom, but it is open to the air, which makes for a very unique “experience,” you could say. Privacy is provided by walls covered in green vines.
It’s a design you could only find in a tropical climate — and it made for great story fodder later that week. One gent told of finding a wallaby drinking from his toilet, while another naive lady (okay, it was me) left her restroom light on overnight, only to find that it attracted every bug in the neighborhood.
The toilets aren’t the only adventure at Seven Spirit Bay. During the day, guests are treated to guided safaris, from fishing expeditions for the region’s famed barramundi fish to Aboriginal rock-art to birding expeditions. My favorite pastime soon became simply trekking into the bush, seeking out the wild and unusual, from pythons to the elusive bald eagle.
Others say that the best part of staying at Seven Spirit Bay is the tasty cuisine served up by their talented chef, Matthew Small. Although Michelin trained in France, Small has since learned to combine local indigenous foods with this classic French training. In fact, he has even spent time with local elders learning the specifics of Aboriginal foods. He often uses the day’s seafood catch (Barramundi, Mangrove Jack and Threadfin Salmon are common), as well as other bush tucker and local produce to create culinary masterpieces, all served with award-winning Australian wines, of course.
“I guess you could say that we offer both crocs and chardonnay here at Seven Spirit Bay,” our waiter says, as we enjoy a rewarding dinner on our last night there. It does seem a strange combination, I guess, finding such pampered luxury in one of the world’s most remote locations. Yet somehow, here at Seven Spirit Bay, it works – well.
Time goes quickly when you’re being pampered, though, and all too soon it is time to leave. “Ready to head back to real life?” our pilot jokes, as he revs the engines of our tiny Cessna and begins the race down the runway. Then suddenly he pulls back abruptly and brings the plane to a halt.
“Goanna,” he says simply, pointing at a huge reptile slowly crossing the runway up ahead. So we sit and wait, enjoying this last wild taste of the Outback.
If You Go
Seven Spirit Bay Wilderness Lodge
Australia Phone: 08 8979 0281
International Phone: 61 8 8979 0281
Package prices for a 2-day/2-night safari stay, including meals and airfare from Darwin, start at AUD$1,235 (US$850)
Wanna Hook a Big One?
If you’re a die-hard fisherman, you may want to consider the Cape Don Experience instead. The historic Cape Don Lighthouse, located on the northern tip of Arnhem Land, has been converted into an intimate, home-style lodge.
Cape Don has everything a fisherman could desire — waters teeming with sport fish, expert guides, a fly-tying station and fully equipped boats. Due to the lodge’s intimate nature, visits can be tailor-made to fit each guest’s needs. Besides hours of fishing, other activities may include hunting for mud crabs with locally-made Aboriginal spears, picnics on private islands or a sunset cruise on the water.
Cape Don Experience
61 (0)8 8979 0030