Cooper Creek lagoon.
It has been a good morning. Thirteen barramundi have been hauled into our steel dinghy within an hour on an Arnhem Land billabong circled by water lilies and pandanus.
The silvery fish are true to their legend, fighting like mad, jumping out of the water and splashing spectacularly to avoid the fate of hot coals on a campfire.
On our bow a saltwater crocodile calmly watches, his piercing eyes visible just above the water's surface, as time after time I cast a purple-and-white rattling lure.
Barras on the bullbar at Davidson's Arnhem Land Safari.
When action man Bear Grylls fished here for his television show, he was on a paperbark raft and used a stick as a makeshift rod. A crocodile pounced on a fish he hooked.
"When you are fishing in water teeming with predators, you are never going to be the fastest hunter," Grylls gushes with hyperbole in the video footage of the incident.
"Whoa, look at the head [of the crocodile]. It's trying to take the fish. Look at the size of him; I don't mind letting him win," he says.
Satisfied with our catch, and free of any croc attack, we're driving home along a dirt track in a battered 1980s-vintage army-green Land Rover. It sends up a plume of dust that drifts over a vast flood plain that progressively shrinks during the dry season between May and October.
Out there, among the water lily and reeds, crocodiles lurk. The lucky ones have barramundi between their teeth.
There are thousands of birds, including the peculiar Jesus bird that appears to walk on water, thin-legged jabiru that forage in the shallow water and sea eagles that command respect from all others as they circle for prey.
Magpie geese make their familiar honking sound in a chorus with bellowing frogs. Nervous whistling ducks take off in fear at the slightest provocation. Who would blame them after listening to Grylls?
There's rust eating into the panels of our vehicle and there is no windscreen, nor door or window handles. The steering wheel is patched up with duct tape. There is an inch of dust around my boots. But I like it because it has bush character, just like Max Davidson, who started Davidson's Arnhemland Safaris 27 years ago when the Ulba Bunidj clan granted him a lease for 700 square kilometres of land.
Of the 13 barramundi, five are of good size, about 70 centimetres or more. These "keepers" now hang from the bullbar, tethered on a rope and destined for the lodge kitchen, where they'll be served with a squirt of lemon.
Davidson's is a comfortable camp in one of the most rugged parts of Australia and has just undergone a refurbishment, with 20 new cabins scattered around the bush with real beds and pillows, ceiling fans and en suites. They have polished timber floors and are made of corrugated tin. It's chic tin, not shabby at all.
Flywire keeps the mosquitoes out. The toilets flush. The showers are warm. There's 24-hour solar power. There are even furnishings: a small table and a set of drawers.
The main lodge has a kitchen, dining room, lounge and serve-yourself honesty bar with icy-cold beers and chilled sauvignon blanc. Like the cabins, the lodge is finished in an appealing style. It's not the five-star extravagance of other remote Northern Territory camps such as Longitude 131 and Bamurru Plains, but it provides an oasis from the harsh landscape.
There are dark timbers inside, polished floorboards again, lacquered Asian-style tables and cane chairs. Indigenous art and woven baskets from the local people are on display and for sale.
Fishing rods are stacked against one wall and ready to go, and opposite is a line of wide-brimmed hats that hang from the ceiling, a reminder of the fierce Northern Territory sun that sends beads of sweat running down your forehead and saps your body in no time.
Tall palms, gums and sailcloth provide the lodge with dappled shade, but an icy beer always helps the cooling process, if not taking a dip in the lodge swimming pool or in the crocodile-free rock holes in the upper reaches of nearby Cooper Creek.
Davidson's is at Mount Borradaile between the East Alligator River and Cooper Creek in the north-west corner of Arnhem Land. Permits are required to travel here and are arranged by the lodge. Once here, all touring is with guides in small groups.
I go out on my first guided walk with just two others and we find and eat green ants and even see an elusive but brightly coloured orange-and-blue Leichhardt's grasshopper. I bet the barra like them.
Most people arrive in light aircraft from Darwin. It's a flight that crosses wetlands in some of Australia's remotest country and, from the air, the East Alligator River looks like a giant snake over the land. The bumpy touchdown sends up swirls of dust, and those waiting to greet us on the ground turn away and pull down their hats to shield their eyes.
Some people drive. Two French tourists arrive in their rented four-wheel-drive, hours late and clearly rattled in every sense of the word.
Davidson, a former buffalo hunter, marvels at the wilderness here.
"You know, there are five ecosystems within two kilometres of the lodge," he says. There are savannah woodlands, escarpment [where some of the most dramatic rock art in Australia can be found], monsoonal rainforest, paperbark swamps and flood plain.
"People come here for a variety of reasons," he says. "There is the rock art and the fishing, but there's also birdwatching and bushwalking with explanations [by the guides] of Aboriginal bush food and medicine.
"People also love the sunset cruises. We sit on the boat with a glass of wine and pate and cheese opposite Mount Borradaile. No one else is around. It is good to get away from the crowds and not having to battle with 50 others on a bus or to be on a timetable.
"We just take it as it comes out here; people can choose whatever they want to do.
"Sometimes we go to a waterfall and have barramundi cooked on the coals, Aboriginal style. We have a bit of billy tea; it's hard to beat."
The rock art in this region is also hard to beat - it is prolific and in good condition - and one of the most dramatic works is an 8000-year-old rainbow serpent painted in an overhang. We are within touching distance of the six-metre-long ochre depiction of the creature that is central to creation here and has the power to give and take away life.
The late George Chaloupka, an expert on rock art in Arnhem Land, described the rainbow serpent as the personification of fertility.
"It is a creator of human beings, having life-giving powers that send conception spirits to all the waterholes. It is responsible for regenerating rains, and also for storms and floods when it acts as an agent of punishment against those who transgress the law or upset it in any way. It swallows people in great floods and regurgitates their bones ... "
There are also rock-art depictions of the more recent "contact" period in which the indigenous people first saw Europeans. There are drawings of their boats and rifles and even artefacts with pieces of steel and glass - and a single domino - lying on the rocks.
Similar-style rock art is found in Kakadu National Park, but there are crowds, fences to hold back the crowds, and signs that diminish the authenticity of the experience. The artefacts that lay on the ground in Kakadu have, understandably, been removed for safe keeping.
But here at Mount Borradaile everything lies where it has been for years, perhaps hundreds of years.
There are stone axes, spearheads, knives and music sticks. There are burial sites, where photography is forbidden, but where we see bones wrapped in paperbark and laid to rest on rock ledges in caves.
"We respect the things that are here and we make sure we don't move anything," Davidson says. "People who come back on return visits always comment that the same artefacts are on the ground where they saw them the first time."
Discovering the rock art and artefacts at Mount Borradaile is a journey into the sandstone escarpment country of caves, catacombs and overhangs that sometimes make you feel as if you are on an Indiana Jones adventure. There's a bit of scrambling and crawling required into dark places, but at least they are also cool areas that provide some relief from the heat.
Sitting quietly and having lunch in an overhang with art all around, just like others have done for thousands of years before us, is one of the immeasurable rewards of coming here.
Repeat visitors are also rewarded with "real" expeditions to find previously unseen rock-art sites. "We find a new rock-art gallery most years," says Davidson, who was recognised at the Northern Territory's Brolga tourism awards on November 17 with a trophy for an outstanding contribution to tourism.
On the sunset cruise there are more crocodiles to see and the sky is full with birds as the sun sinks into the horizon. I sip on another icy-cool beer. As Davidson says: "It's unforgettable."
More options for NT adventurers
Voyages Longitude 131°
Severe pampering with luxury en suite tents that have views of Uluru. Gourmet dinners under the desert stars and exceptional service. From about $2000 a night, twin share, including meals and drinks. Open all year. See longitude131.com.au.
Upmarket safari-style en suite bungalows around a main dining room, and a timber pool deck where sunset drinks are taken around an open fire. On the edge of the Mary River wetlands (near Kakadu), which can be explored by helicopter or airboat. From about $1850 a night, twin share, with guided activities, meals and drinks. Closed November 1-January 31. Operates as a fishing lodge only February 1-April 30.
Wildman Wilderness Lodge
En suite cabins and safari tents in Mary River wetlands surround a central lodge with swimming pool. Billabong cruise and culture walk among activities. Not as upscale as the others but still stylish. From about $500 a night, twin share, including breakfast and dinner. Closed December-February. See wildmanwildernesslodge.com.au.
Getting there Qantas has a fare from Melbourne for $460 for the non-stop flight (4hr 20min) to Darwin, and non-stop from Sydney for $560 (4hr, 30min). Virgin Australia flies non-stop from Melbourne for $358 and from Sydney $396. Fares are return including tax.
- A one-hour charter flight from Darwin to Mount Borradaile (arranged through Davidson's) is $525 one way, or 20 minutes and $250 from Jabiru.
- The 350-kilometre drive from Darwin takes about five hours, via the Arnhem Highway. There is a $50 a person track access fee. Four-wheel-drive required. The road is open May to October.
Staying there Cabins with en suites start at $750 a person, twin share, for a 24-hour period, including breakfast, lunch and two-course dinner, tours and activities such as barramundi fishing with a guide. The best time for fishing is April-May. The lodge is closed December-January. See arnhemland-safaris.com.
Robert Upe travelled courtesy of Tourism NT.