Travel: Mary River National Park, NT
Many NT travellers miss Mary River NP on their way to Kakadu, but those who take the turn-off are in for a treat.
ALL OF US KNOW about Kakadu National Park. Its reputation for superb rock art, stunning escarpments and breathtaking wetlands is well deserved. But many who approach Kakadu from Darwin speed past signs pointing the way to Corroboree Billabong, Mary River and Point Stuart without so much as a curious glance – and without realising how much they are missing.
So I am going to introduce you to this remarkable area, but only if you promise to not tell too many people about it. We don’t want it to become as over-run as Kakadu can be. It’s all about the Mary River here, with a sprawling catchment that embraces lily-studded wetlands, billabongs throbbing with wading birds and crocodiles, monsoon and paperbark forests laced with parrots and fruit bats, and a chance to just relax and have a great Top End experience.
Many bird-loving caravanners will likely have already stopped at such fabulous spots along the Arnhem Highway as Fogg Dam, Windows on the Wetlands and maybe even Leaning Tree Lagoon. To visit this region and not do a wetlands cruise amounts to nothing less than a tragedy, and you couldn’t possibly do better than the one at Corroboree Billabong.
The Corroboree Tavern roadhouse has camping at the back, with a 20km unsealed access road to the billabong just 200m up the road. Camping is permitted at the billabong as long as you don’t mind clouds of mozzies and a dodgy toilet. The late afternoon cruise offers the most birdlife, but honestly, any time is beautiful on Corroboree Billabong. Be especially alert for wallabies on the road, and watch for them gathering to feed in the field to the south-west of the billabong.
The next place offering camping is Mary River Park, an absolute gem of a spot and an excellent base for the entire region. Don’t expect a flash toilet block or laundry facility, but the setting more than makes up for the modest facilities. To set off for a day of exploring (try the drive to Bird Billabong with a 4.5km walk to the lookout), and to then return to Mary River Park for a swim in the pool before happy hour, is a delight.
There is a number of worthwhile river cruises on offer, but if the budget only allows for one, go with the billabong cruise. Kingfishers, black cockatoos and numerous other birds can be seen in the park, and at dawn the misty field is populated by agile wallabies.
As inviting as it may be, don’t even think about swimming or fishing from the shore of the river. The Mary has the highest concentration of saltwater crocs in the world. The bridge over the river is a good place to spot one, although the billabong cruise will have already introduced you to a dozen or so (depending on the time of year).
Next up for a roadhouse campground is Bark Hut. Access to Annaburro Billabong is across the road, but this is not always open so check at Bark Hut for information. Point Stuart Road, 18km further on the Arnhem Highway, is the main road with access to Mary River National Park.
If you haven’t already set-up camp, there are three options from here: Couzens Campground is at the end of 18km-long Rockhole Road and is perfect for those who want a secluded bush camp; Point Stuart Wilderness Lodge is 40km north of the turn-off and offers such creature comforts as showers, a swimming pool and a saloon, as well as boat hire from Shady Camp and a wetlands cruise from Rockhole. Another 17km on, Shady Camp has camping, but no shade, and seems to be popular with caravanners who want to settle in for weeks at a time and go fishing until they can’t stand the thought of one more barbecued barramundi – or they run out of water.
IN THE PARK
So, what is there to see in Mary River NP proper? Rockhole Road is well worth a drive, with access to the northern end of Hardies 4WD track and the southern end of the Wildman 4WD track. You could also have a look at Couzens Lookout, which is close to the site of the Mary River Wetlands Cruise on Rockhole Billabong (run by Point Stuart Lodge). If you loved the Corroboree Billabong cruise, or didn’t get the chance to take one, don’t miss this.
Wildman Road is the next unsealed track cutting into the park. The 2km Brian Creek Monsoon Forest Walk, with a picnic table at the start, is shortly past the turn-off. Not surprisingly, Wildman Road allows access to Wildman Track, at the end of which is an airstrip and the Wildman Wilderness Lodge. North of the Wildman Road turn-off is Mistake Billabong, with a viewing platform and picnic table.
Point Stuart Wilderness Lodge is also worth a stop, even if you aren’t camping. The 1.6km Jimmy Creek Monsoon Forest Walk is lovely, and you can find Shady Camp at the end of 16km Shady Camp Road. Look out for wallabies and be sure to visit the lookout. Flocks of corellas brighten the blue sky with their cries and aerobatics. Boats can be hired, but fishermen should be aware the area is tidal and you can be left high and dry in the middle of a mud bank if you’re not careful.
The historically-inclined bushwalking 4WDer, equipped with full emergency supplies in case of a breakdown, may want to follow in the tracks of explorer John McDouall Stuart through the Stuart Coastal Reserve to a 5km return walk via Stuart’s Memorial Cairn. Download the information sheet from the NT parks website (www.nt.gov.au/nreta/parks) and follow all the cautions for this 57km return drive along a remote track.
You could say that Mary River is the quiet alternative to Kakadu, but that would imply you should choose one over the other. The truth is, they are both wonderful and it would be a shame to be touring in the Top End and not take a trip west of Kakadu.
Mary River NP is 110km from Darwin via Humpty Doo and the Arnhem Highway. Contact the park office on (08) 8999 4555.
Point Stuart Road is sealed to just north of the Mistake Billabong turn-off. The rest of Point Stuart Road, as well as Shady Camp and Corroboree Billabong roads are unsealed, but suitable for 4WDs and sturdy vans. Wildman and Hardies tracks, and Point Stuart Road north of the Shady Camp Road turn-off, are all 4WD-only with no towing.
The last place to stock up on most supplies is Humpty Doo. Fuel, meals and limited supplies are available at the Cooroboree Tavern and Bark Hut Inn. Meals are available at Mary River Park and Point Stuart Wilderness Lodge.
Cooroboree Tavern (08 8978 8920); Mary River Park (08 8978 8877, www.maryriverpark.com.au); Bark Hut Inn (08 8978 8988, www.barkhutinn.com.au); Point Stuart Wilderness Lodge (08 8978 8914, www.pointstuart.com.au).
For something different, hire a houseboat for a night or two on Corroboree Billabong. Phone (08) 8978 8925 or visit www.mary-river-houseboats.com
WORDS Linda Lee Rathbun PICS Steven David Miller
Source: Caravan World Mar 2012