On a luxury four-wheel-drive safari, Melissa Fyfe surveys the elemental beauty of Arnhem Land's Cobourg Peninsula.
Blood drips on my bag, but it matters little. The big picture on this small boat is an unfolding semi-religious experience. Steve has landed a giant trevally. Tomorrow, his wife will snare a heftier fish but this, now, is his moment. As my bag cops fish blood, Steve has both fists in the air. "This one's for you, dad!" he shouts to the sky.
Reeling in the silvery fish seems to unleash a sort of ecstasy in Steve, a naked gratitude for all that is wonderful in life. The sight of this middle-age man talking to his late father is humbling and special. The four of us, lure fishing in remote croc-infested waters, cannot wipe the smiles from our faces.
After Steve calms down, we take in the moment. The water of Port Essington - one of the most northern parts of Northern Territory - stretches towards the Arafura Sea and the Indonesian archipelago. In front of us are rust and bone-coloured cliffs forming the shoreline of the Cobourg Peninsula, the top part of Arnhem Land.
Only about 30 people live on this peninsula of 2100 square kilometres of Aboriginal-owned land, trimmed by dozens of pristine harbours and coves. A 570-kilometre drive north-east of Darwin, Cobourg is protected by the Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, 229,000 hectares of which is the territory's only marine park. It's not a blockbuster park like Kakadu, but that's what keeps it unique and wild.
Travellers can take four-wheel-drives to Cobourg but permits are needed to enter and to camp in Arnhem Land, and parties must be pretty self-sufficient. An easier option is Venture North, the only operator of luxury 4WD safaris into Cobourg, and with a beautiful coastal camp on the Port Essington cliffs approved by the traditional landowners.
There are few things so soothing as stepping off a plane in Darwin direct from an east-coast winter. Many winter refugees prefer to alight on tarmacs in Bali, the Gold Coast or Byron Bay. But there's something about the Territory - perhaps the smell of grass fires - that removes me from the winter bleakness just one step further.
We set off in the morning in a leather-seated Toyota LandCruiser Sahara with our guide, driver and expert nature-spotter David McMahon. He's also a trained chef, which will prove handy in relation to mud crabs, trevally and barramundi.
To get to the peninsula you must go through Kakadu, and here we climb into a boat and potter around Corroboree Billabong. Saltwater crocodiles warm themselves in the morning sun, and we spot jabirus, eagles and dancing brolgas. I receive an unsolicited lecture from the cruise owner, Ted Jackson, on demonising the creatures. Crocs are not dangerous, he says, unless you get in the water with them. That's just suicide.
He could have saved the speech. I love crocodiles. Well, perhaps love is too strong a word. Respect. Anything that survived the mass extinction of the dinosaurs and has padded around, in one form or another, for 220 million years deserves respect.
I have renewed respect for female crocs after Jackson's description of their dating scene. The females have eyes only for the biggest, ugliest, meanest crocs - so a bad-boy thing. In a typical mating season, Jackson says, this sort of male crocodile may be approached by a dozen eager females. Half of them will be eaten by him; the other half will get sex. Personally, I think these are pretty poor odds.
Later we're sitting on Kakadu's rocks like lizards surveying the escarpment. There's the odd croak of a cockatoo and flocks of passing magpie geese. The salmon gums match the colour of the rocks rising from the bush. That night we sleep in mosquito-proof, raised bush bungalows at Jabiru and feast on grilled barramundi.
Next day I'm in fresh territory as we cross the East Alligator River to Arnhem Land. This part is accessible by road only during the dry season. It opens up to vast and ancient wetland country, the land of the Gunbalanya Aboriginal community, whose artists paint, weave and screen-print at the local art centre. Only five touring companies have permits to visit Gunbalanya, formerly known as Oenpelli.
The dreaming story of Gunbalanya is of two ancestral dogs who travelled across the land, which explains why dogs are sacred. They saunter across the road with an air of impunity. "If I were to run over a dog, I'd be in big trouble," McMahon says as we drive to nearby Injalak Hill with local Aboriginal man Ezariah Kelly in the front seat.
Injalak Hill is a high rocky outcrop riddled with overhangs and shelters where Aboriginal people have waited out wet seasons for tens of thousands of years. It holds some of Australia's most impressive rock art. In some shelters the rock is glassy, worn smooth by centuries of "bare-feet walking", as Kelly puts it.
Wearing a Collingwood cap, he quietly explains the art but his gaze returns outside, to the incredible panorama.
The road from Gunbalanya to Cobourg is rough but it's a lovely 3½-hour drive past dingoes and agile wallabies and creek crossings.
After Gunbalanya, mobile coverage and internet access disappear. There's only real bird twitter. Hosts Heather and Ross greet us at Venture North's Port Essington camp with champagne and super-fresh rice paper rolls of freshly caught prawns. The camp sits on a coastal cliff top, eight walk-in tents with proper twin or single beds in each - isolated, solar-powered, eco-credentialled, yet comfortable.
It's easy to be lulled into a false sense of security. The camp seems so tranquil, the harbour water so benign, then something you thought was a log moves. Or a torch shone at night from the cliff picks up a pair of red crocodile eyes. Hugh and Aaron Gange, the Victorian brothers who took over Venture North about two years ago, believe the peninsula's isolation and wildness has protected it from infinity-pool overdevelopment.
The three nights and days at Cobourg are spent catching and consuming seafood and exploring the rugged peninsula, with its shell-strewn beaches and abundant birdlife. One day we catch five mud crabs, their bodies each the size of a saucer. I can't bring myself to spear them in their little rock-hole homes, but hypocritically delight in eating their soft flesh served on the cliff top with a glass of white wine.
The highlight comes on the last day, when we cruise across the marine park to Victoria Settlement, where the British tried, in 1838, to establish a northern capital after two failed attempts. The haunting remains of the community, which lasted 11 years, are fascinating. The stone chimneys of the married quarters still stand. There's the kitchen and foundations of the hospital where, at one point, most of the settlement's residents convalesced with malaria and other ailments. So many fragments of liquor bottles - rum, champagne, gin - have been found it's speculated the men of the settlement were almost permanently drunk. It's difficult to blame them. The naval officers were sent to this remote and unbearably hot place in woollen uniforms, buffeted by cyclones, stricken with malaria and presumably menaced by sharks and crocodiles. Every timber construction was eaten by termites.
So, little wonder British scientist Thomas Huxley described Port Essington as "most wretched, the climate the most unhealthy, the human beings the most uncomfortable and houses in a condition most decayed and rotten".
I think of the moment in 1845 when the famous explorer Ludwig Leichhardt emerged from the bush here with "tears and emotion", having trekked 4800 kilometres from Moreton Bay in Queensland. The settlement's Captain John McArthur described Leichhardt as a "thin, spare, weatherbeaten and bent man". (Thereafter, he did not like Leichhardt at all, writing the explorer was "bitter, virulent, malicious, dishonest, shifting and mean".)
On the way back, we fish. In a remarkable effort, 71-year-old Ken pulls in a 8.5-kilogram giant trevally. Another giant trevally is caught, a queen fish gets away and I reel in a 70-centimetre barracuda. These mean-faced fish can contain toxins, so we let it go. Not a semi-religious experience, but something I'm unlikely to forget.
Melissa Fyfe travelled courtesy of Venture North Australia.
Qantas has a return fare to Darwin from Sydney (4hr 30min) for about $580; Jetstar about $258. From Melbourne (4hr 20min), Virgin Australia has a return fare from about $450.
Venture North has five-day Kakadu, Arnhem Land and Cobourg Peninsula tours for $2590 a person, including travel in a luxury 4WD, accommodation, meals, cruise fees and permits. Venture North's coastal camp operates only in the dry season, from May 1 to October 31. The company also tailors private charters in Western Australia's Kimberley region and in the Northern Territory's Litchfield and Katherine regions, focusing on birdwatching, fishing, Aboriginal culture, wet-season travel and educational tours. Phone (08) 8927 5500, see venturenorth.com.au.