The dull whirr of the floatplane’s engine makes conversation impossible inside the cabin, but the captivating view over Darwin Harbour requires no commentary. I’m with a group of five all squeezed into a Cessna 208 Caravan. Sitting directly behind the pilot, it’s probably a good thing my regular “oh wow” comments remain unheard over the noise. The handful of CBD buildings overlooking the city’s waterfront shrink in size as we head towards a billabong called Sweets Lagoon on the Finniss River southwest of Darwin.
A few weeks earlier I’d been looking into experiences close to Darwin that involved wildlife and adventure. A friend who lives in Darwin recommended Outback Floatplane Tours and their half-day ultimate tour Usually I’m one for road trips, but I’d already made plans to scoot down the Stuart Highway to Kakadu National Park for a few days, so the opportunity to journey from Darwin airport to a lagoon in less than half an hour for a unique outdoor adventure ticked many boxes.
Make the most of your day
The 6.25am pick up was a reasonably early start to the morning. Our driver Dallas didn’t seem to mind sunrise had only just made an appearance. Happily cracking jokes on the way to the airport, Dallas was our caffeine hit to put us in a good mood for the adventures ahead.
As our pilot, David MacFarlane guides the little Cessna inland, the landscape below changes from aqua water fringed by the coastline to an expanse of bottle green. A network of unsealed roads breaks up the green mass as if someone has taken a paintbrush dunked it in reddish-brown paint and drawn broad brushstrokes across the land. Streaky puffs of grey smoke from isolated grass fires add another colour to the earthy palette.
The waterways of the Finniss River come into view and David lowers the floatplane landing gently onto the shimmering water of Sweets Lagoon. Twenty minutes after leaving Darwin airport we’re gliding towards a pontoon, in what seems like the middle of nowhere.
Sweets Lagoon is named after the infamous 5.1-metre saltwater crocodile, ‘Sweetheart,’ authorities decided to remove from the lagoon because he was chasing the motors of visiting boats. Unfortunately, Sweetheart drowned in the attempted removal and his massive preserved body (he weighed 780 kg) is on display in Darwin’s Museum and Art Gallery. A visual reminder of how big these salties can grow to.
We’re greeted by hosts Karla and Sophie at the pontoon and the smell of toast and cooked bacon reminds me I haven’t had breakfast. Before the tummy rumbles become embarrassingly loud, we sit down to a hot breakfast with a view you just can’t beat.
Karla runs through our safety briefing before boarding the airboat. Life jackets are a must and we are constantly reminded throughout the morning, “remember you’re in croc country so no hanging arms (or legs) outside of the boat no matter how tempting it is to get that close up photo.”
I’ve only ever seen airboats in documentaries (you know the ones scooting around the Florida Everglades.) Climbing on board, strapping my seat belt I could feel the flutter of excitement for my first ever airboat experience. Karla our pilot and guide suggest we make use of the earmuffs as the engine is noisy.
The airboat kicks into action and we whip upstream, skimming across the surface of one of the Finniss River tributaries. Karla chooses a shady spot to shut down the motor. Earmuffs removed we savour the quiet. The wind gently shifts the overhanging branches, a few dragonflies dance across the sun-speckled water.
Karla breaks the serenity with her attempts to attract the resident croc’s attention. Using a long piece of timber, she smacks the water’s surface trying to arouse his curiosity.
Karla was a zookeeper before she took on the job as a tour guide. Her background working with animals gives her an understanding of their habits and she shares a few stories about crocs.
“Inside their nests are two eggs, sometimes four and the baby croc who hatches first is older and stronger. It will kill and eat the younger siblings before eating the other,” she says emphatically. “Which gives a whole new meaning to sibling rivalry,” she adds laughing.
Crocs are notoriously curious creatures and it’s not long before the water surface is broken and I see my very first croc
“Meet Bone Cruncher,” says Karla. “Bone Cruncher has been in a few battles over the years and has a damaged jaw. Territorial disputes between males are common, particularly during the breeding season.”
Like an accomplished performer, Bone Cruncher circles our airboat giving everyone on board a view of his partially submerged form. And yes, this is the moment we all go a little CRAZY with the picture taking.
We hold onto our hats and caps as the airboat makes quick work moving across the water’s surface and into another tributary. Cutting the engine Karla explains we’re fortunate the rainfall from a few days earlier has pushed the water levels up allowing access to a few more inlets. In a couple of days, the water will drain away and the levels will be much lower and therefore inaccessible to the airboat.
I could happily have stayed on the airboat for a few more hours, exploring more of the floodplain and wildlife and listening to Karla’s stories, but we’re on a schedule and for those in the group who’ve booked a helicopter joy ride, we need to return to the pontoon.
Get me to the chopper
The helicopter rides are run independently, and you can either book and pay the morning you arrive ($100) or book prior to the tour as I was recommended to do by my Darwin friend (and pay $120 – go figure!) We meet our pilot Jacko who whisks myself and a couple from Morwell, Victoria in the air.
We’d been given the run down by Karla the chopper has no side windows and talking won’t be possible apart from Jacko who we can hear through the intercom. Jacko dips the chopper low, hovering over the termite mounds of Litchfield National Park. I attempt to snap a few images, a challenge given the tilt of the chopper and the wind force outside. I’m doing my best not drop the camera or phone (Jacko tells us a few have fallen out.) I have a new appreciation for photographers who shoot images from choppers while airborne!
Fred in the front seat and Jacko banter. They know a mutual friend, Gecko. (How Aussie? Jacko and Gecko 🙂 )
“Gecko’s a mad bastard,” Jacko says laughing just as he dips over the white tent roof that belongs to the Top End Safari Camp, owned by Matt Wright The Outback Wrangler. The glamping campsite is where you stay if you book the Ultimate Overnighter with Outback Floatplane Adventures.
Jacko’s voice cuts into our headphones, “Mango farm,” he says pointing below to wide rows of tall mango trees. The Northern Territory is the largest grower of mangos in the country, another Top End success story.
Joy rides are only a teaser and what seems only minutes since we’ve taken off we’re back on the Pontoon, swapping seats for a fast ride on the airboat.
This is where Karla has her moment of payback for all the inane questions I’ve asked her earlier. At high speed, a 180-degree spin on the narrow floodplain creates an arc of water that splashes back onto the laughing passengers. Nothing like a couple of tailspins to finish the morning on a high.
If you’re pressed for time in the NT and looking for an adrenaline-filled adventure, in stunning natural surroundings with a few resident crocs hopefully making an appearance (no guarantees as this is not a croc-performance tour) I highly recommend the half-day Outback Floatplane Adventures Ultimate Tour.
And the best part is you’re back in Darwin around lunchtime, leaving plenty of time for a stroll around the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets, or an afternoon session down along the Waterfront or a few hours nap if the early start has zapped your energy.
One thing for sure you’ll have a few images and stories to share with friends on social media.
(I traveled as a guest of Outback Floatplane Adventures. All opinions expressed are my own.)