Recently, I was lucky enough to throw together a trip from Darwin right across to Weipa on the west coast of Cape York. The whole way was in a chopper! In terms of experiencing the landscape, waterways and seascape, it’s hard to beat a helicopter for pure adrenaline and viewing pleasure, writes Tim O’Reilly
This helicopter was a Squirrel (EUROCOPTER AS350) and had a fair chunk of power compared with an R44 or Jet Ranger more common in the far north.
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This meant longer, safer flying and the ability to cover a fair bit of ground before refuelling, crucial to the enjoyment of long distance heli-jaunts.
With accommodation booked at various places along the way and a few characters joining us for the adventure, the following article is a glimpse into this journey…
It was a strange feeling – waking onto the airstrip on morning one, feeling those early morning Darwin warmth-rays as the sun crept up the horizon. It was the end of April by now, and an impressive wet season was just drawing to a conclusion. Only week before it’d been a different story, with rivers, creeks and wetlands suddenly crashing back to life under heavy rains.
The pilot and I had a rendezvous in Jabiru, which meant an early morning flight across a good chunk of Kakadu National Park. Crossing the iconic river systems of the Northern Territory such as the Adelaide, Mary and South Alligator was exhilarating.
This is big croc country and these huge lizards would crash into the water as a large shadow hovered overhead. A herd of buffalo were spotted wallowing in a post wet season wetland and on close inspection, pigs, crocodiles and water birds were all startled by the chopper.
A quick pitstop around the barrages used to divert water coming down the Mary River was in order. Small barramundi are plentiful wherever floodwaters are receding back into the main river and the barrages are no exception.
A little soft plastic was all that was needed, wound back super slowly, just enough to make that tail wiggle… Boofa! Everyone caught and released a few before jumping in the chopper to head east.
There’s a dramatic change in geology as you head upstream in the East Alligator River. A stunning vista of stony escapements can be seen stretching out into the distance. This West Arnhem Plateau is a sight to behold from the air. Rugged beyond description, this is one place you don’t want to be walking out of on foot.
With Jabiru as the main little service hub, we refuelled before taking in a spectacular flight up the East Alligator gorge country before backtracking to the north en route to Davidson’s Arnhemland Safari Lodge. Landing that first afternoon after so much flying, it was an awesome change of scenery to suddenly be picked up by an old land rover tray-back and escorted back to a little oasis in the great abyss.
Davidson’s is close to spectacular Cooper Creek. With rich wetlands, bird and fish life, the landscape holds a staggering array of rock art sites.
Next morning, we jumped in a flat-bottomed boat to explore a cave system up on the escapement. You can feel the warmth of an ancient living shelter where people have painted walls in many overlaying art periods. It gives a real sense of what a nomadic life might have looked like.
Walking barefoot over such varied and rugged terrain, tough people! As a fisherman, it was really cool to see depictions of barramundi and Saratoga painted high in the overhangs. From the escapement, it was possible to see an absolute assortment of colourful terrain.
The marshlands were massive as was the huge wetland complex surrounding. Clear dark waters snaked their way through the scene; birds in all directions. Back in the boat we idled right up to a 3.5m croc, it’s huge mouth agape, sun-baking in s melaleuca forest.
After some awesome food and drinks that evening, we hatched a plan with the lodge manager to fish next morning up at a waterfall. Boating through a flooded jungle of riparian forest, braided channels criss-crossing their way up to the waterfall.
The lodge manager pointed out the spots and we went to work. Vibes and medium divers getting smashed by small barra, often right up in the rapids. A respectable tally of barra in such an amazing spot was a highlight. Topped off by a few fire-cooked fish and cold drinks at the falls.
That afternoon, our pathway east continued, passing over much of the remaining Arnhem Plateau. Some amazing monolithic sandstone out crops could be glimpsed heard height out the chopper window. Soon the coast was in sight with the Goulburn Islands off in the distance.
A short stop in a tiny creek mouth was all that was needed to procure dinner that night, a healthy mangrove jack and a yellow-tailed barramundi. From here, we refuelled the bird before continuing along the coast all the way to the Crocodile Islands. Our stay was a simple self-catered guesthouse this night with me on the cook-up. We had a fresh seafood laksa with a few simple items from the local store aided by a lime tree behind the kitchen.
Refuelling at Milingimbi gave us the opportunity to check out the art centre. Some impressive weaving and traditional ochre paintings on bark gave this place a real feeling of authenticity.
Once again on the bounce east, we travelled along the coast, past endless waterways running to the coast north of Arafura Swamp. A pristine floodplain of 700 square kilometres acts as a huge reservoir, fuelling the surrounding rivers with animal and fish life.
Cutting inside Howard Island along one of the norths greatest mangrove complexes was enthralling from above. The stark contrast between the turquoise blue water and endless mudflats. Refuelling again in Elcho Island, we began venturing nor-east up into the Wessel Island chain.
A quick beach stop for a feed of hand caught mud crabs was in order. A tiny spring fed freshwater creek to cool off in and fresh mud crab from the fire is a hard act to top. But we soon left for a rendezvous with the charter boat Wildcard.
We met the crew in an isolated bay up on the west coast of Raragala Island. This operation has access to some incredibly
remote and unspoilt wilderness.
Day 4, 5 & 6
The Wildcard proved a mighty home for our next two nights, exploring the bays and inlets up the coast of the Wessels group.
Catching fresh fish like coral trout straight off the rocks. Huge queenfish in the bays and all manner of sport fish on surface lures. Reef fish plentiful in less then 20ft if water! But for the pilot and I, it was time to bid farewell and continue on towards Queensland.
After filling up the chopper and a bit of shopping in Nhulunbuy, we hightailed it for King Ash Bay down the bottom of the Gulf of Carpentaria. This flight was long but incredible the whole way. Leaving the Wessels group and heading over Arnhem Bay, the coastal plains in this area are just teaming with buffalo. Flying fast over these endless plains full of dashing black beasts was amazing.
For some reason, it feels hard to believe you are in Australia. It’s incredible to see such a big animals galloping across a muddy plain, it made you thankful not to be tussling with them on foot.
Heading South from Gove Airstrip, we hugged the coastline. Most people wouldn’t credit the Northern Territory coast for its beautiful white sand beaches. But this flight changes all that. Mile upon mile of pristine beach and crystal clear waters below. The whole scene punctuated by bays jutting in from rocky headlands.
This ends around Blue Mud Bay, where things term a little swampy. And this flatfish, waterlogged coastline continues down into the Gulf. Not much to do with a chopper except for fly over, the larger muddier systems make landing a hassle.
We refuelled at Borroloola before retiring in a cabin at King Ash Bay for the evening. Rest came easy after big chicken-parmi and a few beers at the fishing club.
We had another meet and greet planned for Normanton so next morning without wasting too much time we struck East again, only stopping to try a few isolated billabongs for a Saratoga. No luck, but a quick refuel in Normanton and picking up a couple of mates of the pilot had as back in the air and looking for spots.
Day 7 & 8
Many of the rivers in this south-western Gulf of Carpentaria are productive fisheries and we didn’t need to fly too far north before trying a rockbar separating tidal waters from upstream fresh.
It only took a few casts before a gleaming eyed barra had taken to the sky. Followed by a few more chasing lures, only to inhale them at our feet and get seriously airborne.
Another freshwater rockbar to the north provided awesome fishing for a short period, fish smashing every second cast for half an hour. We had a stopover and refuel planned at Kowanyama, which proved a nice place to stop for the night. We even joined the locals at the sports club to watch the Friday night footy.
The next morning we simply peeled out to the north without any real plans. Whizzing along the shallow coastline, stopping on some tiny creek mouths to throw shallow divers for barra and threadfin salmon. A couple of spots held fish, a couple didn’t, such is the nature of fishing from a helicopter.
There will always be dud spots, often dictated by the tide and time of day. This stretch of coastline is once again extremely isolated and very pristine in nature. The only thing you notice from flying overhead is commercial barramundi boats parked up in the rivers.
Like much of the Gulf coastline, it is hard country and difficult to survive in. Anyone ever planning to invade Australia, probably don’t waste their time around here! This is the home of mud crabs and barramundi and the bountiful Gulf waters provide endless opportunities for keen fisherman.
After passing some very long areas of coastal wetland to the north of Pormpuraaw community, it was amazing to see from the air some of the places I had dreamed of reaching by boat. For 20 years on and off, I have been guiding around the Archer River in Aurukun.
Although we made forays south, it was always challenging to push further. The opportunity to see these spots via helicopter and know a boat is required to properly fish them is incentive enough for me!
The chopper dropped me at the mouth of Archer Bay, around 90kms south of Weipa to start a six-week guiding stint. The pilot continued on across the Cape before returning south to complete his chopper relocation. The memories of this Journey of Discovery still burning strong inside.
An unforgettable experience and lifelong reflection upon the vastness of Australia’s far north. Safe in the knowledge there is still plenty of places human hands have rarely touched.