The top end of Australia is so unique where animals and plants can only be found here, a wet season can leave hundreds of billabongs and rivers full, seasonal cyclones can destroy huge amounts of land yet the balance in all this has to see to be believed.
One of these delicate and often under-rated sections is the Mary River NP 150km out of Darwin & very much shadowed by nearby Kakadu. Mary River consists of a handful of small reserve areas which protects part of the Mary River catchment area, covering a staggering 8,000 sq km and it's one of eight rivers in the top end that have huge water systems.
In the Dry Season, ( May to September, ) most areas are accessible to all vehicles, however, many roads are unsealed. During the Wet Season, from October to April, flooding can cause seasonal road closures. It has huge areas where monsoon forests, floodplains, savannah grasslands, paperbark and bamboo forests meet, and the best thing is it's open to exploring with fishing, drive the 4wd tracks, get back to nature and some of the best camping around.
Getting to Mary River is pretty simple along the Arnhem Highway towards Kakadu for 135km, and turn north towards Mary River NP for another 55km. The road towards the park is sealed for nearly 30km then turns into a good solid dirt road.
During the wet season, it may get closed due to flooding, but huge signs at the start will say whether it's open or closed. My first target point was the well known Shady camp area that’s an iconic spot for fisho’s chasing big Barra. Unfortunately, my effort was pretty dismal but there's always next time.
Camping out here is pretty good where NP’s only charge $3.30 pp for unpowered sites, but there are bins and compost toilets. At the fishing point, a barrage has been installed to protect the wetlands. Much of the Mary River catchment is below sea level and up until the 1940s, this area was totally landlocked. For the past 80 years, huge sea levels, cyclones and wildlife have carved an opening out to sea allowing for the area to drain and allowing saltwater to destroy parts of the area.
Due to this, a barrage, or low-level wall was built to hold back the freshwater so it can re-generate through the estimated 250sq km that has been destroyed. The shady camp barrage is nearly 30km from the ocean to the north and at low tide, the saltwater drains away to nothing leaving just thick mud until the next tide. Yet at high tide, the water often flows over the barrage into the fresh side. If the barrage wasn’t built, huge amounts of saltwater would penetrate the area causing devastation to the fragile area.
If fishing isn’t your thing and need a day away from camp, go back out to Point Stuart road and head north to the coastal reserve. The road soon turns to a single lane track where the NP is only a thin sliver of land with private stations on either side. Honestly, there's nothing hard about this long dirt road but it does follow the trek that explorer John Stuart took on his last epic trip to the north of Australia back in 1862 looking for pastoral land and to be the first person to reach the gulf.
Back in the day, the government offered &2,000 to the first to do so, and with this Stuart and his party made the successful trip, there and back. I was hoping to reach the rock monument right at the tip of the coastal reserve but was met with a locked gate, just a few kilometres short of the coast due to a seasonal closure - yet on the park's website, it was marked as open.
Stuart’s mapping skills and records were so great that when others followed his trail, they found everything to be spot on. Another significant area to explore relating to explorer Stuart is Mistake Billabong just south of Shady Campground.
It is believed that his party camped here on his way north and the return journey for its water and possibly fresh food. A birdwatch has been built overlooking the lagoon so visitors can view the birdlife, colourful Lillies and crocs.
Within the centre of the Mary River NP, another popular spot is Couzens lookout campground that overlooks the stunning and huge river system of the Mary River. It's located off the tar section of the Point Stuart road, with a 19km dirt section that again may get closed in the wet season.
Again the fees here are cheap but you’ll need to be self-sufficient. A popular activity here is to stroll up the lookout at sunset to see the light change as the sunset, plus with the high viewpoint, big crocs often cruise past stalking their next meal. Masses of Lotus Lillies line the banks, and in the distance vast wetlands cover the area. During the night the bellows of wild Buffalo could be heard as well as wild dogs howling in the distance.
Nearby at the Rockhole, river cruises operate from here but it's great to fish for Barra in the deep holes safely from the shore. It's said that the Mary River system has the highest number of crocs per km than anywhere else in Australia, and here at the Rockhole I counted dozens with a mix between salties and the freshwater crocs.
THE WILDMAN TRACK
Starting at the Rockhole, the Wildman 4WD track takes you from here 32km north to Wildman Road. Again it has seasonal closures, recommended for high clearance 4wds and def no trailers.
The track meanders past huge billabongs full of birds, fish and crocs plus you’ll see an array of different forests including massive native bamboo stands, stunning Pandana’s forests and Tea tree-lined waterways.
The nearby Wildman River was named in 1866 and today it's a protected waterway. Across the floodplains don’t be surprised to see Jabiru, magpie Geese, masses of white Herons right down to herds of feral Buffalo who have made a mess of the swampy areas on the edge of the water holes.
While not a hard track allow several hours to enjoy the serenity and what the area offers. The Wildman tack joins back to the Wildman road to the north, where it's only a short drive back to the main road.
HARDIES 4WD TRACK
If your after something a little more diverse and even a little harder, Hardies 4wd track is a must-do. An entry point is to the south near the Bark Hut Tavern, the track is around a 100km loop. It dives deep into the fertile and harsh area that Mary has to offer.
Only open during the dry season as extensive flooding across the plains and several deep river crossings often close the track for months at a time when it's been wet. Prior to the loop, the track used to cross at Clarkes crossing before heading north through Annaburroo Station to nearby Couzens lookout but access is now blocked through the station.
At the start of the track, Bird Billabong is a pleasant walk to see large numbers of birds, even in the dry welts where water used to be. From the moment you pass through the gate the track narrows and winds its way through stands of Tea tree towards a viewing point of the Mary River. Along the way keep an eye out across the other side for the massive Bamboo stands, this is only one of three native Bamboos to Australia. This species called Bambusa arnhemica lives for about 30 years, flowers then dies.
Soon the track heads westward towards the hills of Mount Bundey, these rock formations and lumps were important to the Limilngan-Wulna people of this land. The track follows the hills for some way before branching off through savannah grass where before its burnt, can be as high as a 4wds bonnet.
There’s a couple of river crossings and depending on the time of the year that you explore, depends on the water level. Hardies crossing flows for most of the year and is a narrow rocky track through the water at the flowing end of the lagoon. Even though the water is flowing - be croc wise as being a permanent water hole they are in there as I found out laying in the pools of water on the track.
The loop follows the wet plains and heads to its furthest point at Corroboree Billabong where there's a boat ramp but also a high point up the bank to have a break and croc spotting. Parts of the road were extremely rough, not from lack of maintenance but the feral Pigs and Buffalo use the road as their highway going from water hole to water hole. At times, with tyres right down, it was only a slow walking pace.
Following the track was pretty easy with a stack of blue and red arrows along the way, but really there is only one main track. To fully enjoy and discover the Hardie loop track, allow a full day out with the many spots to enjoy and discover, you never know what you’ll see.
My other advice is to get onto the track early in the morning as sections of the track were that dusty it was hard to see out the window.
The Mary River NP is a must-do if you're in the area as it combines some good 4wding, has a hint of the gulf country plus the attractions of nearby Kakadu.