A cowboy is silhouetted on the hilltop, his battered Akubra black against the saffron sky. Beside him a salmon-barked gum tree flushes deeper pink in the sunset, and across the bottom of the valley below, a line of dust drifting up through the scrub marks the track we followed to this lookout. I sip my wine and wait to hear "Cut! That's a wrap, thank you everybody". But instead there's just quiet talk and laughter, the clink of bottle on glass and a sudden raucous chorus from the flock of red-tailed black cockatoos swooping overhead.

This isn't a scene from Baz Luhrmann's Australia, but another glorious evening at Mt Bundy, a 80,900-hectare working cattle station in the Northern Territory, 110km from Darwin. We've trundled here in a campervan, but instead of bunking down in the back, tonight we get to sleep in real beds, with buffalo outside the windows.

First, though, there's a tour of the property and we've bumped along with Scott through the long grass: kangaroos and wallabies bound away between the trees, a black whip snake just escapes our wheels and across a still billabong a trio of brolgas, tall and stately, stand on their long legs in the water.

Scott tells us this is Sunday country, good for one day a week, the rest of the time either too boggy or too dry; and that the stocking ratio is one unit, of cow and calf, to 10 acres of land. To my city-slicker eyes, though, it looks gorgeous: golden grass, pink gum trees, birds everywhere and the buffalo, backlit by the low sun, each with a warm fuzzy aura.

Advertisement

It's all a misconception, I learn later by the campfire and over the dinner table: the bulls would rather attack than submit to being worked in the yards; Scott's daughter dragged home an unexploded bomb from air raids during the war; there are floods, and wicked fires in the Gamba grass that burns at 2000C; crocodiles eat your favourite calves; even going out to the washing line can involve an encounter with a deadly taipan snake.

"Everything here tries to kill you," complains Scott's wife Sue - but it's plain to see that they value the challenge of wresting a living from the harsh conditions, and they love the stark beauty of this country.

In the morning, I watch a kangaroo hop slowly past some horses up to their knees in a billabong, peacefully blowing bubbles, while geese squabble on the lawn. Evan, the quintessential cowboy in his boots and hat, is leading the day's mounts up to the yards to be saddled; and, never mind the dangers, I wish I could go along on the two-day ride upcountry, have smoko by a billabong, a campfire dinner and sleep under the stars.

Compared with the immense Winnebago parked in the campsite, though, with its push-out bay windows, satellite dish and owner crouched over his laptop, our high-top Britz campervan is almost back to nature; and later when we lurch along a red dirt track and stop at a creek to lock our hubs, I feel positively intrepid.

Two minutes later, water up to the top of the wheel-arches, a huge bow-wave billowing out in front and stones sliding under the tyres, I'm feeling distinctly anxious - but the doughty van ploughs on through, emerging dripping on the other side, and we arrive at Tjaynera Falls with a real sense of achievement.

And it's worth it - all to ourselves, a big, deep waterhole fringed with feathery cycads and spiky pandanus, the water clear and the temperature perfect on this 30C day. At the end, plunging over a cleft high in the ancient shiny red rock, is a Goldilocks waterfall: not too hard, not too soft. Butterflies drift across the water, birds flit through the trees, and it feels like Eden - except that instead of a snake, there's a spider, an immense golden orb female in a net-like web.

The Northern Territory, in the baking heat of the Dry, is still a remarkably wet place: there are equally lovely waterholes scattered through the national parks up here, and we visit several. At Edith Falls, the lower plunge pool is vast and at the top pools a tanned family lies camouflaged on the smooth, brown rocks.

A five-day hike away, along the Jatbula Trail - but only a 90-minute drive - is Katherine Gorge, famous for its boat cruises and towering orange cliffs, where Tyrone, a Torres Straits Islander, leads us down a side valley. He points out bush tucker along the way: dog's ball berries, exactly named, taste like raisins. At the end of the track is another beautiful waterfall floating down in a fine spray. We sit under a rainbow while Tyrone prepares a snack: crackers with crocodile sausage and candied rosella flowers, smoked kangaroo with quandong preserve.

Back on the road, we pull over as gigantic dump trucks from the mines come towards us on trailers. When we set off again, the Britz van has a drunken list - and a flat tyre. There's some manly scrabbling around in the dirt as the jack's workings are fathomed. "We need another inch," Pete grunts. "I've been told that before," replies James. The womenfolk flutter about, offering to gather dog's balls or weave a dilly bag, but before long we are on our way again, the whole shameful episode of gender stereotyping safely behind us.

At Elsey National Park, named after the station in Jeannie Gunn's classic memoir We of the Never-Never, we drift with the current at Bitter Springs, where water heated to 33C by the surrounding rocks flows beneath Livistona palms, edged by purple lotus flowers. Jewel-bright dragonflies swoop low over the surface, a flycatcher chirps in the bullrushes, and Gunn's description still nails it: "A chain of clear crystal pools with emerald green mossy banks and everywhere sunflecked, warm dry shade."

CHECKLIST
Getting around: Travelling around the Territory is easy in a Britz camper van: britz.com.au.

Where to stay: Mount Bundy Station offers a range of accommodation and activities.

Further information: For more about travelling in Northern Territory see tourismnt.com.au and
territorydiscoveries.com
Pamela Wade was a guest of Tourism Northern Territory.