There’s no better time to get out and explore the Territory, and who better to chat with than our very own croc wrangler and veteran; Matt Wright. Read what he has to say on the thrills of Territory life, his favourite locations and the best times to get up close with crocodiles!
When did you decide to get into the adventure tourism industry and why? I've always lived for adventure! I used to catch brown snakes as a an 8-year-old kid (my poor Mum), got into free diving and spear fishing in the waters around Australia as a teenager and then got my chopper license in my 20s, which led to my work egg collecting, getting slung and slinging our team onto a croc's nest. To me, these authentic experiences offered real adventure and when my friends would come up to the Territory, I'd take them out doing all the things I loved - fishing, working with crocodiles, flying and camping.
Friends of friends started reaching out to me asking for heli-camping adventures and custom tours, so I saved up to buy my own chopper and started running my own trips. It was when I went to the Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures in the Kimberley (and met Troy Thomas), that we came up with the adventure tourism idea of Outback Floatplane Adventures. We would use the same floating pontoon structure that they used at the Falls and buy the equipment we needed to access the floodplains of the Finniss River - we had my chopper and a couple of monster rescue crocodiles. Troy had a floatplane, so we got an airboat, buggy and cruise boat and started taking people on wild adventures through the country around Sweets Lagoon. I'd come to know the country around there so well from my egg collecting and the beauty always blew me away, so I knew that was the spot to base the tour. This initial business has evolved into what Top End Safari Camp is today and we now also run Darwin Airboat Tours and Tiwi Island Retreat - giving someone a once-in-a-lifetime adventure never gets old!
Do you have a favourite? Helicopter, boat or airboat? Love them all, but nothing beats the feeling of freedom that the chopper brings. Chucking your swag and some tucker in the back and booting bush to a place that people can't get to on foot... Finding your own little piece of paradise is one of my favourite things to do.
Were there any skills you picked up while in the military that you still use today? I think the most fundamental thing I took away from the army was that excellence is a habit and to not cut corners in anything - do your job and do it properly. This is something I practice today and a culture that I continue to foster within our tourism companies. Also, my favourite saying of them all; 'prior preparation prevents piss poor performance'. I think my team and my family are sick of hearing me say this one!
For those looking to explore the Territory, what would you recommend as the ‘must-see’ locations in the Top End? Sweets Lagoon in the Finniss River region - the rainforest there is other-worldy! It's like Jurassic Park and our Top End Safari Camp guests are always blown away by the aqua, bird and croc life there. The Tiwi Islands - the ecosystem there is so untouched. Within a day you will see dugong, manta ray, turtles, dolphins, crocs, sharks and fish... It's mind-blowing. Sandy Creek is my favourite waterfall spot at Litchfield and I love Bullo River Station (near the WA border) for a more outback experience.
What’s been your most thrilling or terrifying experience during your time as a wrangler? I've had lots of thrilling moments, but in the early days of crocodile egg collecting were probably some of the most terrifying. My mate Jimmy and I (who got things started with the choppers and egg collecting) were ‘green’ as anything and had to learn how to collect the croc eggs via trial and error. So, there were lots of close calls from crocs walking over us as we laid flat on the ground, to crates and sticks being chewed from our hands, to falling through a floating mat on a lagoon to escape a crocodile only to find myself face to face with another crocodile! We've come a long way since then, but I will never forget some of those precarious moments.
What’s your favourite restaurant in the Top End?
I think the question should be ‘what is my wife Kaia's favourite restaurant’... I don't really care too much for fancy food, just give me a steak with mushroom sauce and chips and I'm sorted, but we got engaged at Pee Wee’s at The Point (nestled within East Point Nature Reserve), so it’s always a special spot for us.
What was your biggest challenge when transitioning from defence?
Finding a job that was still hands on that I enjoyed. I see a lot of people struggle when they transition from defence, especially when they go from being outside/out in the field to a clinical or office setting.
What’s the best thing about living in the Top End?
Freedom, open spaces, wildlife, fishing, crocs - it really is the final frontier up here and I definitely couldn't live anywhere else.
Best camping advice you’ve ever received?
‘Prior preparation prevents piss poor performance'… Nothing worse than getting to your camping spot and someone’s forgotten the swag!
Which do you prefer: the Dry Season or the Wet Season? And why?
The Wet season! It's alive - the electric green, the flowing waterfalls and the crocs are up and about and really fun to work with… They're a bit too cold and docile in the dry. But, in saying that nothing beats the cool breezes and amazing temps of the dry.