Cruising the spectacular Mary River wetlands by houseboat offers close-up wildlife encounters and, when the crocs aren’t too close, a supremely peaceful getaway.

Story By Kerry Sharp

A retired maths teacher and a nurse are the cheerful husband-and-wife team behind a small but booming houseboat venture that, even after three years, exhilarates them every time they walk down the jetty to their office on a pontoon on the edge of a Northern Territory billabong.
John and Ruth Morton operate Mary River Houseboats from mid-April to mid-November at the world-renowned barramundi-fishing and wildlife haven, Corroboree Billabong. Set on the Mary River wetlands, it's a 90-minute drive north-east of Darwin.
Hundreds of fishing fanatics and nature lovers from all over the world book in each year to glide among 40 kilometres of pandanus, paperbarks and waterlilies aboard one of the company’s six comfortable houseboats – Ulindi, Joyce, Jodie, Janine, Carol and O’Jenny – or its open-decked daytrip or party boats.
“We bought the business because I was still working and John wasn’t and he was sick of hanging around,” Ruth says. “We were looking for something where we could both work together. We used to come out here fishing and John drove past the turn-off one day and saw a ‘For Sale’ sign. That’s how it all began.”
So Ruth gave up nursing and they set about learning the intricacies of boat motors, electronics, hot-water services, toilet systems, pumps and the like – and all the things that can go wrong with them. “We’re just about on top of everything now and it’s unusual for something to break down these days,” Ruth says. “We’re a long way ahead of where we were when we first came out here.”
Ruth’s brother-in-law David Watson, a retired CSIRO microscopy research scientist, Vietnam War medic and world sailor, happily escapes the winter in his home town of Kyneton, Vic, each year to volunteer his services as general hand and ‘boat bum’ on the billabong.
The Mortons left their home town of Bairnsdale, Vic, in 2005 to travel around Australia, telling their family they’d see them in three years – but they didn’t get further than the Top End. “We taught and nursed at Gove in north-east Arnhem Land for about 18 months and that was a real education,” John says.

This story excerpt is from Issue #85

Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2012