You might think the last thing you’d want to be around is an estuarine (saltwater) crocodile – the largest and most dangerous crocodile in the world – yet we somehow found ourselves out on the water in a tinny, looking for them. As many adventures do, it all started in the bar…
In case you don’t know, I’ve spent the last three and a half months living and working at a remote Outback hotel in Kakadu National Park, in a place called “South Alligator”, which consists only of the aforementioned hotel. There’s a bar (with staff discount) so I’m happy here, not to mention a pool and spa (hot tub; Jacuzzi), tennis courts, all meals included, rec’ room with ping pong table, pool tables, books, movies, a 3.6 kilometre billabong walk and plenty of barbeques, bonfires and even the occasional “Latin American night” to keep me occupied. Oh, and no phone signal.
Anyway, Andy and Suzanne were behind the bar and we (me, Ruth, Seb and Azza) were on the other side of it, chatting to a couple from Devon who were touring the Territory in a camper.
Seb is a chef from Lancashire, but has somehow become more Territorian than half the locals. When asked why he travels, he’ll tell you “for the fish!” (in this case barramundi) and after travelling to some obscure places for that very reason, he finally found the place he was born to live: the Northern Territory. The day he found out he was being sponsored as an Australian resident, he went out and bought a boat.
The couple were getting filled in on all the things I’d learnt over the past weeks: that there are only two seasons here – Wet and Dry (unless you ask the bininj, in which case there are six – we moved from Wurrgeng to Gurrung into Gunumeleng), what it means to “go tropo”, that the NT is not a state, but a territory, that Darwin – its excuse for a capital – only got its first set of traffic lights in the last decade or so, and that anything goes here (at least as far as speeding, shooting and fighting are concerned…oh, and that Azza is from the “Beef Capital of ‘Straya”.
When the bar closed we got a carton (crate) of Great Northern and headed back to Beef Cap’s donga to watch Crocodile Dundee.
It’s funny, a lot of Brits wind up in Australia but (at least, before I met my wonderful Australian friends in Japan) I’d never been too fussed about the place. When I did come to plan this trip I was determined to see (at least once) the “real Australia”, by which I actually meant Mick “Crocodile” Dundee’s Australia. We flew to Darwin because it was cheapest from Bali, and we got jobs in Kakadu because it was the first offer we got…and now here we were, Azza talking us through all the Crocodile Dundee filming locations – Ubirr, Nourlangie, Gunlom…all just down the road, and I realised, we’re in it! We’re in the “real Australia”!
Photos on the donga wall – ex-girlfriends mostly, some from Azza’s ‘roo shooting days, some from his travels around Australia: pristine white, empty beaches at Great Keppel Island, Western Australia, Yamba, who knows where…
“You’ve never seen a croc?” Seb asked, surprised for some reason.
“I’ll take you!” He checked the tides and it all looked good.
” – that’s true,” Azza said to himself in response to something Mick had said on the screen – something about how crocodiles don’t kill you at first – they hold on tight, drag you down to the bottom of the river and do a “death roll” until you drown yourself to death.
“I heard their jaw muscles are mostly for closing and it takes them ages to open their mouths again, so if they miss, you can just put a rock on them or something – ”
“They’re not gonna miss, mate.”
“If they wanna get you, they’ll get you.”
“They’re nature’s perfect predator, mate. They’ve been around since the dinosaurs.”
We drank into the early hours…
“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.” – Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway would’ve been proud of Seb as we approached his donga early the next morning to find him already up and getting ready. Out front lay well-used barbeques, threadbare armchairs, eskies (ice boxes; coolers), scattered mud crab shells, Great Northern bottles…
We helped him unload rods, nets and other junk from the boat, he borrowed Azza’s ute (he’d soon get a nice little 4WD outfit of his own) and we headed down the road to “the South”. (The three major rivers in these parts – the East Alligator, South Alligator and West (you guessed it) Alligator – are known to locals simply as the East, the South and the West and are erroneously named anyway, since some idiot mistook the crocodiles for alligators and by the time Leichhardt got here to correct the mistake, it was too late – they’d already been mapped.)
“If you let go of my boat, I’ll fucking kill you!”
Down at the boat ramp. Ruth held the rope. “Whatever you do, don’t stand in the water,” said Seb, before wading in and jumping into the boat. (One of the classic traits of a true Territorian is the advising of others never to do something dangerous…and then doing it yourself on a regular basis. “Don’t stand in, or near, the water,” is a common one, often heard from fishermen/women standing knee deep in the East Alligator at Cahill’s Crossing. When a tourist or backpacker gets taken, they were a fool not to listen to the advise of the locals, but when it’s a local…well, let’s not talk about that.)
Seb launched the boat out with the tide (the Alligators are tidal rivers) then came back around for us.
“I really can’t stress this enough: once you get in the boat, stay the fuck down! If you go in out here, you’re not coming back out!” (It turns out Seb and Azza recently had a friend fall overboard, and while her survival does prove him wrong, you can understand why he didn’t want a repeat performance.)
“On land you can outrun them, but out here in the water, you’re fucked.”
Seb knows the South like the back of his hand (though he’s also the first to admit that the river can change from season to season, even day to day, as mud and sand bars drift and shift) and negotiated the river with skill, taking the meanders wide – as most of the water does.
“If we get caught up, don’t panic. Just remember, high tide’ll come, then we’ll come unstuck.” (More than once, staff at South Alligator have had to spend the night out on the river waiting for the morning tide.)
I sat up front, under the scorching sun, the wind blasting off the river. Schools of skipping mullet glanced across the surface in every direction in a bid to avoid the boat’s path.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.”
As we glided over the ever-moving surface of the river, it seemed as though the water had two consistencies – one thin and translucent, bouncing the bright blue sky back up off its surface, and the other; thicker, muddier, that seemed to move more slowly, yet somehow in perfect harmony, beneath it. A trick of the light? An optical illusion perhaps? But it was beautiful, even if it wasn’t real.
Seb pointed out a jabiru bird (after which the nearby “town” is named) nesting in the trees.
“Pretty calm out today!” Seb shouted over the boom, boom, boom as the bottom of the boat smashed up and down on the waves.
We turned up Nourlangie Creek and then we saw them.
Seb slowed, stopped the boat. Where I was sitting, the boat sank two feet into the water.
We sat in silence.
At first they looked like logs (and vice versa) moving slowly but deliberately, the ridges of their eyes, nostrils, a row of fins along their spine and hard, scaled back above the surface, then you had a few seconds to take your photo, before the crocodile coolly, quickly slips under the water and disappears – then you don’t know where he is, and it’s time to get moving again.
“They can stay under for hours. You can’t see them, but they can see you. There are probably about 20 around this boat right now…”
Back on the South, we saw more than 15 crocodiles in the end (yes, I counted) – a couple of them over four metres long (“you can tell by the size of the head”) – and not one other sign of human existence, save the Kakadu Air scenic flight that once passed overhead.
At high-tide we turned around and headed back.
I jumped out and pulled in the boat, making sure I kept hold of the rope against the tide (or else it wouldn’t be just the crocs trying to tear me apart)
“What a way to spend a morning!”
The Yellow Water Cruise
A few weeks later, Ruth managed to wangle us a free cruise on the Yellow Water Billabong (Ngurrungurrudjba), even further up the South Alligator River and here we saw even more crocodiles (not to mention a “Jesus bird” walking on water, a green tree snake moving in precise right-angles through the jim jim branches, jabirus, ibis, purple-breasted swamp-hens, herons, darters moving like black, winged snakes, magpie geese, sea eagles perched atop barren trees, shit loads of whistling ducks, water buffalo and even wild horses silhouetted against the blood-red sun).
Because it was the sunset cruise, the crocodiles were all out on the banks, soaking up the last rays of warmth from the sun, mouths wide open, apparently to regulate their brain temperature, and we were able to get right up close to them.
(At no point was the water “yellow” as promised.)