When I was planning my Itinerary for Australia’s Top End I was looking forward to the warm weather and lots of swimming in clear water. Only 12 degrees off the equator it’s always really hot, even on the coast in Darwin, even in their so-called winter, and the sparkling sea is right there.
But you can’t swim in it because it’s full of killer crocodiles and bull sharks, and box jellyfish that will give you a sting to remember. I was regaled with tales of crocs creeping out of the mangroves to snatch pet dogs. And when you get out into the national parks of Kakadu and Litchfield, at every patch of water you are greeted with signs like this:
There is good reason for the warnings. The Estuarine Crocodiles of Australia – ‘Salties’ – are at the top of the food chain in this part of the world. They are incredibly effective hunters with up to 12 senses, including heat and movement. They can lower their heart rate and stay underwater for up to four hours. They are supremely opportunistic hunters, willing to wait hours or days before lunging for a kill.
It’s not just me I’m thinking of here, I’m swimming with my three-year-old daughter!
At Crocosaurus Cove they have some of the biggest crocodiles on the planet – octogenarian prehistoric monsters over five metres in length. They are always looking for love, food or a fight; otherwise they’re waiting for the same.
I opted to experience the ‘Cage of Death’ – where you are lowered into a tank with the crocs in a plexi-glass cylinder. As I bubbled about in the water I could see clearly the enormous teeth and powerful jaws similar to pictures I’ve seen of Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Feeding some of the Northern Territory’s most famous inhabitants was also a humbling experience. The little two-year-old crocodiles could propel almost their entire body length out of the water in pursuit of meat. And the powerful lunge of a big croc was awesome to behold.
There are an estimated 150,000 crocodiles in Australia’s Northern Territory, compared to 240,000 people.
Once out in Kakadu and Litchfield there are seriously worded warnings regarding injury and death everywhere. I saw 7 crocodiles in the wild in Kakadu. Six from a cruise boat at Yellow Water billabong and one just cruising up the Adelaide River.
But faced with a gorgeous waterfall and plungepool of clear green water on a stinking hot day, what are you going to do?
The parks people carefully survey waterholes in Kakadu and Litchfield for crocodiles as the beginning of the dry season and the dropoff of water levels opens up the area for visitors. Presumably they remove any they find and many waterholes are considered safe. Incidents are actually very rare but there was a tourist death back in 2002 after a tour guide stupidly led his guests on a midnight swim in a billabong known to have resident crocodiles.
So the risk remains and we certainly kept our eyes open when swimming. In the pool at Gunlom my heart skipped several beats when I spotted what turned out to be a metre-long Mehrtens Water Monitor emerging from the dark underside of the bank.
It saw us, trod water for a few moments, then slipped back into the murky depths. About 10 minutes later I suddenly saw it climbing out onto the bank a few metres away. It crossed the dry ground and then dropped back into the water safely avoiding us – the intruders – although not before I had grabbed the camera. Clearly it was just as concerned about our presence as I was about it!
There’s no doubt Australia’s Top End is an edgy kind of paradise.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you swum with crocodiles?