Burt is a one big crocodile, in fact one of the biggest on the planet. He’s an 85-year-old prehistoric monster, star of films like Crocodile Dundee and Rogue. And he’s just over two metres away from me.
Between us is the thin wall of a plexi-glass tank – the ‘Cage of Death’. Burt opens an eye, then his mouth gapes open. I can see in terrifying detail the enormous teeth and powerful jaws like pictures I’ve seen of Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Crocosaurus Cove opened nearly 10 years ago to bring the natural environment of Australia’s Top End into the city of Darwin. Through interactive visitor activities like this one they are trying to promote understanding of these living dinosaurs, which have barely changed over the past 200 million years.
In the next tank I meet Chopper, a wildly scarred beast missing two both forearms from a career of territorial fighting. He is 5.5 metres long and weighs 750kg. This is one of only a few places in the world you can experience being in the water with such dangerous creatures.
The central location of Crocosaurus Cove means that tourists without a vehicle can get up close and personal to the Northern Territory’s most famous inhabitants.
The chains clank and the water rushes about my feet as the Cage of Death is hauled out of the water. Climbing out I know the perception of danger is obviously much higher than the reality.
That is certainly not the case in the wild. Australia’s Estuarine Crocodiles – ‘Salties’ – are at the top of the food chain for good reason. They have up to 12 senses including heat and vibration, adaptions to a harsh natural environment that allow them to hunt by incredibly effectively by stealth.
Later I have a go at feeding the young crocs, which look quite cute at around 1.5 metres long. At around two years old they still see safety in numbers, swimming around in their pool. It will be a few years before they transition into lone, opportunistic hunters, as likely to eat young crocodiles as anything else.
My thin fishing line trembles over the pool as the thin snouts of the ‘babies’ circle about in the water. Then one makes a jump, almost propelling its entire body out of the water. It wrestles with the meat and drops back efficiently with a splash.
Next door I carefully handle a 12 month old crocodile, warm and smooth. But even at this age there is danger – its jaws are carefully bound.
Upstairs I have the wonderful experience of hand feeding a sting ray, which undulates smoothly to the lip of the pool before delicately taking the treat out of my fingers.
In the reptile house I let a python curl itself around me and hold a palely translucent Northern Blue-tongued Lizard. The keepers are enthusiastic about educating people about Australian wildlife and ensuring new generations care as passionately as they do about preserving it.
Back with the big crocs, a chunk of meat dangles at the end of a line that hangs from a stout fishing pole. The crocodile waits, and waits, as it hovers right in front of its eyes. Then the lunge; the awesome power.
This is the perfect place to gain a healthy respect for these fascinating killing machines before heading out into their territory – Australia’s Outback. It’s definitely one of the best things to do in Darwin.
By Natasha von Geldern
See the Crocosaurus Cove website for details of this central Darwin attraction and the Northern Territory tourism website for more information on holidays in Australia’s Outback.