When the large, rickety van that would take us to the docks of the famous Yellow Water Cruise splashed through the flooded parking lot and came to a stop, our driver and soon-to-be boat captain shared this: “After last night’s rain a 15-foot crocodile was sitting right up there in a puddle in the parking lot when we came into work this morning.” Yes, when it comes to tourism gigs, his is a bit different than the guy who checks tickets at Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney World. Before jumping out, he gave strict instructions to remain in the van until he opened the sliding door and told us to proceed straight to the “cage of death.”
The cage was actually a metal walkway elevated about two feet above the river, leading from the driveway to the boat dock. On either side were railings, and leaning on those railings were sections of chain link fence designed to keep people from being eaten. An eerie feeling came over me as I walked the 50 yards from one end of the platform to the other surrounded fairly thick wetland vegetation.
Growing up to 17 feet in length, the estuarine saltwater crocodile of Australia is the largest reptile in the world and makes the American alligator seem like a docile house pet. That’s probably not a reflection of their respective nationalities and I’m not saying you would want to put an alligator on a leash and carry a plastic bag around behind it in the park; I’m just saying that crocodiles are very mean. If they think they can eat you, they do. The Yellow Water Cruise was part of an amazing two-day adventure I took through Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory with AAT Kings Tours.
Kakadu is the Australian Outback. Americans will enjoy knowing that they filmed much of Crocodile Dundee here. It’s about two hours from Darwin and the park runs 125 miles north to south and 60 miles from east to west. Aboriginal people have occupied the land for 40,000 years and approximately 500 of them still live within the park today. It’s a harsh, hot, beautiful environment with an intense summer wet season. The Aboriginals lease the land to the government, which operates Kakadu and doles out $25, 14-day park passes to visitors who come in droves from around the globe. There are four major river systems—the East, West and South Alligator rivers and the Wildman River—and all are infested with the extremely territorial saltwater crocodile, “salty” for short. The croc-infested waterways are named “Alligator” rivers because an English settler named Phillip Parker King mistook the crocodiles for alligators in about 1820 and the name stuck. Yellow Water is Kakadu’s most famous wetland, made up of river channels, flood plains and swamplands. It sits at the end of a tributary of the South Alligator River named Jim Jim Creek. There used to be three Jims, but one was eaten by a crocodile. Not really.
After walking the through the cage of death and boarding our weathered looking 50-foot pontoon-type boat, the captain gave us brief instructions about keeping our hands inside the boat at all times because crocs can jump two-thirds of their body length, and told us where to find the life jackets should anything go wrong. Then, in what had to be the least reassuring promise ever made, he added, “You won’t need them, but just in case.” We took off on a slow 90-minute cruise up the billabong and a light rain began to fall on what was a steamy day. The rain, he told us, was a good thing, as it was likely to bring out the crocodiles. He was right. Within a couple of minutes, we spotted our first croc cruising across the middle of the river. She was about 14 feet in length and giving us a bit of an evil eye as the captain pulled the boat alongside her for a closer look.
“On average, there is one croc every 10 meters in this river,” he told us.
“Just out of curiosity,” I said, “what exactly is the lifejacket going to do for us? Delay the inevitable?”
“Yes, pretty much,” he replied with a chuckle. “That life jacket would not do a thing. I just told you that because there are regulations that say I have to tell you where they are. If I were you, and I wound up in the water, I’d take my lifejacket and throw it to the other side of the croc and then swim as fast as I could the other way.”
“That’s what I figured,” I said. And we all looked at each other with nervous smiles.
“Yeah, you wouldn’t want to fall in here,” he said. “So, let me tell you about some of the bird life….”
A few minutes and several crocodile sightings later, we came across the large male croc who “owns” Yellow Water. One male crocodile exists every few kilometers and mates with all of the females in the area. Tough life, huh? He owns that section of water until he dies, or until another, bigger crocodile comes into his area and fights him for it. To the victor, or the survivor, go the spoils. If you’re wondering how we identified the males and females, the boat captain asked for a volunteer so I jumped in and rolled a couple of them over. It was tricky at first, but with a little instruction I got the hang of it. What can I say…I’m a team player.
Our boat captain, who lived on the East Alligator River in a village of 100 people, was the son of an Aboriginal woman and a white New Zealander and he was fantastic. He knew an amazing amount about the ecosystem of Yellow Water, including the thousands of birds and fish that inhabit the area. It was a huge benefit that he was a local who could give us the real story of the place. He told us that 60 percent of his people’s food comes from the land and how the water rises nine meters during the wet season. He pointed out small birds walking across leaves on the water, even describing how they rear their offspring. He showed us endangered birds that will earn you something in the neighborhood of a $50,000 fine if you shoot one. You could shoot Big Bird, the San Diego Chicken or another human in the U.S. and get off with a lesser penalty. He even told us, quite candidly, that some of his own people are irresponsible when they hunt for food, often hunting far more than they will ever use. And he was also quite a comedian.
“See that bird there? We hunt those birds,” he pointed out. “Ten minutes on the barbeque, then flip it for 10 minutes. Bird in one hand, and some salt in the other. Nothing better. Mmmm!”
“So where did your people get their salt,” one of the other tourists asked him, curious how the Indigenous people stored their food before refrigeration.
“Hmm, that’s a good question.” He paused. “I don’t know. I get my salt at Cole’s (supermarket).”
Later, he told us about how the Aboriginal women often hunt for a small, tasty snake that lives along the banks of the river. I was busy staring at the beautiful surroundings and only heard “…go in the water up to their knees and hunt for the snakes.”
“I’m sorry, did you just say you go in the water hunting for snakes here?” I asked. “With crocodiles in the water?”
“Nooo. I don’t!” he said, as if I was crazy to ask. “The women do. I sit on the bank with a 303 (shotgun).”
Even with the presence of an informative and amusing boat captain, crocodiles are the main attraction in these parts. Upon entering Kakadu, a sign warns you: “It’s Not Worth the Risk” to swim in areas that are not cleared as safe to do so by park rangers. Just three months prior to my visit, a 15-year-old Aboriginal boy was taken by a crocodile while swimming with his friends in a billabong just off the road we drove in on. (A billabong is a pond-type body of water left behind by a flood.) The croc first grabbed another boy by his arms and pulled him into the water. When the eventual victim jumped in to help his mate, the croc let go of the first boy and grabbed the hero. Days later, half his body was found upstream and half downstream. When we visited, the boy’s “sorry business” or “sorry time” was set to take place the next week, when the area where he would be laid to rest was no longer under water from the wet season.
One can understand how Indigenous kids could get complacent living in this environment, given that they might have gone swimming there 20 times before. Other stories of crocodile attacks are much more puzzling. In my two days in Kakadu, I saw hundreds of signs warning people not to enter the water or even stand near the riverbank. Still, people make extraordinarily curious decisions. In most crocodile attacks that I heard or read about, the victim was swimming in a place that he or she should not have. In a clear disservice to tourists who will visit after them, some people even steal the warning signs for mementos to take home.
While we drove over one small bridge, I noticed a guy fishing in the middle of a stream just beyond two signs urging people to stay out of the water. I mentioned it to the boat captain later that day. He shook his head and said, “Not smart.” The most startling story was that of a 24-year-old Darwin man and his friend who decided to swim across the 280-foot wide croc-infested Mary River during a birthday party at a nearby outback tourist retreat last August. “The Mary River is known worldwide to have the largest saturation of saltwater crocodiles in the world,” one police sergeant said later. “You don’t swim in the Mary River.”
Actually, as the victim learned the hard way, you can swim IN the Mary River. You just aren’t likely to swim out of it. As a dozen other partygoers looked on, the man was grabbed by a crocodile who then swam off up the river with him in its mouth. His remains were found several days later after authorities killed three crocs in the area, including the obvious culprit. “Someone swimming in an area with crocs like that … crocs are going to zero in on them almost every time,” a Darwin zoologist told the local newspaper.
Earlier in the week, as our bus emptied out for lunch during a one-day tour of nearby Lichfield National Park, Warren, our bus driver, cautioned us to stay at least 10 meters away from the creek behind the lunch site. “Crocodiles can move about seven meters per second when they want to,” he said. “We are no longer at the top of the food chain out here.”
“So how do you know if there are crocodiles in the water?” one person asked. “It’s a good sign if there are lots of people swimming,” he deadpanned. “If lots of people are screaming and disappearing, there’s a crocodile around.”