David Whitley discovers that there’s plenty of water in the hot, tropical areas of northern Australia – but you don’t necessarily want to go for a swim in it.
The north offeels different. Gone are the beach bunny lifestyle of the southern cities, the pounding surf and the sense of drive. It’s a languorous part of the world, with that mild unhinged character that comes from being almost continually sweaty. Ask the indigenous peoples, and they’ll tell you that there are six seasons. To the untrained observer, however, there are just two: wet and dry.
The Top End of the Northern Territory is a place that squeezes the admiration out of you over time. There’s no single site that where it’s easy to roll up, take a picture and then happily leave feeling you’ve ‘done’ the area. It’s a place where the intimidating scale and interweaving patterns of life slow-burn to tell a far grander story.
There’s a different relationship with water too. In southern Australia, relative scarcity sees it cherished. People crowd around the coast in order to be near it and leap into it. In the north, water is a constant presence. There’s always the fear that it may be your house that gets it this cyclone season. Torrential downpours become familiar ways of breaking the build-up of stifling, sticky heat.
There’s so much water. But the difference is that people don’t go in it unless they absolutely have to. I once talked to a guide in Kakadu National Park who told me why people living in remote areas kept dogs. It wasn’t about loneliness – it was about having something to send across the river first.
Many of the rivers, ponds and seasonal billabongs across Northern Australia are home to saltwater crocodiles. The name is slightly misleading – they will venture into freshwater too, much to the chagrin of any animals drinking from it. Wherever they wander, however, they are indisputably in charge.
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On the Adelaide River, between Kakadu and the relative civilisation of Darwin, the salties are relatively easy to spot. Most sit unmoved on the bank, warming themselves in the sun. Others skulk in hollows, just the eyes and tips of their heads visible above the water in the mangroves.
They are ruthlessly calculating creatures, primed with a sense of watchfulness and Machiavellian instinct since the days of the dinosaurs. They don’t waste energy by lashing out at everything that moves – they play the percentage game and wait until the meal is as close to a sure thing as possible. The crocs are known to stay for days, monitoring cows as they come to watering holes. They’ll note the times of day the victims come, and the precise spots they repeatedly go to. Then, one day, the hunter will be ready and waiting. The cow will follow its usual pattern, and won’t stand a chance.
But sometimes the crocs will make the effort to move towards easy prey. And the boats provide that. The Adelaide River is home to numerous “jumping crocodile” cruises. These boats actively court the crocodiles, dangling hunks of meat over the side on what may as well be fishing rods. The crocodiles spot the boats, and slowly slink towards them. The approach is steady and almost seductive; the eye is on the prize all the time, the body barely makes a ripple in the water.
When it is in position, the crocodile suddenly leaps up, powered by its thunderously powerful tail. Four metres of lean, mean, killing machine soars and opens its mouth around the dangling beef. It’s timed to perfection – a natural behaviour honed throughout the centuries. And the jaw makes a terrifying bass drum boom as it closes.
Sorry doggy, you’re going in first.
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