In the northernmost bits of Australia, the ‘Top End’ as the locals call it, sooner or later the talk always gets around to crocodiles and the amazing number of people they attack and eat. At first you imagine that this is largely for your benefit, that like Texans, the Northern Territorians are prone to exaggeration. Then you learn that it is all true.
“See that ford across the river,” says our guide as we get out of the bus in Kakadu National Park. “You can drive over it now, but when the tide’s in, or after the wet season, it’s too deep. There was this local fella fishing with his son. Some of his friends arrived on the other side and he decided he’d swim across and join them. A crocodile had passed by a little while before and everyone warned him not to risk it, but he thought he knew better. He got about half way over when the croc hit him. Terrible sight--and right in front of the boy.”
We all inched closer to our bus. The guide might be inflating the story a bit but there was an official sign at the edge of the water with an illustration of a person swimming towards the wide open mouth of a crocodile.
But our guide had an audience now. “Then there’s this American tourist, just a young girl. She’d seen the movie Crocodile Dundee but it made no difference. Went for a swim and a croc got her. He took her back and put her in his larder in the mangrove swamps. They prefer their meat rotten. The police found her there a few days later. They put her in a body bag on the deck of their launch and were taking her to Broome for burial when the croc came back and tried to climb on to the launch to get her back. They had to beat him off with clubs. Can’t shoot them, you know. Protected species.”
There was no stopping him. “No one knows how many Aboriginals the crocs eat. A couple of Abos come down to the river bank for a few drinks and a bit of a party. It’s a hot night and they decide to sleep out. Next morning, one of them’s not there. They think he’s gone home. Couple of weeks later no one’s seen him and they realise a croc must’ve come up on the bank during the night and got him. No chance of running away you know. A crocodile can bring down a galloping horse.”
Not to say an overweight, middle-aged man who has now stationed himself within jumping distance of the bus because he has suddenly remembered that very morning’s edition of the Darwin newspaper. It carried a picture of an Aboriginal, Johnny Banjo, head swathed in bandages. Johnny bent to drink from the Daly River and a big black crocodile came up, clamped its jaws around Johnny’s head and pulled him to the river bottom. Johnny desperately gouged his fingers into the crocodile’s eyes, and when it relaxed its grip, he dragged himself to the river bank and got away.
“There was this woman,” the guide was saying. “A university lecturer, an environmentalist, so she thought she could handle it. She was in the river in her canoe watching birds when this crocodile decided he didn’t like her in his territory. He nudged her canoe a couple of times to warn her and she got worried that he was going to tip her out, so she grabbed some overhanging branches and climbed into a tree.
“She thought she was safe but crocodiles can jump, so he came right up into the tree, took her round the waist and dragged her down into the water. He was giving her the old death roll--they roll their body right over to break your spine--when she got hold of an underwater branch. He let her go, then grabbed her again. But it couldn’t have been a very good grip because he released her a second time.”
“This time she managed to claw her way up the river bank and the croc must’ve been bored because he didn’t chase her. A couple of rangers found her crawling towards the road with all her intestines trailing along behind her. She survived and, good for her, she didn’t blame the croc. She said, ‘It was my fault. I was in his territory.’”
By now the wimps in our group were back inside the bus agitating to get underway. “Even if a crocodile kills someone,” the guide went on as we drove off, “it’s still against the law to shoot him.” The rangers trap him in a steel cage baited with pig meat and get a noose around his jaws. There’s only a couple of muscles to open his mouth but something like forty to close it. Tremendous pressure. Then they blindfold him and he’s perfectly docile.
They take him to a crocodile farm for breeding. A mature croc’s worth about AUS$ 25,000. They slaughter the progeny when they’re three years old. The skins go to Japan and France. It’s a growth industry-- AUS$ 25 million a year.
If a crocodile farm doesn’t want the captured crocodile, a crocodile park will usually have him. Before we joined the tour to see the crocs in the wild, we went to a park at Cable Beach, in Broome, Western Australia. There they were, formerly problem crocs, behind heavy steel fencing, removed from the wild for eating things they should not.
Old ‘Three Legs’ for instance had been eating cows and bulls from a nearby cattle farm, running them down if need be, despite the fact that he has only three limbs to support his 5.2 metres. Another crocodile bit off his leg. I pondered the size of a crocodile able to bite off the leg of a fellow croc 5.2 metres long.
The talk for the rest of the day was all crocodiles. But that night, after a few ‘Kakadu Kicks’ (equal measures of light rum, dark rum, lime and pineapple juice), apprehension faded--until we read brochures in preparation for the next stage of our tour--a visit to the Alligator River.
The crocodile has been around for over 200 million years. It can grow to seven metres long, weigh over a tonne and, now that it is illegal to shoot them, has no natural predator. It is related to dinosaurs but has outlasted them because it is perfectly adapted for survival.
It can live in salt, brackish and fresh water and can safely drink all three. It can see equally well by day or night and has a transparent membrane to protect its eyes underwater. It swims well and can run very fast for short periods on land. It needs to eat only once a week and can go for several months without eating at all. It has a continuous supply of teeth--if it breaks one there is another underneath.
When it wants to sink quickly, it can move its larger internal organs backwards in its body cavity, like a submarine moving ballast. Once on the bottom, it can reduce its heart rate to two or three beats a minute and so remain submerged without breathing for up to a hour.
The female lays a clutch of about 50 eggs in the wet season; the weather determines which sex will hatch. At 32 degrees the babies will be male; below that, to expand breeding, they’ll be female. To avoid over-population, male crocodiles eat the weaker young.
Crocodiles live mainly on fish, but, said the brochure, “may take large land Animals”--people, for example. They are intelligent and patient. They look for habits in their prey--like returning to the same spot each day to drink or swim--and then lie in ambush. The brochure adds: “The likelihood of someone being injured by a crocodile is increasing as crocodiles and visitors become more numerous.” Then follows a long list to don’ts. Don’t paddle or swim; don’t attempt to approach or catch a crocodile; don’t attempt to touch one (they have to be joking); don't enter the water to land a fish; don't clean fish at the water’s edge; and don't take dogs near the water’s edge (for unknown reasons, crocodiles find the barking of a dog very attractive).
Then the brochure, in a masterpiece of understatement, says, “If alarmed, a crocodile basking on the bank generally rushes into the water. It is dangerous to be in the path of its escape. Also, a startled crocodile can easily capsize a craft, or it could even join you in the boat.”
The thought of a six metre crocodile joining us in our six metre aluminium river craft occupied a lot of our thinking time. The guide, though, was only interested in finding crocodiles to keep the German and French tourists--who had not read the brochures--happy.
Finally we spotted one on the bank, a medium-sized monster of four metres or so, basking in the morning sun. The guide stopped the boat’s engine and we drifted close. I was suddenly rather worried. This was the same river where the croc had attacked the woman university lecturer. It might have been this very one. “Don’t speak too loud,” the guide said. And I heard myself begging, “And for God’s sake, don’t bark.”