Thrillseekers eager for close encounters of the saltie kind
IT’S a sweltering afternoon and a hot-headed croc named Sheila is charging my way.
She was fed just a few hours earlier, I had been told by staff at the Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat, so what issue could this large, potentially-lethal reptile possibly have with a camera-wielding reporter?
In the blink of an eye the scaly saltwater missile crashes into a metal barrier, its jaws just inches from my camera’s lens.
Watching on from about five metres away is another saltie: a 4.2-metre male known as Babinda.
“It’s their territory,” says Claire Anderson, the Habitat’s manager, before we move on to check out the far less hairraising wallabies.
After five months in the Far North it was my first, and hopefully closest, encounter with a live crocodile.
But, if anything, it was also a sneak preview of what daring visitors will experience when the Wildlife Habitat opens its new attractions later this year.
The Woodward Family CaPTA Group – the Wildlife Habitat’s parent company – last week revealed plans for two major developments: Crocarena and Zipline Zoo Adventures.
In a Queensland first, the Crocarena will feature a “sub- mersion experience” in which thrillseekers are locked in a cage before being sent into the water alongside two hungry crocs.
The latter is expected to include a zip line course, similar to that at the Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome, which will allow paying customers another unique view of the animals. Both investments, worth more than $1 million in total, are fine examples of innovation.
The need for forwardthinking as a way of engaging with would-be Far North tourists has become a focal point among the region’s business community.
Social commentator Bernard Salt and science guru Dr Karl Kruszelnicki spoke about the issue at length during last November’s Tourism Innovation Conference in Cairns.
The topic was also one of the key themes of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s recent speech at St Augustine’s College, Cairns.
“We are seeing enormous change in progress, and we are so well positioned to take advantage of that,” he told the audience, referring to the rapidly growing Asian market.
“We have to be innovative, we have to be creative, we have to be imaginative and prepared to do things differently.”
Sound advice from the PM but, as most business owners would say, it’s easier said than done.
Change takes courage, persistence and often comes at a hefty cost. But CaPTA Group chairman Charles Woodward has more than proved how thinking outside the square can lead to long-term reward.
For decades he and his family have helped build the Far North’s tourism industry, the backbone of the local econ- omy. They now own and operate several of the region’s most well-known attractions.
And then there’s George Chapman, who overcame many large and well-publicised political hurdles during the early 1990s in creating the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.
Now, more than 20 years later, the award-winning attraction is still widely lauded as a yardstick for tourism innovation.
Although most tourism operators are already predicting a prosperous 2016, driven again by a low Australian dollar, the two new Wildlife Habitat attractions could further invigorate the industry.
Both are tipped to open midyear, the middle of the peak tourist season, which could bring a flow-on effect throughout Port Douglas and Cairns.
In an interview this week, Mr Woodward said he was always looking for new and unique ways of doing things to keep people interested.
He also said he would be among the first people to test out the new “submersion experience” after construction was complete.
“It will be a great adrenaline rush,” Mr Woodward said.
Good luck to him ... but I think I’ve already seen enough of Sheila.
Swimming with a saltie is one of the most popular attractions for the adventurous in Darwin.
Babinda the saltie at Wildlife Habitat.