James Jeffrey enjoys next-to-nature encounters on the Northern Territory’s Katherine River
THE bright-yellow screwdriver handle sticking out of the branch high above my head is a simple but effective reminder that when the Northern Territory’s Katherine River bursts its banks, it doesn’t muck about.
The average flood around here is 12m to 15m,’’ says Jim Demitreou — guide, riverboat captain, cook, crocodile wrangler and occasional reptile dental hygienist — as he ushers our small group aboard the 48-seat riverboat and loads it with essentials for tonight’s barbecue.
It got a bit more interesting in 2006, when she got up to 19.1m,’’ he says.
The river, which starts life in Arnhem Land and reaches the town that shares its name via 13 gorges of biblical scale, was high enough then to moisten the bridge now looming over the bottlegreen current and gave screwdriverwielding canoeists a chance to paddle through the treetops.
But notwithstanding the mess the flood made of Katherine, locals were relieved it wasn’t as bad as in 1998, when the river performed its annual metamorphosis from overgrown creek to deluge and just kept going until it was 6km wide and shifting a Sydney Harbour-worth of water every nine hours. The resident crocodiles mustn’t have known which way to turn.
It’s all well-behaved this October evening, but with the wet season due to start in little more than a month, there’s a sense of breath being held. We putter away from Springvale Homestead, where whole platoons of agile wallabies are cropping the grass among the old stone buildings, and make our way down the river between the walls of paperbark and pandanus.
A ragged flotilla of purple cloud hangs motionless as the last of the birds, silhouetted in the day’s afterglow, flap towards their roosts for the night. The air is filled with the call of doves and the screeching of corellas. We pass snakeneck darters, which peer at us down dagger-like beaks, and a small flock of rajah shelducks busily attending to the fussy plumage that makes them look like small, fat geishas with webbed feet. The surface of the water is aquiver with mysterious ripples and punctuated by the odd, frantic splash.
There are plenty of fish in here,’’ Jim notes. Catfish, rifle fish, sooty grunters and archerfish, for starters. The archerfish cruise in under the low hanging leaves and squirt the bugs off and snap them up as soon as they hit the water. And there are the barra; the big ones have got my name on them.’’ We’ll start seeing them later — young barramundi, catfish as big as whippets — with the help of spotlights and offerings of top grade beef, but on Springvale’s Crocodile Adventure Night Cruise, fish aren’t the main attraction.
It’s mainly freshwater crocs we get along here, though we do get the occasional salty in the wet, which makes things interesting,’’ Jim tells me. With freshies at least, the only people recorded as being bitten are scientists and researchers doing silly things like holding them and measuring them.’’
We find the first one dozing on a submerged log, eyes and snout just poking above the surface, its mouth agape and its many teeth luminous in the warm gloom. They don’t hunt; they just lie there with their mouths open, waiting for food to come to them. Bit like a bloke, really.’’ The croc stirs and takes us in with a yellow eye, then slips away with nary a ripple.
Any croc that’s made it to adulthood is doing really well,’’ Jim says as he eases us through the shallow, rock-strewn gush of the narrows. Hold tight, I’ve been known to nudge this bit from time to time.
Even when they’re buried in their nests, the eggs are at risk from all sorts of predators, especially goannas and feral pigs. Then when they hatch, the baby crocs are in trouble from everything from barramundi and freshwater turtles to other crocs. From 100 eggs, you probably end up with just two making it all the way to adulthood.’’
But that’s when a newer problem awaits them. I’ve seen half a dozen dead crocs this year, probably killed from trying to eat cane toads. The biggest croc was 2.5m long, maybe 30 years old, just lying there in the water, belly up.’’ The one bit of good news about what is arguably Australia’s most stunningly idiotic import is that animals are starting to learn to deal with them, either avoiding the toads altogether or bypassing their poison glands.
Might be a bit of a bump,’’ Jim announces as we approach the barbecue spot, a level clearing with long tables high up the bank. As Jim gets busy with the barbecue, cabernet merlot is poured into glasses and I glance up to see an apparently endless black column of flying foxes on an evening commute to the nearby mango farms; I find myself pondering them later as I start on the mango salad and a perfectly done steak, when there’s a noise nearby.
Ah, here’s Mouse,’’ Jim announces. I look down to see a couple of metres of freshwater crocodile on the bank, gazing up at us with an air of truculent expectation. As Jim heads down with a bucket of chopped steak — same as what I gave you, except I cooked yours’’ — he explains that Mouse and other resident crocs come at the sound of the boat’s engine and hang around for a feed. I crouch near Mouse (sensibly keeping Jim between us) and admire his beautiful form, from his long, tapered snout and well-armoured body to his powerful, serrated tail.
It’s a body design that clearly works. Crocodiles reached this basic shape more than 70 million years ago and mother nature has seen no compelling reason for them to evolve any further. Jim tosses a hunk of meat into Mouse’s maw and his jaws shut with a clop that makes my eardrums jump.
Apart from some cantankerous behaviour when the Apprentice — a much younger, smaller croc — turns up for his share, Mouse is a model of old-fashioned courtesy, even sitting patiently while Jim uses a long twig to dislodge some beef stuck between his teeth.
Before we leave, Jim takes some meat and bread to trigger a feeding frenzy near the boat, and the water churns with eeltail catfish and turtles. As we eventually set off along the tepid river, tiny bats flit in and out of our spotlight beams where juicy moths congregate, and an owl passes in a silent flash of white feathers.
Then I begin to notice the eyes dotted all around us like pairs of rubies. Apart from the occasional pink pair — young barramundi cruising just beneath the surface — they all belong to crocs.
I see the catfish again the following morning, painted in ochre on sandstone in Nitmiluk National Park. I’ve come up here with Darrin Smith, who’s flown me in a helicopter that looks like little more than a soap bubble with a rotor, giving me a completely different view of the Katherine River passing through its 13 gorges. We zoom over where the river cuts its green gash through the escarpment, flowing around beaches and islands, carrying kayakers and tourist boats beneath towering walls of rock.
We sink lower, spotting families of water buffalo lumbering among the sparse trees, and settle on to a helipad discreetly tucked into a small gorge and painted the colour of the surrounding rock. Barely 15 minutes’ flying has brought us the equivalent of a very solid day’s hike from the national park’s entrance, and we have the place to ourselves. Fed by an underground spring, a waterfall burbles down the sandstone, right through even the arid depths of the dry, and into a beautiful pool dotted with tiny, baize-green lilies. As Darrin does the hard work of laying out the picnic spread, I float in the pool, listening to the waterfall, before wandering through the gallery of rock art. There are silhouettes of men and kangaroos, but it’s the turtles, barramundi and catfish with their telltale whiskers that dominate, a celebration by the traditional owners of the river’s bounty.
When we eventually head back, Darrin flies lower over the gorges, pointing out on the rock walls how high the Katherine will probably rise in the coming months.
As we begin our descent, I glance back along the river as it stretches into the stony distances toward Arnhem Land, where the floodwaters will flow from, then in the opposite direction towards town. I know, somewhere down there, a canoeist is stocking up on screwdrivers. Just in case. James Jeffrey was a guest of Tourism NT.
Springvale Homestead’s Crocodile Night Adventure Cruise costs $55 a person, including dinner and drinks. More: Travel North, 1800 089 103; Springvale Homestead, (08) 8972 1355. Airborne Solutions’ 21/ hour Nitmiluk Ultimate Tour costs $595 a person. Other gorge tours start from $285 a person. More: (08) 8972 2345; www.airbornesolutions.com.au.