CROC COUN­TRY

James Jef­frey en­joys next-to-na­ture en­coun­ters on the North­ern Ter­ri­tory’s Kather­ine River

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - News -

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.

Check­list

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.

www.trav­elnt.com

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