Get­ting fresh with crocs on Lake Ar­gyle

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - CHRIS PRITCHARD

The big­ger the smile, the more dan­ger­ous. “Just like hu­mans,” a pas­sen­ger quips, in­ter­rupt­ing our tour guide’s pat­ter about be­havioural dif­fer­ences be­tween the pointynosed fresh­wa­ter va­ri­ety of crocodiles and their broad­jawed salt­wa­ter cousins. Another pas­sen­ger high­lights a lin­guis­tic odd­ity — sal­ties are called man-eaters but history sug­gests they are not fussy about the gen­der of their hu­man vic­tims.

Eleven of us frolic in Lake Ar­gyle’s warm wa­ter and, as dic­tated by out­back cus­tom, con­ver­sa­tion quickly turns to crocs. I’m re­minded, too, of this great Aus­tralian fas­ci­na­tion a lit­tle ear­lier when we ex­plore nooks and cran­nies, some­times at 30-knot speeds be­cause there’s much to cover dur­ing this four-hour cruise. Lake Ar­gyle, a big ex­panse of wa­ter in a big state, is com­monly de­scribed as cov­er­ing 1000 sq km though ac­tual size varies sea­son­ally; the wet sea­son ends in March. An ar­ti­fi­cial lake an­chor­ing the Ord River Ir­ri­ga­tion Scheme, it was cre­ated 44 years ago by Ord River Dam con­struc­tion

Its re­mote­ness in the north­east Kim­ber­ley, close to Western Aus­tralia’s bor­der with the North­ern Ter­ri­tory, means few get to see it, which is a pity. Its enor­mous watery ex­panse is dot­ted with 70 isles cre­ated by flood­ing, from rocky out­crops to 7km-long Ha­gan Is­land. On some, wal­laby colonies thrive. We eye­ball a few of the es­ti­mated 240 bird species, in­clud­ing jabirus and Aus­tralian bus­tards, and wave to blokes aboard a tin­nie fish­ing for barramundi and sil­ver cob­bler.

Pas­sen­gers are awe-inspired by sight­ings of crocodiles bask­ing on rocks or swimming in se­cluded bays. Though the lake is home to freshies, favour­ing small prey and shun­ning hu­mans (no tourists have been at­tacked), the four cruise op­er­a­tors here take no chances, per­mit­ting swims only in crocodile-free ar­eas such as one where there’s an an­nual race. Un­con­firmed sight­ings of salt­wa­ter crocs “turned out to be mis­taken iden­tity … [they were] un­usu­ally large freshies”, notes Char­lie Sharpe, whose fam­ily runs Lake Ar­gyle Re­sort and Lake Ar­gyle Cruises.

Lake Ar­gyle Cruises’ Kim­ber­ley Du­rack, a 50-pas­sen­ger 15m cata­ma­ran, is an­chored be­hind us. Other groups of pas­sen­gers swim to our left and right. A mod­i­fied lifering, in­cor­po­rat­ing a tray, fer­ries top-ups for our Mar­garet River sun­down­ers and nib­bles. As we splash about, the sun slips slowly to the hori­zon.

Another day, another cruise. Next morn­ing, a Ku­nunurra ho­tel pick-up whisks me along Vic­to­ria High­way through clas­sic Kim­ber­ley wilder­ness to the Lake Ar­gyle turn-off. Just be­fore the lake, we stop out­side a lime­stone pile, the 120-year-old Du­rack Homestead, now a mu­seum de­pict­ing pi­o­neer­ing lifestyles. The dwelling was re­lo­cated from a now-sub­merged part of Ar­gyle Downs Sta­tion.

I board Triple J Tours’ 50-pas­sen­ger Osprey for a 55km cruise back to Ku­nunurra. The skip­per an­nounces we won’t see salt­wa­ter crocs. Their Ord River habi­tat is be­tween Ku­nunurra and the Ti­mor Sea; only fresh­wa­ter crocodiles live be­tween Lake Ar­gyle and Ku­nunurra.

White-bel­lied sea ea­gles soar over­head. A guide iden­ti­fies cor­morants, herons and jabirus. We pause be­neath a tree where fly­ing foxes hang out. Sud­denly, a small boy shrieks, “Look, Mum, crocodile!” His ex­cite­ment is shared by all of us but, like many other sight­ings, this “croc” is merely a piece of driftwood.

A gang­plank at Car­ton Gorge Camp marks our af­ter­noon tea stop. A path, deep into the bush, ends at set ta­bles groan­ing with scones and clot­ted cream, cakes and sand­wiches. Off again, we cruise be­side crocodiles bask­ing on river­banks with jaws wide open. We slice be­tween gorges and wind through open coun­try to Ku­nunurra. A red ball hangs above the town — another splen­did sunset.

Chris Pritchard was a guest of Aus­tralia’s North West Tourism.

Ele­phant Rock on the Ord River cruise, above; a fresh­wa­ter crocodile basks on the bank, above right

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