Getting fresh with crocs on Lake Argyle
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