Calgary Herald

Tourists line up for crocs

In Australia’s Top End, it’s all about the crocodiles

- CHRISTINA KUNTZ

“Wow, look at the size of this monster coming in!” Every head on the boat turns in the direction our guide, Peter Saltmarsh, is pointing.

Sure enough, there it is — a saltwater crocodile. And not just any crocodile — a nasty-looking four-a-half-metre male saltie. Just the sort of crocodile you’d expect to see up here in the wilds of Australia’s Northern Territory.

“This one knows the boat and he’s swimming toward us flat out,” explains Saltmarsh, whose company, Spectacula­r Jumping Crocodile Cruises, makes several trips down this river every day.

The concept is fairly simple — take a boat out in a river known for its large croc population, dangle some raw meat over the side of the boat, and the crocs will come. Lift that meat just out of their reach, and the crocs will jump — and then the tourists will come.

We’re about to see that concept in action as Saltmarsh’s assistant, Joanna, attaches four hunks of meat to some wire at the end of a wooden pole. Now swimming slowly alongside the boat, the croc begins to raise his head, eyes on the prize that’s just out of reach.

We wait, watching — and then it happens. Up he goes, thick body shooting about halfway out of the water, revealing a smooth, pale belly. He is big — a lot bigger than he looked in the water — and his massive jaws slam shut with a loud bang as Joanna yanks the meat away at the last second.

“That’s two or three tons of pressure when those jaws come together,” Saltmarsh tells us. “Yes, it’s designed to smash your bones. Designed to rip you apart and swallow you piece by piece.”

It’s the third croc we’ve seen so far, but this fella is by far the most impressive. Keen to give us a better look, Saltmarsh carefully steers the boat over to the muddy bank of the river, urging “the big boy” to head up onto the shore.

“Anyone need to go for a wee while we’re here?” he asks innocently. “Come on, boys, jump on his back and do a bit of Steve Irwin. We won’t stop you.”

“Every time someone gets eaten by a croc, our business goes through the roof,” he quips.

Understand­ably, no one takes him up on the challenge, but we do move closer to the front end of the boat — cameras ready — as our big boy follows the dangling meat onto the shore. In one quick gulp, it’s gone, and he finally gets his reward for putting on a show.

For many tourists, this is what a trip to the Northern Territory is all about. Darwin, the capital city, is a heck of a long way to come from Sydney, and if you’ve made the trek up here, there’s a good chance that seeing a crocodile is at the top of your to-do list.

Fortunatel­y, once you do get here, it’s not hard to find one. After being hunted to near extinction, the saltwater crocodile became a protected species in the Territory in 1971, and the Northern Territory government estimates there are now more than 100,000 crocodiles living in the wild in this region.

Much to the delight of local news agencies, they don’t always stay in the wild. Though human attacks are rare, crocodiles frequently make the front pages for turning up everywhere from popular swimming holes to city pools.

But if you’re not “lucky” enough to stumble across one on your own, Territoria­ns have made sure that there are plenty of other ways for tourists to get their croc fix. Whether you want to see one jump, eat one, hold one, buy an oven mitt shaped like one or even swim in a cage next to one, there’s a place here to do just that.

“They are very much an important part of tourism in the NT,” Saltmarsh says, as we chat after the cruise.

“It’s a big, wide world out there, a very competitiv­e world out there today, and that is our point of difference — crocodiles.”

“This is one place that’s not like a completely developed urban shopping centre. It’s a little bit wild up here and there is a chance that you might see a man-eating crocodile — that’s why people come.”

For those who want to see crocs in their natural habitat — and jumping, no less — Saltmarsh’s cruise is one of several that operate down the Adelaide River, about an hour’s drive from Darwin. Farther afield, in the scenic Kakadu National Park, travellers who prefer something a bit quirky can stay at Gagudju Crocodile Holiday Inn — a hotel built in the shape of a crocodile (though you’ll have to take to the skies to truly appreciate the design).

On the outskirts of Darwin is Crocodylus Park, an attraction that combines tourism with conservati­on and research. Here, you can get a closer look at crocodiles of all ages, stroll through a fascinatin­g — and air-conditione­d — crocodile museum that covers everything from evolution to attacks, and even take home some croc meat to throw on the barbie.

“Anyone who comes to the Territory wants to see a crocodile,” says Wade Huffman, the manager of Crocosauru­s Cove, another popular crocodile attraction in the heart of Darwin.

Huffman says their location is “ridiculous­ly convenient” for tourists and gives them a chance to get the full croc experience. You can hold a baby croc, go “fishing” for juvenile crocs, or simply marvel at monster crocs like the 5.1-metre Burt, who starred in the original Crocodile Dundee film.

If that’s not enough, there’s always the Cage of Death, a 15-minute underwater adventure where you’re lowered into a croc enclosure in a clear container.

“Some of them smash the cage and others will just swim around with their mouths open. So you’re in there thinking, hmm, is it thick enough?” Huffman says grinning.

Originally from Ontario, he can certainly understand the appeal of crocodiles for foreigners, and he says locals seem to be just as intrigued by them. Huffman chalks it up to the mystery that surrounds them; we hear plenty of scary stories but really don’t know all that much about crocodiles.

Yet even for someone like him who has been working closely with crocs for years (with some nasty bite-mark scars to prove it), there’s a fascinatio­n that remains.

“They’re just an awesome creature,” Huffman says. “I love the fact that they are so cranky. They’ve just got the angry personalit­y. And they’ve survived for 80 to 100 million years, depending on who you speak to, unchanged.

“That in itself is impressive.”

 ?? Courtesy, Sissy Arndt ?? A croc does the jump in Australia’s Adelaide River during a Spectacula­r Jumping Crocodile cruise.
Courtesy, Sissy Arndt A croc does the jump in Australia’s Adelaide River during a Spectacula­r Jumping Crocodile cruise.
 ?? Courtesy, Wade Huffman ?? A tourist gets up close and personal with a saltwater crocodile in the Cage of Death at Crocosauru­s Cove in Darwin, Australia.
Courtesy, Wade Huffman A tourist gets up close and personal with a saltwater crocodile in the Cage of Death at Crocosauru­s Cove in Darwin, Australia.

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