HALF MOON BAY, Calif., November 13, 2012 — Shortly after arriving in Darwin, Australia, I was told not to worry too much about saltwater crocodiles.
“I windsurf in the harbor nearly every day,” said my driver. “If there were crocs, I wouldn’t be here.”
After surveying other locals, however, I quickly disregarded his advice. In Australia’s Northern Territory, they keep a wary eye out for the prehistoric creatures. While out hiking in Litchfield National Park, or its larger sister, Kakadu National Park, you can’t avoid well-placed signs advising visitors of swimming safety.
Contrary to its common name, the saltwater crocodile is really an estuarine crocodile, at ease with life in saltwater and freshwater habitats. After the rainy season, swimming holes considered safe in the previous season might not necessarily remain so, after “salties” move around.
While hiking through Litchfield National Park last month, I took swimming breaks in pools near Florence Falls and Wangai Falls, both of which were safely free of saltwater crocodiles, but not necessarily free of “freshies.”
“If you see a freshie while you’re swimming,” advised my guide, “it’s probably just swimming away from you. It’ll only bite if you’re harassing it.”
Maybe so, but I resolved to get out of the water if I saw a crocodile sharing my swimming hole. I would have plenty of time to play with them later, in Darwin.
Nearly from the moment I knew I’d be visiting the huge crocs at Crocosaurus Cove in Darwin, I was excited about the prospect of getting safely close to them. I had even looked at photos of the clear plastic cage, dramatically referred to as the Cage of Death, and decided that I wanted to try it. But on the plane to Australia, I sat next to a woman who made me doubt my decision for a moment.
“I know that place,” she said. “The cage broke a couple of years ago, but the person wasn’t hurt.”
I wanted to know exactly what had happened. Did the cage fall off the chains and sink? Did it open? She didn’t remember the details. (It turns out that one of the chains briefly malfunctioned, causing the cage to sag a little on one side — nowhere close to the disastrous event I imagined.)
While I slept on the flight, I had a dream that the cage broke open when I was inside it. The crocodile surged after me, and I woke with my heart racing, wondering if the dream meant I should consider rethinking my desire to be that close to crocodiles.
The concern lasted no longer than a moment. I was ready for the Cage of Death.
The Perspex cylinder cage was suspended about the pool by three thick metal chains. Goggles in hand, I climbed down the shiny silver ladder and planted my feet at the bottom of the container, where it skimmed the top of the water. Only 5 feet away was a monster of a saltwater crocodile, eyeing me.
The motor started, slowly lowering the cage into the watery home of a 15-foot, 1,500-pound animal. Floating in the water, just inches from a saltwater crocodile that could crush me in an instant if we didn’t have thick plastic between us, all I could think about was how amazingly beautiful this animal was. Named Houdini, after his seemingly magical escapes from traps before his life in captivity, he could have been a crocodile model. The white teeth, tapered claws, and amber eyes had me constantly diving under the water’s surface to get a closer look.
His eye was less than a hand’s distance from my face, and he turned towards me as I watched him. There were small openings in the cage, and I was tempted to stick my finger out to touch his tough skin, but not that tempted. I wanted to keep all my digits. When Houdini snapped up meat offered at the end of a long pole, his tail whipped into the cage while I watched his jaws slam shut right in front of me. I would have stayed in there for hours if I could.
If all that sounds like just a bit too much, visitors to Crocosaurus Cove can safely feed much smaller crocs, or settle for merely watching them from a distance. While in the Northern Territory, you might as well get a comfortable look at some of its most famous residents.
Jill K. Robinson is an award-winning journalist and adventure seeker. Follow her adventures on dangerjillrobinson.com and Twitter @dangerjr. Jill is an avid kayaker and owner of Half Moon Bay Kayak Company.
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