We wait. Cahill’s Crossing looms. For months, it’s been closed and the murky water rages.
We’re told it’ll open today; if the water level goes beneath two feet, the rangers will give the go-ahead. We’ll be the first car across the East Alligator River all year.
Well, the first officially sanctioned car — some didn’t wait. Helpless against the rocks is an abandoned 4×4. Downstream is another, upturned and rusting. They’re not-so-gentle reminders of what happens to those who get the crossing wrong. Inside our Landcruiser there’s a hushed silence. The stakes are high and nerves are twitching. After all, we’re not the only ones waiting. This isn’t the kind of river in which you want to have to swim for safety — the prehistoric monsters beneath the murk have teeth. Big teeth.
Around 80,000 crocodiles are thought to call the Northern Territory home. The creeks, billabongs, rivers and shoreline all belong to them. Pretty much every inch of water, salt or fresh, will be part of a big fella’s territory. Old, battle-hardened boys weighing in at up to 700 kilos and measuring around 16ft long are routinely found waiting in the shallows. Or, if you’re out on the Adelaide River, eyeballing you next to the boat.
A little more than 40 miles from the Northern Territory’s capital of Darwin, the river is an introduction to what awaits further east, with the floodplains, wetlands and savannah converging in close proximity. But it’s also where the croc-watching cruises ply their trade. Pat Chappell, barefoot and bushy of beard, has been taking his boat out on the river for years. He’s obliged by law to point out the life jackets in case it capsizes. “They’re a good decoy, if nothing else — you need something to throw at a croc to distract it,” he tells us.
Saltwater crocs are remarkable creatures. They haven’t evolved since the age of the dinosaurs, simply because they haven’t had to. They have a bite 12 times more powerful than a lion’s or great white shark’s, they can move their own body length in a second and they can go a year without eating.
But when an opportunity to feed presents itself, the crocodile will take it. These stealth hunters learn patterns — woe betide any cow that comes to the same place to drink, at the same time, several days in a row.
Yet, they’ve got surprisingly small brains. A croc’s grey matter does what’s necessary to ensure the animal’s survival and nothing more. “Crocs don’t get complacent,” explains Pat. “It’s because they’re not thinkers. They don’t have the memory or emotions to form relationships. You could feed an individual for years — but if you get in the water and take your eye off him, he’ll kill you.”
Gnasher appears — we didn’t hear him coming — from under the boat. He sidles up, his teeth yellow. He’s the alpha male here. Any female that wants to share his territory without getting killed has to show constant signs of submission. And any human stupid enough to dangle an arm over the side of the boat may well lose it.
As a ‘gentle’ introduction to Australia’s intoxicating and ferociously uncompromising Top End, this is pretty electrifying. What follows is less immediate, but seeps under the skin and is so alien that it forces me to completely reconsider how the world works.
The concept of four seasons doesn’t really work here, but neither does the oft-used shorthand of two seasons — the wet and the dry. The local indigenous groups use six seasons, which change with natural triggers rather than calendar dates. We’re passing through on the cusp of Banggereng (March), when the storms flatten the speargrass that grows out of control during the monsoon rains, and Yegge (April and May). This is when the winds shift to come in from the bone-dry south east. Temperatures drop, crocodiles come out of the water to sun themselves on the banks and the burning of the drying grasses begins. Fire has been a key part of land management here for thousands of years. Any smoke plumes on the horizon are likely to be deliberate. At this time, roads are beginning to reopen, floodwaters are in retreat and the fish being flushed along provide a feeding bonanza for predators both reptilian and avian. Soon the migratory birds, making their way down from Siberia, will start to arrive.
Heading further east on the Arnhem Highway, through Kakadu National Park, there’s a shift in the scenery. The wetlands, floodplains and unflinching savannah woodland hand over the baton to the ‘stone country’. On the horizon, the Arnhem Land Escarpment puffs out its chest. The giant sandstone wall, oozing ancient impregnability, sweeps across, its crags playing host to bats and pythons not found anywhere else on the planet, and its outcrops pockmarking the view like loyal foot soldiers.
One of these is Ubirr where, early in the morning, rare black wallaroos bound around the car park. The climb up to the rock is something of an open-air exhibition — the Aboriginal rock paintings in various natural shelters, or galleries, date back thousands of years. Over time, the red ochres the artists used have essentially burned into the rock and become a part of it.
Some paintings can be dated by their content. The floodplains, for example, didn’t start to develop here until around 2,000 years ago. So art depicting long-necked turtles and fish is likely to be younger than that. Others featuring thylacines, otherwise known as the Tasmanian tiger, are almost certainly more than 5,000 years old; thylacines are thought to have been wiped out here on the mainland around that time due to competition from indigenous humans and invasive dingoes.
Other paintings tell stories and helpful signs nearby explain what they mean. I learn that one piece shows the Namarrgarn sisters, who used to play games near the East Alligator River. They’d hide from one another by taking on the form of an animal and one day decided to stay that way. That animal? The saltwater crocodile.
Such stories are the fabric that holds Aboriginal culture together. There are many of these stories and they interlink, to be told over many hours. All contain lessons about morality, the landscape, the night sky and the natural world. All play a role in explaining the meaning of life. And all are revealed in stages. Outsiders are only given the briefest of insights into these sacred Aboriginal tales.
Over the fast flow
At the top of Ubirr, a sea of green unfolds beneath us, dotted with small ponds that will soon evaporate. It’s the floodplain of the East Alligator River, where the Namarrgarn sisters once played. And on the other side is Arnhem Land. This is Aboriginal land, with entry by special permit only. It’s extremely sparsely populated, with roughly 16,000 people living in an area the size of Portugal, and for large chunks of the year it’s inaccessible by road.
The front wheels dip into the water. Nerves are jangling. Cahill’s is the most notorious crossing in Australia, and being the guinea pigs of the season isn’t exactly a reassuring position to find ourselves in. At the helm, Venture North guide Dave McMahon seems excited by the prospect. We can’t see what condition the road beneath us is in, but the water flows fast and when we reach the other side the nervous quiet is broken by a bout of relieved whooping.
Our first stop in Arnhem Land is Gunbalanya, which is the closest thing to a service town in these parts. It’s home to Injalak Arts, where indigenous painters, wood carvers and weavers both create and sell their works. There’s considerable excitement, as we’re the first balanda — or ‘whitefellas’ — to drive in for months.
There’s a significance behind the word balanda that hints at a little-known piece of history in these parts — because it actually existed before any white man had set foot in Arnhem Land.
Centuries before European exploration and settlement, Macassan traders came from what’s now the Indonesian island of Sulawesi to harvest trepang — also known as sea slugs or sea cucumbers. The Macassans would come with the prevailing winds during the wet season, gather up as many sea cucumbers as possible, then return to sell them to China once the winds changed. There are only a few physical clues to this contact — the odd imported tamarind tree, for example — but more evidence exists in the local languages. ‘Orang belanda’ in the Macassan language (and in today’s Malay) means Dutch person. The Arnhem Land clans simply adopted balanda as a term for all white people, based on Macassan descriptions.
It’ll take a good few hours of driving the 4×4 over rough, potholed roads to reach our eventual destination. Venture North’s camp is on the Cobourg Peninsula, in Arnhem Land’s far north-west — and the problem with being the first over the East Alligator River is that you’re also first up the dirt track to the Cobourg.
This provides Dave with repeated tests of his Northern Territory driving ability. Giant, unexpected crevasses appear in the track, trees block the path and creeks are still flooded at considerably higher levels than Cahill’s Crossing. Frequent diversions off-road are required, small trees have to be mown down to clear an impromptu path and mammoth potholes cause back-jarring crunches.
There’s also a strong chance of encountering another gift from the Macassans — the banteng. These distinctive orange cattle originated in Southeast Asia, but much of their native habitat has been destroyed, so now the population roaming wild on the Cobourg Peninsula is regarded as vital for the conservation of the species. “They’re pretty much isolated up here,” explains Dave. “Banteng are forest cows; they’re not suited to the floodplains.”
That doesn’t stop them from wandering onto the beaches, though. There are clear tracks in the sand at Port Bremer, where Dave stops to root out a light snack for later. He leads us out over the rocks, carrying a rudimentary spear. Then, suddenly, he stops and jabs it into a hole. “Sometimes I’ll feel one in the hole and I’ll be there for 15 or even 20 minutes. But once you feel it, you can always get it,” he says.
He’s after mud crabs. But he only manages to pull out a claw — which the crab will happily regrow — so he needs to attack from the other side. However, that means getting in the water. It’s clearly not a thought that fills him with delight. “There are two small bull sharks around here,” he says. “And they’ll take the backs of your legs off. So keep a look out behind me, please.”
After a few minutes of cat-and-mouse, he strikes and emerges with a struggling crab. He holds it by the back legs, careful to keep well clear of its powerful front claws. “These things can do serious damage with those pincers. You’ve got to be very careful.”
Dave takes the crab over to the cool box to put it on ice. “It’ll just cool him down and send him to sleep,” he says, nonchalantly, while everyone makes a mental note not to go rummaging around in there for a can of Coke. The track through the forest eventually leads to the camp, which looks out over the splintered natural harbour of Port Essington.
The next day, the journey switches from land to water and we clamber into a fishing boat. “This is one of the last great unspoilt marine environments,” announces Dave, as we look for a good spot to drop anchor and begin fishing. “There’s an abundance of apex predators around here. It’s not uncommon to pull up a fish and find half of it’s been eaten by a shark while you were reeling it in.”
He points over to an otherwise rather appealing spit of sand, daintily protruding into the sea. “You usually see some big crocs on there.” Sawsharks hang around in the shallows, oystercatchers bob up and down on the beach, a shovelnose ray glides past and eastern curlews dig in the sand with their long beaks searching for soldier crabs. No-one holding a fishing rod has to wait too long for a bite, although for every sizeable trevally pulled out and gutted for tonight’s dinner, there’s a snarling, angry barracuda that’s tossed back. Other than us on the boat, there’s no sign of human life. Port Essington is completely untouched, although things could have turned out very differently.
We moor up at a beach and amble into the forest. Among the giant mounds created by orange-footed scrubfowls is a remarkable set of stone ruins; they belong to the ill-fated Victoria Settlement, the third British attempt to set up a base on Australia’s northern shore. Between 1838 and 1849, the hapless settlers battled cyclones, malaria and supply ships that never showed up on time in what must have been a thoroughly grim existence.
“Every kid brought here died. Every kid born here died,” says Dave. Only the graveyard, the cyclone-ravaged remnants of the heavy stone buildings and stacks of rum bottle fragments remain. There’s a strong lost-city vibe, with a mournful stench of failure shrouding the place. The Cobourg Peninsula is remote and largely uninhabited for good reason — and that’s before you get to the things in the water with big teeth.
From the camp’s clifftop fire pit, the sun drops down over Port Essington. We stare idly out to the rocks in the water. But something’s not quite right. Is one of the rocks moving? It is. Ever so slowly, it slinks out of position and arcs round. It’s not a rock.
In the shallows, the queenfish are zipping around, as they do at dusk. They’re drawing attention to themselves and they really don’t want to be doing that. This is a rare chance to watch the ultimate stealth predator in action. He glides in silently, barely disturbing the water. A 13ft hulk of a thing, he comes closer to the shore. And he waits.
Getting there & around
Malaysia Airlines offers one-stop flights to Darwin from Heathrow, as does Singapore Airlines, which also flies from Manchester. Otherwise, an extra connection is required via major Australian cities with airlines such as Etihad or Emirates.
Average flight time: Between 21-25h, depending on the route/stopover.
All the major car hire firms are represented at Darwin International Airport, and while a conventional vehicle is fine for Kakadu National Park during the dry season, a 4×4 is essential for Arnhem Land. Permits to enter Arnhem Land must be applied for via the Northern Land Council in advance.
When to go
The dry season tends to be between late April/early May and late October/early November, although it can vary by a week or two. The start of the dry season is hotter, but with waterfalls still in full flow. It’s still possible to see a lot of Kakadu National Park during the wet season, but many roads are closed.
Where to stay
Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel
Cobourg Coastal Camp
How to do it
Venture North has a five-day trip through Kakadu, Arnhem Land and the Cobourg Peninsula from Darwin, which costs from A$3,290 (£1,884) per person. All meals and accommodation (with shared bathrooms) are included, but not international flights.
Wallaroo Tours runs a day trip from Darwin to Litchfield National Park, which includes the Adelaide River crocodile-watching cruise. Tickets cost A$180 (£103).
Published in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)