This Way Out: Waaaay Out with crocodiles in Australia’s Kakadu National Park
I like wide-open spaces, frontier lands and places not a lot of other people go. So I took off for remote Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory of Australia. I flew to Sydney and then flew another four-and-a-half hours northwest across Australia to Darwin. Then it was another 150-some miles in a van to the entrance of the park. Yup, waaaay out there.
Kakadu is tropical with forests, jungle, flood plains, marshes, rivers and bluffs. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has more than a third of Australia’s species of birds, a quarter of the continent’s land mammals and many species of fish, frogs and reptiles.
A couple of those reptiles are, shall we say, decidedly unfriendly: crocodiles. I stopped at a roadside attraction just outside the park to get a good look at a couple: Fred, a five-foot-long freshwater crocodile, and Brutus, a 13-foot-long saltwater croc. The well-named Brutus’s head is short and thick and looks very dense. Freddy’s head is long and narrow with a thin snout and pointed, highly visible teeth – and he headed toward me almost as soon as I walked up. Luckily for me, they live in chain-link-fence enclosures. Nonetheless, a little voice inside my head told me to back away.
Crocodiles showed up again on a boat cruise along the Yellow Waters “billabong” or backwater of the South Alligator River. (The river’s name comes from a misnomer from the 1830s.) The captain spotted the eyes and back of a croc that looked to be 12-feet-long floating in the water. Knowing how fast they are when they want to be – and how far they can jump straight up out of the water – I backed away from the edge of the boat. Slowly the croc sank back into the deep.
Although anyone with any brains avoids the many natural pools where big yellow warning signs say crocs are known to be in the area, some people swim in swimming holes with gray signs saying that crocodiles might be in the water. For me, I could wait for a swimming pool at a hotel.
Aboriginal people have lived here for 40,000 years. At Nourlangie Rock, an area of cliffs and rocks that reminded me of the American Southwest, they saw the cliffs as a religious canvas and have been drawing on them for 20,000 years. I walked a mile-long trail that wove among the rocks and led to several of the abstract paintings, some of which were, to me, bizarre – but certainly fascinating.
In fact, the entire park was fascinating – from forests of eucalyptus trees with vermillion trunks to similarly colored eight-foot-tall termite mounds to rugged bluffs to stately ibis and pretty kingfishers to ever-so-cute wallabies, which are smaller versions of kangaroos. There were so many things to look at. And then, of course, there are the crocs, and you don’t want to take your eyes off them.
Kakadu Crocodile Hotel, Jabiru, NT; gagudju-dreaming.com/Kakadu-Crocodile-Hotel/Overview.aspx
Kakadu Lodge, Jabiru Dr., Jabiru, NT; auroraresorts.com.au/aurora_Kakadu_Lodge/index.php
Tour: WayOutBack Australian Safaris, 30 Kidman St, Alice Springs, NT; tel: +61 (0)8 8952 4324; wayoutback.com.au (rustic camping)
Photos: April Orcutt