We bought two kayaks for $300 in January; that was Mr Tea’s Gumtree bargain of the year. They’re pretty good to look at too: one is mango cheek yellow, the other is Wiggles Skivvy Blue. They’ve got pedals to steer and not-so-waterproof compartments for valuables. You wouldn’t take them to the Olympics, but they’re more than serviceable for a swing around Lake Alexander or the Nightcliff Foreshore. If you’re into that sort of thing.
And mostly, I am not.
For a lot of this year, I’ve been too sick to do much more than walk around the block a couple of times. I left the heavy lifting and paddling to Mr Tea and whichever sucker he could convince to go with him. But on Friday, after weeks of encouragement/peer pressure, I finally agreed to an ocean paddle. We left the house at half-past six in the morning, just as the sun was rising over Rapid Creek footbridge. We parked in the car park that generally hosts the other extreme sportsmen and women of the Foreshore—the kite surfers, paddle boarders and seasonal cyclone surfers—and unloaded the gear. And then I got a little nervous.
It’s a slightly desperate ocean lover that braves the water in Darwin, even in the dry season. I don’t normally get more than one or two dips in between May and October and even those require a certain amount of chutzpah. You need to pack vinegar for a start, and feign confidence in the face of crocodiles and box jellyfish, washed up oil drums, car engines and the odd shopping trolley.
This Friday morning, the ocean was a murky shade of concrete. The surf was sloppy, even by Darwin standards, with ragged waves riding the edge of a high tide. But the air was cool and it all seemed doable, even for a kayak novice like me. I boarded the good ship Wiggle Blue and we set off for paddle.
My kayak soon filled with water, which Mr Tea assured me was normal. I started to wobble. As we rounded Nightcliff pool in deep water crashing over the rocks, I made the rookie error of pausing, paddle balanced in my arms, and glancing over my shoulder. Next thing I knew, I’d inhaled a good lung full of Nightcliff’s best H2O and my kayak was upside down beside me.
What followed can only be described as sheer, unnecessary terror, in which I lost both my water bottle and my dignity.
It took two attempts to remount the kayak, in a manoeuvre that would make even a desperate beached whale blush. Mr Tea rafted up beside me and said encouraging things. Eventually the kayak was upright again and so was I.
At that point, Mr Tea suggested we keep paddling towards the jetty. I suggested that we go home immediately, if not sooner.
“OK”, he said. “Keep paddling and don’t stop. That’s what made you fall in the first time.”
So I kept paddling on my wobbly kayak.
About ten metres ahead of me I saw a head pop up.
I looked again. The black head popped through the wave once more and then it disappeared into ocean foam.
Just a turtle just a turtle just a turtle it’s just a turtle, I told myself.
I paddled furiously. And then there was that black head again, this time right beside me.
It was a size 12 black thong, sitting in a pool of froth. A big, scary, size 12 Thong-odile.
Finally we got back to the rocks in front of the car park, and I surfed a massive (one foot) wave into the shore. Mr Tea grabbed me out of the kayak and a backwash of sand covered us both.
There’s nothing quite like a Thong-odile to get the reluctant adventurer’s heart racing on a Friday morning.
Thong-odile, Log-odile, Crocodile. In my eight years in the Territory, I’ve seen a few.
When I first moved to Darwin, I wondered about crocodile protocol. I searched the Internet for some kind of rules of engagement. Was it safe to walk on the beach? Would I see a crocodile on the dunes? How should I greet such a thing? Offer it a beer, gesture that I meant no harm and that we could both happily go our separate ways, then piss bolt?
Long-term locals snickered and patted my back, but they weren’t totally convincing.
“Nah, you’ll be right mate. You won’t see one on the beach. Well, probably not. You’d be unlucky. Hmmmmm, I spose people DO see them down Rapid Creek/surfing on Casuarina Beach/in Nightcliff Swimming Pool sometimes. Maybe it’s best not to go swimming anyway, just in case, eh?”
As far as reassurance goes, it’s pretty shaky but that’s exactly the advice I now dole out to house-guests and visiting relatives.
Crocodiles are damned impressive creatures. Awesome and terrifying all at once, there are about 100,000 of the salt water variety in the Top End. They can grow to over six metres in size. A large male can weigh over 200 kilograms. Crocodiles can swim about three times as fast as a human. And they can sense movement a couple of kilometres away. At least that’s what old mate at the pub told me.
Our closest croc call came on a sailing trip to Escape Cliffs. It was one of the early, failed European settlements in Northern Australia. These days, it’s a pocket of mangroves opposite the mouth of the Adelaide River. It’s gorgeous and glorious: on that trip we watched ocean birds duck and dive for fish amid a pod of dolphins. Unfortunately, we were not alone in our voyeurism. As Mr Tea and I sat on the bow taking in the sunset, a curious crocodile began to stalk our boat. He hovered 100 metres away, then 50 metres from our boat. Within minutes, Mr Tea had him at about 20 metres away. And then he came closer again.
We decided not to go for a spin in our inflatable dinghy that evening, no late night fishing for us. We kept all arms and legs well inside the confines of the yacht. I gave a little nervous shudder as I turned over to sleep, under the stars and the breeze that ricocheted off the front hatch.
The next day, we did brave the inflatable and set out for shore. I was a little crocodile anxious. We anchored up and gingerly stepped onto the beach, next to turtle tracks. Which we soon realised were the slide marks, claw prints, of a decent sized crocodile. We were about to get back on the boat when a handful of hunters clattered out of the mangroves. They had three giant pig dogs, muzzled and stained with blood.
Mr Tea said G’day. “How’d you go?”
They looked at us for a bit, alien yachties on a crocodile infested beach.
“Orright”, said one of them. “Fuckin’ hot. But we got one.”
They pushed their way down the beach, to wait for a tinny pick up.
“Oi!” one of them yelled back at us. “Youse know those are croc tracks, right?”
Time to go. I hopped on the inflatable and Mr Tea started the motor. We swung around the mangroves. And that’s when I saw our croc again. Mr Tea floored it until we got back to the yacht.
Two or three metres, we guessed, that crocodile stalking us around Escape Cliffs.
Another time I was visiting a friend in Gunbalanya, a community across Cahill’s Crossing in the escarpment country of West Arnhem Land. Paula was a nurse and had been out there for years. She lived in a wooden house with a verandah that overlooked the local billabong, a stunning vista of wetlands, water lillies and birds. And home to a sizeable population of crocodiles. We walked out the front and one of her neighbours signalled that he’d seen a croc just before we came out.
He gestured with his hands, about the size of a legal barramundi.
Oh, I thought. Just a small one. An ankle biter. Nothing to worry about.
Paula nudged me. “See his hands? That’s just how far the crocodile is across.”
Paula’s neighbour was talking width, not length. Turned out that was a bloody big crocodile, and it wasn’t very far away.
My stories pale next to others I’ve heard. There were a couple of fishos who had a crocodile take a bite out of their tinny. A herpetologist I know, Gavin Bedford, once found himself crawling through crocodile tunnels with a miner’s light and a noose around his neck (best not to ask) and hit a wall. He suddenly realised that wall was a crocodile, mouth wide open. Gavin’s head was inside the croc’s mouth. All he could see was yellow and teeth. He beat a pretty quick retreat and probably needed to change his knickers afterward.
Crocodiles haven’t always been so omnipresent. Back in the good old days, namely the ‘50s and ‘60s, Territorians went swimming in Yellow Waters. Sometimes they had a friend watching out with a rifle cocked, just in case, but often they didn’t. Crocodiles were fewer then, and they were scared of humans.
But in the ‘70s, the NT Government protected crocodiles and numbers have grown fast ever since. It would be highly unusual now to go out on Adelaide River or Corroboree Billabong or the East Alligator without laying eyes on two or three monsters on top of the water or sitting on the bank, mouth ajar.
And those are just the ones you can see. Go out at night with a torch, shine it around, and the river will glow red with eyes.
Is it time for a cull? Should we bring back the safari hunt? Or simply acknowledge the primacy of our crocodilian friends? This is a topic of uncomfortable conversation in the Top End and I don’t have an answer to those questions. But we have had four deaths by crocodile this year. One man was just emptying a bucket over the side of his boat, not far from the tourist centre of Kakadu.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared each time we launch or retrieve the tinny, knee deep in murky water on the boat ramp. When I fall out of a kayak. When the reeds get caught on the prop in the slender channels that bloom out of Yellow Waters and Mr Tea reaches down to cut it free with a filleting knife. When I think about the time I partook in that great Darwin rite of passage, tubing down Rapid Creek in the middle of the monsoonal rains.
That’s when you really hope, you pray, that any head you see pop up through the froth is a barra bubbling to the surface, a turtle, or just another thong-odile.