It is another hot, near-cloudless day, and the morning has a scorched, brackish smell. We spot sea eagles and kingfishers, snowy egrets and crane-like brolga. Then the “salties” appear.
“We got about 10,000 ginga in Kakadu,” says Jaimee, my guide in the park. She uses the local indigenous word for crocodile. “And they’ve seen plenty. They’ve been here for more than 200 million years.”
The extraordinary Kakadu National Park is one of Australia's most celebrated tracts of wilderness, a 20,000-square kilometer, Unesco-listed expanse of crocs and cliffs, wallabies and waterfalls, ancient rock art and craggy escarpments. The city of Darwin is 150km away, but rare is the visitor to the capital of the Northern Territory who does not also spend time in Kakadu.
People talk about the special power of the place, and I too find myself rapt, not least on the morning I arrive, when I join Jaimee. She steers our vessel out onto the ribboned waters of the park’s Yellow Water Billabong, and within minutes the scenery opens up to reveal deep landscapes of grass plains and far-off hills. It is another hot, near-cloudless day, and the morning has a scorched, brackish smell. We spot sea eagles and kingfishers, snowy egrets and crane-like brolga. Then the “salties” appear.
“He’s a big boy, this one,” says Jaimee, as we inch closer to a ton-weight male lying motionless in the mud and roots at the water’s edge. When we are ten meters away, it gives the merest hint of a movement, a slight motion of the jaws that makes the sight of its dinosaur- era teeth even more unsettling. It stays put as we back off.
“You can come down here with your own boat, but they don’t allow kayaks,” says Jaimee. “A couple of kayakers got eaten, you see.” And as the next hour unfolds, it becomes clear just how many crocodiles there are here. We see more than a dozen of them, sometimes immobile under trees, sometimes shivering silently through the dark water, sometimes startlingly close at hand on the banks, all scaly hides and reptilian bulk. Every one of them has dead, ageless eyes.