NT crocodiles in no short supply

NEDA VANOVAC
Last updated 05:10 19/03/2014
Crocodile
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AUSTRALIA'S DEADLIEST: A salt-water crocodile in Sydney.

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I'm dangling just above the water when Chopper, a 5.5 metre-long saltwater crocodile, lunges upwards to snap at my feet.

Okay, so I'm being lowered into the water in a perspex cage, but that's somehow not so comforting - especially when I note the scratches all over the glass.

How often is the cage replaced? I quaver.

"With every death," my cage mate deadpans.

"It's like a coffin!" chirps my guide.

I'm in the Cage of Death at Crocosaurus Cove in Darwin, a city infatuated with the reptile.

Since being declared a protected species in 1971, the croc population in the Top End has flourished.

The local newspaper is full of stories of close encounters, such as that of the reporter chased out of the surf by a saltwater croc, and, terribly, the 12-year-old boy snatched and killed at a billabong in Kakadu on Australia Day.

But tourists still thrill at the idea of spotting a croc in the Northern Territory, and there's no shortage of opportunities.

They're in waterholes and dams, they're at the beach, they're served up in restaurants as croc calamari and surf 'n' turf.

And then there's Australia's only crocodile dive in the Cage of Death.

Beneath the surface of the water, I fully appreciate Chopper's enormity.

He's at the upper end of the scale - in the wild, males reach about six metres.

He's no less fearsome for having stumps where both his front legs once were, casualties of the notorious saltie territorialism.

He's about 80 years old but he's definitely still got it, as evidenced by my screams when a keeper dangles a raw pig heart over the water and Chopper lunges for it, the snap of his jaws up against our cage.

It's the closest I'll ever get to these ancient creatures - well, hopefully.

Chopper seized his snack so viciously the rope it dangled from is stuck in his teeth.

Teeth mere centimetres away.

Teeth I can fully appreciate, embedded in a massive jaw that can crush my head like a Malteser.

Chopper is one of about 200 crocodiles, including seven adults, at Crocosaurus Cove, a cohort that includes "surprisingly nimble" former cattle killer Leo, psychic Wendell, who makes predictions by gobbling chickens, Crocodile Dundee star Burt, and breeding pair William and Kate, named for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Prince George is nearby in a smaller tank of juveniles.

Visitors can go fishing for crocs in a tank filled with about 100 smaller salties, who launch themselves alarmingly high out of the water to snatch raw meat from fishing rods.

And these aren't the Top End's only jumping crocodiles: cruises along the Adelaide River cater for those wanting to see them in their natural environment.

As we putter along the riverbank, we spot pair after pair of eyes rising up through the murky water.

For every crocodile you see, assume there's another dozen you can't, we're told.

We meet the famous Brutus, who carries a stump where his front right leg was.

"Hands inside the boat," our guide unnecessarily warns us, as he baits a line with buffalo meat and waves it in front of Brutus' snout.

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When he leaps over a metre out of the water alongside the boat, inches away from us, everyone yelps, and the force of his body hitting the water rocks us all precariously.

It's wonderful, awe-inspiring, terror-tinged fun.

But lest the marketing mania carry you away, it's not just about crocodiles.

The NT is home to a dazzling array of wildlife, from the kites and sea eagles that patrol the city, to the tiny white cockatoos that come streaming out at us in a colossal, swirling flock, flying like white bats out of hell.

They circle overhead, around and around, until I completely forget the river around us is chock-full of killing things.

On cue, a kite swoops down in a blur as our guide tosses out a bit of food, snatching it up in its talons before it hits the surface of the water.

Ultimately, this is the everyday beauty of the Northern Territory, the way locals cohabit with the region's remarkable wildlife you can spot driving home from work, or in your backyard.

Although in the case of crocodiles, a little more distance is probably better.

IF YOU GO:

GETTING THERE Qantas and Jetstar both offer regular flights to Darwin from all Australian capitals. Virgin Australia operates flights to Darwin every day from Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth.

STAYING THERE

Crocosaurus Cove is located in the Darwin CBD and offers a range of entry packages, with animal shows and activities peppered throughout the day. Cage of Death dives start at A$120 (NZD$127.25) per person for two.

PLAYING THERE

Adelaide River Cruises operate about an hour outside of Darwin on the Arnhem Highway.

The writer travelled on the Jumping Crocs cruise at her own expense but was as a guest of Crocosaurus Cove.

- AAP

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