Never Smile at a Crocodile

Until now, and despite the many croc warning signs we’ve seen on our Australian travels, Eric and I had never glimpsed a crocodile in the wild. That changed during our 4-day visit to Kakadu National Park at the end of September. Located east of Darwin, this enormous and rugged World Heritage site encompasses almost 20,000 km2. About 80% of the landscape is termed “dry savanna,” and now, at the tail end of the dry season, it is about as parched as it can get. Yet life-saving water remains in some billabongs (ponds), wetlands, and the four major rivers that traverse the region. It was at a designated viewing platform on one of those rivers that we finally gazed upon the infamous crocodile.

Warning sign at Cahill’s Crossing, Kakadu

In fact, Oz has two species of crocs, differentiated mainly by their size and habitat. Saltwater crocodiles (aka salties or estuarine crocodiles) can reach 6-7 meters and have a broad snout and snaggle-toothed jawline. Freshwater crocodiles (aka freshies) top out at 3 meters and have a straight jawline and teeth. Salties are more prone to attack humans, though the number of actual crocodile fatalities (as opposed to attacks) is less than one per year. Nevertheless, a mauling by one of these beasts is no fun either. The group term for crocodiles is a “bask,” which aptly evokes their somnolent, communal sunning behavior. But after watching these stealthy, powerful creatures slink and glide beneath the muddy water, I propose we change that to a “lurk” of crocodiles.

Cahill’s Crossing is a legitimate “roadway” from Kakadu into neighboring Arnhem Land. Those brown “logs” in the water are salties, seen from the viewing platform. We counted 12 at one time.

Other animals at home in Kakadu include wallabies, water buffalo, feral pigs, snakes, fish, turtles, goannas, bats, ducks, geese and all manner of birds. I added 12 to my life list, my best sighting being a barking owl. There it sat, immobile, in a tree near our cabin, its upright shape unmistakable even in the twilight, just waiting for me to look up and be transfixed by its enormous yellow eyes. Far easier to find are the magpie geese. At this time of year they congregate by the tens of thousands in Kakadu’s wetlands, and when they lift off en masse, it’s a rare spectacle. These are big birds, 3’ tall with a 5’ wingspan, a colossal collision in the making. Yet they rise like an immense blanket flapping into the sky and disappearing over the treetops without so much as clipping a neighbor’s wingtip. How do they do that? How do they know?

Magpie geese lifting off. This photo is from the park website.
The barking owl is 15-18″ high. An Internet photo, as there was no way I could capture my owl in the twilight.

Many of these creatures feature in the diet, stories and rock art of the local Aboriginal people, who have dwelt in Kakadu for some 65,000 years. Their drawing medium was ochre—white, yellow, red and black—sometimes mixed with animal blood or beeswax. Interestingly, some of the art at Kakadu is fairly recent, as succeeding generations painted their own pictures over older artworks in an evolving “canvas.” That tradition has ended now. The young Aboriginal ranger who guided one of our tours explained that his grandfather’s handprint can be found in the park, but that in the interests of preservation his and his father’s handprints never will. Instead, he and the other Aboriginal residents of Kakadu have a stake in managing the park and honor their heritage in the park’s cultural center. They continue to hunt and feast on the animals and are not unhappy to have upgraded from boomerangs and spears to rifles. Roast magpie goose and crocodile eggs are delicious, we were told.

Most of Kakadu is flat, but rocky sites like Burrungkuy is where the art is found. I’m on the walkway for scale.
Music and dance is an integral part of Aboriginal culture.
Aboriginal stories and art carry important life lessons. This irritated figure is Mabuyu. When a thief stole a fish off his line he sealed the thief and his band in a cave with a rock. Moral: Don’t steal.

But if everything I’ve written about Kakadu so far gives the impression of a natural paradise where humans and animals thrive in harmony with the environment, it’s time for a reality check. From 1980 until January 2021, the Ranger Uranium Mine operated at the heart of Kakadu, surrounded by but technically separate from the park land. To service the mine workers and their families, the town of Jabiru was built in 1982. It comprises a small town plaza with a grocery store, post office, library, medical clinic, magistrate’s court, police station and fire/rescue. Along with housing and a school for the mine employees and their families, the residents enjoy a 9-hole golf course and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. In the most recent census (2016) the population of Jabiru was 1,081. It’s unclear how many remain now the mine has closed.

It’s not my purpose to debate the pros and cons of mining. The subject is far too complicated, and those on either side can speak for themselves, all the more so as Aboriginal people throughout Australia are finding their voice through their own organizations and in the courts. But stop and really picture it for a minute: An open pit uranium mine in the center of a national park.  

Not what you’d expect to encounter in a national park.
What can be seen of the closed Ranger Uranium Mine from the road.
Ranger Uranium Mine from the air. This photo is from www.mirarr.net, the website of the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation.

On 26 June 2021, the town of Jabiru was returned to the traditional owners. It’s a start, and the handover includes provisions for the land ravaged by the mine to be returned to its original state. The goal is to replace the income and jobs lost to the mine closure by making Kakadu a major international tourist destination worthy of its World Heritage status. It’s going to be fearfully expensive and challenging, and I encourage you to read the two articles at the end of this post, not only for further information but for some photography I couldn’t begin to capture.

In the next few months, as the weather transitions from dry to wet, the billabongs, wetlands, creeks and rivers of Kakadu will begin to fill, brim and spill over. Waterfalls will splash down the cliffs at full strength, and some roads will become impassable. Empty plains will flood to a depth of several meters, and what is now dry and brown will turn green and lush. Both the animal and human residents will adapt as they have done here for millennia. Instead of being confined to retreats like Cahill’s Crossing, hungry crocodiles will spread throughout the park. Heed the signs. If you smile at them and they smile back, you’re too close.

A news photo of a saltie on the causeway at Cahill’s Crossing. Too close for comfort.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-06-26/nt-jabiru-mirarr-traditional-owners-handed-town-lease/100246404

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-02-22/traditional-owners-threaten-to-close-kakadu-national-park/13125884