Claws, jaws & caws

Coming eye to beady eye with a jagged-fanged,6m long reptile is a spine-tingling experience- but it’s not just one of NT’s countless wildlife-watching possibilities, as Susan Griffith discovers.

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As the dawn mist dissolved,the huge croc moved languorously towards a throng of ducks on the bank of Yellow Water Billabong. With its armoured back and sinister, half-submerged lurking, it ticked all the boxes for a Mesozoic movie monster.

In the eyes of the primeval predator these plump birds, which our Aboriginal guide had identified as plumed whistling ducks, must look like a platter of vol-au-vents. Clearly the ducks were not familiar with The King and I because they were not whistling a happy tune. And neither were we, floating in our canopied boat, which suddenly seemed too low in the water – we were holding our breath… and expelled it only when the gigantic reptile changed course.

Minutes later the drama escalated when the saltwater crocodile glided towards a stately jabiru, Australia’s only stork, foraging nonchalantly in the shallows. Was this creature, with her glossy blue head, coral-red legs and yellow button eyes, more tempting than duck à la mangrove?

As our boat drew alongside, with the two magnificent creatures just a metre apart, our guide recounted in a hushed tone the creation story of how the two ancient enemies – Jabiru, lord of the air, and Ginga, ruler of the water – agreed never to attack each other. This thrilling tableau alone justified the trip to Kakadu National Park. I’ve always been fascinated by crocodiles, and it was a thrill to get this close. While many of the world’s iconic large creatures are decreasing, the crocodile shows no such signs. Every Wetseason park rangers have to manage the population of salties 7,000 in Kakadu alone – by relocating aggressive ones.

Cloudless skies, comfy 30°C days and balmy evenings make the Dry (Jun-Aug) a perfect time to visit Kakadu, when water birds and animals congregate round the shrinking billabongs. Far fewer people visit in the Wet (Nov-Apr) –but some reckon the park is then at its most beautiful,with vivid greens, rampaging waterfalls, and teeming plant and animal life, though some areas may be harder to access.

Nature’s Bounty

It doesn’t really matter when you come. With a vast area (twice as big as France), a tiny human population (less than Bordeaux) and a huge diversity of habitats (wetlands,escarpment, savannah woodlands,desert), the Northern Territory makes it virtually impossible not to spot wildlife.

Take the region’s birds, whose plumage and naming are equally colourful.Who could resist boasting that they’d seen a barking owl or anorange chat, a spangled drongo or a Jesus bird – nickname for thecomb-crested jacana, whose toes are so long he can hurtle acrossaquatic plants as if walking on water. On a visit to Yellow Water inKakadu even the most casual nontwitcher is sure to see magpie geesein Hitchcockian numbers, cormorant-like darters stretching out theirwings to dry and whistling kites soaring overhead.And the opportunities stretch across the Territory.The forests, swamps and floodplainsare rich in birds and beasts – agile wallabies, lorikeets, flyingfoxes and goannas, among many others.

Critters on the city limits

As close as 6km north of downtown Darwin you are guaranteed to see one of the 600 wallabies resident at East Point Reserve, and in spring you have a good chance of spotting the electricblue wing-flashes of the rainbow pitta.

Less than two hours’ drive from Darwin, Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve is accessible year round, and abounds with birds and animals.Close to the centre of Alice Springs,the Olive Pink Botanic Garden boasts a population of euros (hill kangaroos) and the rare black-footed rockn wallaby,as well as birds and lizards. A 2m-long perentie – a desert-loving monitor lizard – occasionally strolls past the garden’s Bean Tree Café.

Lively Litchfield

Back in the north of the Territory, visitors to Litchfi eld National Park can experience life deep in the bush –hire a 4WD or hike to the best camping spots. One gem is Walker Creek, in the north of the park, dotted with eight small walk-in campsites.

During the Dry, Litchfi eld’s plunge pools may be more crowded with people but they are blessedly free from crocodile angst; a swim to one of the two cascades at idyllic Florence Falls is irresistible in the heat of a tropical day. However, the cool clear waters aren’t empty of wildlife: during my visit, fi sh were nibbling at swimmers’ toes, the water churned up by a fishy feeding frenzy as a couple of mischievous youngsters threw hunks of bread. To keep the heat at bay, stroll among the sheltering eucalypts and monsoon forest of the Shady Creek Walk, pausing to enjoy a picnic on one of the fl at, smooth rocks alongside the creek.

But it’s nature on a scale that’s both epic and minute that grabs the attention in the north-east of the park near Batchelor, the main gateway. The minuscule termite builds high-rise apartments throughout the Top End, at a rate of up to 1m each decade, using the termite equivalent of wattle and daub: excreted grass, dirt and spit. Giant grey slab-like mounds 2m or even 3m high – called ‘magnetic’, since they’re aligned north-south to maximise temperature control – loom over swampy areas liable to flooding; in drier areas, the mounds resemble fluted and buttressed cathedrals rather than tombstones.

They look as impregnable as concrete but you’ll sometimes notice little breaches that are quickly plugged from the inside by a phalanx of worker termites. I found an abandoned mound, its interior exposed in crosssections, revealing a warren of chambers and passageways, like seaside rocks pitted and eroded by water.

Nature in Nitmiluk

Half a day’s drive further south brings you to the Outback town of Katherine,springboard for Nitmiluk Gorge 30km to the north-east.A series of 13 ancient sandstone gorges has been carved by the Katherine River – explore on a short river cruise,on foot or with a
paddle.Canoeists undaunted by lengthy portages,especially in the Dry when water levels drop,can penetrate into the silent hinterland,as can energetic hikers. Exertion can be rewarded with frequent dips in the river or in lily festooned waterholes because salties are not found this far inland.

The heat of the day will silence the spellbinding birdlife, though not the clamouring crickets. As always. it’s at dusk and dawn that bush campers have the best chance of seeing (and hearing) wildlife: at Nitmiluk you might hear he piping song of pied butcherbirds, see the green and scarlet flashees of red-winged parrots, or spot blue-faced honeyeaters, flying foxes or bowerbirds. Bizarre, bottleshaped nests can be seen along the river’s edge; usually suspended from overhangs just above water level, these mud constructions belong to fairy martins or bottle swallows.

Indigenous insights

The connection between the traditional Aboriginal custodians of the land and these natural wonders extends back tens of millennia;increasingly, indigenous peoples are becoming involved with interpreting their country. In 1989 ownership of the Nitmiluk lands was returned to the Jawoyn Aboriginal clans. Gradually and belatedly, traditional custodians of Kakadu are taking control of tourism there, too.

At Kakadu Culture Camp I was welcomed with quiet dignity by the Bininj (Aboriginal) Hunter family; at dusk, Douglas and Fred took a dozen of us onto the Djarradjin Billabong. Up in the trees white-bellied seaeagles and kingfishers could be seen roosting and, as Fred’s torch swept the glassy surface of the water around our boat, crocodile ‘eyeshine’ was eerily revealed: Ginga, lurking as he has for countless centuries, and will continue to do for countless more.

Close encounters with the creatures who inhabit the Top End will illuminate what the Aboriginal artist and activist Wandjuk Marika meant when he said ‘Land is not empty, the land is full of knowledge, full of story, full of goodness,full of enegy, full of power.’

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