The road off the highway was red-brown dirt and bereft of signs. The driver steered the mini-bus, sixteen of us on board, through the scrubby bush that lined both sides. Sticks and leaves hit the windows, and rocks clunked off the chassis. We entered a Darwin backwater.
Our host, Patrick, stood in a broad opening, waiting for us to disembark and gather near him. He was wearing Hard Yakka gear: faded navy shirt and drill shorts; ripped Akubra. A gun in a holster and knife in a sheaf, sat on his right hip. His heels were as cracked as drought-dry earth; his toenails as grey as ash, just like his long beard.
When we were silent before him, he greeted us sternly. ‘You’re here by invitation. Do what I say, and you’ll be safe. You’ll learn a lot about crocodiles. Up close. These crocodiles are wild and it’s not like a wildlife park or TV show, which is just entertainment.’
Patrick marched us up to the mangroves. ‘Never look for crocodiles,’ he instructed, checking our eyes were on him, ‘because if you don’t see any, you’ll think they aren’t there, and then you’re in danger.’
We crossed the gang plank, under order, two or three at a time, ‘in case something happens,’ and climbed onto the rectangular, aluminium boat. We sat, peering out through steel mesh which fenced us in. We were shown the holes where we could hold our camera phones. ‘Don’t stick any part of you outside the boat; not a finger!’
Ten minutes down river, we were chugging over to the muddy shore, Patrick having noticed a ‘small’ croc in the water. It followed us, knowing there was a chicken carcass linked to that chugg. ‘I know all the crocs in this area! This is a female,’ said Patrick. Her skin was the colour of rotting autumn leaves: beige and brown and grey; quite beautiful. She thrilled us as she launched herself from the water up to the flying carcass, dangled from cotton thread and a bamboo pole. Our cameras and fingers stayed behind the mesh as we were awed by the insides of her mouth and the number of teeth. Snap. The sound was sharp and definite. ‘She’s got reflexes five times faster than any human,’ said Patrick in his stern voice. ‘Two point four metric tonnes per square inch is her jaw closing pressure; that’s two thousand four hundred kilos per square inch!’ he drawled. Clearly, an inch was a preferred measurement for Patrick. Abruptly, our girl turned and scampered onto the mud.
An enormous male was heading our way and since crocodiles can’t tell the sex of one another in the water, she had to get on shore to lift her head and open her mouth to show her feminine submissiveness. If he’d met her in the water, he would have assumed her to be male and fought her off his territory.
As he took over the chicken carcasses, and the show, she hung back in the shallows. Patrick commented on them both being a bit distracted, and he looked up river. ‘This’ll be interesting,’ he said.
The small female thrust herself into the water, swimming quickly toward an approaching crocodile. Patrick chuckled as the newcomer twisted back and raced in the opposite direction, both crocodiles scooting on top of the water. The big male croc looked back at the boat, more interested in chicken. Patrick answered our questions. ‘He doesn’t care; she’s scaring it off her territory, which is around one hundred metres. It’s probably a female. He’s got anywhere between twenty and fifty females in his area,’ he said, smiling. ‘She’ll ward off small males too; she only wants the alpha around.’
As we watched, the first female disappeared under the water, and just like a cartoon, the surface one sped up. They both emerged, as if stopped by an invisible fence, and engaged in mouth-to-mouth combat. ‘That’s the border line of the girls’ territory, a bit of a no-man’s land,’ Patrick informed us.
We moved further along the river, coming to another bank, this one sandy and edged with thick scrub. Another female, lolling in the water, took to the chicken, and gave us another chance to see deep inside her mouth as she jumped up to meet the unpredictable, flying carcass. Suddenly, she aquaplaned onto the bank, the same male having followed us. The females obviously felt fear, despite Patrick’s comment that crocodiles had no emotions. ‘They might know the sound of the boat and associate it with the chicken, but if I fell in the water, I wouldn’t be spared. There’s no attachment, no love. If they bite the propeller it’s because they’re testing it for eatability. They let it go. Anything organic, they eat it; your bones, your teeth, but not your knee replacements or your fillings.’
Good to know! Crocodiles are only interested in territory, feeding and mating. There’s no happy, no sad; just pissed off, hungry or horny! Any similarity to man is coincidental, and if you know a man like this, unfortunate!
Have you ever met any pre-civilised creatures who fight over territory, mates or tucker? Be careful who you smile at!