Standing on a sandy river bank, gazing out at a muddy stretch of East Alligator River called Cahills Crossing, I spot a floating shape. Did it just move?
“Nah, it’s just a log” says Pete, craning forward.
Then the log does a U turn.. A large scaley head emerges. It’s a four metre saltwater crocodile, and we’re so close we could almost reach out and pat it.
“This is nothing. Wait another hour; you’ll see dozens of the mongrels,” an elderly chap, fishing rod in hand, startles me when he emerges from behind a bush. I hadn’t realised how jumpy I was, gazing into croc-infested waters!
“To see them in full force, you must get closer to the Crossing. A viewing platform is around the bend,” he points.
We’d driven to these murky waters after hearing from fellow tourists that Cahills Crossing, a small road connecting Kakadu National Park to Arnhem Land, was a must-see for those who enjoy a spot of croc-watching.
Which is how, after two days of exploring Kakadu, enjoying nature walks through ancient landscape in the winter sunshine, we’ve ended up here.
At certain times of the day, when the tides change, dozens of crocs converge on each side of the narrow road, there to pounce on schools of mullet and barramundi swept over the crossing.
We head round the bend and quickly spot the small fenced viewing platform. Already five other tourists are there with cameras, even though high tide isn’t for another 45 minutes or so.
“DO NOT RISK YOUR LIFE – A FATAL CROCODILE ATTACK OCCURRED HERE,” says a red and yellow sign in large letters. “BE CROCWISE.”
Disconcertingly, just below the platform, there’s a wall coated with plastic flowers, Eagles flags and a metal cross dedicated to a man called Gregory.
But neither the signs nor the memorial have put everyone off getting close to the croc action.
“Look at those fools,” a woman beside us gasps, pointing to the crossing below.
Three blokes and two women, all of whom would fall in the “grey nomad” category, are standing on the road, ankle-deep in water, hurling fishing lines into the river.
Though an increasing number of “logs” are moving closer to the crossing, the fisherfolk seem unperturbed. “I’ve caught another one!” one fellow in stubbies squawksto his pals, holding up a large fat barramundi.
Little wonder the crocs are assembling.
As the minutes fly past, we stand, mesmerized, watching more and more crocs surface from the muddy depths and stream towards the crossing. The large ones are at the front, in the prime positions, the smaller ones lurking further back. Yep, there’s definitely a pecking order in the reptilian world.
By about 2pm the road is completely immersed in water, and even the fishing ensemble have retreated a couple of metres.
By now we can spot more than 40 crocs. It’s fascinating to watch them stay motionless; then leap half out of the water to pounce on fleshy fish. Snap! We hear the jaws of a croc whack together as it pounces on a barramundi. Snap! Another croc does the same.
Then a van emerges from the Arnhem Land side of the river and slowly trundles across the submerged road. It looks as though it could easily spill into the river; to many a waiting jaw. Astonishingly, the van makes it over intact; as do several other vehicles crossing from the Kakadu side minutes later. One halts as a crocodile lies directly in its way, resting on the road like a giant, lazing hound . Frantic beeping from the driver makes no difference. Crocs are not like dogs, clearly! Finally, though, the reptile deigns to move half a metre, allowing the car to pass.
Apparently over the years several drivers have ended up failing to cross; their vehicles washed away in the croc-filled waters. It doesn’t bear thinking about. (Online you can find striking photos of cars and caravans which have ended up in the river. You’ll also read how in 2017, a 47 year old man disappeared after wading over the Crossing; his body was recovered downstream beside a 3.3 metre croc. And how, in 1987, a fisherman was killed here by a crocodile in front of his friends.)
Three hours fly past, and we remain transfixed, as do the 30-odd other tourists surrounding us. The experience of watching these crocodiles in action – and the behaviour of the humans around them – would have to be the most mesmerising wildlife display I’ve seen; worthy of an Attenborough documentary.
So enthralled are we with this spectacle, we return to Cahills Crossing the next day. (As many of Kakadu’s scenic spots can’t be reached if you don’t have a four wheel drive, it’s doubly rewarding to be able to see something so unique you can get to on a sealed road.) Again, the croc scene repeats itself; there are 30 or 40 tourists, and below, even the same people fishing as the day before. Groundcroc Day!
Many photos and gasps later, it’s time to tear ourselves away to see a little more of Kakadu’s fascinating 20,000 square kilometres! Five minutes drive away, we reach the acclaimed Ubirr rock formations, (https://parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu/do/rock-art/ubirr); festooned with indigenous art mostly painted more than 2000 years ago. We set off on a one km circular track, taking us past ancient paintings of turtles, fish, goanna and other important traditional symbols. We then clamber up the look-out to catch sweeping views of the emerald flood plains and escarpments. Later we head for Mamukala Wetlands,https://parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu/do/walks/mamukala-wetlands-walk ) an hour’s drive south-west. It’s an easy walk to the observation platform where we gawk out at magpie geese, kites, cormorants, kingfishers and an abundance of other water birds.
We then take the main highway 93 km south and check in to Cooinda Lodge and Camping, (https://kakadutourism.com/accommodation/cooinda-campground-caravan-park) beside the famous Yellow Water Billabong where our home for the night is one of the hotels’ new clamping tents. Simple and modern, with a queen sized bed and a wooden deck looking out to scrub, it’s an elegant cubby house indeed. The shower and lavatory block is about 50 metres away, and facilities are impressively clean and tidy. We sleep soundly; the bed is very comfortable; so next morning we’re energised for the long drive back to Darwin to fly home. Much as I loved all my Kakadu experiences on this trip, seeing the assembled crocs at East Alligator River was the absolute highlight.
Kakadu National Park (https://parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu/) is 151 km south east of Darwin.
Cahills Crossing,(https://parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu/do/crocs/cahills-crossing) (286 km east of Darwin and 2.7km south of Ubirr Art site, is where the Arnhem Highway crosses the East Alligator River into Arnhem Land.
Photography: Peter Rigby