Swimming with death

Swimming with a crocodile, Crocosaurus Cove. PHOTOS: TOURISM AUSTRALIA
Swimming with a crocodile, Crocosaurus Cove. PHOTOS: TOURISM AUSTRALIA
Go nose to nose with a 5m crocodile, from the safety of a perspex tube, at a wildlife centre featuring some of the largest saltwater (or estuarine) crocodiles found outside natural waterways.

Larrakia Country
Why it’s special

Wander along Mitchell St in Darwin/Garramilla CBD and it’s tempting to believe that all of the city’s wildlife is in the pubs and bars. But tucked away on this central party street is Crocosaurus Cove, a wildlife centre featuring the world’s biggest collection of Australian reptiles and some of the largest saltwater (or estuarine) crocodiles found outside natural waterways.

In Australia’s extensive catalogue of big and bitey creatures, salties rank high among the most fearsome. There are few ways to safely get close to these reptiles that grow up to 6m in length and 1000kg in weight, which makes the so-called Cage of Death at Crocosaurus Cove a rare and nervous experience, going eye to eye with one of the most powerful animals on the planet.

Stand and watch this experience and it might look a little hokey, but climb inside the "cage", with just a few centimetres of perspex to keep you from becoming lunch, and it’s a raw and rare look into the teeth of danger.

The adventure

When you enter Crocosaurus Cove, stairs ascend to the World of Crocs display and an ominous foretaste of what’s ahead as you pass a couple of former Cages of Death, their perspex surfaces scratched and gouged from previous crocodile activity. Couple this with your first sight of the 5m-long crocodiles and it’s a moment of trepidation ahead of being dipped like a meal bag into one of these enclosures.

There are four side-by-side crocodile enclosures into which the Cage of Death might be lowered (along with a couple of other enclosures that are home to the likes of Burt, the crocodilian star of Crocodile Dundee), depending on the crocs’ levels of activity at the time — the more active the crocodile, the more likely it’ll be your companion.

In one enclosure there’s the royal pairing of crocs named William and Kate, a 4.6m male and 2.8m female. In another is the 5.1m, 600kg Baru, with a third enclosure containing the Cove’s largest croc, 5.5m Wendell. The animal I ended up sharing the water with was Leo, a heavyweight champion — 5m in length and 750kg in weight — with a previous penchant for attacking cattle. It was for this reason that Leo was captured and relocated in the 1980s. When he was first resettled at the Darwin Crocodile Farm, he earned a reputation for chasing the crocodile handlers. He should be fine company for the next 15min.

The so-called Cage of Death at Crocosaurus Cove.
The so-called Cage of Death at Crocosaurus Cove.
Your time as croc prey begins in Baru’s enclosure, climbing down a ladder into the cylindrical "cage". If your lunch date is going to be one of the other beasts, the cage is winched out of the water and shifted, cable-car-like, to another enclosure, where it’s lowered into the water. Through tiny holes in the floor and sides of the cage, water pours in, rising to around the level of your chest. Donning a pair of swimming goggles, you breathe in courage and duck your head beneath the water — it’s cold at first, but temperature is quickly forgotten when 5m of crocodile comes swimming towards you.

Each encounter is individual and at the whim of the crocodile, but when my cage touched the water, Leo was immediately on the move, swimming straight to the cage and nudging it with his nose. I was suddenly staring into the mouth of the animal with the strongest bite on Earth and the biggest set of teeth I’d ever seen — all 66 of them — many of them broken from a lifetime of hunting.

It was menacing and intimidating, and yet somehow surreal — this killer crocodile just 2cm to 3cm from my fingertips and yet I was as safe as if I was watching the scene on a TV screen.

For a true look at the crocodile, dive down, holding yourself underwater in a skydiving position — hands pressed against one side of the cage, feet against the other — watching the animal from beneath as it glides slowly around the cage. When you rise for breath, its yellow eyes will quite likely be watching you, with the bumps, or scutes, along its back passing by the cage like the teeth of a dangerous bandsaw. As it drifts in slow circles around the cage, it’s quite clearly stalking you. To this animal rippling with prehistoric power, you surely look like tinned meat.

After 10min with your crocodile, the cage is raised so that the water now reaches only to knee level. You sit on the floor and watch as the croc is fed bits of chicken on a long stick. Typically, the animal uses its powerful tail to leap for the chicken, often rocking the cage as it crashes down against it. But wildlife behaves however wildlife wants to behave, and when I was in the cage, Leo remained more intent on me than those chicken nibbles. Pressing his nose against the perspex, he continued to stare. When he finally leaped for the chicken, he slammed down against the cage, mouth wide open, teeth on full show.

Even as I was winched out, Leo wouldn’t leave the cage.

"They have the intelligence of 5-year-olds," a handler explained. "And they’re just as stubborn."

So we sat in an impasse for 10 more minutes — the tinned me and the taunting crocodile — before finally Leo was enticed away by chicken.

I’d stared into the eyes of death, and I liked it.

Other options

The Top End has a couple of sure-fire locations in which to observe saltwater crocodiles in the wild. Kakadu National Park is said to be home to 10,000 crocodiles, or about 10% of all crocs in the Northern Territory. They’re readily sighted on boat tours along East Alligator River (kakaduculturaltours.com.au) and in the Yellow Water/Ngurrungurrudjba wetlands (kakadutourism.com), or you can simply watch the virtual crocodile soup from viewing areas at Cahills Crossing, a causeway into Arnhem Land across the East Alligator River.

Just as reliable is the Daintree River in far-north Queensland, where several operators run croc-spotting boat trips.


The details

Where:  Crocosaurus Cove is at 58 Mitchell St in the heart of Darwin/Garramilla. 

When:  Cage of Death experiences operate daily. 

Do it:  Book the Cage of Death online (crocosauruscove.com). Cages can hold one or two people. 

Fitness:  1 out of 5 

Fear factor:  4 out of 5 

Expertise required:  1 out of 5


The book

This is an edited extract from Ultimate Adventures: Australia by Andrew Bain, published by Hardie Grant Explore. 

Available from November 29. RRP $NZ50.