Motoring across Hartley’s Lagoon on a hot and humid wet season morning, hungry, yet-to-be fed salties surface from the depths into clear view. Sidling alongside our tiny boat for their share of the breakfast bounty, three and four-metre-long crocodiles come within arm’s reach, snapping their formidable jaws around a tasty morsel dangling from an outstretched bamboo pole.
Onlookers reel, children gasp and Australia’s largest, most proficient predator does what it does best: impressing everyone on board with incredible displays of speed, agility and strength. This intimate crocodile encounter kick-starts our morning’s discoveries at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures: a wildlife park showcasing far northern natives, surrounded by World Heritage-Listed Wet Tropics, just north of Cairns.
Beyond the boating lagoon, we stroll pathways through Hartley’s 10 hectares of wetlands and woodlands to spend time in the company of koalas, wallabies and Australia’s heaviest native land animal – the southern cassowary. At two metres tall, weighing around 65kg and reaching speeds up to 50kph, the cassowary (casuarius casuarius johnsoni) is a force to be reckoned with, rarely spotted in the wild and only in far north Queensland’s wet tropical rainforests.
Despite being rated our most dangerous bird, the endangered cassowary poses little harm at Hartley’s where we feed two rescued birds from an elevated boardwalk, passing pieces of papaya, apple and tomato into waiting mouths. It’s a humbling experience you would never replicate in the wild, but undoubtedly stimulates in humans the kind of affection that motivates conservation efforts.
Our self-guided stroll around Hartley’s enclosures is punctuated by demonstrations and feeding sessions and the chance to encounter ‘Spartacus’: an enormous estuarine croc who surprises even our animated guide with his high-octane leaps to snare the good feed on offer. Smaller females defend their territories too, snapping at each other and launching at a staff member who ventures too close to her well guarded nest.
We wait out a brief, refreshing downpour peering through glass at snakes, spiders and scorpions, then fill another hour hiking two kilometres of pathways to spot monitor lizards, bearded dragons, curlews and quolls. The diversity is impressive, especially for kids, but there’s no denying the entertainment value of those enormous, snapping crocs.
From the 1940s to the 1960s, crocodiles in Australia were hunted to the brink of extinction for their skins and for sport, but by 1971, both fresh and saltwater crocodiles had become protected by law. During this era the formerly named Hartley’s Creek Zoo bred the country’s first estuarine crocodiles and paved the way for today’s commercial farm that offers twice-daily tours.
Also onsite, a restaurant, bar and coffee shop overlooking Hartley’s Lagoon serves a surprisingly well-priced, all-day menu, carrying on a tradition that dates back to 1934 when Herb and Mabel Evans opened a humble teahouse on Hartley’s Creek to service travellers on the newly opened Cairns to Mossman road.
To entertain travellers while tea and scones were being prepared, Charlie the Crocodile was brought in, setting the ‘Halfway House’ on a path that would see it transformed into a zoo, a crocodile farm and years later, a wildlife sanctuary and entertainment park where you can watch the croc attack show and dare to feed a saltie yourself.
Charlie the Crocodile passed on in 2000, but his 65-year stint in captivity rates as the longest in the world. Today a new generation of crocodiles continues to fascinate and enthrall the crowds. Much more than a zoo, Hartley’s is a very entertaining, informative wildlife attraction that will thrill anyone who’s yet to encounter an estuarine crocodile up-close and eating.
- Crocs have great night vision, a keen sense of smell and can see underwater.
- Large saltwater crocs can reach speeds of around 10kph in short bursts and can stay underwater for at least an hour by slowing their heart rates to two-to-three beats per minute.
- Crocs can live for 70-100 years and when they die their bones can be read like the growth rings of a tree.
- Males are typically most aggressive during courtship season (September to November) and once eggs are laid, females will guard their nests at all costs.
- Attacks on humans occur every year so head the warnings: never swim in saltwater crocodile habitat (if in doubt, stay out of the water), camp well back from the water’s edge and at least 2m vertically above the high tide mark and don’t establish a daily routine or lure crocodiles by cleaning fish, preparing food, washing dishes or disposing of food scraps at the water’s edge.
Location: Hartley’s Creek Adventures is located 40km north of Cairns (a 40-minute drive) on the Captain Cook Highway at Wangetti. The 25km trip south of Port Douglas takes about 25 minutes.
Fees & facilities: Entry tickets are $37/adult, $18.50 for kids aged 4-15 years, $92.50 for families (2 adults & 2 kids). Seniors and local resident discounts are available. The park is open daily from 8.30-5pm and the popular lagoon cruises depart at 9am, 10.30am, 11.45am, 1pm, 2.30pm and 4pm. Meals and drinks are available, paths and toilets are wheelchair-accessible and there’s plenty of free parking.
Best time to visit: The humidity drops and skies clear from June to August, but accommodation and campsite prices are at a premium during this peak season.
Contact: Phone Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures on (07) 4055 3576, visit www.crocodileadventures.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For local travel advice phone Cairns Visitor Information Centre on 1800 093 300 or head to www.cairnsgreatbarrierreef.org.au or www.queenslandholidays.com.au.