The first time I swam with freshwater crocodiles I was seven years old. We were out exploring on my family’s Top End cattle station and Dad had thrown thin fillets of beef onto a slab of rock so hot that they cooked in minutes. When he turned away to call us kids for lunch, a dingo crept up and snatched half the steaks away.
I ran around that rock slab in search of the missing steaks, convinced this was yet another of my parent’s pranks (the kind of sleight-of-hand joking that parents who are outnumbered by their offspring like to play for their own amusement). But as I surveyed the distant ridgeline, I saw our stealthy breakfast thief stop and turn and gaze back over its shoulder with piercing dark eyes, before disappearing into a sandy backdrop of parched earth and spinifex.
The real pranking came later in an ever-shrinking waterhole at the bottom of a steep-sided gorge where we swam for the first time – transfixed and terrified – with freshwater crocodiles and their prey, all of us drawn together in close, perilous proximity. The freshies – smaller and more timid than the fierce, famous, saltwater kind – eyeballed our every bomb dive and slithered warily away. But we treaded water furiously anyway, our legs drawn up tightly to stop them from dangling into the depths where we were sure the crocs were lurking.
My mother, feeling wicked, slipped silently away. Suddenly something grabbed hold of my ankle, yanking me horrifyingly into the deep and holding me down. I paddled hopelessly for the surface, kicking out, my lungs bursting, until finally I surfaced, spluttering and shaking to find my own mother laughing maniacally beside me. When it came to striking fear, those crocs had nothing on my own mum’s pranking. These days, I’m not so easily spooked.
As a true northern local, decades of watery adventures in croc country have instilled in me a particular fondness for freshies and a fascination with estuarine crocodiles as the most superior predator in tropical waters. Their territories frequently overlap, as they do on the Katherine River, where I’ve come to escape the rigours of a difficult Covid lockdown in Darwin.
Post Covid fun
A three-hour drive south of Darwin, the Katherine River stretches for 328 kilometres, carving a rugged path through 13 barely accessible, sheer-rock gorges, and bubbling through palm-fringed thermal pools before surging into what sailors call the Joseph ‘blown-apart’ (Bonaparte) Gulf.
Most travellers first meet the Katherine River deep inside Nitmiluk (pronounced Nit-me-look) National Park where you can hike riverside trails, take a boat cruise, or fork out a considerable amount of cash to paddle a rental boat in search of seasonal waterfalls and Indigenous rock art.
But there’s a catch. The possible presence of estuarine crocodiles means that paddling is not permitted in Nitmiluk’s first, most accessible gorge. Rental boat paddlers are delivered to the second gorge by tour boat, but independent paddlers are forced to portage their boats (and all their gear) over almost six kilometres of rocky trail before getting them wet. Pack rafting aside, it’s no surprise that real paddlers look elsewhere.
We found our fun on the part of the Katherine River you can paddle without portages, outside the national park and far downstream where the ever-changing river runs wild. Having arrived back into Darwin unexpectedly when the Covid pandemic exploded, our own adventure gear was mothballed on the other side of the NT border. So we called up local paddling guide Mick Jerram, a diehard explorer who runs Gecko Canoeing and Trekking and who knows the NT’s trails and waterways better than anyone I’ve met. There was a three-day trip leaving the next day. We were in.
Contrary to every river trip I’ve ever tackled, this one required no planning from me, bar packing two small dry bags with a change of clothes and bottles of sunscreen and red wine, and getting my crew of three to Katherine. The river level was at its mid-winter low, which meant that our three-day paddle was to be a fairly gentle, downstream slide through some imaginatively named paddling points – Dogleg Rapids, Boat Cruncher and Slippery Nipple – before pulling out at CSIRO Hole, 40-odd kilometres downstream.
But before we could wet our boats there was lots of obligatory hand sanitiser, a temperature test, and some socially distanced seating in the bus, none of which raised an eyebrow from our five-strong band of Covid escapees, keen to get afloat.
Downstream to Millsy’s Channel
We put our boats in at Crystal Rapids, a shady fishing hole just outside of Katherine that’s full of black bream and barramundi that locals cook up on riverside campfires. Back in 1862, Red Centre explorer John McDouall Stuart named the river after Catherine Chambers to appease her father and his expedition sponsor, and today, the town that has grown up on its banks shares the name.
The Northern Territory isn’t known for its grand rivers, but the Katherine is a magnificent, ever-changing exception with river scenes that slowly morph from sheer, plunging cliffs to sandy beaches – all of it crowded with an abundance of wildlife found only in Australia’s rugged far north.
Far downstream, the Katherine swells the mighty, murky Daly River, but there is nothing fierce about the clear eddy where we launched our flotilla of canoes and kayaks, loaded up with a menagerie of swags, cooking gear, fresh food and a sat phone, for our remote journey west. My beamy canoe, shared with my hardy paddling partner – eight-year-old daughter Maya – swallowed up the lion’s share of the family’s load, while photographer David scored an enviously more manoeuvrable kayak.
By the time we had pushed off and found our own pace, the sun was blazing overhead. Gliding through deep, long waterholes, we spotted my favourite freshwater crocodiles and startled enormous great-billed herons that quickly took flight with great, booming flaps of their wings.
Downstream, we pulled over to strike a quick, stick campfire, and to wash down sandwiches with mugs of hot, black billy tea before sliding back into the river to finish our first, quiet day of pleasant meandering on a sandy bank at Millsy’s Channel.
With boats dragged well clear of the water, I unrolled our swags and gathered wood for the campfire. I strung up a makeshift clothesline for bundles of wet clothes and wondered, as the sun disappeared beyond the crowded canopy of paperbarks, when the Katherine River was going to start kicking my butt.
There had been nothing rigorous about the gentle rhythm of paddling this river, no challenging headwork to read its rapids, no fatigue after pulling all day at its flow. But the problem was, I desperately craved a solid pummelling, to be exhausted and out of my head, and for the river to finally wash away the woes I’d dragged with me into the wilderness.
Six months ago I’d been sailing off the remote West Papuan coastline; swimming with whale sharks and discovering waterfalls that plunged straight into the sea. It was idyllic and exhilarating and our family trio was so far off the grid that we didn’t even hear about Covid-19 until its death toll started rising. Several angst-filled weeks later found us sailing home against the trade winds, fleeing from pirates and battling the worst storms on our lives to reach the perceived safety of Darwin.
But our homecoming was shattered when water police and NT government officials evicted us from our boat, escorted us under guard to a quarantine hotel and firmly shut the door. The process was belligerent and authoritarian, with no concessions made for our sacred, young child, and the subsequent entrapment after so long in the wilderness, left me crushed and sullen and kindled in me a fierce anger that all the lounge room yoga in the world couldn’t shake off. It was a lot to ask of this river, to soothe away such rage, but I decided to set it all adrift anyway.
Day one had been a gentle affair but as the silent, starry night ticked on, I found myself hankering for more thrills and spills, even as I incongruously cradled a glass of pinot and relished the aroma of great slabs of barramundi and spicy tofu (for the vegos), grilling delicately over hot coals.
No one else in our group seemed to lament the lack of a challenge though. Jonathan and Steph – a pair of East Coast doctors on a break out of Darwin Hospital – were more than a little mesmerised by the Katherine River. They paddled with necks craned sideways for most of the trip, cheerful about everything including the sore arms, sandy swags and leave-no-trace toileting.
Thankfully I didn’t have to wait too long to find myself bouncing off rocks that I should’ve missed, and swerving past prickly, overhanging pandanus palms and towering trees felled by some fierce, long-ago, wet season flow.
Boat crunching fun
When day two dawned I found the river entirely changed. There were small rapids – short, wildly turning and precariously shallow – but white water nonetheless. Never topping more than 1+, rides over Boat Cruncher, Dead-mans Drop and into Big-round Hole peppered our long, cruisy waterhole paddles: jaunty and fun and spiking just enough adrenalin to keep me buzzing.
There were side-swiping thrills and more than a few spills, lost paddles and laughs, and by the end of the day our collective river reading and steering was profoundly improved. But the water level was low and unforgiving, drained by thirsty riverfront residents and too slowly replenished by a 2020 wet season that never really came. I grimaced as I bottomed out on desperately shallow channels, and afterwards, worked hard to scout out pockets of deep water.
On the slow water in between our fun we spotted more tiny freshies, as long as my forearm, basking on fallen logs that splashed quickly away when we passed. Taking a silent lead gave Maya and I the chance to catch a metre-long freshie mid-slide, bolting swiftly for the camouflage of the turbid water. Then we catch up with Mick.
“Hey guys, a saltie’s just slid down into this pool so we’ll just move on through and leave it be.” We were too late to catch sight of the croc, but its thick slide mark down the muddy bank betrayed its size, and we paddled with renewed vigour across this deep, dark pool.
“Anyway,” the late, great croc-hunting legend Malcolm Douglas once told me “it’s not the croc you can see that you need to worry about. It’s the one you can’t see that will get you.”
Two kinds of Crocs
I had just managed to nail a thrilling little manoeuvre with enough speed to make me smile, when, at the very end of the waterhole, a massive steel cage loomed into view. Tied to the riverbank was a floating crocodile trap, built to contain an animal up to five metres in length, but if something had already taken the bait, I couldn’t yet tell.
Cautiously dipping my paddle across the murky green pool, I shifted my hands just a little closer together and picked up enough speed to rejoin the safety of the boats up ahead. Thankfully the trap was empty. NT Parks and Wildlife rangers had, just weeks before, pulled a 2.7 metre-long estuarine crocodile from this stretch of the river, so if there was one watching on, it was either too wary or too wily to be tempted by the leathery chunk of wild pig that was dangling inside the cage.
Crocs on the Katherine River are not a new story. Small, normally timid freshwater crocodiles are simply part of the scenery. Estuarine crocodiles – crocodylus porosus, the misnamed ‘salties’ – are another beast entirely that were culled right across Australia’s north to near extinction up until the 1970s.
These superior, prehistoric hunters dominate the food chain, famed for their excellent eyesight, keen sense of smell and the ability to detect and hunt down prey in the murkiest of waterways. As fascinating and fearful as they may be, to survive them is to understand them, and I recognise in Mick Jerram, a well-observed knowledge of how estuarine crocodiles work.
There’s nothing random about the way crocs behave. The estuarine crocodile operates with precision, patiently studying their prey over hours, days or weeks to establish routines and patterns they can use to hunt with proficiency.
They can remain underwater and out of sight for an hour or more by slowing their heart rate to 2-3 beats per minute, and when they strike, it’s with a bite force of 3700 psi, a strength that palaeontologists believe rivalled that of the Tyrannosaurus Rex. In comparison, the human bite is a measly 200 psi.
They are more active at night and more aggressive during their September to March breeding season when males battle it out over mating rights and adolescent males are moved swiftly on. With eggs in a nest, female crocodiles are equally aggressive. There is little comfort in the fact that men are more likely to be attacked than women, because attacks on both sexes occur in the Top End every year.
The good news for me is that, despite rising numbers and being entirely capable of travelling far upstream along the Katherine’s 328km length, estuarine crocs are not commonly spotted close to town. This year, only one estuarine crocodile has taken the bait so far, down from eight trapped by rangers the year before and 22 in 2018 when a spectacular, 4.71 metre-long beast that was caught just 60km downstream of Katherine, weighing in at an astonishing 600kg.
To keep some perspective though, no one in living history remembers a single crocodile attack on the Katherine River, and Mick Jerram believes that’s due to sound management practices and sensible adventuring. It may sound cavalier, but when you live in Australia’s north you learn to co-exist with crocs. Surviving crocs means avoiding them, and its easy when you know how.
Starry night at Fruitcake
At the end of day two we paddled through Big Round Hole (it was) to reach a striking sweep of sand above Fruitcake Rapid. As our camp for the night, the name had struck a chord with Maya, who was hoping for dessert and was not disappointed. Our more challenging day on the water had finally tired me out leaving me feel free to unwind, swimming in the clear, shallow rapids and watching the birds.
There was red wine at sunset, roast beef and flame-kissed vego burgers, and marshmallows roasted over the hot coals of the campfire. We chatted around the fire watching the starry night blazing overhead until overtaken by the exhaustion of the day. At first light I was wide awake, lying a few metres above the river, waiting for coffee to brew and for the sun to catch up and warm my swag.
Last night’s coals had been kindled into a blaze and as I snuggled deeper into my sandy swag, watching the stars fade one by one, a tiny pang of guilt turned to pleasure at the sight of our guide Mick braving the wintertime chill to conjure up freshly baked damper. We devoured it, lathered with butter and golden syrup, and teamed with steaming mugs of good, smoky coffee. When we hit the water for one last run there were smiles all around.
Any seasoned paddler with enough experience to pick a croc-safe camp and use a sat phone could tackle an adventure on the Katherine River. But there’s something entirely soothing about taking the hard work out of expedition planning and handing over the reins to an old hand like Mick Jerram, even when you’re a thrifty control-freak like me.
The rest of the kudos for the slow ebbing away of my angst goes to the river itself, for working its magic and quietening my quarantine-kindled rage. There is refuge on a river, like in all wild places, and taking my troubles to the water’s edge proved once again, that time in the wilderness really can replenish your soul. Everything else is just marking time.
Where: Katherine, NT.
When: April to October.
Trip length: 38-49km,3 days.
Difficulty: Grade 1-2 rapids.
Getting there: Katherine is located 315km south of Darwin on the Stuart Highway. Gecko Canoeing and Trekking is located on Murnburlu Road, signposted off the Victoria Highway just west of Katherine.
Trips: 3 or 6 day trips cost from $865.
How to survive a croc:
- Don’t swim in deep, murky waterholes.
- Camp well back from the water’s edge and at least 2m vertically above the waterline.
- Avoid repetitive behaviour, and don’t lure crocodiles by cleaning fish, preparing food or washing dishes at the water’s edge.
- Never dangle your arms or legs over the side of your boat and be extremely careful when reeling in catches of fish.
- Observe warning signs and if in doubt, stay out of the water.