DESTINATIONS - OUTDOORS HEALTH & SAFETY
At OTA we have a simple rule: north of the Tropic of Capricorn, we never swim in creeks, rivers, billabongs or … the sea. We’re also very careful how close we camp to any stretch of water.
Crocodiles are common in all Northern Australian waters and there are now more of them than any time since hunting them was banned in the early 1970s.
Crocs have been in Northern Australia for around 200 million years, so they easily pre-date any human populations. It was their country long before people came on the scene.
Crocs have survived evolutionary pressures for millions of years, because they’re very good at what they do. We’ve been observing them for many years of northern Australia travel and researching scientific studies, so we’ve picked up some of their behavioural tendencies.
When you visit croc-inhabited areas it’s relatively simple to avoid danger, if you take the time to learn something of their behaviour.
First up, be aware that anywhere in the tropics where there’s water is a possible crocodile area. You can be hundreds of kilometres from the sea and still encounter the unfortunately named Estuarine Crocodile. ‘Estuarine’ suggests that crocs live at river mouths only and that’s simply not true.
During the Wet Season, northern rivers swell to unbelievable size and that allows crocs to migrate long distances from the coast. When the rivers shrink to narrower streams, linking billabongs, many crocs stay inland, living happily in quite small ponds.
There’s a persistent myth that crocs love only mud and don’t like sandy beaches, but some of the biggest crocs we’ve come across had their lairs in vegetation on the edge of Coral Sea beaches in North Queensland.
Another myth is that crocs don’t like rough water and rocky rapids, but ocean-going ‘salties’ are quite adept at handling surf and storm surges, as well as rock-hopping to get ashore, or to climb up creek waterfalls, in pursuit of inland billabongs.
Years ago, a big salty skirted the dam wall at Lake Kununurra on foot and had to be removed.
Crocs are very, very territorial and don’t take kindly to strange creatures who venture too close, either on land, or in the water. They don’t necessarily see a human as a food source, but as a territorial rival.
Water courses where crocs have been spotted are normally dotted with signs, but the absence of warning signs is no guarantee of no crocs. Any waterway is suspect.
Fishing or sitting near the water’s edge is highly risky behaviour in croc country, even if you’re well clear of the slippery edge. Cleaning fish at the water’s edge is just asking for sudden death. Even with polarising sunglasses you mightn’t see the croc that’s nestled just under the surface, but you can be sure it can see you.
When the croc-charge from the water comes it’ll happen too fast for you to react. Remember the scene from the first Crocodile Dundee movie, where the heroine is attacked by a croc she didn’t see?
We’ve seen keen fishos sitting on tree branches, overhanging water and while that may seem safer than being on the river bank, it’s fine…until you fall in.
Pet dogs are croc-magnets, so it’s a good idea to keep your dog well away from the water’s edge. There’s a rural myth that wandering Aboriginal people would throw a dog into a water hole, to check if was safe for swimming!
The dog danger was brought home to us one morning, when we were camped near the old boat ramp at Wyndham.
Old mate was staying at the nearby motel and took his dog for a morning constitutional. He and the pooch sat down near the water’s edge and hadn’t been there two minutes when all hell broke loose.
A huge croc surged up the ramp, chopped the dog in half with one crushing bite, showering old mate with blood and dog guts, then disappeared backwards into the water with its breakfast. The dog owner was left holding an empty leash.
Many croc attacks don’t come from the water, but from the surrounding bush. Crocs have develop a neat ambush technique to grab their prey, force it into the water and then do the ‘death-roll’ manoeuvre to drown it.
A few years ago, we were camped well back from the sea at Cape Melville, at Cape York. We were there for four days and it was obvious that a couple of the local crocs were taking a close interest in us. We knew they were offshore, because we could see them occasionally, eyes above the surface and as the days went by they ventured closer and closer. By Day Five, we judged it was time to pack up and leave.
Prior to that close encounter we were camped at the mouth of the Cotterill River, south of Vrilya Point, on the western side of The Cape. We drove into this spot and were vigilant, because at night we could see dozens of red croc eyes glinting at us across the water.
The danger sign for us was the morning we spotted a turtle that had been chopped in half by a hungry croc and ‘croc-slide’ marks across the beach sand, over the top of our tyre tracks. Time to leave!
‘Croc-slides’ are visible at many creek and river estuaries, showing where a resident croc has its ‘home’ on the muddy river bank, giving it rapid access the water. Obviously, if you see one of the slides, it’s best to hightail it out of there. Ditto if you spot a croc-nest mound that’s made of soil and vegetation.
Sections of the water’s edge where native animals and stock drink also should be avoided – signs or no signs.
Crocs regularly attack small boats. The movie Jaws somewhat exaggerated a shark attack risk, but there are dozens of reported incidents where crocs have attacked canoes and tinnies, even chewing outboards off the transoms of small boats!
Boating in crocodile zones is a very, very high-risk activity that we simply don’t do, unless the boat has dual outboards and very high freeboard. A canoe is croc-bait.
Fishos in boats need to use a long-handled net, rather than having to lean over the side of the boat to retrieve a fish, because more than one croc has followed a struggling fish to the surface. Ditto for pulling up crab pots.
Night fishing obviously isn’t a good idea, but if you do, make sure you use a red-light torch or lantern, to preserve your night vision.
In many locations, local rangers have positioned wire mesh croc traps, to catch problem crocs, so they can be moved to a new area. It goes without saying that you should keep well away from a device that’s baited to attract crocs.
The normal procedure when crossing a shallow creek is to walk the creek first, to discover and hazards that might be hidden under the surface. That’s obviously a very, very bad idea in croc-country.
Never, ever walk a Northern Australian creek, if there’s the slightest rock of a croc lurking nearby. Also, never attempt a deep-water crossing in croc-country. One of our mates did; got stuck and spent the night perched on his roof rack, clutching his hunting rifle.
Escaping from a croc in water is very difficult, because they’re more at home there than we are and can swim at 10-15km/h. The myth that they can’t open their mouths underwater is…a myth.
On land, a human has a better chance, because a croc can manage a 40km/h charge for only a short period. Just run like hell and don’t bother zig-zagging – that’s another myth!
Camping in croc country should be at least 50 metres away from water and involves the same housekeeping you should adopt at every campsite: dispose of food scraps, fish offal and other waste in bins away from your campsite, or stow bagged rubbish inside your vehicle. Never leave food scraps or bait at your campsite and check that other campers have not left these behind.
Never prepare food, wash dishes or do other tasks near the water’s edge or next to sloping banks. Fill up a bucket and move away from the edge of the water.
Needless to say: don’t feed crocodiles!