Get yourself Down Under... and make it snappy

Isabel enters the 'Cage of Death'
Isabel enters the 'Cage of Death'

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the first Crocodile Dundee movie in 2016 Isabel Conway gets up close and swims with the crocs.

We are somewhere deep in Litchfield National Park in northernmost Australia, drifting around in a wilderness accessible only by float plane out of Darwin at the very top end of the Territory Mick ‘Crocodile’ Dundee called home.

‘Nash’ the bulldog is on high alert with pricked ears and we hold our breath, selfie sticks, arms, hands and cameras out of harm’s way as instructed by his boss Matt Wright. 

A modern-day Crocodile Dundee, he stars in National Geographic TV’s Outback Wrangler and is a renowned dangerous animal expert.

“A croc jumped right up and bit part of the motor off my boat during one of my cruises. I had my back to him and just heard the crunch, but the tourists watching got a big fright,” he tells us.

In his time he has captured and transported about 500 “troublesome” saltwater crocodiles away from spots where they had killed horses and cattle near homesteads. 

Now he is kneeling over the boat’s side, sloshing a canvas bag around in the water to summon ‘Bone Cruncher’. The 13-foot long croc took his time arriving, as did a shorter female named ‘Sweet Thing’, who lost interest with nothing in the food chain about. 

Bone Cruncher sneakily surfaces in a flash as Matt quickly lifts up the trailing bag. Our hearts are pounding, but we still get as close as we can for those great photo opps.

Later I discover that saltwater crocodiles can jump up to two thirds of their length and have a 90 per cent hit rate.

Matt Wright runs Darwin’s action-packed half-day tour, Outback Floatplane Adventures (www.outbackfloatplanes.com.au), offering a  fabulous flight by floatplane from Darwin airport out to the wilds with rides in fast airboats, helicopters, a cruise of the waterway and a slap-up cooked breakfast on a pontoon where we are serenaded by the early morning birdsong.

Landing in a curtain of water at Sweets Lagoon, this is where Sweetheart, Australia’s largest croc with a head the size of a car bonnet, was captured, but died while being moved due to a snapped cable and overdose of sedatives. Today you can visit the monster at Darwin’s interesting Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. 

Our airboat skimmed over narrow, inaccessible channels and sinister mudbanks at breakneck speed and with knees of jelly we then boarded a little three-seat chopper without doors to enhance our view. 

Add up all your adrenalin-fuelled   Disney ride moments and you get a sense of what it was like clutching on for dear life to steel bars as we soared and dipped, thanking God for the tight sturdy seat belts. We saw wild buffalo, croc-invested floodplains and remote cattle stations in the distance, swooping down to hover over  extra terrestrial termite mounds.

Croc sightings, attacks, habits, their exploding numbers – at 130,000 plus almost equal to the human population, most of them dangerous ‘salties’ – is an endless topic of conversation and an important tourist attraction up here at the Top End of Australia.

In the rainy season crocs regularly turn up in swimming pools, playing fields, backyards and some even climb trees.

Notices along the Top End’s beautiful coastline and on the banks of peaceful rivers and streams warn of their presence. The NT News ran a story titled “Sawtooth – Cranky Croc Steals Man’s Chainsaw”, with a picture as proof.

The remote Northern Territory wilderness, home to thousands of insect species, hundreds of exotic birds and dozens of rare mammals and reptiles, celebrates the 30th anniversary of the first Crocodile Dundee movie in 2016. 

The man himself, Crocodile Dundee

From ancient cliffs with aboriginal rock art sites and awesome views to billabongs, floodplains and vast Eucalyptus bush lands, it is all instantly familiar to Crocodile Dundee fans. 

Our first stop was the rustic Adelaide River pub to meet Charlie (beautifully stuffed), the charging buffalo hypnotised by Mick Dundee, who stands on the counter. Ubirr’s panoramic wetland vistas and ancient aboriginal rock art in Kakadu National Park was where Mick (Paul Hogan) impressed Sue (Linda Kozlowski), telling her “that’s where the croc got me in the Rapid River”. At Gunlom waterfall he cooked a goanna (large lizard), saying “you can live on it but it tastes like shit”, before opening a can of beans.

Another highlight was meeting Tyrone, an aboriginal guide on the East Alligator River at stunning Guluyambi. His grandfather and other relatives  danced in the tribal ceremonial scenes, appearing in the first two Crocodile Dundee movies.

On our last day we fed chicken joints to 80-year-old Burt, the huge croc who grabbed Sue’s water bottle early in the first movie’s action at Crocosaurus Cove, where he is a big star.

Then we took up the challenge to get as close to a ‘saltie’ as humanly possible, without becoming dinner. Two of us entered the ‘Cage of Death’ – a transparent 4cm thick acrylic tube held by two chains that is lowered down into the croc pool. We were three quarter ways submerged when I noticed all the bite scratch marks on the outside of the cage. 

William, weighing about 690 kilos, swam up. Terror and fascination had us staring down his throat, counting  his missing teeth and diving below to swim next to him during the 15 minute ‘encounter’. Surely Mick Dundee never got that close? :

Getting there: Isabel Conway flew from London to Singapore (14 hours) courtesy of Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com), sampling its new roomier premium economy class, which includes a generous seat pitch and recline with leg rests, champagne, priority check in etc. – and onwards to Darwin (four hours) with its sister carrier Silk Air. Return fares from £1,925 premium economy.  

The best time to visit the Northern Territory is during the winter dry season from May to October. Tropical summer from November to April  is intensely hot and humid. 

Getting around: Distances are daunting and roads almost empty. Darwin is worth a stay: Lively bars, an interesting food scene, museums, weekend markets, Crocosaurus Cove (www.croccove.com.au) and nearby attractions like a jumping croc cruise just south of town are just some reasons to hang out a few days. There are lots of organised coach and 4 x 4  ‘safaris’ to fascinating Kakadu National Park, Katherine Gorge, Yellow Water and Nourlangie, with billabong wilderness cruises, dips in pristine rock pools at Edith Falls in Nitmiluk and insights into aboriginal culture. See www.tourismtopend.com.au and www.kakadutourism.com.  

Sleeping and Eating: In Darwin, check out the Vibe Hotel (www.tfehotels.com) at the Waterfront entertainment and dining hub, and high-rise central Oaks Elan (www.oakshotelsresorts.com). Succulent steaks are on offer at the Cav restaurant, while the best Asian fare is served in Hanuman, Mitchell Street.
Katherine Gorge in the Nitmiluk Aboriginal National park is four hours south of Darwin. Indigenous-owned  Cicada Lodge has bungalows facing a bush of scampering  wallabies and clouds of yellow crested cockatoos (www.cicadalodge.com.au). In the midst of billabongs at the Mary River wetlands, we found another beautiful boutique hotel resort in Wildman Wilderness Lodge (www.wildmanwildernesslodge.com). Both are great options for those a little wary of sleeping outside.