"Swimming With Crocodiles"
Darwin, Australia
9- 31 Dec, 1995

Frilled Lizard The flight to Darwin was very pleasant.  We were served wonderful food (rare red meat!), and I was seated next to a gentleman who had operated a hotel in New Guinea until a volcano had covered his lobby with a foot of ash.  (He even carried a coffee table book with pictures to prove it!)  When I deplaned in Darwin, I made my way to the taxis.  Passing a kiosk, I couldn't help but notice a headline that said something about an escaped convict, a murderer, who had fled south and was last sighted along such-and-such a road.  Interesting, but no matter. 

I took a taxi to the hotel I had booked, which was nice enough.  My room had a wetbar, which came in handy.  The whole place was very clean and quiet, so I found it curious that I woke up in the early morning with a horrible case of the sniffles.  My nose would not stop running, and I had to keep raiding the wetbar for soft drinks to ease my sore throat.

After a few hours of battling a headache and a high tide of mucus, I got a phone call at 6am from the tour operator.  She wanted to know if I was still coming. Yeah, sure I was.  They were sending a van to pick me up.  Yes, I'll be there. 

I couldn't fight the runny nose, though.  No pharmacy was open yet, but at that moment I would have preferred a plumber.  I was forced to wait in the lobby while managing a metric ton of Kleenex.

Wallaby When the van arrived, I was the first passenger.  I certainly hoped I wouldn't be the only one on this tour.  I was somewhat relieved when the driver swung over to pick up two more people: two guys from Holland, who were the last remnants of a larger group of Dutchmen who had originated in Melbourne.

That relief turned to humiliation as I found myself sitting in the front seat, trying to hold back the bursting pipes, listening to the two newcomers...  I can't actually speak Dutch, but since I can understand English and German very well, I could make out what they were saying, and it wasn't nice.  They even admitted later on, that they thought I would be "one of those spoiled Americans who complains about everything..."

Well, this was starting off badly.  The driver got on the highway, and started heading south.  And as we drove farther from the city, we started encountering roadblocks.  Roadblocks set up for the escaped prisoner. The murderer!

This was getting better all the time.  Especially since the outback started virtually at the Darwin city limits!  If the murderer was going to leave town, he sure as heck wasn't going to leave by the road when he can just walk straight through the Eucalyptus trees! 

Termite mounds Well, in spite of bugs, heat, rain and escaped felons, it turned out to be a very enjoyable day.  We first went to Litchfield National Park, where we had a look at a Bowerbird bower, and had a swim in a beautiful little water hole.  We went to look for birds around the billabongs, and admired some giant termite mounds.  As as everyone else was looking at the termites, I was of course looking at the birds.  I did see a few kinds of waxbills, and a small flock of Varied Lorikeets as well.  This was in spite of having a very red nose, and being covered with a head-to-toe rash.  I was the only person who hadn't brought along insect repellant, and it didn't take them long to completely cover me with bites!

The guide noticed that I was looking for birds, and told me that this was the worst possible time of year to visit Darwin for birds.  It was the rainy season.  During the dry season, the birds collect around what little water there is, but they scatter during rainy season.  In retrospect, just a little more homework on my part would have helped.  The guide was wonderful, though.  He kept stopping at the very well-spaced general stores so that I could search for allergy medicine, and was very considerate to stop for every bird he noticed, including the Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, and a juvenile Collared Sparrowhawk.

In the evening, we finally arrived at the base camp of the tour company.  As we turned on to the road leading to the camp, I suddenly recognized it as the name of the such-and-such a road from the news story!  The camp itself consisted of a few large houses, with a mesh-enclosed dining area in the middle, and opposite stood a few small cabins.  Each of us was assigned a different cabin.  We met the owners: a husband and wife who were marvelous, and they served us breakfast and dinner in the dining area. 

I took a look at my cabin, and (being a paranoid sort), I noticed that all of them were no more than the size of a bed and a loo combined (prison cell dimensions!!), and the windows were nothing but wire mesh.  Best of all, I was in the first cabin: Cabin #1.

(rehabilitated)Brahminy Kite Oh boy.  If the murderer came calling, I was going to be all alone, in the most easily-accessible target to strike.  Hmm, let's see: who should I kill first?  Who's behind door #1?!

Let's just say that I didn't get a whole lot of sleep that night.  Every few minutes, I heard something (or someone!) stepping on the dry leaves outside the cabin.  OK, they later turned out to be lizards or geckos, but I wasn't about to poke my head out to find out.

The next morning, the lady of the house asked me how I slept.  I actually hadn't.  Foolishly, I mentioned that I was a little nervous about the news of the escaped murderer.  She laughed.  I would discover the full meaning of that laugh over the next few days.  (i.e., it wasn't humans I should be cowering in fear of.)

Barking Owl (captive) Anyway, the good news was that my nose wasn't running (as much).  I calmed down enough to have breakfast and meet the other guests.  There were around ten total.  After breakfast, we all boarded the big bus to go see the Territory Wildlife Park.  I broke from the group and had a pleasant walk with a local, while taking the opportunity to photograph all the cool native species I hadn't yet seen in the wild.  I found it strange that Dingos were labeled Canis domesticus, the scientific name of your average dog.  They had a huge walk-in aviary, full of birds that had been captured and banded in the immediate area, and were released every few months, and replaced with new captures.  That was a neat idea.

Saltwater Crocodile In the afternoon, we went on a cruise of the Mary River on a small tour boat, to look for Saltwater Crocodiles .  This muddy, marshy river was thick with them, home to the largest individuals, and the densest population of crocs on Earth.  The rather colorful guide described all the dangers of crocodile viewing: They consider any smaller animal to be prey (i.e., you!).  Don't stick anything in their direction you can't afford to lose.  They can move really, really fast.  Some fisherman once leaned over a riverbank to wash his hands, and got his head bitten off.  The guide even demonstrated their reflex speed, by cornering a big one with the boat, jumping on the bow, and clapping his arms together.  Apparently the croc's weak eyesight made the boat look like a giant opponent, and it whipped around and took off at around mach 10.

At the end of this lecture, the guide then grounded the boat right next to an extremely large fellow, and declared this a photo opportunity.   I was now sitting about two feet from a croc's head, trembling in mortal fear, and I was supposed to take a picture?  Was this a joke?  A test?  Do you think he'd mind if I used a flash?

Comb-crested Jacana I guess a camera doesn't resemble anything tasty.  Between croc viewings, we also saw Black-necked Storks, Comb-crested Jacanas , and White-bellied Sea-eagles.  The jacanas were both very approachable and very photogenic, and they didn't look like killers, which was a definite plus.

After that fun, it was dark, and we returned to the base to have dinner.  The neat thing about the wire-mesh dining room setup was that when it got dark, the light inside would attract massive numbers of insects: beetles, cockroaches, you name it, all piling on top of each other.  And I'd never heard such a busy bug zapper in my life.  I had to think that this was the perfect vacation destination for an entomologist.  They even had two little geckos stuck to the walls near the dining area, frozen in place, poised to catch whatever their tongues could reach.  They didn't have to move much, let me tell you...

I slept a little better that night - now a little more used to the sights and sounds of the outback, and finally decided that the murderer would have to be pretty resourceful to find this particular spot. 

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