CAIRNS, Queensland — Paul Hogan makes wrestling crocodiles look easy.
When you think of Australia, Crocodile Dundee — where Hogan plays a crocodile hunter and deftly shows them who’s boss — often comes to mind. But when travelling in a boat down a river rife with these stealthy creatures, you can’t help but feel unsettled as sets of menacing eyes above the water level stare at you. You could be their next lunch.
Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures in Wengetti, about 40 minutes’ drive north of Cairns, puts visitors face to face with crocodiles — up close.
Within the 2-hectare man-made wetlands, 17 females and six male crocodiles patrol the murky waters.
A giant 25-year-old croc weighing 400 kilos rests comfortably in the shade under the restaurant where people are enjoying a snack.
“We’ve called him Texas,” points out Duncan Stead, Hartley’s wildlife keeper and tour boat driver. “He was the only male born and bred here at Hartley’s, all the other ones were captured from the wild.”
While crocodiles are known for preferring saltwater habitats, more than 50% of Australia’s crocodiles opt for fresh or brackish waters. The country’s wetlands are full of paperbark trees, which provide ample nesting material, Stead says.
“Their days are generally spent regulating body temperature,” Stead says. “They’re primarily nocturnal, so they hunt at night.”
As part of his tour, Stead tells jokes to the audience if no one answers his questions.
“Where do crocodiles keep their money?” he asks the dozen people on the boat and then pauses. “In the river bank.”
The wildlife keeper then takes out a dead chicken on a long stick and directs it outside the caged windows of the boat. The crocs get a whiff of the prey and slowly begin to descend upon the vessel.
Like humans, crocodiles have binocular vision, which allows them to focus both of their eyes on their prey and gauge distance. It’s not long before each of the three predators jumps out of the water and snaps the food up effortlessly.
“I do tease them, but that’s because they’re the only things I can tease without getting slapped or punched,” Stead jokes before turning serious. “They are indiscriminate opportunistic feeders. They will feed off any food item because they don’t know when the next opportunity presents itself.”
Roughly 65-70% of the 200,000 crocodiles in Australia are confined to the northern regions because of the abundance of wetlands.
Hartley’s also runs a crocodile farm. Skins are harvested when the crocodiles are around age three and sold to designer companies such as Hermes and Louis Vuitton to be made into belts and handbags as part of a $28 million industry.
“None of us like (farming),” the farm manager, Nick Stevens says. “We all like our crocodiles here, but it is a fact of life. Their skin, we cut off the meat — 95% of that animal is used, including the skull and bones.”
Crocodiles live on average 70 to 90 years and go through 40 to 45 sets of teeth in their lifetime, replacing each set every two years.
And their senses are razor sharp.
“As soon as crocodiles submerge, they no longer work off eyesight,” Stead says, back on the boat. “They work off nerve endings on the top of their jaw and feel vibrations. They can sense where you are by the vibrations you’re emitting with footsteps. They park themselves in the perfect spot and wait for an opportunity to attack.”
But when it comes to labelling these animals as “deadly,” Stead says it boils down to humans not being careful.
Roughly 60% of human fatalities occur in the water, 40% of them are at night and half of those of those are alcohol-related, he adds.
“Crocodiles are only dangerous if you lack common sense. Crossing a road is dangerous,” he says. “If you stay out of the water or (away) from the water’s edge, you’ll never run into one.”
If anyone has the misfortune of getting caught in the jaws of one of these aquatic tetrapods — prior to the “death roll,” is there any way to escape and save yourself?
“If a big croc gets a hold of you, pray,” he says.
AUSSIES STEP UP TO HELP STRUGGLING SPECIES
When it comes to wildlife, Aussies have big hearts.
A number of spots for animal preservation are based in northern Queensland, including a turtle rehabilitation clinic on Fitzroy Island, near Cairns, a bat hospital in Atherton, a wallaby park in Mareeba and a large koala exhibit at the Cairns Tropical Zoo.
Jennie Gilbert, cofounder of the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre said the organization — which formed 13 years ago and has 50 volunteers — helps sick and injured turtles heal and eventually find their way back to the Great Barrier Reef.
“We see a lot of floater syndrome — air under the shell — which can be caused by starvation,” she says. “Little Harry was found floating and he’s a bit skinny. He’s a lucky little turtle. Angie, another turtle, was attacked by a crocodile.”
The clinic has rehabilitated 200 turtles and in the past two years released more than 20 back into the wild. Some of these are outfitted with a GPS so volunteers can conduct research into where the turtles head after rehab.
Similarly, the Tolga Bat hospital (95 km from Cairns in Atherton) nurses both orphan babies and adult bats back to health so they can go back to the wild. Many of these are suffering from tick paralysis or barbed-wire injuries.
Caregivers at the hospital call them “flying foxes” and claim the animals get a bad rap.
“People can meet them up close and see they’re cute animals,” hospital president Jenny Maclean says. “They’re pollinators and insect controllers, which helps farmers.”
Hundreds of little endangered wild Rock-wallabies, which are unique to the Mareeba area of northeastern Queensland, definitely aren’t shy around tourists at Granite Gorge Nature Park — especially when there are paper bags of macropod pellet food to be had.
People have the opportunity to get up close and personal with the animals (think of them as mini kangaroos) in their natural habitat amid large boulders.
And Australia wouldn’t be Australia without a koala hug.
The furry and tame marsupials are part of a breeding program at Cairns Tropical Zoo, where visitors also have an opportunity to their photo taken holding the cuddly animals.
For information on travelling in Queensland, Australia’s second largest state, contact destinationqueensland.com.
GO WILD IN OZ
— Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures and Hartley’s Night Adventures, Captain Cook Hwy., Wangetti. Contact crocodileadventures.com.
— Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, Cairns. See cairnsturtlerehab.org or e-mail email@example.com.
— Tolga Bat Hospital, Atherton. Contact +61 7 4091 2683 or tolgabathospital.org.
— Cairns Tropical Zoo, Palm Cove. Contact +61 7 4055 3669, cairnstropicalzoo.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Qantas Airlines has flights to Cairns. See qantas.com.au.