Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Kakadu - the Yellow Water Cruise

Before we relocate to Chile, we are taking a week's  holiday driving a great big equilateral triangle (For a given definition of triangle, and an even looser definition of equilateral) through Australia's Top End.   

Saltwater crocodiles are primordial monsters- low and squat and scaled,  with bloated jaws, ridged backs like dinosaurs, teeth like nightmares, silent, still, swift as lightning  -right out of the deepest human dreams.
            Like all the worst monsters, they don't play fair.  You can't read them.   There's nothing behind their eyes that you recognize to look back  at you.  
            They're still and silent - until they're not.  We humans love our warriors - we valorize the hunt and the chase - courage, cognition, the face to face confrontation of the prey.  Animals that hunt the way we do - big cats and wolves and bears, we anthropomorphize  them,  giving them all our own carnivorous virtues.
            But the unreadable crocodile hunts by ambush  -from beneath a sheet of still water - a flash of jaw, a foam of water and then - it's gone.  They don't play by any virtues we acknowledge. Frankly, they're creepy.  Goose-pimpling, hair-raisingly creepy.
            Which is why they were permitted to bounce back from extinction - beyond the luxury-leather industry, they are so terribly terribly good for tourism.  Who doesn’t want to say that they have looked their ancient human nightmares in the face? 
            And faced it down.  Tamed it.  Photographed it.  Put it in an album, posted it on facebook and say "I was there!"
            We took a pleasure cruise along the Yellow River (Origin of name unknown. The water was blue) on a flat-bottomed twin-hulled swamp boat.  I had my Kakadu moment - blue water and fields of waterlilies (another invasive species- only this time, one that unexpectedly turned out not to be quite  so dreadful for the ecosystem as expected, with the additional benefit of being gorgeous as hell with its flat green leaves and electric pink flowers), and muddy riverbanks crowded with ducks and magpie geese, and pandanus and paperbark trees hanging low over the river, with electric blue azure kingfishers darting from branch to branch above our heads.  

The Sproglet was fretful - twisting and wriggling in Thea's arms.  She squirmed loose and clambered across our laps. while we sat in silence, crunching apples and staring over the sides of the boat.  Narrow passages lined with freshwater mangroves, the banks closing in on each side of the boat, loomed dense and dark and green, and lurking  among the mangrove roots - we saw crocodiles.  The boat rocked as thirty people swarmed and pointed - There!

A slab of grey resolved into  a ridged back - a three meter monster sleeping in the mud.  There was a gnawing sensation on my wrist - the sproglet in my arms was making like a crocodile on my apple with all seven of her teeth.   Primordial drool trickled down my arm and I watched the creature, disturbed by our low-voiced shrieking, slide down the bank into the water.  It vanished without a ripple.

Facts: Crocodiles are incredibly intelligent, highly vocal, and the only reptile known to have a genuine maternal instinct toward their young.  In physiology, they haven't changed appreciably since the days of the dinosaurs.  The terror statistics are very real.  Ironically, crocodiles  possess every one of the cognitive behaviors we valorise in the other big hunting animals - they track - patiently, and they learn.  If you're  camping in crocodile country, don't collect water from the same spot in the river every night - they watch you, and they begin to wait.  Don't sit on branches that overhang the water - a big crocodile can jump up to two meters.  And don’t - don't go swimming where you oughten't - if you do, the odds of being attacked approach one hundred percent. It's not your world up here, it's theirs.
            Crocodiles aren't the only things in the water.  There are  sawfish, barramundi, river rats, prawns as long as your arms - it's one of the worlds most vibrant, unspoiled ecosystems - and a world heritage site.  We saw a dozen saltwater crocodiles in an hour  - basking in the sun on the mud banks or on floating mats of reeds among the waterlilies. Cutting out of the major channel into a billabong, we came across a black dinosaur swimming .  Four meters long - he moved economically, his long black tail oscillating back and forth and propelling him swiftly through the water.   Storks and Ibis and Brolgas and Jabiru birds waded long-legged in the shallows - dipping, and reaching.  Our pilot guide did her best to provide a holiday atmosphere with a microphone and a horrendous patter.
            "Hey guys!  Got a good one - a good one!  I told you that bird there's there's called a Jabiru, right?  You know what his cousin's called?  He's called Poke-a-wallaby!  Hah!"
            We ha ha ha'd but were unmoved.  The sproglet, having reduced my apple to mush, began to work on Mr Tabubil's.
            Back on shore, two more boats were loaded and preparing to cast off as we pulled in.  Mr Tabubil was carrying the sproglet.  Two apples had cheered her up and she was ready to shine.  Wrinkling her mushroom nose into a face- splitting smile, she sat up in his arms and bowed, bestowing waves and kissed upon the inhabitants of all three boats.  All three boats were enraptured.  Travelling with that child is like making a royal progress , basking in reflected glory all the way.

Later, back on crocodile-free dry land, we lay on a picnic blanket in the sun.  The little monarch collected frangipani blossoms and dropped them on our faces. And sat on them.  In her diaper- scented baby-fresh infant glory.
            It was extraordinary liberty, even for an absolute monarch.  Her removal occasioned much howling. 

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