Tell people you’re heading to the Northern Territory to kayak down a river and they’re only going to say one thing. Come on, no one in their right mind kayaks down a river in the Northern Territory – particularly if the river’s full of crocodiles. So I say it again and again and again: “They’re not stupid. No one’s going to let me paddle down a river with crocodiles in it.”
Turns out I was wrong. They are going to make me paddle down a river with crocodiles in it. Saltwater crocodiles. The kind that grow bigger than, well, a kayak. I discover this about 300 metres above the river on my incoming helicopter ride. That’s the Katherine River below me. When it’s done funnelling its way through nine famous gorges, which we’ve just flown over, it winds its way slowly downstream across the red dust and clay of the Australian outback, south-west of the township of Katherine.
“How come there are no saltwater crocs where we’re going?” I ask the helicopter pilot, waiting for a logical explanation. I’m sitting right beside him in his Robinson 44, so while his voice comes to me as a noise through my headset, his eyes stare right at me. “What do ya mean?” he asks.
“I just would’ve figured that a river so far north in the Northern Territory would have saltwater crocs in it.” I’m still looking at him. “There are saltwater crocs where you’re going, mate,” he says slowly, like he’s not sure whether I’m messing with him or just thick. “About a week ago, they pulled a four-metre saltie from a croc trap right where you’ll end up.” He continues on his merry way. “See there,” he’s pointing at a riverbed. “My neighbour’s dog was taken there by a saltie two weeks back. She reckons there wasn’t even a yelp. One minute it was there, next it was gone.”
But this far from the coast, the Katherine’s full of fresh water: “Doesn’t matter. They don’t mind the fresh water,” he says. But why on earth would an adventure company take people paddling above saltwater crocodiles? “It’s an adventure company, isn’t it?” he says with a chuckle. “Anyway, they should know how to avoid them.”
At this point in the conversation we spot a man in a kayak below us, waiting beside a tear-shaped sandbank in the river. The pilot banks hard left so that I temporarily lose my stomach as we come in low and fast and turn full-circle back at him.
My feet sink ankle-deep into coarse orange sand as I meet the bloke I pray knows where every last crocodile is on this stretch of the Katherine. The river’s a pretty sort of soft blue. It’s still enough, too, to create a mirror on the surface reflecting the lush trees that line both banks and look so out of place among the dusty plains we’ve just flown across. On a hot day like this one, it looks like the kind of river you’d leap right into if you didn’t know better.
“I wouldn’t,” guide Matt Leigh says casually. Leigh’s not the type to lecture or waste much breath on talking, but it’ll be these two words that guide me through the coming days – if Leigh says he wouldn’t, I don’t.
“There could be salties here,” he says, glancing around. “You never can tell. You’re better off soaking than swimming round here. Don’t swim where you can’t see the drop-off. You’d be right 99 times out of 100, but I take more than a hundred people here every year.”
Before I even so much as dip a paddle in the Katherine, I fire every croc question I’ve ever thought of, and then some, at Leigh. From that round of interrogation, let’s dispel a few myths about saltwater crocs before we go further – it’s only fair and, believe me, it helps.
They’re not always the killers we regard them as. An average saltie eats once a month, so they’re hardly out trawling for fresh meat like a lion, which eats as often as it can. And at five metres long, our kayaks are at least a metre longer than the crocs around here, so rather than seeing us as easy, squishy prey in plastic take-out trays, we’re simply the dominant species – they’ll hide until we pass by. Allegedly. Where there’s a greater chance of lurking crocs – in the deeper, darker sections of the Katherine – we’ll paddle in group formation.
But the crocs that inhabit this part of the river aren’t generally aggressive anyway – that’s why they’re here. They’re the non-dominant males who elected against fighting for women and food. Instead they tossed their towels into the ring and swam upriver to enjoy the quiet life, far from the testosterone of the coastal estuaries. There’s plenty more Leigh can tell you too, but it’s this image – of a river full of shy, retiring crocs seeking a bit of peace – that gives me the greatest comfort. So much so I’m finally able to concentrate on what’s all around me, rather than just under me.
Paperbarks grow right out over the water offering shade from the fierce afternoon sun. Blue-winged kookaburras – the kind that doesn’t laugh – fly between them as I pass by. Higher on the banks where gums grow, whistling kites and white-bellied sea eagles fly. Above them – high in the thermals – wedge-tailed eagles and black-breasted buzzards, so big they block out the sun when they pass in front of it, patrol the ground for food.
The river flows steadily so I ride the current downstream. Each bend brings with it a completely different scene – around some corners the river looks wide and peaceful; past others it narrows into tight, fast- moving avenues racing through smoothed-out sandstone, where I have to carefully negotiate my passage. When the sun starts to lose its sting, Leigh leads us to a sandbank near a knee-deep section of the river. “This’ll be camp,” he says simply. “Shallow water should keep the crocs away.” I stop to soak in the slow-moving water. By the time I dry off, Leigh has a fire going, and a pewter mug of whiskey with ice cubes is waiting on the camp table. All around ghost gums and river reds are lit up gold by the last rays of afternoon sunlight, while agile wallabies spy us through the trees, wondering about their funny-looking new neighbours.
Leigh cooks roast beef and vegetables in an old black pot on the fire and, when we’re done, I pick out a soft spot – still warm from the sun – on the rolling dunes. From my swag beneath the moonless sky, I watch stars shoot one by one across the infinite black, while listening to the steady hoot-hoot of southern boobooks and tawny frogmouths.
At dawn, Leigh kicks the fire back to life and cooks up a feed of bacon and eggs he frames not so neatly inside charcoaled pieces of toast. Then it’s back to the water. Over the next couple of days, the surroundings change by the second, as overhanging trees and green foliage give way to the kind of dusty setting you’d expect in this part of the country. Then we paddle around a corner and it changes all over again. Underneath me in the clear, warm water black bream, mullet, catfish, barramundi, snap turtles and metre-long whip rays dart about. Sometimes I float over tiny freshwater crocodiles hiding beside sunken logs – in the height of winter it’s not unusual to see 60 in a day. Above me in the trees, I see branches, tree trunks and other debris hanging precariously, swept there by summer floods when the river rises up to 20 metres. Around one corner I almost paddle into a decaying wallaby washed downstream. I hope its stench hasn’t attracted salties.
The more I paddle – or sometimes just drift with the flow, stopping to stretch my legs as Leigh boils billy tea along the river bank – the more I feel like I’m floating through some sort of real-life Hans Heysen landscape of Australiana, travelling back a century or more into a country I figured disappeared with the rise of modernity.
Out here, I can’t post a single shot on Instagram or Facebook, instead relying on my own eyes – rather than a hundred likes – to legitimise the beauty of all I see. There are no humans here either. Often we paddle for hours without speaking a single word. It’s like I can hear the outback slowly breathing in and out around me, keeping time with the wallabies that bounce along the sandbanks and the cooling nor’-wester that huffs and puffs through the paperbarks.
When the tour’s almost done, I spot a clunky, silver-looking contraption on the far bank. It’s only now I remember that a four-metre croc was pulled from here a fortnight ago – from that very croc trap. Rolling down the Katherine with the breeze at my back and the paperbarks forming a cathedral above me to guide me home, I’d forgotten about the man-eating creatures below. But as I squeeze my way slowly and silently through the only lush parts in one of the world’s most rugged landscapes, I’m mesmerised by all I see, smell and hear around me. In this blissful state of being, I feel like throwing myself into the river one last time before I leave her for the big smoke. “I wouldn’t,” Leigh says. I don’t.
Jetstar flies direct to Darwin from Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney,
Brisbane and Cairns. Katherine is 320 kilometres south of Darwin. You can either drive there or organise a transfer with Gecko Canoeing & Trekking.
Gecko Canoeing & Trekking offers two- and three-day heli-kayaking tours, which include a scenic helicopter ride over Nitmiluk Gorge with Airborne Solutions. Prices start at US$1650 per person. The company also hosts kayaking tours without helicopter transfers on the Katherine, Ord and Wickham Rivers.
There is plenty to explore once you’ve hung up your paddle. For more information on both the Darwin and Katherine areas, see the official Northern Territory website.