Ever thought of seeing crocodiles in their natural environment? The wetlands around the Mary River -- about an hour drive from Darwin -- are amazing for Crocodile spotting! Today, we go on board with the crocodile expert Ian and set sail to explore the Mary River System.
On this early April afternoon, we set off to the wetlands for a river cruise. We decided to book an organized tour with Corroboree Billabong Wetland Cruises. The company offers multiple cruises at different times of the day. It is even possible to book a day-tour starting from Darwin in case you don’t have a car. We decided to book the 2-hour sunset tour. The departure point at Corroboree Billabong is about an hour drive from Darwin.
For a big chunk of the way, we drive on the Arnhem Highway, named after the Dutch ship “Arnhem” discovering the area in 1623 for the first time. We come across two massive crocodile statues placed next to the road, funnily enough, one of them is a boxing crocodile. They offer a nice opportunity to make some funky pictures for sure. For the rest, the ride over the Arnhem Highway is a nice with lots of nature, we eventually see a couple of giant termite mounts, but nothing too fancy.
The Arnhem Highway is named after the Dutch ship “Arnhem” discovering the area in 1623 for the first time.
The last part of the route you’d normally leave the highway and drive partly on unsealed roads. Your car might get dirty or scratched from little stones here. Luckily, the company offers a shuttle bus from the Corroboree Park Tavern. We decided to take it and would definitely recommend it. Even though it costs five extra dollars per person, it keeps your car clean and safe. Besides, the tour basically starts during the bus ride already. The guide explains quite a bit about the area and shows a lot about the Mary River National Park.
At the Corroboree Park Tavern, we meet our cruise guide and crocodile expert, Ian. Originally coming from the UK, he has been working with crocodiles for over 10 years in the Crocosaurus Cove in Darwin. He got the job as a cruise guide through a friend just recently, but you wouldn’t tell -- he is knowledgable, entertaining and professional. About ten other people are waiting at the tavern. After Ian brings the group together, we take a seasoned van from the tavern to the wetland. On the way, we see some wallabies. “A wallaby is a little kangaroo species”, explains Ian. The word “wallaby” comes from Eol, an old Aboriginal language. Although all kinds of small kangaroo species are called “wallaby“, it is mostly used for the swamp kangaroo (Walabia Bicolor) that lives in the Northern Territory.
A wallaby is a little kangaroo species
We reach the Corroboree Billabong at 4.30pm. We get into the boat with the group. Thanks to the relatively small group today, everyone gets a window seat. What a treat! The boat takes off and soon we realize that we are out there alone. No other boats, no other groups. Just us and Mother Nature. However… we are being watched by a lot of birds. We mainly came for the crocodiles and we didn’t know that we will be witnesses to many beautiful birds living in the wetlands near Darwin, pleasant surprise. There are over 700 bird species in Australia, from which 250 live in the Northern Territory. As many as 70 species live in the Mary River National Park that Corroboree Billabong is a part of. Some of the birds we have seen were the snake wing darters, comb-crested jacana’s (aka Jesus birds), pied herons, black-necked stork (jabiru) and the sulfur-crested cockatoo.
At once, we see two eyes popping out of the water! Hey, there we go, Crocodile Dundee! The eyes of a crocodile, staring at us. As Ian moves the boat closer, the crocodile sinks under and disappears without a trace. Some tiny bubbles betray where the crocodile is heading but that’s all. Unfortunately, or maybe luckily, it is not heading towards us. Crocodiles are extremely strong predators. They can hit you with such force that your bones crack immediately. They would be more than happy to put you on their lunch menu if they can. However, we also learned that crocs are rather picky, eating only about 3-5 kg of meat a week, strictly fresh. So no easy prey for them, they don’t take the leftover lunch of one another -- our guide points out. The crocodile we just spotted didn’t show himself again. Did you know that the bigger crocodiles can stay underwater for 7 hours straight?
Crocodiles are extremely strong predators. They can hit you with such a force that it can crack your bones immediately!
We sail further along the river. The sky and the surroundings are beautifully lit up by the perfect April sunset. The guide shows us some breeding locations of the crocodiles. “If you catch a crocodile egg, and manage to keep the baby crocodile alive, you can hand it over to a crocodile farm and get a fair amount of money for that”, says Ian. It even appears that a local guy built an app which teaches you how to look after the egg if you’re lucky enough to find one. Luxury fashion houses like Louis Vuitton use crocodile skins for designer bags and other goods. These brands own their own crocodile farms to source crocodile skins. They’ll pay you good money for the eggs if you bring them in. Sad but true.
If you catch a crocodile egg, and manage to keep the baby crocodile alive, you can hand it over to a crocodile farm and get a fair amount of money for that
In the meantime, we are passing many water lilies growing next to the river banks. “Look, there is a Jesus Bird”, says Ian. A comb-crested jacana, often called the “Jesus Bird” for being able to walk ‘on water’, is rushing over some of the lily leaves right next to us. Then it stops on one of them to stare at us passing by. It appears that it is a female bird. “This bird just had babies last Monday” Ian says. “But they all got killed”, he continues. The female Jacanas are very aggressive. They mate with multiple male birds and build up to 5 nests simultaneously. While the male birds will take care of the eggs, the females will defend their territories firmly. Eventually, they will even try to invade other females’ territories to destroy the foreign eggs (and chicks, too, unfortunately) and lay their own eggs. Yuck!
This bird just had babies last Monday, but they all got killed
We suddenly spot a huge crocodile again. This time not only the eyes are above water level, but a big part of his back and the tail is visible, too! It’s a giant, about 4-5 meters long. Iain informs us that they can eventually grow even bigger, up to 6 meters. The crocodile swims slowly with his mighty dragonlike body through the water. The tail gently swings behind him. It is a dream coming true to see a big crocodile like this in the wild so close up. Ian moves the boat a bit closer to the crocodile and we keep following it for a little while. “There are two types of crocodiles living in these swamps,” says Ian, “both the sweet and the saltwater crocodiles are native here in Corroboree Billabong”. The one we are seeing now is one of the saltwater crocs. Closeby we find two more crocodiles. They are resting on the riverbanks. Although much smaller in size, they offer a great photo opportunity.
Both the sweet and the saltwater crocodiles are native here in Corroboree Billabong
We need to move on, as it is getting dark already. In the distance, we see a buffalo herd. We only briefly stop since they are with young ones, so better be careful. As the last gift, a colorful bird with yellow eyes and orange legs lands on the shore next to the boat. It is a jabiru (black-necked stork). We know it’s a she because of the unique yellow eyes, shining through the dark blue head. It lets us come very close, you could almost touch her. That would be a dangerous adventure though -- Ian says. Her beak is like a Samurai sword and targeted the right way it can easily kill a huge saltwater croc. What beauty and strength! Boy did she become even more impressive when she took off from the ground! Her wings must have spread at least 2 meters wide. What an enormous bird! Thank you Mother Nature for this great day at Corroboree Billabong!
The Jabiru’s beak is like a Samurai sword and targeted the right way it can easily kill a huge saltwater croc
It is already dark when we go ashore to hop on the bus again. Lots of mosquitos try to attack us from all sides, so we better get back quickly. Ian starts the engine. On many days, he sees snakes around this time on the road. “It is already late, but if I see a big one, we will definitely stop…” -- Iain assures us. Unfortunately, no snakes today. In no time, we are back at the tavern.
Unfortunately, it is already time to grab the car and make our way home to Darwin. Our bright headlights from the car reveal the wandering dingos, wallabies and lots of jumping frogs near the road. We arrive safe and sound back in Darwin. Home, sweet Airbnb home.