This year marks the 30th anniversary of Crocodile Dundee. David Mercer heads Down Under to explore Australia’s Northern Territory
There are signs across Australia’s Northern Territory warning people not to enter crocodile-infested waters, so I’m understandably nervous as I prepare to take a plunge with one of the killer reptiles.
I enter the Cage of Death - the terrifying title given to the glass box in front of me - for an encounter with ‘Chopper’ at Darwin’s Crocosaurus Cove.
Standing in nothing but my swimming shorts and a pair of goggles, I’m slowly lowered into a large outdoor tank containing the creature, leaving only my head above the water.
Chopper - named after the notorious Australian criminal Mark “Chopper” Read - wastes no time in approaching me. His battle-scarred body is 5.5m long, weighs more than 1,700 pounds and he has lost his two front feet after fighting younger crocodiles in the wild.
Almost immediately, he begins circling the cage with his yellow eyes fixed on the human snack that has landed in the water.
“Try a handstand for the photographer,” one of the keepers shouts to me. Trying acrobatic moves is the last thing on my mind, as I’m more concerned about keeping all my body parts intact.
Quickly, however, my initial fears are overcome by the awe-inspiring sight of a saltwater crocodile at such close proximity, and I spend the rest of my time in the tank marvelling at the huge reptile in front of me.
I have travelled to the Northern Territory for a tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of the region’s most famous movie.
The 1986 film Crocodile Dundee, starring Paul Hogan, was shot in various locations around the territory and veteran guide Graeme Hockey knows the impact it had in promoting Australia’s Top End. “That movie put the Northern Territory on the map for tourism,” he says. “Just about every person I meet from overseas has seen Crocodile Dundee.”
We drive along the Stuart Highway and briefly pause where a single white cross stands, surrounded by empty bottles of beer and Jack Daniels.
More than a decade ago, on August 3, 1999, bushman Rod Ansell - widely regarded as the inspiration for the character Crocodile Dundee - shot dead a policeman at the roadside before being killed in return fire.
The site is close to Girraween Lagoon, the location of one of Crocodile Dundee’s most famous scenes, where his love interest Sue Charlton - played by actress Linda Kozlowski - is attacked by a crocodile. There’s no danger of a repeat incident on my visit, though, as the lagoon is drained of any water during the dry season.
We stop at the Adelaide River Inn where one the stars of the film resides. Charlie the buffalo, who is famously lulled to sleep by Mick Dundee in the movie, is now stuffed and standing on the bar.
After arriving in Kakadu National Park, I encounter dozens of crocodiles in the East Alligator River, which was named by English explorer Phillip Parker King in the mistaken belief that it was infested by alligators.
The stretch of water is packed with crocodiles. Eleven are waiting on the river banks as our boat sets sail. As we move slowly towards one for a closer look, there’s a sudden splash as it jumps into the water, prompting a shriek from a French couple at the front of the boat.
Tyrone, our guide talks proudly as he reveals his grandfather featured in Crocodile Dundee as one of the Aboriginal dancers.
“They all came together to watch it afterwards,” he says.
I spend the night at Wildman Wilderness Lodge in the Mary River wetlands. There is a landing strip for planes to fly in and out, and the remoteness of the site has meant the owners haven’t put locks on the lodge doors.
I’m handed a torch to help find my way at night - and to avoid any snakes that could be lurking in the grass. The deadly Taipan snake has been seen in this area in the past.
I take an early morning tour of the local billabong with Chizo, a guide and self-confessed Crocodile Dundee addict, who says he watches the film every week.
“I really hope you guys get to see Big Arse”, he tells the tourists on my boat.
Big Arse, he explains later, is the biggest crocodile in the billabong and is thought to have taken a bite out of one of Chizo’s boats. Unfortunately, we don’t encounter the famous croc which has a photo hanging outside one of the lodge’s toilets.
After a few days in the wilderness, I take a floatplane to Sweets Lagoon for an action-packed day with Outback Floatplane Adventures. The man behind the company, Matt Wright, is the star of the television series Outback Wrangler, which is centred on his attempts to relocate crocodiles in the wild.
He drives an airboat at speed over the swampy waters, spraying those at the front of the boat with mud, before we climb into a helicopter for an aerial view of the lagoon.
“Don’t worry mate, you won’t fall out,” the pilot says as he spots that I’m gripping on to my seat. The helicopter, which has no doors and turns and dives at speed, is not for the faint-hearted.
Back on the ground, Matt leads a more leisurely cruise on the airboat across the lagoon for a chance to see the crocodile ‘Bonecruncher’.
We wait silently as Matt shakes his hand in the water and calls out before the massive reptile suddenly emerges next to the boat.
Meanwhile, an uninvited guest joins us during the tour as a small white heron called Rose flies on board. She stands at the front of the boat as though she is posing for photographs before clambering towards Matt to be fed.
During my stay in the Northern Territory, I spend a night at the five-star Cicada Lodge in Nitmiluk National Park. It’s an ideal location for an evening dinner cruise along the Katherine Gorge, which is just a short walk away.
The tour is led by the indigenous Jawoyn people and offers an opportunity to see Aboriginal rock paintings. Canoeing and swimming are allowed on the day I visit because the guides are confident there are no saltwater crocodiles around.
Another spectacular sight in Nitmiluk National Park is Edith Falls, where visitors can swim below a waterfall. It’s somewhat off the beaten track and requires a decent level of fitness to reach, but the view is well worth the effort.
I spend my final night in Darwin, the territory’s capital city, which has been redeveloped in the last few decades in the wake of Cyclone Tracy in 1974. An exhibition at the Museum And Art Gallery Northern Territory is a fascinating insight into how the natural disaster affected Darwin, and includes a sound room where visitors can experience the eerie noises of the cyclone.
After encountering dozens of crocodiles, avoiding snakes and trying not to fall out of a helicopter, I can finally understand how Crocodile Dundee felt in New York as a fish out of water.