He’s here. Lurking beneath the water’s surface. Waiting. That’s what crocodiles do when they’re stalking prey. He can sense my heartbeat, a feeble flutter that has amplified into a rib-splitting, double-bass drum thump.
An iridescent-green film forms an opaque skin on the pond. It is quiet, motionless. Then he moves; tiny ripples betray his presence. A line stitch of reptilian ridges breaks the surface. A pair of nostrils, then eyes, emerge. Suddenly, he lunges.
Now, a hulking five-metre beast charges from the water, his prehistoric jaws snapping at a pig trotter held aloft by Matt Wright – croc connoisseur, wildlife warrior, tourism entrepreneur and star of National Geographic TV’s Outback Wrangler. “This is Tripod,” he says with a grin. “He’s a big boy, eh?”
Crocodiles pack the most powerful bite force in the animal kingdom
There are three things about crocodiles that every visitor to Australia’s wild Northern Territory should know. One, they almost outnumber humans, with the population soaring to almost 150,000 since commercial hunting was outlawed here in 1971. Two, they are lightning-fast and can travel at up to 12 metres per second on land. Three, they are apex predators, packing the most powerful bite force in the animal kingdom. Put simply, a saltwater crocodile (or saltie) can rip a limb from a human with one whip of its jaw, and incapacitate you with a swish of its tail.
These sobering facts are enough to deter many in the know. But not Wright. The modern-day Crocodile Dundee teases Tripod (so named because of a missing foot) with the carcass, dangling it high in front of his snout until the reptile snaps – teeth on bone, the leg disappearing down his gullet in one fearsome gulp. Wright rubs Tripod on the snout in a display that is perhaps more about bravado than affection. “I’m just gonna get some more food,” he says. “Um, are you just going to leave him here?” I ask. “Yeah,” Wright replies nonchalantly before walking off, leaving me staring down a five-metre long croc who’s had his hors d’oeuvre, and now seems to be sizing up dinner.
We’re at “The Shack”, a rustic abode on the floodplains of the Finniss River system, about 150 kilometres south-west of Darwin. This is the heart of croc country and a habitat where Wright – a larrikin Aussie who has made a name for himself wrestling crocodiles and dicing with death – is most at home. When he’s not filming Outback Wrangler, now in its third season and watched by 300 million people worldwide, Wright is mustering livestock by air, relocating problem salties, guiding tourists on wilderness adventures, and collecting crocodile eggs for commercial farms. The latter is a lucrative business that sees the hatchlings eventually turned into croc burgers and high fashion handbags.
We’ve spent the morning shadowing Wright in a helicopter as he and his team swoop in on crocodile nests, raiding mounds of reeds strewn across the vast tracts of swampland. It’s a genuine man-versus-nature spectacle of cunning and courage, involving stealth chopper landings, aerial deployments (think men dangling from helicopters) and run-ins with ferocious mamma crocs. One of Wright’s collectors calmly recounts a story of inadvertently head-butting a cranky female while being ripped from the water during a frantic aerial abort.
Back at The Shack, it’s “smoko” time and Wright is throwing down a coffee and talking up his love for the Territory. Two helicopters are parked outside and a third is about to join us. Wright has sent a couple of the lads out to shoot a wild pig for Tripod. The radio crackles as they approach: “We’ve got the pig!” There’s a thwump thwump of approaching rotor blades, and a porcine corpse comes dangling into view. It’s just another day in the office for Wright.
While his star is rising (American audiences lap up his Steve Irwin-style wildlife tussles), Wright remains resolutely down-to-earth. “My work always comes first before any filming or any publicity, because the work is who I am. That’s your bread and butter,” he says from underneath a camo print cap. He’s ruggedly handsome – if a little sun-weathered – with a three-day growth, arresting blue eyes and a Colgate smile.
Still, the exposure has certainly helped drive the success of Wright’s tourism enterprise, Outback Floatplane Adventures, a high-end, high-octane outfit tailor-made for tourists who are short on time. Its signature trip is the Ultimate Tour, a half-day, white-knuckle expedition that flies guests via floatplane from Darwin to Sweets Lagoon, a remote and soupy billabong a stone’s throw from The Shack.
A pontoon corrals guests onto a cruise boat, where they tuck into freshly-caught barramundi before taking a scenic helicopter flight over the wetlands, and then barrel through narrow tributaries and over mudflats at breakneck speed on an airboat. A second airboat motors through the lagoon at a more sedate pace, inviting wildlife encounters in a setting where you’re guaranteed to not see another living soul.
At a gentle bend in the river, we’re shown the spot where Sweetheart, a giant of a crocodile, was captured almost four decades ago. The notorious 5.1-metre, 780-kilogram saltie was described by his captors as the “heavyweight champion of the billabong”, and made international headlines in the ’70s when he terrorised boaters, attacking outboard motors and flipping dinghies. The story became legendary, even in a nation renowned for its deadly predators.
It is the height of the wet season and Sweets Lagoon, a capillary of the swollen Finniss River system, is in full flood. As we glide along, paperbark, cedar and towering livistona palms nod their leaves to the water, and pandanus, water lilies and freshwater mangroves cling to the submerged banks – a jungle fortress nourished by a freshwater moat. White-bellied sea eagles, Australia’s second-largest bird of prey, soar overhead. Today they share the sky with brahminy kites, while egrets and black cormorants perch statuesque on branches bowing over the lagoon.
We’re trespassers on a primordial water-world frontier. As we slip through a narrow channel, ducking under branches, we find ourselves in an expansive wetland. Spindly matchstick trunks replace trees, casting long reflections in the water, and thickets of foliage bob in the boat’s wash. A juvenile crocodile, crawling with insects, suns itself on a floating mat of dead reeds, motionless like a taxidermy exhibit. He’s a mere whippersnapper compared to some of the submerged monsters that call this place home.
A tell-tale cluster of bubbles fizzes on the water’s surface, heralding the emergence of a knobbly snout and a pair of menacing eyes. “Is that Bone Cruncher? What’s been going on with you?” Wright asks quizzically, leaning over the bow and beating the water with a stick. The disconcertingly named four-metre saltie thrusts his head out of the water, revealing a gaping cleft where half his bottom jaw should be. If he wanted to, Bone Cruncher could probably leap into the boat, reprising Sweetheart’s trademark moves. At least with his handicap, it might be a fairer fight. Not so with Nitro, a beast of similar proportions who slinks into sight. Nitro has his own battle scars too, and, like Tripod, is missing a foot. Crocodiles are ruthless predators – even among their own kind.
Wright should know. He’s had a few close calls before, and he recounts one particularly hairy incident when he ended up in the water, manhandling a crocodile as it tried to take his arm off. “What’s danger?” he shrugs dismissively. “Choppers are my biggest worry, as they’re mechanical. At least wildlife is more predictable.”
The helicopter takes off and we levitate above thundering waterfalls and waterlogged plains, verdant and virile in the monsoon. Scorched landscapes oscillate between luminous green patchworks, beef-broth billabongs, and shimmering mirrors sprinkled with lily-pad confetti. A dark, brooding sky closes in, whipping up strong gusts that buffet the helicopter as it lurches back towards civilisation. Crossing my fingers, I fervently hope that Wright’s worst fears about choppers aren’t realised.
Outback Floatplane Adventures
This outfitter runs five-hour Ultimate Tours three times a day during the dry season, and on selected days during the wet.
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
The last resting place of Sweetheart, whose taxidermied body is mounted near the entrance.
Home to more than 1,000 saltwater crocodiles, as well as other wildlife such as big cats, monkeys and meerkats.
The Spectacular Jumping Crocodile Cruise
Watch large crocodiles lunge out of the Adelaide River as they leap for bait.
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine.