The Adelaide River cuts a murky swath through the flats, its oozing banks smothered beneath a jungle of mangrove and swamp bush. A boat churns slowly upstream. From twin decks, wary eyes focus on a submerged form drifting in the current.
If the object turns out to be a harmless log, my fellow passengers and I will be disappointed. We hope for something far more deadly.
This is crocodile country, and near the capital of Australia's Northern Territory, ironically named Darwin, we hope to stare down the throat of a cold-blooded carnivore that some believe has eluded evolution for millions of years.
Called "salties" by the Aussies, the saltwater crocodile, Crocodylus porosus, is the largest member of the reptilian family whose cousins include crocodiles, alligators, caimans and gavials. They can reach 23 feet in length and weigh over 2,200 pounds. The world's most massive living reptiles, they make Florida's alligators look like ballerinas in a fat farm, and these guys have an appetite. They will devour nearly anything that moves, including us.
"The salty is definitely a man-eater," guide Peter Roper announces over the boat's public address system. "But, I assure you they will just as readily eat women and children." Aussies have a strange sense of humor.
Today, the hundred of us aboard the Adelaide River Queen hope these bundles of teeth and temperament will settle for handouts instead of deckhands. We head up the freeway-wide river on a 90-minute cruise to watch crocs jump for food.
"It's a little like fishing," Peter's Aussie-accented words come firing from the loudspeaker. "It's always different. Sometimes we see three or four crocodiles. Other times we may sight 20."
Saltwater crocodiles inhabit the Indo-Pacific region that arcs southeast from India, crosses southern Asia and northern Australia and extends through Oceania to the Solomon Islands and Fiji. Because the animals tolerate salinity, they live in the brackish water around coastal areas and up rivers. Normally, they sink their 64-68 teeth into a diet of mud crabs, turtles, snakes and shore birds, but larger specimens will occasionally dine on livestock, wild boars, monkeys and more.
"The very first reported human fatality was right here in Darwin," Peter reports. "The unfortunate fellow went for a swim off of the Stokes Hill Wharf in Darwin Harbor. He got all tangled up in the strong currents and went over to a large log for a rest. The log ate him."
Australia houses another species of crocodiles, locally called "freshies," Crocodylus johnstoni. These smaller creatures can be found inland near permanent, clear water, and they are not considered as dangerous unless cornered. We will not see freshies on this cruise, however. This is a segregated, saltwaters-only neighborhood.
"The salties would simply eat any freshies that came into this stretch of the river," says Peter.
An estimated 1,500-1,600 crocodiles live along the banks of the Adelaide, congregating where food, shelter and nesting habitat are plentiful. On a big river such as this, they conserve energy by staying near the banks and away from the main current.
Peter spots a crocodile moving toward us. Like cats responding to can openers, these eating machines have learned to associate the sound of the boat's engines with food. They often swim straight out, waiting in the middle of the river for their meals on keels.
"This one looks interested!" Peter exclaims with the exuberance of a five-year-old.
Compared to him, the late Steve Irwin, the excitable Crocodile Hunter, sounds as blasé as Paul Hogan's Crocodile Dundee.
"It's on the surface. It's riding with the current. It looks like a BIG crocodile! It IS interested. Here we go!"
Topside assistant Sandy Offord prepares her first hors d'oeuvre, a pot-roast size slice of pig's head. The young woman ties the meat to a rope affixed to a 20-foot bamboo pole.
"Sandy's going to try very hard to get each crocodile to jump twice for us," Peter explains. "This would never happen in the wild. When they stalk their prey and strike, they always get it right."
Standing at railing's edge, Sandy suspends the snack over the side, slowly moving it outward. The raw meat hovers over the immense animal.
"Oh my. This might be Hannibal, himself!" Peter shouts. "He's the boss around here, an absolute monster approaching six meters (20 feet) in length and a ton in weight."
Like Anthony Hopkins eyeing Jody Foster, our Hannibal stares hungrily at the hanging entrée. His long head emerges from the water. Jaws open and teeth flash. As the beast lunges for the food, Sandy jerks it up and out of reach.
"Very slow. Very careful. That's the way they are," Peter says. "Only in that last second as they strike do they show any real speed at all. The rest of the time they conserve energy for the kill."
The croc drops back to the water, cold yellow eyes fixed on the dangling delicacy. He waits, then goes for it again. Body rises, mouth opens and this time, Sandy gives him the goodie. Hannibal takes the meat, throws his head back and swallows. The morsel slides down in one piece.
"What we've seen is normal behavior for saltwater crocodiles," explains Peter. "Often along the banks of these rivers, you'll find colonies of fruit bats. During the day, they hang upside down from the mangroves. The crocodiles have learned to jump up and grab the sleeping bats."
We continue up the river, passing spots where the huge reptiles have slid over mud banks. They use the water and land to regulate their body temperature. In winter, crocodiles warm in the sun. Come summer, they often submerge themselves with only the tips of their snouts exposed, causing some unwary interlopers to get the final surprise of their lives.
The world boasts over 20 varieties of crocodilians, and they are indigenous to most wet, tropical areas of the globe. To the untrained eye, they all look quite similar.
"Comparing alligators to crocodiles," Peter says, "is like the comparing McDonalds to a hamburger."
American alligators grow to about 13 feet in length, weigh up to 500 pounds and are generally considered to be less aggressive. They reside primarily in freshwater swamps, marshes, rivers and lakes. Alligators have shorter snouts, sharper teeth and look as though they've visited better orthodontists. With mouths closed, their teeth remain hidden.
Australia's saltwater crocodile has a longer snout and blunter teeth, which remain exposed even with its mouth shut. Courtesy of salt-secreting glands, it can live in saltwater as well as fresh. In nests near streams, females typically lay about 50 eggs, but less than one percent of the newborns will reach maturity. Many will become a brunch menu item for cannibalistic adults.
Although attacks on humans are few, signs throughout tropical Australia warn residents and visitors to beware of crocodiles. Authorities advise people never to clean fish near the shore, never empty trash into the sea and never carry refuse repeatedly to the same spot.
"Crocs can be there for weeks just watching. One day they'll get you," sighs Peter.
Every year, about a hundred "nuisance crocodiles" are removed from Darwin's harbor and swimming areas. The lucky become breeding stock. The rest yield skins and meat, much of which goes to Asia. Otherwise, wild crocodiles are protected by law.
The river is currently in flood, and the strong current dissuades many crocs from playing trick-or-treat with us. Still, during the next half-hour, we attract several 10-foot-long females.
"That's big enough," says Peter. "The last fatality was attributed to a crocodile of that size. It doesn't have to be very big."
The crocodiles are not the only constituency for our floating chuck-wagon. As we move on, a white-bellied sea eagle with a six-foot wingspan circles the boat. Sandy tethers a treat to her pole and extends it straight out from the side of the boat. The bird circles like a scout on a raiding party, then alights on a branch across the river.
Sandy lifts the lunch a bit higher. The eagle flaps from its branch, and with a swooping dive that would make a kamikaze envious, it streaks down to sink its talons into the tenderloin. Burdened with the bounty, it skims low over the water before disappearing behind the crocodile-hiding mangroves.
We would not have found so many crocs on this stretch of river 30 years ago, a time when the animals faced annihilation. Since then, worldwide sanctions have minimized illegal hunting and poaching. Populations are now recovering.
"We're a few minutes ahead of time," Peter announces, "so we'll just stick our nose inside Marrakai Creek. The old man could be around."
The boat turns up a tributary stream. Around one of its bends, a shadowy shape lurks in the water. It looks like a scaly U-boat with two bulbous eyes for periscopes.
"I think we might have found old Marrakai himself!" Peter shouts.
Sandy suspends an appetizer over the side, and a 20-foot-long croc rises to take the bait. As his mouth opens, I gaze straight into the jaws of time. Before me lies a brute whose ancestors survived the extinction of dinosaurs. This anachronistic creature may represent the last living link to the time when reptiles ruled the earth.
When Sandy withdraws her offering, Marrakai sinks back down. Crocodiles are intelligent, and this old geezer knows the routine. He patiently waits for the steak on a string to descend again. Then, with a startling burst he grabs and gulps the hanging grub.
"That's the right way to finish things off," booms Peter. "Another monster crocodile!"
We start back. After a final glance at Marrakai's realm, I take a seat across from one of the boat's safety compartments, its contents listed on the side. Here in the heart of crocodile country, it holds life jackets. Yes, Aussies have a strange sense of humor.