The Cobourg Peninsula, north-east of Darwin, hosts ancient rock art treasures and the invigorating presence of ever-lurking crocodiles. By Debra Jopson.

Arnhem Land’s Cobourg Peninsula

Cobourg Peninsula, Northern Territory.
Cobourg Peninsula, Northern Territory.
Credit: Venture North Australia

It’s night again in the bush behind the curved bay deep inside Port Essington where I lie sleepless, staring through insect netting at the stars, as sand crabs drum around the tent pegs and bandicoots thunder through the carpet of dry leaves outside.

I reach for my torch and a book borrowed from the glamp-site library – Hugh Edwards’ Crocodile Attack in Australia – hoping it will lull me to sleep.

Normally, even scary movies would be madness at bedtime, but tonight, heading deeper into the illogical fear that has quietly worked its way inside over the past few days seems to be the only way to rout Dennis from the subconscious. He’s the four-metre croc who lives a few score footsteps away in the lagoon below the red cliffs at Venture North’s camp on the Cobourg Peninsula.

The company, run by two brothers from Shepparton in Victoria, has leased this deeply remote tract of land from the traditional owners of Garig Gunak Barlu National Park and set up comfy digs, with bush-view loos and solar-powered warm showers for adventurous softies.

Until recently, Dennis has been almost a pet to the tiny band of people who work here during dry season when the camp is accessible. Dave McMahon, the tour guide who has brought my group of five here, once chucked him a stack of chickens to see how many he’d eat. He got to 17. Dave has also laid a tape measure beside him on the beach, calculating he was 3.8 metres long,“although he’d probably be four metres by now”.

At a ranger’s suggestion, Dave and his colleagues have stopped feeding Dennis now, but he still hangs beneath the cliff, hoping for a stray chicken – or tourist – to fall serendipitously from the sky.

Northern Territory tour guides know, of course, that a frisson of fear rising from the ancient reptilian part of the tourist brain is part of the modern Top End traveller’s quest.

En route to Arnhem Land, it’s been fun experiencing local guide Connie’s style as she manoeuvres a barge about the Corroboree billabong, loaded with schoolchildren, calling through her microphone to invisible crocs, using their Aboriginal name: “Where are you, ginga?”

The Corroboree billabong system has seven crocs per square kilometre, but this morning they are thrilling the kids on board through their invisible presence. No one, Connie warns, should stick a body part beyond the barge edge. She eventually finds a croc of modest size immobile on the muddy bank, its 66 teeth on display as it lies, mouth agape, to prevent its brain from overheating.

“The throat opening is the same size as the stomach opening, so they don’t chew their food, kids.” This one, Connie muses, has probably eaten well this morning. “Dingo, wallaby, pig… little kids… No.”

I watch others quiver but I didn’t travel this far to feel the fear. The vast landscape, the blue veins of rivers and billabongs and the unimaginable people who lived in Arnhem Land first beckoned from a map long ago. As a child, it seemed a faraway place, infinitely remote and unknowable. Three visits to Kakadu over time had brought it closer, but still distant, behind its fortress of stone cliffs.

The Aboriginal owners and national parks department strictly control numbers through a permit system. Crocs even seem to guard its tidal gateway; you could easily become dead meat crossing the causeway across the East Alligator River from lush Kakadu on foot.

Dave drove his paying adventurers across in a Toyota LandCruiser, counselling us to always stay three metres back from the water, given a croc is built to shoot out and grab prey at top speed and is strong enough to drag it two metres back for the famous underwater death roll.

He’s happy to talk crocodiles and wears the gear of the professional adventurer – khakis, boots and a crocodile hatband glued to his Akubra – but he’s no beat-up merchant. He pulls out counter-facts about who menaces whom in the relationship between Crocodylus and Homo sapiens. Louis Vuitton, he says, has bought two Northern Territory crocodile farms to make croc handbags that sell for $70,000 in Europe. At a lower price-point, he knows someone who makes croc whips and paddles for the S&M market.

At 28, he strikes his older charges as a fellow traveller, compelled to journey into the inner realms of Australia’s being and perhaps, through that, one’s own. He seems to have swallowed almost every available book on adventuring in the Territory and can pluck out the Latin name of plants along the route. He has begun to learn Aboriginal languages.

He lives on high-energy enthusiasm, stopping to show us jabirus, dingoes, brumbies and agile wallabies. At one spot he holds up a dead quoll, excited that their range is spreading again, despite the march of the poisonous cane toad. He knows how to fish, shoot and catch a snake. And he’s a trained chef. No wonder he has a TV production company interested.

There is a heady sense of space on the Arnhem Land plateau, a lovely flood plain below high rocky outcrops. At the Aboriginal settlement of Gunbalanya, two dogs slow the Toyota to a shudder by criss-crossing in front of it.

It’s a fitting introduction. There are the markings of a Creation story embedded in the surrounding hillsides about two dogs, a brother and sister, who dug the waterholes and who remain as statues in the rock. Ezariah, an Aboriginal artist, who guides our group through the rock art-covered caves of Injalak Hill, points out sites and talks of how brother-and-sister relations change once a young man is initiated.

The artworks he shows us are thought to be one century to eight millennia in age; ochre laid over ochre; echidna, fish, snakes, hands, crocs, all telling of thousands of years of heaving life. They induce a giddy sense of timelessness, like watching the teeming outback stars.

And yet, this brush with infinity becomes one of intimacy inside a cavern where a collection of cutting tools from flakes to axe-heads and hooks lie on a flat rock, gathered for visitors to see the work of generations. With permission from Ezariah, Dave shines a torch into a niche in the rock. There lie the skull and bones of an Aboriginal man.

Everyone is subdued after that; thinking of him making perhaps this tool here, that artwork there.

In Arnhem Land, it is so easy to see that the landscape has been fashioned by the Aboriginal inhabitants, because they are still able to do it. That afternoon, as we head for our camp, a tyre blows on the car at a spot where local Indigenous people have set fire to bush on either side of the narrow dirt road. While Dave changes the tyre, heat rushes in from the grass verge as it crackles and pops into flames, throwing great golden flares against the blackened bush.

The burn has been made in a square, creating a slowly smouldering stage where silver wisps coil from the ground, generating a mist that hangs over the scene like theatre smoke. This is a cool, controlled burn. The land is cared for; each creature in its place.

For tourists that place at sunset is on a clifftop where we gather for drinks and canapés – smoked crocodile pâté among them. Below us, Dennis rests his front legs at the water’s lovely edge and swivels his tail and hind legs rhythmically, his eyes on us as the sun pours red oil into the sea. We joke about how he would like to be eating us. (A jovial long-beard in our group reckons Dennis would spit him out, considering him
a furball).

The next night, back from our day’s touring, we spot crocodile tracks directly beneath the cliff. Dennis hangs in the shallows awhile, then sinks to merge perfectly with a rock shelf. It is possible to make out his shape deep below the water. But only because you saw where he went.

I read that crocs study the animals they hunt, so they can anticipate how they will try to flee, how they will struggle. Dennis has been studying us, sizing me up. This is why I’m awake. This is what it feels like to be prey.

I read Edwards’ story about the late conservationist and philosopher Val Plumwood, who was attacked in a canoe on the East Alligator River 30 years ago, but never blamed the crocodile on the grounds she had entered its watery territory. She survived three death rolls and escaped, maimed and changed for life.

This is calming. It produces the realisation that it is not Dennis I fear, but my own thoughtless self, falling from the cliff, or absent-mindedly going too close to the water. In the wild, each of us is responsible for our own safety, by understanding the most natural of laws. Even when glamping. It’s one of the messages, I believe, written into that ancient rock art.

The artists use different materials now and I’ve brought a fragment of Arnhem Land home from the Injalak Art Centre; a bark painting of Crocodylus, to remind me of what that beautiful country taught me about survival.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 12, 2015 as "Crocodile Rock".

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Debra Jopson is a Sydney-based investigative reporter.

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