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The Thrill Of The Reveal: Kakadu By Night

I have a little treat for you this week. Given I am away sailing the Whitsundays with my man, I thought to pre-write and preschedule a couple of adventure tales from the last times I had fun on a boat. Taken from the blog I kept when Gordon and I had our huge year travelling around Australia, this vignette is set in a 2km long billabong in Kakadu, Northern Territory. It is an adaptation of the original blog entry, and was awarded Shortlisted a regional Annual Travel Writing competition in 2014. Enjoy…

As we set off, the engine thrumming to the drumming of my own heart, it is clear that tonight we all want the same thing: to sight any number of the reputed eleven pairs of glowing, killer red eyes known to submerge and hide out here in the inkiness of night. Oh, and to stay alive as we do so.

Perched in our bathtub of a boat, we chug a path through the slippiness and infested murk – my elbow, low enough to touch the water and catch the brunt of cool spray that stands my goose-bumps to attention across my skin. Without a canopy to the vessel, I merge with the spirited swathe of Kakadu night-sky popping out its winks one by one.

Our beam reveals unfamiliar fish, unveils remarkable birds, illuminates the twists and tangles of trees, and unearths tortuous root systems laid bare by the previous Wet season floods. And all the while, I am nosing out those lurking saltwater crocs, relying on the one tell-tale sign – the rankness, the fishiness, the pong of their leathery hide.

Suddenly, it’s game on.

A surge of adrenaline shoots me onto wobbly legs in time to catch a sneer of a snout, and the glint of devil-eyes drilling a chilling hole right through me. No longer than a second. Then he slinks below, in silence, like something out of a surreal arcade game.

We resume cruising. But it’s not long before we get wind of our second croc, the sinister smell creeping towards us on the breeze. A 7ft female, we get a jaw-dropping view before her ancient, ridged battleline also descends to the deep.

We glide on, mesmerised by reflections as they weave a wonderful, watery tapestry.

Then – commotion, flapping.

fred kakadu

Fred’s reflexes swing the spotlight around to illuminate a startled, brilliant white Great Billed Heron flying straight out of the bush. Its long, dangling legs swerve in front of the boat as it swoops off ahead of us, only to be reabsorbed by the same obscurity out of which it had emerged.

There’s barely a chance for my heart to move back down from my throat, before we whiff another saltie nearby.

Fred thinks this one is “The Boss”, a 5m beauty who “got this big for a reason”.

He cuts the engine. Switches off his torch. Plunges us with saucer eyes into the silent, eerie void of relative darkness. Unease floods my mouth as my back goes rigid and I instinctively move my elbows away from the edge of the boat. Nobody moves.

We wait.

The croc waits.

A crazy game of hide and seek flipped on its head.

Right now, our boat feels like a mere speck of cardboard plaything. I swallow. A splash goes off to my right. “Whattheshitwasthat?!” I splutter. But it’s just barramundi jumping and a tension-relieving, snigger ensues from the group on board.

Our croc does not emerge but a mammoth moon does, sneaking up behind silhouetted trees, writing the end-credits to our most extraordinary adventure.

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