From the Red Center, I traveled north, to Australia’s Top End. I was only in Darwin for a day before I headed out with a small adventure tour group to visit Kakadu National Park, and wonderful wilderness made internationally famous in the movie “Crocodile Dundee.” On our second day in Kakadu, we visited Yellow Water.
Yellow Water Lagoon, with its many branches and inlets, was as still as glass when we arrived just after dawn. Reflected in the smooth, silver-blue water were the willowy paperbarks, dark-leaved mangroves, and densely clustered groves of pandanus that grow along much of the shoreline. A small, flat-bottomed, aluminum boat was tethered to a tree at the lagoon’s edge, and in this we launched out onto the bright water.
Like most of the estuaries and lagoons of Australia’s north, Yellow Water is home to the enormous (adults 15-25 feet in length) and dangerous saltwater, or estuarine, crocodile—“salty” for short. You stay out of the water. Not only can salties make an easy meal out of any human foolish enough to go for a swim, these monsters think nothing of tackling water buffalo, grabbing them by their faces when they come down to wallow and pulling them under water. Though massive, salties can move with incredible speed, even on land. They have reactions fast enough to catch a diving bird in flight, lurking below the water’s surface, then exploding into action
Most of the salties we saw were lazing in the sun or cruising through the water lilies. We did see one, though, who’d just caught dinner—a 20-pound ox-eyed herring—and we watched as he calmly crushed his struggling prey, the sound of crunching bones echoing across the still lagoon. Then he deftly tossed the fish into the air, catching it so it would go down head first, and with one gulp it was gone.
A large goanna moved cautiously into a clearing at the water’s edge. Goannas are monitor lizards, of which there are about 19 species in Australia. The largest is the giant perentie, second in size only to the related Komodo dragon. The goanna before us was no giant, but was at least four feet long. We went ashore to get a closer look, approaching slowly and quietly. The lizard’s forked tongue flicked in and out as it “tasted” the air, and it could tell something was going on. I was closest to it, and I could hear it hissing. Then it reared up, and I froze. Eventually, the goanna moved off into the brush, and we returned to our boat.
Yellow Water is so called because after the rainy season the water’s surface is entirely covered with yellow water lilies. The lilies we saw were either purple or white, and clung mostly along the shore. But it is feathers, not flowers, that draw visitors to Yellow Water, for here one of the largest selections of Northern Territory birds congregates.