In the Top End, between Darwin and Kakadu National Park, the Mary River twists through a vast expanse of wetlands and floodplains, some of which form the Corroboree Billabong. Corraboree is an Aboriginal word meaning “ritual gathering place”, and we are here now, floating at anchor on a misty morning, watching the gathering, the corroboree, of those who live here in the billabong. Early this morning, very early, before the sun came up and while the marsh was lit in pale blue by the light of the full moon, an interested crocodile cruised by my bedroom window; and now that the sun is rising pink and chalky grey above the reeds, the fish are snapping at flies, the birds are beginning to rouse themselves (though a juvenile white-bellied sea eagle still perches on a withered tree nearby, hunch-shouldered, staring, with a spiky head feathers like a sullen teenage punk rocker, waiting for more of this cold mist to dissipate. I sit wrapped in a blanket on the upper deck, waiting for the rolling mists to dissipate, the same as the sea-eagle – but with a cup of tea. Our houseboat is called Janine. She sleeps six comfortably, is equipped with a kitchen, bathroom and shower, and couldn’t be more perfect for a leisurely cruise through a slow winding crocodile-infested river. Ruth and John, the owners of Mary River Houseboats, are the kind of people you instantly wished were your next-door neighbors. They explained the workings of the boat in an appealing, relaxed Australian way. This included this immortal bit of advice from Ruth: “Here are the life-jackets, but don’t wear them. Crocs like bright colors, so if you get in trouble, just throw them one way and swim the other – fast.”
Life teems in the billabong. It surges, it hops, buzzes, swims , flies, and rare is the moment when you don’t see or hear something close at hand. Birds soar and sail and dip and scoop up fish from the river. Hawks, eagles, terns, cormorants, parrots, cockatoos, bee-eaters, geese, herons and cranes, swallows and swifts dart and weave. We fished for Barrumundi, but as of sun-up, have not yet caught one. And then there is the apex predator, the great salt water crocodile – the Saltie.
“It goes without saying, you mustn’t go in for a swim,” Ruth told us. “But don’t leave the boat at all. The crocs like the tall grass too.” As of sunrise, we’ve counted twenty-one (including the one who cruised by my bedroom window by moonlight. [Update: in all we’ve seen thirty-one salties and two freshies (the much less aggressive fresh-water crocodile]
Of those seen, I estimate 3% could be considered harmless (Bite? You call THAT a bite?). 80% are potentially lethal, certainly painful. And the remaining 17% are unsurvivable – especially a big bruiser who we counted as the ninth we saw and became, ever after, the dreaded Nine.
When night arrived, we were told to keep all lights off to prevent the arrival of Mozzies – the dreaded wetlands mosquitoes. We lowered the screens, doused the lights, and watched the sun until it set and then we chatted in the dark. We used a bright spotlight now and then to shine upon the shore, and always there we saw red eyes sparkling, watching.
Off with the lights again. A splash, a squawk, and some unfortunate bird met its end. After chatting as long as could in the dark, we went to our separate bunks, all of us to read under blankets using flashlights. I was under mine reading Bruch Chatwin’s Songlines, all the while listening to the outside splashes and night birds and lazy waves against Janine’s aluminum pontoons The only fatality we know of on the billabong was caused by a sudden high wind that capsized a houseboat (we’re not sure whose houseboat it was, or if it was in this part of the Mary River) A woman drowned when trapped below deck, but all others escaped their swim across the river. Last night another high wind rose – I heard it and felt it, followed by my brother-in-law Mitch’s voice calling and the engine starting. I heard all this but was still so close to sleep, I never responded, but to lift my head at the sound of the wind and think, “yikes,” and drop my head again.
This morning I learned the wind had caused us to drag anchor and sent us into the lily pads with one pontoon up on shore. Fearing snakes, (which was kind of him, as my head was closest to shore) Mitch decided to move us back into the middle of the river. While my nephew Cameron poled off and we left the shore, a light shining upon the shore showed two sinister red eyes in the place which vacated, which in turn, very likely means that crocodile could have been peering in my window at my sleeping form and whispering, “And what have we here?”
Not long after sunup, a small power boat wended through the waterways and approached – it was John, delivering the morning paper and a basket filled with fresh scones baked by Ruth “for your morning tea,” as he said, and in the morning paper, we read of a saltie attack in a far off billabong, nowhere near us.
They have a good life, these salties do. There is no end of food, plenty of warmth and sunshine, clean water, boats to inspect and people to awe and terrify, and lots of mud banks to lay upon and work on their tan. All the denizens of the billabong have a good life, and I feel they somehow must know it on some level. “It’s good to be me,” says the young sea-eagle when he takes off in the morning lights, as does the barramundi leaping up for a fly.
“It’s good to be me,” the fish says, and so does the crocodile Nine – “It’s really good to be me.”