A croc load of fear

Christina Pfeiffer takes the plunge into a crocodile's lair at Darwin's newest attraction.

My heart skips a beat as my hexagonal cage - the Cage of Death - is suspended in the air above Snowy McArthur. Fear sits like a lump in my throat and I fight to maintain my composure.

Snowy is a mean-looking albino crocodile that was taken from the McArthur River near Borroloola in the Northern Territory in 1986 after a man was attacked and killed nearby.

About 80,000 of the 140,000 saltwater crocodiles in Australia are in the Northern Territory. So it's no surprise Darwin's newest attraction is a crocodile park.

The three-storey Crocosaurus Cove in the main street is home to eight large crocodiles and 200 juveniles.

Here you can learn everything there is to know about crocodiles by reading the exhibit boards at the World of Crocodiles and chatting informally to the trained crocodile handlers.

There are also crocodile feeding sessions and opportunities to hold a baby crocodile.

It also has a 200,000-litre aquarium with barramundi, stingrays, turtles and other sea creatures native to Australia's oceans. Other highlights are a reptile house, which claims to have the world's largest display of Australian reptiles, and the Juvenile Crocodiles exhibit where children can look at hatchlings from behind acrylic domes.

My mission today is to swim with the big crocodiles. By big I mean 5.5-metres long with teeth that look like they could rip the head off a polar bear. The crocodiles look huge and terrifying through the glass viewing panels on the ground floor.

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The dangers of being in the water with crocodiles are highlighted in the indemnity swimmers are asked to sign. These risks named include cardiac arrest, nervous shock, panic and hyperventilation.

According to head crocodile trainer Nigel Thomas, a few days earlier one woman had a panic attack and had to be hauled out of the water quickly. Then there's the possibility of being exposed to a water disease or the unlucky event of an equipment malfunction.

My cage, which is built using four-centimetre-thick acrylic panels and shaped to prevent the crocodiles from biting it, slides along runners over the crocodile pens. After Snowy comes Burt, the 5.1-metre, 700-kilogram star of the original Crocodile Dundee movie, followed by Chopper, a 5.5-metre fighter that lost both front feet in a brawl with another crocodile.

"Are you having fun yet?" Thomas shouts from behind the safety of the bars that separates the crocodile pens from the public.

Fun is not a word I would use to describe dangling in a transparent cage stripped down to my swimmers above a man-eating crocodile. The large crowd gathered below is equally off-putting. Character building might be a more appropriate description of this scenario. The cage grinds to a halt and I'm now in the lair of Houdini and Bess. Water gushes in through the gaps in the panels and soon I'm submerged up to my shoulders. Houdini, a 4.6-metre, 660-kilogram crocodile named for his ability to steal bait from traps and then disappear, swims around the pen curiously.

Frozen to the spot, I'm mesmerised by his mouthful of huge, jagged teeth.

When Houdini vanishes beneath the water, I slip on my mask, take a deep breath and dive to the bottom of the 2.8-metre cage. Houdini and Bess, Houdini's smaller partner, have settled at the bottom of the pen. My cage seems only an arm's length from the crocodiles. It feels surreal to be swimming this close.

When I come up for air, the cage has been lowered even further and now I have to tread water. Several dives later, the tension is broken and I'm eager for more.

Fifteen minutes is long enough for me to feel the elation of overcoming my fear of crocodiles.

Christina Pfeiffer travelled courtesy of Tourism NT.

Crocosaurus Cove is at 58 Mitchell Street, Darwin. The park is open from 8am to 6pm daily. Entry costs $28 (adult), $16 (under 15). The Cage of Death is $120 (one swimmer), $160 (two swimmers). Swimmers must be over 15. Phone (08) 8981 7522 or see www.crocosauruscove.com.

TAKE THE PLUNGE

Eyre Peninsula, South Australia

Swim with sharks, tuna, dolphins and sea lions. See Calypso Star Charters (www.calypsostarcharter.com.au) and Adventure Bay Charters (adventure www.baycharters.com.au).

Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

Whale shark tours cost $360 an adult and $280 a child. Phone (08) 9949 1764 or see www.kingsningalooreeftours.com.au.

Akaroa, New Zealand

Swim with the world's smallest and rarest dolphin, the Hector's. Cost is $NZ120 ($98) an adult and $NZ105 a child). See www.dolphinsakaroa.co.nz.

South Africa

Millions of sardines swim north along the eastern coastline from May to July. See www.sardinerun.com.

Vancouver Island, Canada

Float along the Campbell River with thousands of salmon. From July to October. Costs $C119 ($137) plus 5 per cent GST. Phone +1 250 287 2652 or see www.paradisefound.bc.ca.

Tonga

Swim with the South Pacific humpback whales during their annual migration. Three-day tours cost from $1200. Phone 1800 629 306 or see www.whaleswim.com.

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