Being in the water with a saltwater crocodile is quite an experience, writes Brian Johnston.
As I clamber into the Cage of Death at Darwin's Crocosaurus Cove, I feel like a magician about to perform a flamboyant stunt. Perhaps I should give onlookers a cheery wave before I disappear. Then, by some sleight of hand, I'll be off having a cup of tea while they wonder where I've gone.
It doesn't quite work like that. The Cage of Death clanks over the pool and minutes later I've been lowered into the water with a very real 800-kilogram crocodile. He has a toothy smirk, while I offer a rictus grin of terror in return. We eyeball each other in disbelief, and then the crocodile gives one lazy flick of his tail and moves closer.
I'm beginning to realise why I've signed a waiver warning of cardiac arrest and hyperventilation. Chopper is an 80-year-old veteran of the saltwater world. He measures 5.5 metres from scaly tail to snout and is missing two limbs from battles over territory with other males.
I, on the other hand, am 1.8 metres tall and fattened on a diet of chicken and red wine, surely no more than a plump morsel for one of the world's most feared predators. Indeed, I've just watched other crocodiles at feeding time: they rip chunks of bloodied meat off long poles with all the ease of grandmothers wolfing chocolates.
Chopper is now four centimetres from my face, which is the width of the strengthened acrylic that separates us. It's supposed to be crocodile proof, but no one seems to have told the crocodiles. The acrylic tube is covered with the toothmarks of reptiles that have tested its resistance and left behind scratches like something from a slasher movie.
"Pleased to eat you!" says the promotional brochure with jaunty humour.
The acrylic tube, topped by a metal grille, is lowered into the water until only a fraction remains above the surface. It's just enough to gulp some air before I submerge myself and commune with crocodiles.
I resurface more times than I imagined. Slight panic makes me breathless. My logical mind tells me that this activity ought to be safe, but primaeval instincts take over when I'm floating centimetres from a dangerous animal.
"Pleased to eat you!" says the promotional brochure with jaunty humour. Ha, ha, but I'm not laughing now in the Cage of Death. Spectators shimmer above the surface of the pool, iPhones at the ready to snap photos of dismembered limbs for the evening news. For adrenaline junkies, this is an animal encounter to get the heart banging.
I've admired salties in other ways at Crocosaurus Cove. I've seen them beneath from a see-through tunnel, and from above as they bask in their enclosures. Actually being in the water with one is something else again. I can see the gold flecks in Chopper's ink-black, unblinking eyes. His teeth are the size of a Japanese chef's knives. His darkened skin is knobbly and scarred, his underbelly as white and smooth as a leather couch. Bubbles rise serenely from his nostrils. He scarcely budges as I flail and resurface, gasp for air and sink again.
My Cage of Death encounter only lasts 10 minutes. Once my heartbeat calms and wonder takes over, I wish it were longer. There's something electrifying and humbling about any animal encounter, let alone one with such a magnificent creature. It leaves me slightly shaken, but curiously pleased.