Stare in the face of danger

Andrew Taylor takes the plunge with some of the world's biggest and most fascinating reptiles.

James Bond narrowly avoided being breakfast for crocodiles by running across their backs to safety in Live And Let Die. But I doubt the same plan will work for me as Nigel Palmer, Crocosaurus Cove's head crocodile keeper, closes the escape hatch of the Cage of Death.

"So you're going to write nice things about us, aren't you?" shouts Palmer as he lowers the cage into a water tank housing Chopper, a 5½-metre, 790-kilogram croc bearing the scars of too many fights and missing two front feet.

Water fills the cage (which has four-centimetre-thick acrylic panels bearing some rather ominous-looking teeth marks) before I can promise Palmer the world or at least a gushing review.

Palmer might not look like Mr Big, Bond's voodoo-practising drug-lord nemesis in Live And Let Die, but he shares his fondness for introducing guests to man-eating animals.

The Northern Territory already boasts jumping crocodile cruises on the Adelaide and Mary rivers, a crocodile-shaped Holiday Inn at Jabiru, the Crocodylus Park and Zoo at Berrimah and the Territory Wildlife Park at Berry Springs. And more than 200 salties are pulled out of Darwin Harbour every year.

But Darwin's latest crocodile-inspired tourist attraction, Crocosaurus Cove, allows visitors to get uncomfortably close to an animal not renowned for its people skills.

Its (hopefully) robust water tanks provide intimate views of the star attractions, including Snowy, a white crocodile resembling an enormous rubber toy; lovebirds Houdini and Bess; and Burt, who snatched Linda Kozlowski's handbag in Crocodile Dundee, appalled no doubt by her bad acting.

Crocodiles have a fearsome reputation and not just as film critics. At Darwin Airport, I find a children's book, Cranky Crocodile, which portrays the bad-tempered Mrs Croc, who reluctantly shares her Kakadu waterhole with other wildlife. "Get out of the water!" she'd snarl. "I'll eat you all up, if you don't stay away."

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It turns out Mrs Croc is a single mother anxious to protect her babies. She might also be worried about turning up on the menu at Shenannigans, the Irish pub across the road from Crocosaurus Cove. Or as a purse sold at di CROCO, a boutique specialising in accessories made from crocodile skin.

The more intrepid (or stupid) visitors to Crocosaurus Cove can opt for the Cage of Death, provided they sign an indemnity form that begins: "You are about to do something which involves some risk to your safety." That risk, the form explains, includes "personal injury, trauma or death".

Oddly, the Northern Territory Health Department's only concern with the Cage of Death is the risk of germs being transferred by sharing a snorkel, so cagers must hold their breath while eyeballing the crocs.

Chopper shows little interest in scaring the bejesus out of me, preferring to doze in a corner of his tank. Likewise, Snowy takes a lazy paddle around the cage, thumping it with his tail before he too resumes his mid-morning nap.

As Palmer manoeuvres the cage to Burt's tank, he warns me: "Burt has a bit of history withjournalists."

His past includes a close encounter with Australian Idol runner-up Jessica Mauboy, who survived to release an album of bubblegum pop. Obviously, Burt is not so choosy about what he puts on his iPod.

Palmer lowers the cage into Burt's tank, leaving a 60-centimetre gap for breathing. Burt at least has the good grace to show an interest in his visitor, circling the cage before opening his mouth to show his dental work.

Burt's jaws are powerful enough to make mince meat of not just Linda Kozlowski's handbag but a 3400-kilogram truck, accordingto a mechanised crocodile head on display. In comparison, Linda's bite force is just 20 kilograms.

But he decides against testing the durability of the acrylic panels between us and paddles away to work on his tan.

As Crocosaurus Cove's photographer, Wade Huffman, later observes: "They're the laziest creatures around."

Perhaps that's because they eat like fashion models. Despite their size, Palmer says a fully grown saltwater croc only eats about five kilograms of food a week: "We'll give them a chicken leg or carcass soon."

You don't have to recreate scenes from James Bond to get close to the inmates of Crocosaurus Cove. Nick Ferencz, one of the handlers, strolls around with 12-month-old Sam, who is 50centimetres long - that's about one wallet, for the fashion-conscious.

Saltwater crocs might make attractive handbags but they are not man's best friend.

Unlike a dog, Sam does not wag his tail when petted, although that is probably because his mouth is tightly shut with a rubber band. Instead he swings his head futilely, trying to headbutt me and later exacts revenge by relieving himself on Nick's shirt.

Crocosaurus Cove also boasts a collection of Australian reptiles including a who's who of venomous nasties such as the coastal taipan and king brown snake. There's also a white olive python, whose progeny was once draped around the neck of Dannii Minogue, according to reptile expert Dr Gavin Bedford. The python can ruin a rat's day but would not harm a Minogue sister, he adds.

Novotel Darwin Atrium's Crocosaurus Cove packages start from $197 a night for two adults, including entry. Cage of Death packages start from $287 a night.

The writer was a guest of the Novotel Darwin.

TRIP NOTES

What Cage of Death.

Where Crocosaurus Cove, 58 Mitchell Street, Darwin, NT.

Phone (08)89817522 or see croccove.com.au.

How much $120 for one person or two for $160, plus entry fee of $28 for adults. You must be 15 years or older to go in the Cage of Death.

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