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Stampeding to Australia for Things Crocodilian

September 23, 1990|DAVID ELIAS | Elias is travel editor of The Age newspaper in Melbourne. and

CAIRNS, Australia — Somehow, it seemed immoral. My thoughts were with the early explorers who battled to open up the rugged far north of Queensland, but I was traveling on board an air-conditioned coach with comfortable reclining seats, video and lavatory.

From the brochure of day-trips from Cairns, I selected the $52 crocodile adventure tour and was trying to conjure images of men tramping through endless hot days of unwashed clothes and the reek of stale sweat. I who had showered, sprayed the armpits and pulled on a natty sports shirt with a discreet crocodile on the left breast.

A vision of the explorer's apprehension at first sighting these fierce reptiles was broken by the coach driver's commentary. We were passing the palatial Sheraton Mirage Resort north of Cairns at Port Douglas, where $1,250 buys you a night in a sumptuous suite and a day luxuriating in the shade of imported African oil palms beside saltwater lagoons.

How times have changed! When far north Queensland first perceived its potential as a tourist destination, the presence of crocodiles in its waters appeared to be the biggest turnoff. Then we exported Paul Hogan to America and the beasts became the big draw.

The arrival of masses of overseas tourists searching for wild, man-eating crocodiles has created a feverish reptile mania within the local travel industry.

Every coach driver has his story about somebody's macabre disappearance and the subsequent discovery of raggedly severed limbs around the water holes along his regular routes. Indeed, in the far north you are nobody unless you have had a brush with a crocodile and lived to tell the story.

I learned just how fashionable they had become as soon as I arrived in northern Queensland and checked into Kawarra Beach, a delightful resort 12 miles north of Cairns. Built on the style of a South Sea island village, it is the sort of place one dreams of: little thatched-roof cabins tucked away amid the coconut and banana palms, surrounded by a picturesque but muddy inland lagoon.

It was cozy to imagine a croc or two would be lurking beneath the surface.

When I mentioned this to the manager, instead of denials I was regaled with the story of a seven-foot "saltie"--also known as an estuarial crocodile--who had mistakenly found its way from a nearby creek into the lagoon. There was even a picture of the beast in the arms of the local crocodile relocator.

Crocodile relocator . . . now isn't that an interesting title? Until the crocodile became a protected species, these men used to be hunters who would shoot the poor beasts for their skins. Now, as crocodile relocators, they use their tracking skills to capture any saltie that encroaches on areas of human civilization and poses a threat.

In effect, they are animal jailers who cart the crocs off to the pens, where they will spend the rest of their long lives as the stars of a bizarre sideshow in which gawking visitors are supposed to sense the inherent danger from the safety of meshed steel barriers.

Take Oscar and Cassius, for example. They share top billing on Green Island, a sort of saurian Alcatraz on the Great Barrier Reef, 45 minutes from Cairns by Dreamworld's Great Adventures cruiser. Both are a whopping 17 feet and are billed as the largest crocs in captivity.

Every evening, Green Island's crocodile keeper, George Craig, coaxes the two giants from the camouflage of their murky pools with big chunks of meat. As George dangles the bait over Oscar's sludgy bath, the water stirs and tons of reptile wrapped in big, brown-green scales rise as if stirred from the deep.

He lumbers forward, then with a sudden thrust lunges upwards, jaws wide apart, and snatches the first course. Then, as the crowd gasps, he crashes down, his tail swishing to one side and water splashing everywhere.

Once Oscar has had his fill, George moves on to Cassius's pen for the second showing. Meanwhile, the small fry, the younger six-foot salties and the prettier but harmless sword-nosed Johnston River crocodiles, wait until everyone has left. After Oscar and Cassius, feeding babies is nothing but anticlimax.

Then there is Big Charlie. He measures a mere 14 feet, but at the Hartley Creek wildlife park on the road between Cairns and Port Douglas, he has the distinction of having served more time in prison (54 years) than any other crocodile in Australia.

There is also Sarge, a 16-foot female at Wild World, where it is claimed she is the oldest crocodile in captivity. She is more than 100 years old and got her name because of the crime that landed her in the calaboose. She had done what only a police sergeant could do. She had terrorized a policeman and ate his dog.

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