For our penultimate day at Cairns we hired a car so we could do some touring in our own time. Just the drive from Cairns up towards Port Douglas is worthwhile. The mountains rise up virtually from the ocean, with only a narrow strip of flat ground before the beach. The road is commensurately narrow, snaking around the coastline and affording wonderful views up the coast.
We were on our way for a visit to Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, a crocodile farm and zoo for a close-up look at Australia’s greatest predator.
Salt water crocodiles are ancient, clever, sneaky, and as far as they’re concerned, humans are just another sort of meat. Crocodile hunting was banned in the 1970’s because their numbers were so low. They were an easy target and their skins were worth a fortune – so much of a fortune that they were nearly wiped out. Since then, they’ve re-established themselves with a vengeance and become a tourist drawcard. So we went to look at crocs, as you do. This link will give you detailed information about the species. For Americans, alligators are similar in appearance to salties, but they don’t get as big. Here’s a comparison between alligators and salties. A four-metre alligator is big, a saltie has a way to go. According to the rangers, alligators are also not as nasty.
In Australia we call the salt water, or estuarine, crocodiles salties. The name is misleading because ‘salt water’ crocodiles can live very happily in fresh water, as well as in the ocean. In the wild they can become very large, and a danger to people and livestock. A big croc will take a cow, let alone a dog, a kangaroo, or a man. Farmers can’t shoot them anymore, but rangers will trap them and relocate them to a croc farm, where the big boys will live out their years making baby crocs. You might think it would be enough to relocate the big males to a different, uninhabited part of the world but scientists have discovered that crocs will find their way home just like birds and other animals. Here’s an interesting article about a croc relocated from on side of Cape Yorke Peninsula to the other and went home, swimming 400 kilomteres around the Cape to get there.
Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures used to have one male (Ted) who was over five metres long – the second largest croc in captivity. They reckon he was around one hundred and three years old. He’d lost all but one of his teeth and one eye, and the eye he did have was blind. He died of natural causes several months ago. Last time we came here we were told about a four and half metre male called Snappy Tom, which was caught on the golf links at Port Douglas, where it had taken to lunging at golfers. The ranger also told us about one big male (Spartacus) who had been placed into solitary confinement after he’d bitten off one female’s leg. Bottom line: crocs are not nice. Every big saltie has bits missing – tail, claws, teeth. They fight for females and territory, the females fight to protect their nests. They grow up ornery. They’ve also evolved to handle injury. The female croc which had her leg bitten off is just fine without any need for antibiotics or bandages. And then there was Douglas. He was captured at Port Douglas. The thing about him is he has no teeth. We were told crocs will go through forty sets of teeth and more in the course of their lives but Douglas doesn’t have any. They don’t know why his teeth haven’t grown – but it doesn’t seem to have set him back,
We were taken to see the croc farm where salties are raised for leather used for handbags, belts, and the like. There’s a demand in Asia for top quality hides to be made into handbags that sell for as much as $38,000. (Pass) The meat is used, too, and any leftovers are ground down for fertiliser, so there’s no wastage. Our guide told us it’s the same as running a beef property, or a chicken farm. The animals are raised as a commodity.
We were taken for a boat ride on the lagoon. It’s shady and dirty, perfect for the twenty-one crocodiles who live in there. They behave as they would in the wild, and any eggs the females lay are collected for the farm, where they are incubated at 33 degrees. Our boat guide told us that most of the babies are male, but the incubation temperature is more about getting healthy crocs. Half a degree either way makes a difference.
Our guide brought along food (chicken heads and wings) so the reptiles would actually show up. They are usually stealth hunters, sneaking up and lunging. But they can move very fast, and jump quite high. And of course, they knew to expect a meal. They’re smart. Up in Northern Australia the bushmen will tell you never to go fishing at the same spot three nights in a row. If you go back that third time, there’ll be a croc waiting for you.
After the boat trip the rangers showed us salties in a different setting where we could get a better feel for their size and speed. That’s a female croc, and she’s not especially big. Quite often the guide would lure a croc in, then whip the food away before it could be taken. It might sound horrid, like Lucy lifting up the football when Charlie Brown takes a kick, but crocs, being poikilothermic, don’t need a lot of food. A chicken a week is plenty for a large male. It’s more about keeping the animals active and alleviating boredom in a captive environment.
The jaws are very powerful. They kill by grabbing hold of the prey and drowning it, rolling over in the water.
After a quick look around some of the other animals in Hartley’s zoo, we drove down to Palm Cove so John and Sue could see the magnificent paperbarks growing up through the buildings. We grabbed a sandwich for lunch, then drove back towards Cairns, stopping off at the intriguingly named Yorkeys Knob. It turned out to be a beach suburb with a prominent headland. ‘Yorkeys Knob, or “The Knob”, as it is affectionately called, receives its name from both a natural topographical feature and a British immigrant from Yorkshire, named George Lawson, who lived in the area in the late 1800s. Because of his Yorkshire origins, locals gave Lawson the nickname “Yorkey”.’  There’s some very expensive real estate on that headland with some amazing views.
That night we had dinner at C’est Bon, a French restaurant not far from our hotel. It was nice, but we all agreed the wonderful dinner we had at Dundee’s, on Cairn’s waterfront, the previous evening was better. Tomorrow we’d all be going home.