Snowy McArthur is already at the door ready to greet me when I arrive, as he leans in close and offers me a wry grin I find he’s a lot more accommodating than the legend that precedes him suggests.
He displays all the airs and graces you would expect from someone of his vintage who has spent so much of his life entertaining strangers.
Yet his body language betrays his suspicion of me. He trains his eyes carefully on my every move. My ashen complexion and trembling hands could not have gone unnoticed by him, so I choose my movements.
At first, we appear to be getting along famously so I relax a little and it’s at that moment – suspended in time for me now – that without warning he launches himself at me with all his force, sending me reeling back.
In the blink of an eye the confrontation is over, yet I will be feeling the effects for a long, long time.
Okay, so maybe now is a good time to point out that Snowy is in fact a five-metre saltwater crocodile. And if it wasn’t for the four-centimetre-thick acrylic cage surrounding me, I would now be very dead.
I’d been instructed by Snowy’s handlers to bang and splash around to get his attention. Mind you, these were the same people whose last words to me, as I was lowered into the pen, were “Nice knowin’ ya, mate.”
The cage I’m in – the “Cage of Death” – is the jewel in the crown of Darwin’s newest theme park, Crocosaurus Cove.
The cage is two metres tall with a 1.5 metre radius. The roof is a metal grate, never locked, that you can hang onto when your arms get tired.
Even when you get lowered fully in, you have a couple of feet of air to play with when you need to come up for a breath, which you do constantly.
Buoyancy being what it is, there are plungers stuck to the side that you can use to hold yourself under for as long as possible.
The cage is hexagonal shaped, because apparently crocs don’t attack hexagonal shaped stuff. Hmm.
There are five adult crocodiles at Darwin’s Crocosaurus Cove. Among them are Burt, thegrumpy old bastard you may remember from Crocodile Dundee and who, unlike his co-star, is not currently under investigation for tax evasion.
My mate Snowy is an Albino croc who was instigated in the death of someone who was taken whilst having a snooze among the mangroves.
Snowy had been exonerated but the angry mob with their burning sticks and pitchforks don’t care for logic, so he was taken into captivity for his own safety.
There’s also a spoony little duo known as Bess and Houdini, the Posh and Becks of theEstuarine world.
I’m alone here. My companions have abandoned me, claiming that they
were “all croc’d out”, having seen rivers Yellow and Adelaide in the past two days.
It all feels a bit surreal as I sit with the staff going over the disclaimer sheet, wondering why I’m signing away responsibility for heart failure and water infections but not signing away responsibility for having my limbs torn asunder by T-Rex’s little cousins.
It’s around this time that I long for the safety of the gift shop, where I was just moments earlier, watching a trainee struggling with the finer points of the cash register.
I worked in retail for years but I don’t remember ever being instructed how to ring up “Cage ofDeath” on the register.
All in all, there were three times I was genuinely scared during this ordeal.
The first was when I initially wandered onto the grounds in the minutes before my dive and took in, through the viewing platforms, the sheer size of these monsters.
Male crocs never stop growing. These guys were all aged around 80. Nuff said.
The second, of course, was my run in with Snowy. From the moment I shook the hands and bid adieu to the handlers, he was waiting in the exact spot that my cage was being lowered into.
Everything from the second I stepped into the cage was leading up to that one almighty snap.
700 kilos of reptilian fury launched at my cage within about .001 of a second (their reaction speed is 40 times that of a human).
I’ll never forget the sound of his head smashing against the glass.
I recoiled and felt for all the world like my very soul had just been rattled to its core. Times 50.
I made a beeline for the surface and|just hovered there gasping for air for a moment.