Often flooded and always dicey, Cahills Crossing is the best way to get from Kakadu to Arnhem Land… as long as you aren’t worried about being eaten by crocodiles.
Standing on a sandy riverbank, gazing out at the muddy stretch of the East Alligator River called Cahills Crossing, I spot a floating shape. Did it just move?
“Nah, it’s just a log,” says my companion, Peter, craning forward. The log does a U-turn. A large scaly head emerges. It’s a four-metre saltwater crocodile, and we’re so close we could almost reach out and pat it.
“This is nothing. Wait another hour; you’ll see dozens of the mongrels,” an elderly chap, fishing rod in hand, startles me by emerging from behind a bush. I hadn’t realised how jumpy I was, gazing into croc-infested waters! “To see them in full force, you must get closer to the Crossing. There’s a viewing platform around the bend,” he points.
Why is Cahills Crossing so (in)famous?
Cahills Crossing is a small road connecting Kakadu National Park to Arnhem Land. We heard from fellow tourists that it’s a must-see for those who enjoy a spot of croc-watching. After two days exploring Kakadu, enjoying nature walks through ancient landscapes in the winter sunshine, we ended up here at the murky, croc-infested waters.
Visiting Cahills Crossing is not for the faint of heart. At certain times of the day, when the tides change, dozens of crocs converge on each side of the narrow road. They often crawl up to pounce on schools of mullet and barramundi swept over the crossing.
Where to croc-watch safely
We head round the bend and quickly spot the small fenced viewing platform. Five other tourists are there with cameras, even though high tide isn’t for another 45 minutes or so. “DO NOT RISK YOUR LIFE – A FATAL CROCODILE ATTACK OCCURRED HERE,” reads a red and yellow sign in large letters. “BE CROCWISE.”
Disconcertingly, just below the platform, there’s a wall coated with plastic flowers, Eagles flags and a metal cross dedicated to a man called Gregory. But neither the signs nor the memorial seem to have put anyone off getting close to the croc action.
“Look at those fools,” a woman beside us gasps, pointing to the crossing below. Three blokes and two women, all of whom would fall in the Grey Nomad category, are standing on the road, ankle-deep in water, hurling their fishing lines into the river.
Though an increasing number of ‘logs’ are moving closer to the crossing, the fisherfolk seem unperturbed. “I’ve caught another one!” one fellow in stubbies yells to his pals, holding up a large fat barramundi. Little wonder the crocs are assembling.
As the minutes fly past, we stand, mesmerised, watching more and more of the creatures surface from the muddy depths and stream towards the crossing. The large ones are at the front, in prime positions, the smaller ones further back.
Can vehicles get across when the tide is up?
By about 2pm the road is completely immersed in water, and even the fishing ensemble have retreated a couple of metres. By now I can count about 42 crocs. It’s fascinating to watch them stay motionless… then leap half out of the water to pounce on fleshy fish. Snap! We hear jaws crunch together on a barramundi. Snap! Another croc does the same.
After a little while, a van emerges from the Arnhem Land side and slowly trundles across the submerged road. It looks as though it could easily spill into the river but it makes it over; as do several other vehicles crossing from the Kakadu side minutes later. One halts as a crocodile lies directly in its way. Frantic beeping from the driver makes no difference. Crocs are not like dogs, clearly! Finally, though, the reptile moves half a metre, allowing the car to pass.
What happens when crossings go wrong?
Apparently many drivers have ended up failing to cross; instead their vehicles have been washed away in the croc-filled waters. It doesn’t bear thinking about. (Online you can find striking photos of cars and caravans that have ended up in the river. You’ll also read how in 2017, a 47-year-old man disappeared after wading over the Crossing; his body was recovered downstream beside a 3.3 metre croc. In 1987, a fisherman was killed here by a crocodile in front of his son.)
If you’re visiting Cahills Crossing or attempting to cross it, make sure you seek advice from local authorities on tide and general safety information.
Three hours fly past, and we remain transfixed, as do the 30-odd other tourists surrounding us. The experience of watching these crocodiles in action – and the behaviour of the humans around them – would have to be the most mesmerising wildlife display I’ve seen; worthy of an Attenborough documentary.
Do I need a 4WD to visit Cahills Crossing?
Many of Kakadu’s scenic spots can’t be reached without a four-wheel drive, so it’s doubly rewarding to be able to see something so unique you can get to on a sealed road. So enthralled are we with this spectacle, we find ourselves visiting Cahills Crossing again the next day. The scene repeats itself; there are 30 or 40 tourists, and below, yesterday’s anglers have returned.
Other things to do in Kakadu National Park
Many photos and gasps later, it’s time to tear ourselves away to see a little more of Kakadu’s fascinating 20,000 square kilometres, Five minutes’ drive away, we reach the acclaimed Ubirr rock formations, festooned with Indigenous art mostly painted more than 2000 years ago. We set off on a 1km circular track, taking us past ancient paintings of turtles, fish, goanna and other important traditional symbols. We then clamber up the lookout to catch sweeping views of the emerald flood plains and escarpments.
Later we head for Mamukala Wetlands, an hour’s drive south-west. It’s an easy walk to the observation platform where we gawk out at magpie geese, kites, cormorants, kingfishers and an abundance of other water birds. If you’re keen to explore from the water, jump aboard a billabong cruise on this Kakadu & Nourlangie Day Trip.
Accommodation near Cahills Crossing
We then take the main highway 93 kilometres south and check in to Cooinda Lodge and Camping, beside the famous Yellow Water Billabong where our home for the night is one of the hotels’ new glamping tents. Simple and modern, with a queen-sized bed and a wooden deck looking out to scrub, it’s the most elegant cubbyhouse I’ve ever occupied.
The shower and lavatory block is about 50 metres away, and facilities are impressively clean and tidy. We sleep soundly in the very comfortable bed, so next morning we’re energised for the long drive back to Darwin to fly home. Much as I loved all my Kakadu experiences on this trip, it’s the crocs I find myself dreaming about in weeks to come. If a guided tour is more you style, check out this 3-day camping safari in Litchfield & Kakadu.
How to get to Cahills Crossing and Kakadu National Park
Kakadu National Park is 151 kilometres south-east of Darwin. If visiting Cahills Crossing is on your bucket list, you’ll need to drive 286 kilometres east of Darwin and 2.7 kilometres south of Ubirr Art Site. This is where the Arnhem Highway crosses the East Alligator River into Arnhem Land.
Thinking of travelling to the Top End overland? Check out this road trip from Adelaide to Darwin.