Adventure is a word that’s thrown around a lot in the travel world. You’ll often hear someone say, “did you see the Instas from my adventure in London?” My knee jerk (or just jerk) reaction is to ask, “Can you have an adventure in London?” You can certainly have a damn good time. But in the Indiana Jones sense of the word, hanging at Big Ben isn’t really too bold.
If you believe that adventure means your life is at risk and there’s a good chance you won’t come home, if you associate it with a rush of blood to the head when your life flashes before your eyes and the impending peril of mother nature rearing her savage head, then a stroll through Trafalgar Square might not qualify.
I’m one of those annoying elitists who see true adventure as standing up to nature, mastering your nerves, and embracing your fears. There are corners of the world where you can experience this type of travel. There are people out there living it. Matt Wright is one of these mad ones — a living embodiment of derring do.
I met Matt Wright — the impossibly handsome star of NatGeo Wild’s The Outback Wrangler — on an insanely hot day in Darwin. He was mid-sentence, explaining crocodile feeding habits to a small crowd of maybe 20 people, when I walked into Crocosaurus Cove (one of the only major tourist attractions in downtown Darwin). Wright stood at ease over a 12-foot crocodile, lurking no more than two-feet away from his well-worn cowboy boots. Wright was explaining what crocs generally eat — feral pigs, smaller crocs, cattle, buffalo, kangaroos, the odd “sorry arsehole” who goes for a swim where they aren’t supposed to. Then, without warning, he tossed a feral hog haunch into the waiting croc’s jaws.
The beast snapped it’s jaws shut, like a friendly dog accepting a treat from its master. The crack of the hog bones echoed through the space. A couple of people let out dramatic gasps and the image of my own leg inside those jaws played in my head. It was terrifying.
At that moment, Wright turned to me, shooting one of those TV smiles. He might as well have said, “Adventure is my middle name, mate.”
The Outback of Australia’s Northern Territory is a vast and extremely remote corner of the world. It’s remoteness cannot be overstated (roughly 3.5 times the size of CA with 1/200th of the people). The roads are sparse and generally empty. The waterways are full of freshwater sharks and saltwater crocodiles. The forests teem with venous brown snakes and ants that draw blood. Float plane or helicopter is by far the most expedient mode of transport, especially if you want to tag along to the sorts of places that Matt Wright visits.
If you watched season one of The Outback Wrangler, you know that Matty and his crew (Jono and Willow) catch and relocate problem crocodiles from areas where humans live and work, collect crocodile eggs for farms and conservation, and generally live a life in tune with the Territory’s brutal nature. Usually, when you watch a TV show of this sort, you have to wonder how much of the effect is made through editing. In fact, as I headed to Australia, there was a big part of me that expected a TV star with an assistant running his Instagram, showing up for money shots with the crocs, then soaring off in his helicopter.
I couldn’t have been more mistaken. This became crystal clear when the host landed his helicopter on the roof of his boat in Bynoe Bay, after a day fishing for our dinner. He cracked a Coke while I finished my beer, then we climbed up to the roof of the boat, hopped in the doorless helicopter, and flew off. From that moment on, I was in Matt Wright’s world. He handled the yoke of the chopper with a natural ease. Soon we’d be in the murky backwaters looking for crocs, not some tourist attraction in downtown Darwin.
Watching The Outback Wrangler play out in real life felt surreal to say the least. You’re out the door early with just enough time for a little Vegemite on toast and maybe a rasher of bacon before you’re back in a helicopter on your way to a airboat to track crocodiles and make sure they’re where they’re supposed to be. Adventure, pure and simple.
Matt Wright knows most of the crocodiles near Sweets Lagoon on the “Top Side” kinda like we know our neighbor’s dogs. Hell, he’s even named a lot of them. Bone Crusher lives on one corner of the swamp. Nitro has a territory just a mile or so away. Amazingly, Wright is able to lure these crocs from their nests by calling them like you or I call a dog, too. Every time he does this, you’ll hear a splash and then watch as the a huge croc swims over. He’ll tap them on the nose before moving onto the next bend in the swampy river to make sure Tripod or Thrasher are where they’re supposed to be.
On the second day of croc spotting, Matty, Jono, Willow, and Munro (you gotta love Australians names, just add a -y or -o and you’re good to go) took me crocodile egg hunting. Matty stayed up in the chopper spotting croc nests while Jono and Willow piloted the airboat through the backwaters. Once Matty spotted a nest, Willow would ram the airboat into shore and Jono would jump out with a big stick (yes, just a stick) and humbug the croc away from her nest.
As I looked on, and Willow and Jono collected the eggs from the nest, the angry croc studied us, no more than six or seven feet away.
There are a few good reasons croc egg collecting is a necessary task to maintaining Australia’s crocodile population. Crocs tend to put their nests right on the rivers and swamps so they can swim and kill at will. The problem with this is that when the wet season comes, a vast majority of the nests are washed away and the eggs destroyed. When the eggs aren’t collected, less than one percent survive. This was a huge factor in the Australian crocodiles nearly going extinct in the 1970s, when shooting a croc was the only way people dealt with them.
By collecting the eggs, crocs are bred and released back to the wild and also raised on farms for the consumer market. This process has basically destroyed any black market for croc meat or related products, ensures the safety of the wild population since hunting is not permitted (for now), and allows an auxiliary income for the cattle stations (ranches) who own the land these crocs live on. Cattle station owners get $25 for every egg collected and each nest bears 50-80 eggs. This means the cattle stations will generally embrace having the crocs around instead of just shooting them as pests, since they can make money from their eggs.
The work of people like Matty, Jono, Willow, and Munro is all about conservation and protection of a species that strikes a massive amount of fear in most people. Instead of just shooting a croc, locals can call up Matt Wright and his crew and they’ll trap the croc and relocate it to a place where it’ll be protected from human interaction and can flourish (like the vast Kakadu National Park).
The same day we collected eggs, we flew over some traps on a million acre cattle station. Sure enough, there were two crocs in the traps. After a steak at the cattle station, we picked up the cages with the helicopters and then the fun started. The process of trapping a croc is pretty straight forward. Lure it in a trap, trap closes. Getting a croc out of said trap is another story entirely. The first croc was a mid-sized female (only about 6 feet long). She came out pretty easily after Matty lassoed her nose and Jono jumped on her back while Willow briskly wrapped duct tape around the whole head (this relaxes the beast and they fall asleep). The ten+ foot male in the second cage was having none of that.
After a couple failed attempts at bringing the writhing croc out it was clear that the animal needed to come out the back of the steel trap. Just as Matt was looking for a way to cut through the bars, the croc launched itself through the bars and out of the back of the cage. Without missing a beat, Matt lassoed the beast and pulled the rope back, slowing the animal’s progress. A few orders from Matt, and Jono was mid-air hopping on the back of the writhing croc, giving the neck a massive bear hug. He started bucking around like a rodeo clown who’d pissed off the wrong bull. Matt called for Munro, who also hopped on the back of the croc and the weight of the two men slowed the croc down a little. Matt then pulled up the rope and handed it to Willow. Next, he deftly approached the gaping maw of the beast and, almost tenderly, brought up the bottom jaw, closing the croc’s mouth.
With a few swishes of duct tape, it was all over and the croc was as chill as a couch-locked stoner. By the end of the ordeal, everyone needed a beer.
Later that day, as Matty and crew lured another croc from a pond to deliver to a roadhouse, it hit me: It’s all real. Everything in those TV episodes is these guy’s lives. The mud is real. The crocs are real. Matt Wright doesn’t just drop in for the money shot and a chance to flash that dashing smile. He’s down in the mud and the blood, earning that perfect shot, every time.
Matt Wright’s one of those rare people in the world that can just do stuff we all dreamed we could do. He pilots boats and choppers like they’re extensions of his body. He talks to crocodiles and snakes and wrangles them in a way that’s beyond our comprehension. It’s a life of true adventure. And it’s magic to witness.