Tuesday 1 July 2014

Crocodile Hunting - 23

Working as a bush-cook in the remote outback of northern Australia had been fun and life enhancing, but it was now time to move on. There were new things to see and experiences to have.
'I haven't been everywhere, but it's on my list'
    With a lightly loaded rucksack and high spirits I set off to hitchhike back to Darwin in the north. Upon arrival, I did what all good Australians do; I went for a beer at the pub.
          The bar was a noisy throng of colourful characters in shorts and singlets; those wearing flip-flops were townies, whilst those wearing boots were blokes in from the bush; they were from cattle stations, mining ventures, government survey teams, prospectors and fencers, all in town for a few days break, to pick up supplies or look for new work. They swapped tall stories, enjoyed the golden amber and revelled in the much-needed company of others.
(If English is your second language, see glossary of Australian terminology at end of story.)      
After a beer or three I got into conversation with Toni Christensen from Denmark, he told me of his exploits as an illegal crocodile hunter, - it’s difficult to tell the difference between a tall tale and the truth when you are on your fifth glass of ale, - he told me that his partner had gone south to find a girl and get married, and that he was looking for someone to take his place, was I interested!
    It was like asking a chocoholic if he would like a bar of Cadburys flake.
     ‘Of course I am,’ said I, or was it the glass of beer talking.
     ‘Have you got a gun?’ he asked.
     ‘Yes.’ I fibbed.
     ‘What have you got?’ he asked.
     ‘A .22’ I heard my glass say.
Enjoying the life of a 'Swagman camped by a billabong, under the shade of a coolibah tree.'
 Swag rolled out ready to sleep, my rucksack for a pillow, a billy of tea on a flickering fire; alone with just the sounds nature - the end of a perfect day.
     ‘That’s OK for shooting birds and stuff, but it’s no good for taking buffalo for tucker or crocs for skins.’ He said and then added,
     ‘But don’t worry mate, we can use mine. I’m heading out tomorrow, can you meet me back here around ten in the morning?’
     ‘Sure.’ I said. ‘No worries.’
     ‘Let’s shake on it then.’ he said.
     We shook hands.
     With that he swayed out into the night and shouted over his shoulder, ‘See you at ten.’
     The raucous din of the bar, fuelled by the banter of beer-swilling Aussies, made it difficult for me to think straight.
     What had I just committed myself to?
     Illegal crocodile hunting!
     Trespassing in aborigine Arnhem Land!  
     I had a twenty two-calibre rifle!
     Since when?
     I left the bar three beers later, well oiled and with a rifle case slung over my shoulder; It containing a newly acquired twenty two-calibre gun that some ‘bushie’ in the bar had sold me.
     It seemed I was half-way to becoming a crocodile hunter.
     Travelling the world is to experience it as well as see it.
     At ten the following day, Toni was already waiting for me at the pub with a list of provisions needed for the trip into the bush.
The largest termite hill encountered
      By noon we were ready to set off in his ancient Holden Utility vehicle, it had a seven feet long aluminium boat strapped to the back, under which were provisions, ammunition, bags of salt, gunny bags, a swag and my rucksack. The boat looked no bigger, nor any more stable, than the tin tub we had been bathed in as kids.
     As we drove south out of town, he said ‘I need to stop off to pick up Winnie.’
     ‘Who the heck is Winnie?’ I asked.
     ‘She’s me bed-mate and cook,’ he replied. ‘didn’t I mention her?’
     We picked up Winnie, who it turned out was a ‘Lubra’ or ‘Gin’;  a term for an aboriginal young girl. She was as black as a shadow at night and looked old and weathered enough to be his grandmother.
     We drove about 50 kms south, then took an unmade track east into Arnhem Land toward the Adelaide River’.
     We were within an Aboriginal Native Reserve, which was off-limit to outsiders without a government pass from Canberra. Winnie was to be our ace-in-the- hole in case a ranger stopped us.
    ‘Here! You be go here now.’ she suddenly said.
Winnie, Rudi and self
     Tonii swerved and slipped off the track, down an embankment in a cloud of dust and into low scrubby trees.
     He drove for almost an hour through the bush, past giant termite hills, occasional buffalo and an array of wild birds, until we came upon a number of billabongs (small temporary lakes) where we set up a camp.
     How we would find our way back to the Stuart Highway was a mystery, I just hoped that Winnie would be our very own Sacajawea.
A couple of spoonbills for supper
     We unloaded our gear and set up camp. Toni explained that the salt-water crocodiles swam inland during the flooded monsoonal weather and then became trapped in billabongs as the waters retreated and the land dried out. We were to hunt salt-water crocodiles because they were bigger and their skins were worth more than fresh-water crocs; I was learning fast.
    We agreed that to start with and until I became experienced, Toni would be the marksman with the .303 gun and I was to be the tailer.
    ‘What will happen,’ he said, ‘is that at night we’ll paddle very slowly out into the billabong, sweeping the surface with torches strapped to our heads. As soon as we spot a pair of red fiery balls reflecting back at us, we’ll keep the croc mesmerised with the light until we come alongside it.’
Stocking up the tucker-box
     ‘I’ll fire off a shot straight between the eyes to avoid damaging the skin.’ he continued, ‘Your job, is to be ready to tail it, this means that you grab its tail, wrap the string of the balloon around it and then let go bloody fast.’
    ‘Mmm! I see. . . I have no problem with the letting go part of the plan, but grabbing the tail to start with might be a wee bit problematic.’
    ‘No worries mate, she’ll be right, you’ll soon get used to it.’
    We set off; It was pitch dark and deathly silent except for the occasional croak of frogs. There were plenty of crocodiles in the billabong alright, rather more than I would care for, we picked out a pair of eyes away from the others and homed in on it.
    The contents of my stomach were liquid; I wanted to break wind but was afraid to. We slowly crept up alongside the creature and there he was; all seven feet of deadly death; the same length as our little tin boat, it was just waiting to grab me in his jaws and drag me under.
    Suddenly, the tense silence of the night exploded.
Everything happened so fast that to this day I can’t remember grabbing the tail. But it happened just as he had said it would,
     I was soaked in sweat and on the biggest high of my life. I  was now officially a ‘Crocodile Hunter’, perhaps ‘Poacher’ might be a more accurate description. We shot two more that first night and many more on subsequent nights.
    We collected the bodies during the daytime, skinned them, then scraped, salted and wrapped them up in wet gunny bags to preserve our haul.
     Small crocs were skinned lengthways along the belly, whilst larger crocodiles were skinned from either side of their thick back spines, which were too tough for tanning
     I got good use from my .22 rifle; hunting wild fowl to augment our food larder, particularly the black-bill Spoon Bill (Platalea regia), a type of large heron; it made a delicious meal.
     On one occasion, as I knelt against a small tree to take aim at a wallaby, I felt a slight movement next to me, I turned my head and came eyeball to eyeball with a large goanna lizard clinging to the trunk, its messy tongue flicking in and out.
     Gee whiz! Its proximity scared me witless. I threw myself sideways and shot it dead - more from fear than necessity.
My fiend the goanna
     Life was so good. In fact it couldn’t have been better.  My childhood ambitions to travel had been influenced by Mr Don Smith an inspirational geography master - Don Smith: by Sunday school tales of missionaries, and by reading the voyage of Thor Heyerdahl. The Australian films Sundowner and Smiley had also caused me to want to be a swagman, an international free spirit. I was living the dream.
    The wholesaler at Darwin paid us fifteen shillings an inch (75 pence and inch)as measured across the belly. It made for a very lucrative living. I made one more hunting foray into the bush, and then decided the penalties if caught were not worth making it into a career.
Pricing the catch at Darwin skin-dealer's warehouse
    It was time to give up crocodile hunting whilst I still had all my fingers. It was time to travel again. Australia and the world beckoned.
Go to the library for more tales of Roy's exploits.

Australian terminology
Golden amber - beer
Tucker - food
Bush - remote countryside
Billabong - dead lake or pond
Coolabah tree - large gum tree
Swagman - itinerant worker
Billy - a pot of hot water
Rucksac - back-pack
Swag - bedroll
Aussie - Australian
Fibbed - lied/untruth
Wallaby - type of small kangaroo
Bluey - nickname for fair haired man

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