« Is that An iPhone In Your Pocket? | Main | Late Home »

Open Features: Saltwater Crocodiles

Australia’s federal government is to consider permitting the hunting of saltwater crocodiles for a trial period as their numbers soar in the country’s tropical north. The salties - which can grow up to seven metres in length and weigh more than a ton - have been protected since the 1970s, with their population estimated at over 150,000. Derek Hudson recalls a 1986 visit to salty territory.

When they make the long haul Down Under to Australia, and have time to investigate the wonderfully wild countryside north of Never Never Land, a frightening creature allows tourists to flirt with a nightmare.

“Do not touch the crocodiles” was one superfluous piece of advice I was given, before going out for a croc cruise and a spot of barramundi fishing on the Adelaide River in Australia’s Northern Territory, if fishing was the correct description because I didn’t get the slightest nibble. Possibly, this was because of a certain lack of concentration. Was that dark thingy over there a lump of floating mangrove or something the late Aussie naturalist and croc wrestler Steve Irwin would call: "Number one in the food chain?"

I certainly didn’t want a dip because there was a "no swimming sign" with a crocodile’s head symbol on it, but our young aboriginal oarsman had great fun rocking our metal boat, which was more of a big tin can than an ironclad.
There might have been little danger that I would drop into the water, but when three of the beasts slumbering under the gum trees on the banks looked ready to paddle over and inspect the meat menu, it was a comfort when the man in charge told the lad to finish the horse play. There was no crowbar on board, but my white-knuckled hands could just about be prised from the boat’s hull, only to go back on hold when I noticed the big log floating a few yards away had eyes in the top of its head.

A few hours beforehand, I had made the pilgrimage to Darwin Art and Science Museum to see Sweetheart, a stuffed giant crocodile which between September 1978 and July 1979, when it was killed for being naughty, had the playful habit of biting aluminum fishing boats and chewing their outboard motors. "He never took anybody, but there were a lot of white-haired fishermen," said Tim Nelson, aged 41, of Go Tours and Adelaide River Safaris.

In the splendid Kakadu National Park, measuring 120 miles by 60 miles, 150 miles from Darwin, the state capital on the Beagle Gulf, in Northern Territory’s Top End, officials gave a blunt warning in their literature:

"Without doubt Australian waters do contain some dangerous creatures and although the dangers of sharks and crocodiles are sometimes over-emphasised this very fact sometimes encourages the unwary and inexperienced to take unnecessary chances.

"The waters of the North Territory are the home of many fresh and saltwater, or estuarine, crocodiles and swimming in remote areas is inadvisable. Many of the more popular are marked with crocodile danger signs and ‘no swimming notices’ which should be stringently observed at all times." That’s fine with me, sports.

Locals in the know told me that a mature salty could easily reach 16 feet and more, and they were common in tidal rivers, flood plains, billabongs and coastal waters, almost anywhere wet, it seemed, including fresh water despite the beast’s name. Back in the 1930s there were many claims of 20-footers, and occasionally, 30-footers, old bulls "as big as young submarines" with eight inch teeth, capable of despatching the biggest horse or buffalo.

Never clean fish or leave food lying around near water, they said. Don’t think about taking a paddle near a warning notice, and keep children well away from the water’s edge.
Crocodiles have been protected in the Territory since 1972.
Tim Nelson pointed out there was a lot of claptrap talked about the many thousands of salt water crocodiles which live in the Top End, “and most of it comes from the people in Darwin who have never set eyes on a croc”.

Tim said: "Salties are aggressive and highly dangerous to humans, with the males being very territorial, but the few people who have been taken in recent years were mostly anglers or swimmers who should have known better. It is not a case of crocs coming ashore at night to snatch people from their beds.

"It is dangerous to go in many of the waters around here, to retrieve a fish for example, or free a snagged fishing line. Some of the old guys say a croc will back off if you give it a really good punch on the snout, but I wouldn’t like to rely on that myself.

"Also, if alarmed when basking on a river bank, a croc rushes for the water and it’s unhealthy to be in the path of his escape route. Another thing, a startled croc can easily capsize a boat, or it could even join you in the boat if it really panicked."
Hear that? I knew it hadn’t been too lily-livered to worry about that boy’s fun and games during the failed "barra" fishing trip.
Other survival titbits came from ex-salty hunter, Lew Bellinger, 64 at the time, a nut-brown bare-footed friendly gnome of an outback character, the king of the Wildman River, who no longer killed saltwater crocodiles for the handbag makers.
He carried physical reminders of the days when he hunted the salties before they became a protected species. "See these scars on my hands, croc bites all from my own stupidity," said the little man, who according to his friends and nearest neighbours at the Bark Hut Inn, alongside Annabaroo Billabong on the Arnhem Highway, Northern Territory, made Paul Hogan of Crocodile Dundee fame look like a wimp in kid gloves.
Not that Lew ever wore gloves, and putting on a pair of shoes was a very rare event. He and his second wife, Fay, were on the tourist trail, looking after visitors at the Wildman River Safari Station, which was not far from the Wilderness Work Camp for young offenders, who would have been unwise boys to swim for it, if ever they went walkabout without parole.
Facilities at the River Station were not for sybarites. Roof fans stirred the air in the clean little cabins which served as bedrooms, feeding was home-style and not five-star, and entailed grabbing a chair at the family table with the station hands. If your luck was in, there could be corned buffalo on the menu, shot and salted by Lew himself.

The family pet, Buffy, a six-months-old female buffalo, was never likely to go that way herself, for Lew doted on her. After an evening meal of delicious barramundi, much better eating than the buffalo steak with witchetty grub sauce sampled a day earlier at the Overlanders Steak House, Alice Springs, a loud wailing noise erupted outside as Lew was recounting hairy tales of his croc shooting days.

"That will be Buffy wanting her spray," said Lew, and off he toddled with a mosquito repellent to give the tormented animal a good blast.

The thick haze of tiny, impatient wings surrounding an outside light reminded him of some recent guests who arrived in an unhappy frame of mind. "They didn’t like the look of the mozzies, although everything is all right if you keep indoors at night. In fact, they reckoned the whole place wasn’t good enough for them; no air-conditioning for a start.

"They were from Chicago, two middle-aged ladies who won a Crocodile Dundee competition in their local cinema. They were flown out to see where it was filmed around Kakadu National Park. There are plenty of chances to see crocodiles here. There were 16 in the billabong last night, up to 16-footers."
The biggest crocodile that Lew ever took out when he was in the business - before they became protected, leaving the tables turned with unlucky or careless people becoming possible prey - measured 19 feet, six inches. "The first I knew about crocodiles was when I was nine years old and little Betty Docherty, who was six, got taken by a croc when I was still living in Queensland.

"I started making a living from the crocs after working with the pearl boats, and as a sugar mill engineer and a butcher. There was money in it. A big skin could fetch £200. It was £3 a square inch for the stomach skin. But I have changed my attitudes now. Croc skins look better on crocs, mate, and if a woman wants a handbag, what’s wrong with vinyl?

"I still have a great respect for the crocodile. As a hunter his way of living and techniques are marvellous. He hasn’t got a big brain but is very cunning. Come to think of it, I am lucky to be alive. You can say that again, mate."

Then he offered this valuable tip to be used if ever one felt seriously threatened by a hungry crocodylus porosus: "Belt it with something flat like a paddle which makes plenty of noise, not your fist. The croc should cower and pretend to be dead. That will be your chance to get away."

Even back in the 1980s there were those who wanted the salties to be fair game once again, arguing that the population was well up to strength after years of being left alone to breed. But scientists and conservationists claimed that renewed exploitation, other than on properly managed farms, would put the world’s largest reptile back on the long list of creatures threatened with extinction.

Outdoor writer Dick Eussen, who had just lost a good friend and fellow fisherman, Kerry McLoughlin, of Jaibru, who was attacked and killed by a large crocodile at Cahill’s Crossing on the East Alligator River, believed there was a case for selective culling.

His 1987 article in Northern Territory News, suggested that in some areas they could be shot for trophy and hide value, whilst in national parks, large, problem crocodiles could be caught and removed to crocodile farms.

"The solution is simple, but if politicians fail to allow such a task to go ahead we will be seeing many more attacks on humans. Selective culling is an answer, but do we have the strength and will to do it?”

He did not welcome remarks from Canberra-based politicians, who said people should be fined for swimming in crocodile-infested rivers.

“How are we going to fine a dead person or, in a court of law, how will rangers prove that a crocodile was present when a person was caught swimming?

“Many of the attacks, gruesome as they were, should not be allowed to influence our attitude towards crocodiles, for many resulted from a situation created by human agency. However, common sense must prevail. People have a right to enjoy themselves and let me note that national parks are for humans also."

Those involved in the region’s tourism business hoped that visitors would experience some adrenalin from the big crocodile country without ending up as croc fodder.
People sometimes got their revenge, though. US President Theodore Roosevelt, apparently, swore by scrambled crocodile eggs for breakfast; Doctor William T Hornaday, once director of the New York Zoologocal Society, compared the tail to quality roast veal, and croc meat was on the menu at a Darwin restaurant called Neptune’s Doorway, in the shape of steaks, or Dun-to-a-Tee burgers. Chef Mark Currel explained that the flesh, sent from a Queensland crocodile farm, was minced with celery, onions, carrot and garlic, and then served with bacon, egg, chips and salad.

None of this was the sort of tucker to put before a rugged type like Bill Bowstead, 41, a Top Ender who had a modern, grown-up Huckleberry Finn’s enthusiasm for his hunting grounds in the Howard River and the King Creek area of the Howard Peninsula. His patch was not far from Darwin, the little state capital city wrecked by Cyclone Tracey and her top gusts of 174mph, which toppled 5,000 homes on Christmas Eve 1974, and also left 66 dead or missing in the biggest natural disaster in Australia’s history.

He preferred the taste of the mud crabs he trapped among the mangroves as a sideline to his main business of catching tropical fish for export to California, Japan and Hong Kong.
Bill also knew a great deal about salt water crocodiles. "They say I am the biggest croc bait in the country, because I have to work in their breeding grounds, when I go looking for the silver spats which grow into nice aquarium fish.

"I have been bitten once and that was by a fresh water croc; his type are not really dangerous. But I have been stalked at least once by a big salty - once that I know about. He was really meaning to grab me when he made his mind up to pounce. I had been working one spot for three or four days, and was walking along crouched in the water all Puss in Boots and tippy-toe, keeping quiet for the fish.

"Usually the crocs get within 50 yards and then swim off, but this boy was not playing the usual game. I stood up as high as I could and gave him one hell of a scream. He didn’t alter course; kept right on coming. I moved so fast I did my barefoot Jesus walking across the water impression, and gave up going to that particular spot. He would have been watching me for days. They say I will end up as a croc’s dinner."
Then Bill offered his survival techniques: "If a croc grabs you, don’t fight it, let it throw you around, which I admit is difficult, but they usually let go and then set to again, so this is your chance to make an escape if your broken arms and busted legs will let you."

Bill Binns, a local ranger, added his own 10 cents worth to modern saurian legend: "The message does not get across with some people. The other day, there must have been 20 fishermen in Buffalo Creek when the Conservation Commission rangers captured a three-metre salty, a male caught in a trap, and they carried on casting their nets. There could have been another down there, but it was obviously hard for them to see they were in grave danger - they just stood there in the water and waved to us as we went past with the croc tied up in the bows of our boat. Idiots!"

Real experts heeded warnings, Bill added, relating the tale of a famous professional hunter called Yorky Billy Alderson, who usually shot or harpooned crocodiles when they were sunning themselves along the banks of the Jim Jim River.

Well, one night he was sleeping in his swag well away from the water. He saw tracks next morning, a big son of a mobile chainsaw must have been out during the night and loitered very close by.

Maybe, his dog Bluey barked or growled, or the man snored, or the dreaded snapper decided he wasn’t peckish, but Yorky Billy never slept that close to a crocodile river again. Which seemed a very wise move.

Footnote: Just as this feature article was due to be sent to Open Writing, Western Australia called on the federal government to lift a ban on hunting great white sharks after the fifth death in its waters within a year.


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.