Crocodiles, and why people keep getting eaten by them

by Greg Milner, Perth

The crocodile, five meters of big teeth and bad manners, was directly below us and moving fast across the mudflat toward deep water in the Ord River. The croc really was galloping, its tail snapping back and forth like an oversized windscreen wiper. Sluggish at rest, the body was now a missile, suspended on great clawed legs a full six inches above the mud.

It must have been doing thirty kilometers an hour. The helicopter banked so sharply I could hear a warning alarm above the roar of the engine, and pilot Jim Ryan, who graduated with honors from the International School of Laconics, said "If anything goes wrong, you'd hope we could make it as far as the bank."

He said it with a little grin, but I knew he was only half joking. From an altitude of thirty meters, disabled helicopters are about as airworthy as a wrought-iron hang-glider. We were flying right down the middle of the river, and the grassy bank of the Ord was a decent half kilometers away.

I'd had a morbid fascination with crocodiles ever since American model Ginger Meadows took an ill-advised swim and was eaten by one at the foot of King's Cascade waterfall on the Prince Regent River in 1987. Well, partly eaten anyway.

The parts the croc left behind were recovered by her friends. Ginger's ex-boyfriend flew out from the States, and accompanied what remained of her on a flight down to Perth. My sister was a flight attendant on that plane, and I remember her telling me she felt so sorry for him she and her boyfriend had the poor man stay at their place for a few days to recover from the shock.

But Ginger Meadows was far from the first or last of northern Australia's crocodile victims, just one of the prettiest. So she got big headlines. In the 25 years since it became illegal to shoot the animals for fun and profit, 13 people have been killed by crocodiles in northern Australia, with another 18 surviving attacks. Compared with 31 recorded shark fatalities in approximately the same period, it might seem that crocodiles have an unjustifiably nasty reputation.

But, to make an analogy with one-day cricket, you have to look at the strike rate here.

Take, for example, the fact that 98 per cent of Australia's population lives on the edge of the southern half of the continent. In other words, out of reach of crocodiles, which only populate the northern half. And of that 98 per cent, about....98 per cent spends a significant portion of the summer months partially or totally immersed in the ocean, which happens to be the natural habitat of sharks.

Now, consider the two per cent of the population that lives in the northern part of the country, and the fact that there are many more sharks surrounding Australia than there are crocodiles lurking around its northern waterways.

So the unscientific extrapolation of all that is you have to do something pretty damn stupid to be eaten by a crocodile.

Splash/rustle/chunk!/scream/drown...crocodiles don't even make a noise. And a human corpse will keep a big croc happy and well fed for weeks. There are lots of horrible ways to die. But nothing makes the skin crawl like the thought of being eaten alive by a wild beast.

However, I found it heartening to discover the commonly-held belief that crocodiles stash their victims under a ledge until they rot, to be the Outback version of urban myth. Like Richard Gere and gerbils. No, according to crocodile experts (and here I include those lucky individuals who have managed to survive an attack) crocs prefer their food fresh, just like the rest of us.

Their table manners, though, are somewhat more...laissez faire. A large croc will generally try to drown its main course, then drag it into the shallows and dine at leisure. It might then allow the carcass to decompose to the point where it's easier to detach bite-size chunks. This probably has something to do with the fact that crocs have a kind of valve which allows them to open their mouths under water, but not to swallow.

Up until 25 years ago, professional shooters had all but melted their rifle barrels in their efforts to wipe out a species which had flourished largely unchanged for nearly 200 million years. While this inevitably made life safer for people, it cut croc numbers down to a few thousand. Then in the early seventies, state governments moved to protect them, and the Federal government slapped an export ban on the skins.

Consequently, a generation later, a huge slab of Australia's far northern coastline and wetlands from Broome right around to Townsville is lousy with them. According to Graham Webb at the Darwin office of International Wildlife Management, there are about 60,000 saltwater crocodiles in the Northern Territory alone. That's about one croc for every three Territory inhabitants of the human kind, a ratio that's a bit alarming for people and a bit of a smorgasbord for crocodiles.

And the roads are a lot better than they were back then. Retired bank managers and teachers on annual leave from the city can cart their wives and families right into the danger zone without even getting mud on their Range Rovers and Toyota Taragos.

It was one particular crocodile that had attracted us to the far north western corner of Australia.

Cameraman Dale O'Neill and I had been sent north from our television newsroom in Perth to get to the bottom of a story about a prison absconder who was said to be sporting a bullet wound inflicted by pursuing police, who in turn claimed they were trying to scare off a stalking crocodile.

The ex-prisoner managed to elude both police and croc, and made it 20 meters across a fast-flowing channel to an island, and from there, into the night and away.

The croc disappeared too, but the fugitive, who clearly had a better publicist, was tracked down by a rival TV crew at a camp hidden in the scrub a couple of weeks later. He displayed a nasty foot wound, and insisted the police were shooting at him, not a crocodile.

Naturally, the police denied it, and until he turned himself in and a bullet from a police-issue .38 revolver was dug out of his foot, it would remain a moot point anyway.

Of equal interest to me and my colleagues was the fact that he had managed to get across this particular stretch of water (and for that matter, just about ANY stretch of water in far northern Australia) WITHOUT turning into croc dinner.

With the liberated prisoner showing no obvious willingness to come out of the bush and stand in front of our camera, O'Neill and I had to do something to relieve the boredom, so we hired the Jetranger at Kununurra airport and flew north under a sky that threatened one of the first thunderstorms of the 'wet' season.

Equally rigid with inactivity, Gary Adshead and Ben Tessler from Channel Nine came along for the ride.

We rose above Ivanhoe Homestead and got a view of the cattle country the pioneering Durack and Emmanuel families would only have dreamed about when they drove their herds on a year-long cross-country trek from North Queensland in the 1880s.

They didn't have helicopters, so mustering took weeks, in the heat and on horseback. Thinking back to the bar the night before, it occurred to me they didn't have hotel swimming pools like we had either.

Along the grassed banks and the midstream mudflats of the lower Ord River, we saw a crocodile every two or three hundred meters. The river runs through Kerry Packer's Carlton Hill cattle property, and there were several of Mr. Packer's walking hamburgers bogged to the undercarriage in mud. Firmly and conveniently held in the vice-like muck, two of them had recently been decapitated by crocs, their heads neatly twisted off.

This was late October, the beginning of crocodile breeding season, when the reptiles are particularly active and dangerous. And more visible. By October, daytime temperatures are in the high thirties and low forties every day, drawing the crocs out of their 'dry' season sloth to lie about in the sun until their body temperature reaches an optimum 28 to 30C. And they move around a lot more. A cattleman I got talking to in Kununurra told me he'd found one in one of his cattle troughs.

"And that was 60 miles from the nearest water," he said.

The air was hot and thin, and with five men aboard, Ryan was cranking full power out of the machine as he flung it from side to side at each sighting of a croc. Adshead was turning green. "Who was the idiot who called it a joystick?" he gurgled through the headset intercom.

"The pilot," said Ryan.

It was not a good place to be attitudinally-challenged. Every time we spotted a croc, Ryan banked and flew straight at it, while O'Neill tried to frame the big lizard in his Betacam viewfinder.

But they were awfully quick. Time and again we'd get within range just as the croc disappeared below the surface, and all that was left was a muddy swirl in the water. And then I'd spotted this big one on a mid-stream mud bank exposed by low tide 500 metres away, and even as we turned and raced toward it, losing height and gaining speed, it had sprung to life and was heading toward the water. We swung around behind it, and O'Neill, who was sitting on the floor with the door off and his legs out in the breeze, lifted the camera to his shoulder and aimed it at the rapidly accelerating beast.

I tried to imagine what we must have looked like from a crocs-eye point of view...a thousand nuts and bolts flying in loose formation? A very large and noisy pterodactyl?

Crocodiles are blessed with a brain approximately the size and computing power of a Camel filter-tip. Once they make it past their first birthday they're the only beasts on the Australian mainland that are not, as a general rule, on the dinner menu of other animals. But they don't have enough brains to know that, and this one was fleeing at full steam, an armored amphibian on legs.

The croc hit the shallows at warp speed, a startled school of baitfish leaping clear of the water in front of the bow wave pushed up by the croc's large and lumpy snout. Within a few meters it turned into a submarine. There was no point in sticking around waiting for it to surface again. They can stay submerged for an hour or more, slowing their heart rate down to three beats every couple of minutes.

O'Neill put the camera down and gave me a smiling thumbs up. Ryan pulled back on the stick and we angled across to the bank and headed back upstream. Ten minutes later, we set down a few metres from the edge of the river, where a small creek joined the main flow. At this point, only a few kilometers upstream from where the Ord pours out into Cambridge Gulf, the river was about a hundred meters wide. Adshead and I retrieved a couple of fishing rods we'd borrowed from the chef at our Kununurra hotel, and we tossed lures into the creek.

Northern Australia is the home of the barramundi, a sport and table fish of legendary agility and taste. Mature barramundi can weigh more than twenty kilograms. Unfortunately, barramundi and crocodiles share the same backyard.

About thirty meters from the mouth of the tributary creek the banks were almost vertical and two meters high. But near the mouth they smoothed out to a gentle slope.

"I wouldn't go anywhere near there," said Ryan. "Even at the steep part, be careful. Crocs can jump that high if they're hungry." I caught a small and ugly catfish. O'Neill took Adshead's rod and hooked a smallish barra, which spat the hook right at the waterline. It could have been good fun, but our hearts weren't in it. Having just flown over an army of crocodiles, we were more jittery than a pimpled teenager on his first date. We packed up and took off. It just wasn't worth the worry.

Australians, it's said, will gamble on two flies crawling up a window pane. In the far north, this quaint attitude to life manifests itself in bizarre behavior. Back in Kununurra, we hired a Toyota Land cruiser and met local wildlife officer Chris Done out at Ivanhoe Crossing, about ten kilometers out of town.

The road runs straight through the Ord Irrigation Scheme, where farmers have spent twenty years trying to turn scrub-and-dust cattle country into cornfields and sugar cane and cotton plantations.

Ivanhoe Crossing is a single lane concrete causeway spanning a hundred-metre wide stretch of the river just downstream from the Ord diversion dam. On the other side and downstream a bit is the homestead at Ivanhoe Station we'd flown over.

The crossing is almost always under a few centimeters of fast-flowing water. On each side, wildlife authorities have put up big signs headlined CROCODILE COUNTRY! and they go on to warn you about all the nasty things that can happen if you swim here. For the illiterate and just plain dumb, there are pictures like those international no-smoking signs; an image of a swimmer inside a red circle with a cross through it, and above that a croc's head with its mouth open. Clearly, the only safe places to cool off up here have tiles on the floor.

But a dozen kids were skylarking in the shallows, while their beer-bellied parents sat submerged to their chests, swigging from cans encased in wetsuit-rubber holders. Right in the middle of the crossing, two men were standing calf-deep, casting lures into the white-water wash on the downstream side.

And these thrill-seekers were locals, not tourists up from the city for two weeks of outback adventure. (Or as much outback adventure as you can get towing a six-meter air-conditioned caravan with a factory-fitted TV antenna).

No, the tourists had parked their four-wheel-drives and were sweating through their shorts and singlets in the torporific heat, taking snapshots of the locals enjoying themselves.

Chris Done pointed at a spot about a hundred metres away, maybe forty metres upstream from where the fishermen were standing in the middle.

"We caught a four metre croc there about three weeks ago," he said. "But people think it'll never happen to them."

I suggested that the best deterrent to people risking being eaten by a crocodile might be for somebody to be eaten by a crocodile. Chris Done is public-service diplomatic. "Mmmm. I can't say that. I'm a public officer. might have some effect, yes. "People get complacent. It's just a matter of time."

As it turned out, not a very long time. As we were talking to Chris Done, three hundred kilometres away in the Northern Territory, two fishermen were driving south from Darwin in their battered old Land Rover to a favourite waterhole on the Charlotte River, 80 kilometres from the city. They didn't know it and neither did we, but they were about to have a close encounter with a crocodile's halitosis and bad temper.

Having waited four days for any sort of close encounter with the prison absconder we'd been sent north to find, we thought we could at least fill in the time by updating our library with new crocodile pictures. It was a pretty desperate move to relieve boredom. After all, crocodiles hadn't changed a lot in the two or three years since we'd last updated the library.

O'Neill and I drove a hundred kilometres north west to the old port of Wyndham, on the shores of Cambridge Gulf near the mouth of the King River.

Wyndham is a low-rent collection of run-down houses and government buildings set back about seven kilometres from the port itself, which is another collection of run-down houses and government buildings.

The streets are sealed in brown-ish bitumen, the front yards of the houses are predominantly brown dirt, which is splashed onto the walls of the houses by regular wet-season monsoons. Cambridge Gulf itself is permanently brown, stained with the mud of daily tidal movements which rise and fall as much as 12 metres. Everything in Wyndham seems brown. (Except for a group of five-metre high statues of tribal aborigines complete with loin cloths and spears, inexplicably hidden away on a side street. These statues are black)

On the outskirts of the port, just above the high-tide line, is the Wyndham Crocodile Farm, where crocs are bred for their skins, and tourists are skinned for their dollars. They get their money back if they're bitten. In the reception area, you can buy crocodile souvenirs ranging from the prosaic (croc-teeth keyrings, croc-skin wallets) to the kitsch...T-shirts with bite-sized holes in the sides, splashed with blood-coloured dye.

The farm is home to about 3,000 of the reptiles. Most of these are hatchlings, tiny but perfect replicas of their mothers and fathers, kept in big concrete pens so their mothers and fathers don't eat them. They can't bite your leg off, but their teeth are sharper than Andrew Denton's wit, and just as nasty.

The farm is run by Mike Osborne, a former fishing guide and wildlife officer who made a living catching crocodiles found in awkward places. Like the scrub alongside day-care canters, or cooling off in cattle troughs.

We followed Osborne and a farm-hand through a series of steel gates, each secured with a jumbo padlock, along steel-mesh walkways elevated above a series of stagnant pools. Clumps of dark-green algae floated on the surface. Each pool was surrounded by heavy chain-link fencing.

Osborne was carrying a bucket filled with plucked chickens. The farm-hand wielded a wooden oar, the blade of which resembled a large and well-used toothpick, immediately raising the suspicion that the idea was to feed the oar to the crocs and, if they came too close, beat them over the head with a chicken.

We couldn't see any crocodiles. "But they can see you," said Osborne. "I'll show you Evil first, he's a sixteen footer, then we'll see if we can persuade Mongrel to show himself." The big crocs had been captured in the wild and brought to the farm for breeding. They all had names like Evil and Mongrel and Aggro...which made a lot more sense than say, Brian. Or Nigel.

We climbed down steel steps to the bank of one of the ponds, while the farm-hand kept his oar at the ready. O'Neill and I would have felt more secure if it fired 12-gauge shotgun shells, but we assumed they knew what they were doing. At the top of the bank stood a steel frame about three metres high and a metre square. It was just four thin angle-iron legs with cross-braces at the top and bottom. It looked like it might once have been a stand for a freshwater tank.

"Okay, now be prepared to run pretty quick. If Evil goes for you, you can jump inside that steel frame if you like," Osborne said. I looked at it dubiously, but stood close by. O'Neill set his camera up on its tripod. Osborne grabbed a chicken by one leg and began whupping the bank with it, about two metres back from the water's edge. He did this a dozen times, watching the pool all the time.

"Here he comes," he said. In the green and stagnant murk, a swirl of black ooze stained the surface, but the croc didn't surface. The water didn't move.

Then it was...CHRIST! An enormous splash, and this great beast literally launched itself up onto the bank like some rocket-propelled movie-monster! For a fraction of the second it was actually in the air, mouth wide open, aimed straight at Osborne's outstretched hand complete with chicken. I had that awful feeling you get when you watch a falling glass of milk, and it seems somehow to go in slow-motion while your brain acknowledges the need to move but the message doesn't quite get to the muscles before it's all over. It wasn't until the great lizard landed halfway up the bank in a cloud of dust and spraying droplets of water that we all leapt instinctively back. All except O'Neill, who was less than two meters from Evil's landing zone, left eye closed and right eye staring through the viewfinder.

"I zoomed back. And so it felt like I was moving back, but I wasn't," he said later.

It was scary. I froze on the spot. Osborne threw the chicken into its bad breath and it snorted, swallowed the carcass whole, and slithered back into the water without a sound.

Osborne fed a couple of other crocs like this. He had a great deal of respect for them, and made sure his farm-hand watched his back with the oar. But he told us some comforting things.

"They only have small stomachs, so they prefer animals like wallabies or dogs. Cattle sometimes, if it's an easy meal, but usually only if they're bogged in the mud.

"Humans aren't the preferred diet. They'll generally only take people if you're silly enough to go swimming.

"It's pretty rare for them to leap up on a riverbank to get at you."

Rare, but obviously not unknown, particularly to the two Darwin fishing mates. At the waterhole on the Charlotte River, twenty-eight year old Tony Lituri and his friend Bill Young were casting lures from a low bank.

The barramundi were absent or just shy, so, as Lituri recounts it, he moved to another spot further along the bank. No luck there either, so he returned to the original place and started casting again. That's when the croc came after him. It lunged from the black water, sinking its yellow teeth into Lituri's left leg.

"I was in the water before I knew what had happened," he said later from his hospital bed in Darwin.

"It had me by the leg, and I was waiting for it to go into a death roll. But it let me go for some reason, and I was scrambling to get back up the bank when it grabbed me again.

"This time it had me by the left hand. My free hand was hanging onto the grass on the bank, but my other arm was across the back of its head and in its mouth on the other side.

"I was looking right into his eye. There was no expression there at all. It was like looking into a marble." He says this deadpan, as if being taken by a croc was an everyday kind of thing.

"And then it just let me go. My mate grabbed me and dragged me back out of the water.

"I'm really glad to be here. Really glad."

Somebody asked him if he'd ever go back to fish at the same waterhole.

"Oh yeah," he said. "My family's been fishing at that hole for twenty years. Never EVER seen a croc there."

With a couple of hours to spare before we caught the plane back to Perth, we went back out to Ivanhoe Crossing to kill time. In the fading light, I stood a respectful distance back from the water's edge and quizzed a couple of guys preparing to walk out on the crossing with their fishing gear. "Don't you worry about the crocs?"

"Nah, it's bullshit mate," said one of them. "Keep yer eyes open and you'll be okay."

We went back into town and fell into the pool at the hotel. The water was so warm you had to get out to cool off. It wasn't as pretty or as idyllic as a dip under the trees in the river, and the hotel manager had the manners of Basil Faulty without the humor. But at least he didn't bite.