Dick Eussen reflects on the hunting days of yesteryear along with incidents and present-day dangers
Crocodiles are the world’s largest reptiles, some like the saltwater variety, having been recorded in modern times to 8m in length.
The late Mrs Kris Pawlowski shot an 8.3m monster in the Norman River, below Karumba, in 1957. Our family were good friends with the Pawlowski clan. She once told me that she had shot more than 3000 crocodiles in the Gulf Country.
Armed with a Winchester Model 70 rifle in .270 Winchester calibre, topped with a Pecar 4×12 scope and loaded with 130-grain Winchester Silvertip ammunition, she stalked the sleeping giant and killed it with one shot.
Her husband Ron, a respected freelance outdoor writer and wildlife film producer, had three frames left on his 35mm Nikon camera and used them before an incoming tide forced the couple to leave the carcass. They tied it up to a mangrove tree and returned at low tide to find that the rope had broken, and the carcass had vanished.
Ron, who submitted photographs to international photo agencies, sent the three 35mm Kodachrome slides off to London and New York but never heard what happened to them. Some unkind people said that the crocodile was a hoax, but I knew locals who lived in Karumba at the time and the big saurian was a regular sighting when it drifted in and out with the tides past Karumba Point. Some were downright angry with the couple for shooting it.
But others used to aim at it with .22 Rimfire and .303 Lee-Enfield rifles, but not one ever hit it until Kris killed it, something she told me she always regretted.
The Pawlowskis hailed from Poland and settled in Karumba on the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria to make a career as crocodile hunters. They formed the first commercial crocodile farm in Australia on their five-acre block at The Point in 1965. But many were hostile to the venture. One day the couple returned from a crocodile hunting expedition to find that someone had poured sump oil in the pens and killed most of the reptiles. Disheartened, they left the fishing village and settled in Mount Isa before retiring in Mareeba. Both have since passed on.
Nowadays crocodile farming is part of the northern scene. Operating costs are huge before any money from skins can be made as it takes about six years before a croc is large enough to be killed and skinned. The meat is also used, with restaurants being the main buyers.
Commercial crocodile hunting was big in the old days. Shooting began just after World War Two and continued until 1974 when the Federal Labor Government stopped all crocodile product exports, making them valueless overnight. Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory declared all crocodiles protected. The tropical wetlands fell silent as the skin hunters packed up and looked for other means of income. It was perhaps timely as they had almost eliminated the reptiles.
Later, people like Dr Graeme Gow, a crocodile researcher in the NT, saw value in farming crocodiles and crocodile farms were becoming established in the tropics. Many have visiting hours where tourists may view the feeding of the saurians, while wildlife parks also have crocodile shows to lure visitors.
In the mid-1970s, my brother-in-law Cal Wilson, Geoff Ladbrook and I caught freshwater crocodiles in the Gregory River and Lawn Hill Creek to stock a private zoo in Mount Isa, owned by Kevin Price.
Our method was to work as a team during dark nights. One bloke operated the outboard, another a Dolphin torch, and the catcher would grab a light-blinded croc by the neck and haul it on board. This meant laying across the bow and using both hands for a good hold.
While not too dangerous, it could be if the grip went wrong. A big one would give us some curry before we managed to hoist it on board and tie it up. Old mate, the late Harry Butler of the popular ABC TV show ‘In the Wild with Harry Butler’, was ripped in the Lawn Hill Gorge by a big freshie when he grabbed it by the snout and it twisted in his hand. The injury required several stitches. Harry let me do the catching after that.
In the 1960/70s it was rare to see a freshwater crocodile in the Gulf Country streams, while spotting a saltwater croc was akin to winning the Lotto. Shooting, barramundi netting and other forms of hunting, had all but eliminated them. Only the Top End had pockets of crocodiles, but in my years in Kakadu, during the whole of the 1980s, I only saw a handful of salties in the first couple of years, but just enough to make me wary and take care.
However, these days Australia’s tropical north has crocodiles to spare. Their recovery has been amazing and there are no tropical streams or beaches that are safe due to their presence.
Crocodile attacks are not uncommon. Rarely does a build-up season go by without a fatality, normally somebody swimming in known crocodile habitat. A few years ago, a bloke, dared by his mates, swam across the Mary River Bridge Lagoon, east from Darwin. No problems, so he tried to swim back but paid the price.
Also, a fisherman jagged his lure in the Adelaide River. He swam out to recover it, but there were more than barramundis on the bite.
Campers sometimes become the hunted. A family set up on the shores of Cape Melville National Park on the Cape York Peninsula had an unwelcome visitor during the night. It grabbed a man, who was asleep in a lean-to with his wife and baby and tried to pull him into the water. His mother-in-law came to the rescue and bravely jumped on its back, but the croc grabbed her by the arm, rolled her over and broke it.
Her son was sleeping nearby. An avid pistol club shooter, en route to Weipa for a competition, he grabbed his 9mm pistol and entered the fray. He shot the croc twice in the head and killed it. But the nightmare had only just started for the family, the wounded having to suffer hours of bad roads to reach the Rinyirru Ranger Station for a medivac evacuation.
Peter Pan Quee, born on the banks of the mighty Daly River to an Aboriginal mother and Chinese father, was a living legend in the Top End. I met Peter in my Jabiru days when he was the manager at the CSIRO Kapalga buffalo research station, where his expertise and knowhow of buffaloes and crocodiles were utilised by researchers. Peter had the distinction of being one of the last buffalo hide shooters, a risky career. He also shot crocodiles.
One day I was caretaking at the height of the wet season on a remote northern Gulf cattle station, west from Chillagoe. All about were black-blue clouds, alive with lightning and thunderous skies that opened every evening and dropped flooding rain, marooning me 35km from the nearest neighbour.
After tea, I switched on the TV, which is delivered by satellite. ABC News reported that another Top End legend, Peter Pan Quee had gone to that great billabong in the sky.
I had caught up with Peter on and off over the years and we shared many a yarn about hunting and fishing. He said that he had an old Land Rover and timber dinghy in the early days.
“I always shot at night with a torch light to pick out the eyes,” he said. “Once shot you would roll the croc into the boat, but if you had a big one it needed to be pulled up the bank and you had better make sure you got the skin off or by morning it would stink to high heaven and be useless.”
Peter was married to Lena and they had seven children. I ran into him years later when the couple had retired to Darwin. He had a strange tale to tell as he reckoned that the crocs put a curse on him as punishment for shooting their kin.
“Only joking,” he said, “but you never can tell. We were camped on the Daly, me, Lena, our son, Peter, Kathy, his daughter, and our two grandchildren, Brett and Mark. We put the tent near the river, which was shared by the kids and us.”
During the night, a crocodile attacked and grabbed Lena. Young Peter rushed to her aid and grabbed the croc by the snout and put pressure on its eyes with both thumbs. It let go and fled, but Peter Senior reminisced that they were lucky it did not roll, because being trapped inside the tent, its occupants would have drowned in the river.
“The croc would have too,” he added seriously. “Lena was hurt badly with both sides of her rib cage crushed and her arms and body covered in teeth marks. Her liver was lacerated. She later said that she thought a wallaby was scratching nearby, but it was that croc sneaking up on us.”
Lena was taken by an Air Ambulance to Darwin Hospital where she made a full recovery. The crocodile got away.
My own adventures with crocodiles have also been memorable at times. In 1986, I had a close call when a small crocodile tried to follow a hooked barra over the top of the tinnie’s bow. I had Cal Wilson weld a high bow rail over the bow and grab rails on the sides for extra security and height.
By mid-morning, after a successful barra foray at the mouth of Magela Creek, we dropped the ‘plonk’ (a lead weight), over the side and moored midstream. A heavy plonk is ideal for muddy bottoms because they do not collect mud, keeping your tinnie clean.
We had an early lunch waiting for the tide to turn as we needed high water to carry us over mud bars and the rock bar below the boat ramp upstream. A couple of icy beers from the esky for lunch, followed by a nap, was the plan. My companion Craige leaned back against the new bow rail, his elbows on the rail. I propped myself against the outboard and slumbered off. Sun and beers are a deadly combination…
I woke up with a start, the hair on the back of my neck on edge, my body in alert mode. I could sense something moving behind me, a rush of air perhaps, or spray forced ahead of it. There was no hesitation, I pushed myself forward with speed and hit the floor of the boat. There was a huge crash that rocked the tinnie, almost turning it over. I saw Craige’s eyes open wide…
I stood up, an oar in my hand, and spied a 4m crocodile behind the outboard, preparing itself for the next assault. But it just looked at me for a second and dived before coming to the surface about 20m away. That was too close and the only reason that it did not follow its first assault was that when I stood up it was faced with large instead of small prey.
Craige thought that it had hit me on my shoulder and slammed me forward onto the floor, as he had woken when I suddenly moved. “No, it hit the motor and the back of the boat,” I said.
Crocodiles are opportunistic hunters and this one was no exception. We had observed it while fishing around the rocks. It was swimming about 100m away, vanishing for a few minutes and resurfacing, generally about 20m from its dive, a typical curious crocodile habit and common in the Top End. But when we relaxed, ignored it and dropped our guard, it attacked.
Another time I was filleting barra on a hard-muddy bank near the Magela Creek overflow, about 8m from the tinnie, its bow pushed into the mud. A mate was fishing from the shore on the other side of it. A huge croc silently surfaced about 5m away between the tinnie and me. Startled, I jumped up, tossed a barra frame at it and ran up the bank. At the same time my mate hooked a nice barra, almost behind the tinnie.
It leaped and tail walked and confused the croc. The reptile quickly reversed back in the water and swam behind the tinnie. I jumped in the tinnie and bashed its sides with an oar, the noise making the saurian dive. I yelled to my mate to get back in the boat. He did and landed the barra, but the croc watched it all from about 15m away. That was one scary episode and it stopped me from filleting barra on the banks of muddy rivers forever.
In the past I have shot a few crocodiles of both species. The freshie is not bad eating when roasted over coals, tasting like fish, though salties taste according to what they eat. When they live in rivers they seem like fish, but those in freshwater swamps taste like strong gamy chicken, or a mix of both, probably because their diet consists of waterfowl and the odd wallaby.
There is little sport in croc shooting for a good marksman as basking crocodiles are easily shot during the day, while spotlighting at night is just murder. Nowadays they enjoy protection and can’t be hunted, but the roles are reversed and instead we, once the hunter, have become the hunted ‑ and we are not protected. Be careful out there…