Stories are like entwined fingers. They belong to one or another source--like a hand. They are singular and they are part of something bigger and more complex. They work by themselves, but they work better in unison. Sometimes you want to utilize a grip and bunch them all up. Sometimes you want to pull one away from the others, tie a bow around it, and present it alone....
I was thinking about the time I saw the largest Crocodile I ever saw. It was measured at 6.3 meters snout to tail tip. It was never weighed in one piece (it was too heavy). It had a gullet flap big enough for me to crawl through. It had its own dog who would run up its tail and bark, yapping irritatingly, standing between its shoulder blades.
The entire story covers over a year and a half of time. It involves secret affairs with New Zealand strippers and frightening plane rides, smuggled beer and 4wd trucking during monsoon rains and a looming typhoon across rising creeks and slippery expanses. It involves an intercepted letter and a slowly evolving construction project. Illegal work and strip searches for drugs. Fights on Australia Day and a disappearing semi-trailor like a ghost rider in a bad B movie. There was an attempted murder and a woman running around town with a pair of scissors run through her neck, chasing her boyfriend with a bottle, which she was drinking from. There was a wake-up in the middle of the night by a pig in our compound, chased by over thirty dogs. There was doggie syphillis and a pregnant aboriginal girl,. There was oval track racing and last call on Sunday afternoons down at the Stubby Hut along the Weipa river, watching crocs come in and out of the mouth like snaky logs.
But I'm not gonna tell you about all that.
Tonight I just want to tell you about the biggest Croc I ever saw.
Arakun was an Aboriginal "mission" (basically an outpost town with a dirt runway and a fifteen hour dirt road/4wd track that led to the first real Australian town near to it) located at the western-side tip of Cape York, about thirty minutes south by small plane from Weipa, which is a mining town that collects aluminum cans the hard way--from Bauxite-- and recycles it.
At the time I was there, it had an aboriginal "Shire Counselor" ( I think his title was), and an official Australian government ombudsman (who looked just like Papa Hemingway and drank "aquired" export Fosters Beer in bottles by the box load, and ran two opposing air conditioners simultaneously, one up his backside and one up his front side, which was copious.
The Aboriginal Shire Counselor's name was Fred, and his claim to worldly fame was having led an Aboriginal dance troup on a two year tour of the world. Fred had black as coal eyes with bright patches of blood splotches in the whites visible on the outside sides and a cleft chin. He had the nose and brow that seemed ancient and spiritual. He had a great sense of humor and a laugh that sounded a bit like a chicken that had had its toes stepped on...
Fred was sad to hear about what had happened to that crocodile-- as many of us were. Fred loaned us a freezer so we could put the head and feet in it, and did his damdest to trade away our stash of beer which we were reluctant to part with, to be sure...
The man I worked for and his New Zealand ex-stripper girlfriend and I had come back to Arakun to collect tools and vehicles. We had already built ten houses on government contract and needed to haul out two trucks both loaded with tools and a cement mixer (which we gave away--too much trouble). We flew in and were to drive out. Rumor around Arakun was that Neville, a seventy-year-old white Australian Baramundi fisherman, had accidentally got "the big guy" caught in his nets and drowned him. The big guy was the 6.3 meter Estuarine Salt Water Crocodile which are nasty creatures to those of us who like to wade in the shallows and look at fishees. They are big, strong, and man eating. They have very little remorse. They show their sharp teeth like a snarling dog, even when they are sleeping or dead. In wrestling matches, they win. They are brilliant killing and pooping machines and have survived as a species for a long, long time.
Which makes them pretty cool.
My boss's name was Rosco. His "on the sly" girlfriend's name was Penny. His wife's name was Helen, but she makes it into other stories, and not this one. Sorry Helen. Sidelined again...
Rosco used to do a lot of business with Neville. In fact, I use to do alot of Rosco's business with Neville. We flew contruction supplies up from Cairns all the time but were flying the plane back empty. To pay for the trip back, (fuel and a pilot), Rosco had worked out a plan where he bought fresh Baramundi from Neville. We would pack them on ice in coolers and load the plane to the gills, so to speak. Then when we got to Cairns, I would deliver them to the new upscale restaurants opening up to accomodate the new international tourist boom that was occuring. Joist hangers and cyclone ties in. Fresh fish out. (Oh, and illicit beer, but that's for another time.) Neville was overjoyed by this set-up, as he had previously been forced to freeze his fish and store it for monthly flights out via the commercial Fokker that flew into Arakun on bi-weekly runs. Neville was a sinewy and wise old guy who took full advantage of an opportunity.
He sold fresh fish and made fresh fish prices. His nutty old wife could now by curtains for their houseboat. Neville could afford "the good beer" and put new motors on his boats. German and Japanese tourist could eat fresh Barumundi and Rosco could pay the fuel and pilot bills for his plane.
Everything with an order and a reason to exist.
Except the now defunct croc.
Arakun sat abreast of the Arakun river, near its mouth. In feel, it was Amazonian, with forks and splits and islands and mangrove thickets and convergences and divergences and nasty stuff underneath its dark brown surface. You wanted a good boat with little draw and a reliable engine to navigate upstream on her. We looked for one in Arakun but didn't find any such boat. What we got, was a flat-bottomed dinghy.
Which is a fine way to go from dock to yacht on a calm, full mooned night in a harbor somewhere. Not so fine, if you weigh 240 and your boss is big and fat and his girlfriend won't sit still.
And there are crocs in the water.
And your boss insists on driving, then keeps running aground on sandbars (which you know you would have floated over if he had just laid off all of the VB's in his youth) and asking you to "get out and push us off", which you do because he is the boss and you need a boss willing to pay you under the table... all the while seeing crocodile shapes in the shadows of everything beneath the ripples.
"Rosco, let Scotty drive!" Penny would complain.
"I got her Pen. He can't see any better than I can. What the hell is that?"
"Damn! Scotty, can you get out and push?"
"Let me just look around a second first..."
And so we traveled. Upriver-- which was east in direction-- for about an hour and a half (which was a worry because Neville only lived fifteen minutes upriver by the boat he used to drive). Neville knew the way. Rosco was driving. Rosco only vaguely knew the direction, not the way. And I had to check the water for crocs before I put my big feet out and pushed us off. It was a Rosco special. It always seemed to be a Rosco special. If you knew Rosco, you'd know what I meant. All bull and no thought. All balls, and no proper aim for his peepee. All forward full steam with no reverse in the equation. That was Rosco.
Which made him pretty cool.
We ran aground one final time before we arrived at Neville's houseboat. By luck, we ran aground within a hundred feet of his houseboat, just on the wrong side of a mangrove "island" and Neville had heard our motor and whistled in the manner of outdoor people everywhere-- two fingers and an ear piercing tea pot about to explode...
I looked for funny shadows in the water, got out, and pushed us off another sandbar. By this time, I had a plan. Rosco had a fat lap. I could land there. If a croc came, I could leap without looking. Just leap onto Rosco's lap. If I hit his thighs and belly, I wouldn't get hurt. It was like diving into the bosom of Buddha. I visualized this koan all the while torquing and twisting on a motor stuck in silt.
"Neville!" Penny called out.
Neville whistled again. This time, in three short burst and then a fancy trill to let us know he heard us.
"Go back and go around!" He called out. Two hundred feet you'll see a small way through! Who's driving that thing anyways? Rosco, is that you?"
Neville knew about Rosco specials. There were many. They were shared like prized baseball cards amongst the Rosco devoted.
Which we all were.
"Yeah! It's me. We'll swing around!"
"Let Scotty drive," suggested Penny. Rosco would not budge.
"On the way back, he can drive then. How far back did he say to go?"
Rosco navigated the small channel between the mangrove islands and headed back up toward where we heard Neville whistle. The river was narrow and deep here, and dark, and full of shadows. We came around a final bend and... Rosco ran aground on another sandbar full of mangrove roots. He was looking at something that distracted his attention and just ploughed in. We were run aground in three feet of water in a boat that draws less than one, except the motor, which drew two. Roots held us up in the murky river like a golf ball on a tee or a sculpture on a pedestal or a bar of soap in a dish. Like an offering to the gods of croc. Like a platter of barumundi in a fancy restaurant.
And there he was. 6.3 meters long. Snarling at us like a vicious dog. His eyes unmoving and fixated on our little boat. The menace of the rivers staring directly our way.To put it all in perspective, he was more than TWICE as long as our little boat and HALF as wide. His feet were bigger than my thighs at hip point, and his scaly green skin glistened where water had wet it. We're stuck. A croc is laying in the shallows looking like the prehistoric creature it is and two thoughts occur to me simultaneously.
I wish my camera still worked.
I hope that's the dead croc and not another live one.
Suddenly, and with no warning and a ferocious motion, a black, chihuaha-looking dog ran out of the forest yapping at us and jumped up on the tail of this monsterous croc and ran along the tail for a time until it turned into a torso and ran along the spinal scales until it got up around the shoulder blades. Here, it yapped at us like it was protecting the dead croc-- like it knew what was in store for this magnificent creature which was later estimated to be a hundred and twenty five years old. And once again, I thought--
I wish my camera still worked.
Neville called out to us.
"Help! We're stuck!" This was Penny being Penny.Rosco led the charge. Penny put a dire flavor on it. Rosco overloaded the plane we flew. Penny sat in the back and smoked two cigarettes at a time. Without Penny, Rosco and a young and naive I would have never known just how much trouble we were in.
"Stay there and don't put your feet in the water," Neville called out. "There's a ten footer been living right beneath your boat for goin' on two years now. He got one of my dogs and he ain't afraid of me."
I pulled my feet back underneath me.
"Toss a rope, then?" I asked. My voice cracked. It was the humidity. Humidity sometimes causes cracky voices in men.
Neville tossed us a rope. I pulled us off the mangrove roots, and we went ashore and were given the front to back tour of the crocodile. I ran my hand down its rough tail. Amazing. I grabbed the meat in its forepaws. Amazing. I opened up its mouth and put a stick in it, and imagined myself crawling into it and could see that this was wholly possible. And I do mean wholly. Amazing.
We did what ruffians always do in this neck of the woods. We drank beer and swapped stories. I told Neville of the time I saw a guy high on acid, in Yosemite, kiss a bear on the nose while it was rummaging through a garbage bin on the valley floor. The guy obviously had an epiphany while seeing pink elephants, and the bear was so surprised, it scared him, and he ducked back into the garbage.
Rosco told of the time he hit a large Taipan on the head with a shovel, thought he killed it, then brought it into the house and set it on the washing machine to scare his wife Helen, who is not really in this story. Penny seethed at the mention of Helen's name while Rosco told how the snake had "apparently" not been dead, had escaped into the house proper, and had been fought to the death with a golf club which ruined the expensive carpet Helen had just paid to have installed.
I looked at the dead croc and wondered about how it was killed. Not a shovel, is what I was thinking.
Neville explained that the croc had gone into one of his barumundi nets and pulled on a barumundi. For those who do not know, barumundi are similar in size to our salmon. They have whiter meat and they live in salty rivers along the northern Australian coastline. Neville would string nets across short river channels, and the barumundi would swim into the holes in these nets. The larger ones would get caught, like a screen sieving sand. The smaller ones would get through. And grow up.
Neville said the croc must have had trouble getting this fish out, and started to roll. Everybody knows about the croc roll, so I won't go into that. Basically, if you disconnected a tennis net, laid it down, and started rolling up in it, by the time you got to the far pole, you would look like what happened to this croc. The only problem for the croc was, he did this in the water. Crocs can hold their breaths for a long time, but they can't breath underwater. This one hundred and twenty five year old croc drowned with a fish in his mouth in a net-tomb of his own making.
"I sure loved that croc..." Neville eulogized. "It took four of my dogs..."
We poked around a bit more with the croc and then said our good-byes and I took a hold of the tiller on the motor and we got back to Arakun in about twenty minutes. As we were pulling up to the bank in Arakun, I was stung on the legs by a jelly fish-- which was a concern because of the box jelly fish that kill you in six minutes. We also found a tiny water snake in the bottom of our boat (well, it did swim in the water we had accumulated there), which turned out to be a baby Taipan which Rosco dispensed with with the blow of a hammer he found in the tool box. He put a hefty dent in the bottom of the boat to do this, but we just chalked it up as another Rosco special and continued on, buoyed by beer and the knowledge that Rosco could pay for his mistakes. His wife Helen was filthy rich. But we won't get into that today.
The day after we saw Neville a bloke came up from the cities from People Magazine, I think, and did a story on Neville and this extra humongous crocodile. The photographer wanted to spice up the photo a bit, so he asked Neville if he had a rifle. Neville said "of course."
The photographer said, "Well go get it then."
Neville obeyed and got his picture taken with the crocodile holding his rifle. He looked like Merlin Perkins had just gone nuts. The photo ran this way, and-- I hear much later-- Neville recieved a visit from some very angry game wardens who frown against killing crocodiles with a rifle, which is illegal. Neville spent a few days "in town" straightening out this misunderstanding.
A few months later, I happened to land a plane back in Arakun (I wasn't supposed to be flying--I'm not a pilot-- but that is another story.)
I opened up the freezer in the "dongas" where workers were quartered who came into Arakun to wire, plumb, make yellow babies, or build houses, and it was filled to the brim with a croc head and four feet, which were the size of soccer balls.
"Some croc..." is what I should have said.
What I said was "Gaaaah..."