Ancient Warriors!

Story and Photography by Dick Eussen

Crocodiles, the world's largest reptiles, are fascinating, awesome and terrifying.

Large carnivorous animals occur in Australia, except the saltwater, or estuarine, crocodile, Crocodylus porosus. In the heyday of crocodile hunting, in the early 1950s when skin prices were high, some huge saltwater crocs were shot.

Ron and Krys Pawloski hunted in the Gulf country for long years, and were this country’s first crocodile farmers at Karumba. In 1957 Krys wrote her name in the record books by shooting an 8.7-metre (28’ 4”) long estuarine crocodile in the Norman River.

In 1929, Claude Le Roy used a six-inch noble lure (gelignite) to blow up a 7.7-metre (25ft) crocodile in a hole just below the Hartley’s Creek crocodile farm north from Cairns, while George Snow shot a 6.8-metre (22ft) croc in the Albert River near Burketown in 1948. Peter Cole bagged the Wyaaba Monster in the Staaten River in the mid-fifties, and that creature measured 7.5 metres (24’6”).

Hunters had been trying to shoot the Wyaaba Monster for 50-odd years and, though wounded on a number of occasions by rifle fire, it kept coming back. Local Aborigines said that croc could not die because it was part of their dreaming.

Heads up!

Crocodiles ranging from 4.5 to six metres were the rule, rather than the exception, in those halcyon days of professional crocodile hunting. The reason such monsters were about was that no one had bothered too shoot them before commercial hunting began.

Big crocs over six metres are rarely seen today, but one that exceeds eight metres lives in the Goyder River swamps of northern Arnhem Land. Individuals around the 4.5 to six metre range are not uncommon, and I have photographed such crocs in the East and South Alligator rivers of the Kakadu National Park and in some of the remote Arnhem Land and Cape York rivers and billabongs.

Early sea and land explorers, Captain Philip Parker King and John Lort Stokes, sailed into the Van Diemen Gulf on the ship Beagle and saw many crocodiles in the three rivers they named the Alligator Rivers, now part of Kakadu National Park. But there are no alligators in Australia.

The only other Australian crocodile is the Johnston, or freshwater crocodile, Crocodylus johnstoni. It can reach a length of up to 3.6 metres, but no attack on humans has been recorded unless the reptile was cornered. Normally a fish eater, it will take birds, dogs and small wallabies, but bush people and Aborigines warn that small babies should not be left unattended near waterholes where freshies live.

The saltwater crocodile is misnamed as it has been recorded up to 300km or more inland in fresh water, and most reptiles are probably born in the upper freshwater reaches of large rivers and never leave them.

This is something to remember when travelling in the tropics.

Crocs appear on a regular basis in Katherine’s River, and have been seen in the great gorge, and the township is far inland from Darwin.
A potential fishing spot?

Attacks on humans are rare, though it does attract media hype. Only about 16 people have been killed by crocodiles since they became protected in 1974, and there have been about seven non-fatal attacks. These people were lucky: once those crushing jaws lock onto prey the croc commences the death-roll, rolling over and over and slamming the victim up and down.

Crocodiles are opportunist hunters and even when not hungry they will kill prey if it does not involve too much activity. Humans are slow, very stupid and easy to kill, so if one just happens to swim past the temptation is too much for the saurian and it may attack.

Most attacks occur during the breeding season between October to May, and some people wandering too close have been attacked by female crocs guarding their nests. Attacks on land are rare and, except in two documented cases, all attacks have occurred in water where people should not have been.

Crocodiles do not hunt on land thus it is safe to fish and walk along crocodile-inhabited pools. But do stay away from deep edges as a crocodile can leap from the water its body length except for the section from the back legs down.

When camping, do so well away from the water’s edge, and vary your path to the water so you don’t start a (crocodile) recognisable pattern. When fishing, remove all fish and baits from the boat as hungry crocs have been known to crawl into boats and turn them over to get to the enticing smell of dead fish and bait.

An amusing event occurred at Prince Charlotte Bay, north of Cooktown, sometime ago when a prawn-spotting float plane was forced to land close to an estuary.

The two men on board were taken off by a trawler and spent the night on it.

During the night there was a lot of splashing near the plane that woke everyone up, and a spotlight showed a huge crocodile climbing onto one of the plane floats. The onlookers later swore on a stack of bibles that the croc was trying to mate with the float, and it caused the plane to flip over with only the floats left above the water.

The croc was back at daylight, attempting again to make love to the floats.

The sight of your first crocodile in the wild is something you will never forget as a big one is majestic, and just oozes out power and strength; some people say evil. They have an uncanny ability to remain on the water’s surface without moving, and sink below it without leaving a ripple, but can accelerate to an amazing speed in the blink of an eye.

Canoes have been attacked, and people in them savaged and eaten. I used to do a lot of canoeing till I got bumped twice by crocs coming up underneath the canoe, perhaps thinking that the shape gliding over them was a territorial intrusion by another crocodile. I think that is why there have been several clashes with crocs and canoes; dinghies appear to be safer but, as the following shows, not always.

I myself became the hunted when a mate and I were fishing downstream in the East Alligator near an Arnhem Land escarpment called Turkey Dreaming. 

Swim anyone?

We caught some nice barramundi and had lunch in the shade of the escarpment, and waited for the tide to rise so we could head back to the boat ramp 40km upstream.

Craige fell asleep leaning up against the bow rail while I leaned against the motor just resting my eyes. I must have been asleep for a few minutes because I woke with a start as the hair in the back of my neck was on edge.

Without hesitation I threw myself forward into the center of the boat. Craige had woken at the same time as I did, his eyes the size of saucers.

“Jeeze mate, that mongrel missed you by this much,” he said with a shaky voice. Only a metre behind the outboard lay 3.6 metres of hungry crocodile, a female who was nesting in this area and still does today.

We had seen her several times in the morning when we were fishing, but she showed no interest and kept well away from us. Once we relaxed our vigil she had come up and tried for me. Only a fraction of a second was between me and death by the living nightmare of the tropics, because when she came up she hit the motor and the back of the boat.

A mate of ours, Kerry McLaughlin, was not so lucky when he was taken by a 4.8-metre male croc on Cahill’s Crossing a month earlier. The incident was a sobering experience for both of us.

But it does show how cunning a crocodile really is, because when we were active and alert she did not bother us, yet once our guard was down she came in. We will never know if she was after the two barra we had kept, or after me, but it was me she had targeted.

Crocodiles are a fact of life in the tropics and they must be treated with caution and respect. But by taking reasonable care anyone can enjoy this wonderful region.

The big killer in the tropics from October onwards till June is the box jellyfish. It has killed more people than the total combined attacks by shark, crocodiles, snakes, spiders and blue octopus, and this during a time when crocodiles are most active.

The message, when outdoors anywhere, is to beware of some of nature’s not-so-nice subjects that can kill you. Some, like mosquitoes, are hardly visible – and they are the biggest killer of the lot.

How To Stay Croc-Safe

The survival rules are simple; remember that crocs are protected and heavy fines await those shooting one.

  • Move away if one gets too close and keep out of deep water and even out of shallow areas if the bottom drops away into the depths. Ankle-deep water in the tropics is enough for a bath.

  • Never clean fish on boat ramps or near your camp, and get rid of your fish-remains 100 metres or more away from the river and your camp.

  • Keep kids well away from the water and never sleep near water. Don’t be tempted to nap in the dinghy and have an arm or a leg hanging over the side.

  • Leave the family dog at home if you value it. Southern-bred dogs fall victim to crocodiles on a regular basis, but dogs born in croc country know better – sometimes.