Big Red Tour
Through Outback Australia

Chapter 17
Swimming with Crocs

© Jens Hültman

Close View of a Freshwater Crocodile with its Mouth Agape

Close View of a Freshwater Crocodile with Its Mouth Agape

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I drove down to Dan's Meat Supply and picked up meat for two weeks. To preserve the meat I asked the butcher to vacuum pack it for me. If properly refrigerated, the meat will last for two weeks, provided there's no hole in the plastic bags. The difficulty is to keep the Esky properly refrigerated. You fill it with as much ice as you can cram in, trying to avoid letting in any air. Blocks of ice last longer than crushed ice, but are bulkier. A neat trick—if you stay in a motel with a fridge in the motel room—is to put all the tinnies in the fridge and put it on maximum cooling. The cans will be ice cold the next morning. They will then work as cooling elements in the Esky. The ultimate packing system for an Esky remains to be invented. The food you are searching for is always at the bottom. This is, by the way, a general rule about everything you are after in the car whenever you need it.

Finally, I got out of Derby. The first part of the Gibb River Road is a plain old gravel road. There is no need to use the 4WD. I overtook other vehicles that drove slowly and cautiously. It was not that I was reckless - the premature death of the young tree on the Gunbarrel was still vivid in my memory—but the conditions were so easy compared to what I had encountered earlier.

The turnoff to the Windjana and Tunnel Creek National Park are a few kilometres out. This is the country where the Aboriginal resistance fighter called 'Pigeon' by the Europeans put up a brave but hopeless fight against the invaders. The Aboriginal culture, where every tribe or family group is responsible for their own patch of land and songlines, was not a good basis for organising a large-scale resistance against the invaders. But some tribes and individuals fought back more than others. Many of the people of the North were brave guerrilla warriors. Unfortunately, they were met with the utmost cruelty. Spears and shields did not stand any chance against guns and bullets. One captured family group was even burnt alive as an "example".

The camping ground at Windjana Gorge is run by the National Parks. This means neatness, warning signs and no free collecting of firewood. When I travelled through the Kimberly, I got an overdose of 'wonderful waterfalls', 'gorgeous gorges', 'paradise ponds' and 'stark raving beauty', as the tourist brochures put it. The first gorge is always the most beautiful one. If you want to visit only one, Windjana Gorge is not a bad choice, in spite of the neatness and well-groomed paths. It is too easy to fall into tourist brochure clichés when describing the nature of the Kimberley, but seldom has the worn-out phrase "breathtaking" been more appropriate.

I met Lance and Del again and set up camp next to them. We had coffee together. Lance thought that it had been an interesting experience to talk to a multicultural gathering with a Swede, a Swiss, two Dutchmen, an Irishman and themselves the day before.

'There we were, from five different countries, and still we could discuss difficult issues like politics and the treatment of minorities with each other', he mused. 'Isn't that fantastic?' As a teacher in a high school in Sydney, he had not be spoiled by encountering intelligence in creatures that walked on two legs, had two arms, eyes, ears and a mouth.

A busload with troops and two paramilitaries turned up in the evening. The troops had been ordered to change into swimming gear. One of the paramilitaries ordered the troops to form a line with their swimming towel over their right shoulder. He inspected them and roared instructions on how to get to the gorge. The little Japanese girls looked at him with fear and admiration. The fat German boys stared at him sullenly, annoyed by being put under the command of a foreigner. The Poms' white skin reflected the last beams of the setting sun. The troops were sent off down to the gorge to go swimming with the freshwater crocodiles while the paramilitaries left to set up camp and prepare dinner.

I tried a stir fry in my camp oven. It turned out delicious. The only problem with using the camp oven as a wok is that you get very hot over the fire, due to the constant stirring—stirring as in stir frying, that is, not as in showing terms of endearment to one's mate.

A short, muscular, tanned, friendly, soft-spoken man in a blue Nissan Patrol asked me if he could use my fire. I invited him and his wife to use it as much as they wanted. And thus I first met Bob and Jan. We would meet and camp a few more times in the future. I became fond of this gentle and convivial couple. Bob told me he was the instructor in a 4WD club. I immediately interviewed him about leaking diffs and various 4WD techniques. He answered all my beginner's questions patiently and skillfully.

A young surfer couple travelling in a VW bus joined us around the campfire. So did Paul the Dane from Cairns, who travelled on a trail bike. Jan made a damper in their camp oven. Damper is the traditional bread of the bush. You take a bottle of beer and mix that with self-rising flour and a bit of salt until you have a dough that isn't sticky anymore. Then you bake it in the camp-oven that has been pre-heated by your husband. The husband is also responsible for burning down the fire to coals and adding hot coals on top of the lid so you get heat both from the bottom and the top. Serve with butter when ready—preferably with a cup of tea or coffee—ahhhh, damper with some butter that melts on the hot bread and coffee around the campfire, few things can beat it.

Paul the Dane, the young man on the motorcycle, talked constantly. He worked as a leather-maker in Cairns. He had lived eight years in Australia. He had picked up an okker accent that would have made Paul Hogan (Crocodile Dundee) green with envy. To speak okker is to speak with an Australian accent that is so working-class and full of outback slang that it is verging on being ludicrous. Paul had passed all borders. I must compliment him for totally loosing all trace of his original Jutland accent. But did he have to speak so over the top? Aborigines were, for example, never called Aborigines, but always "blackfellas", "a mob of 'em blackfellas", "'em blackfella's camp" etc. Since it was obvious that he was a migrant, it was also obvious that he had studied the way outback people speak and that he had learnt it by heart. I noticed that the Australians present were slightly amused. Crocodile Dundee is a parody of the outback archetype, but Paul the Dane was a parody of Crocodile Dundee.

It was basically impossible to make Paul say anything in Danish. He said he was happy that he already was called Paul, so that he would not have to change his name into anything English. He felt sorry for me, having a Scandinavian name. I had decided that at all costs I should try to avoid going native and start to speak with a fake Aussie accent. I spoke my broken English, and socialised with all kinds of people. In the end, it worked better for me in the outback. I was accepted for what I am by the people I met. I was not looked down upon for trying to pretend I was someone else.

I took an early morning walk through the gorge, when nature is best experienced. Lance and Del beat about the bush, outfitted in long trousers in case something creepy-crawly felt that its privacy had been intruded upon. Rumour has it that there are Aboriginal rock paintings in the gorge. Lance tried to find them but he was unsuccessful.

"Freshies"—freshwater or Johnstone crocodiles—live in the water in Windjana Gorge. They are smaller than the "salties", the big, ferocious estuarine or saltwater crocodile. The freshies' snouts are longer and thinner. They are harmless and don't attack people unless they're provoked. As with other wild animals and the patrons of the Spini in Derby, they should be left alone.

We got into the water and swam around. Lance and Del got out after a short swim. I stayed in the water and took in the monumental view of the gorge. The high limestone cliffs gape into the gorge. The blue sky reflects in the still water that was smooth as a mirror. The sandy beaches and the stillness of it all.... It almost hurt to take in the scenery. In case of an attack of sentimentality and tears in the eyes when confronted with all this beauty, an Australian comes in handy.

'Watch it', stirred Lance. 'They attack in packs.' He was referring to the friendly freshies. They did not attack. They stayed basking in the sun on the riverbank, just like me. I took photos of them, including one close up. I would not have dared to walk up to that crocodile if he had been a saltie. The photo looks very adventurous though. When people back home ask me what I did in Australia, I can tell them about driving in the desert, bushwalking in rainforests and swimming with crocs. 'A bit of this, a bit of that. Nothing much, really.'

Chapter 18 →