Crocodiles: Chips MacKellar
(Published in Una Voce, March 1998, p. 7, and in Tales of Papua New Guinea, p. 131)
Malcolm (Chips) MacKellar
1953-1955 CPO Daru and Lake Murray (Western District)
1955-1956 P.O. Mount Hagen (Western Highlands District)
1957 ASOPA Long Course
1958-1964 PO at Madang and Bogia: ADC at Saidor (Madang District)
1964-1968 ADC Esa’ala, Samarai and Trobriand Islands (Milne Bay District)
1969-1970 Queensland University – B.A. (Anthropology)
1971-1972 ADC Kaiapit and Menyamya (Morobe District)
1972-1974 Enga District, District Court Magistrate, Wabag
1974-1980 District Court Magistrate, Ela Beach Court House, Port Moresby
In my early years in PNG, I had such horrible experiences with crocodiles that, to this day, memories of these experiences still survive to haunt me. And I warn you too, that if horror stories bother you,….. read no further…..
My first posting in PNG in 1953 was to the Western District of Papua. The administrative centre of Daru was pleasant enough, but the remainder of the district was dominated by the huge Fly and Strickland River basins and it was a weird place. Water stretched everywhere for miles and miles and, quite often, a river as marked on the map only indicated a stretch of water free of reeds or other growth. For the water, you see, continued to flow through the reeds and trees on both sides of what you thought was the river. The bush on either side was often still navigable to canoes for miles and miles, each side of the main river stream.
South of Lake Murray, the whole district was in reality a giant mud pan. The river banks were soggy mud, and dry land was just dried mud. The entire area was one vast flood plain. Lake Murray Patrol Post for example, was 300 miles up the Fly and Strickland Rivers, but it was only 37 feet above sea level. So if the Fly fell only 37 feet in 300 miles, you can imagine how flat the country must have been on either side.
When the rivers flooded their banks, and water was high all across the land, pigs and cassowaries became isolated on small, instantly created islands, and when the water was low, fish and prawns became trapped in waterholes left behind by the receding rivers. It would have been, without doubt, a hunter’s and a fisherman’s paradise, except for the mosquitoes which kept the population low with malaria and made life a constant misery for everyone.
The other misery came from the crocodiles, which are totally adapted to the Fly River environment. They can cruise unnoticed just below the muddy water with only their nose and eyes above the surface. Even when floating on the surface, they are easily mistaken for logs or patches of floating weed. They have two eyelids, one of which is transparent, crossing the eyeball sideways. This acts for them like a scuba diver’s goggles, and enables them to see while under water. They can outswim any animal, and on dry land they can outpace a man by running on their two hind legs, like a lizard.
Crocodiles must be, without doubt, the world’s most frightening predator. They can remain submerged for 20 minutes without moving or breathing, and through their goggle eyelids, they can see through the water, and beyond its surface above. So if crocodiles are lurking submerged near to where you are standing on the river bank, you can’t see them, but they can see you.
Crocodiles can go without food for a month or more and never feel hungry, but when they do feel hungry they will eat anything alive, including other crocodiles. And if the opportunity offers, people often become an accidental item in a crocodile’s non-discriminatory menu. Accidental that is for all except the rogue crocs, which deliberately stalk and eat people.
The Fly river people of course also traditionally stalked and ate crocodiles, so between crocodiles and people there was an unmistakable aura of uneasy mutual disrespect. And it was into this uneasy milieu of crocodile and man that I made an innocent entrance during my first patrol.
We were east of the Fly River, on an exploratory patrol. It was exploratory because the District Commissioner saw that there were no villages marked on this part of the map, and he sent Mike Cockburn and me to discover why. After three months we were able to tell him why. The short answer was that nobody lived there. Can you imagine that you could walk for three months through Papua New Guinea without ever seeing another soul except your own patrol personnel? But it was true.
Not only that, because there were no people, there were also no roads or foot trails. The country teemed with wildlife, but it was a totally trackless wilderness. So to avoid getting lost or walking in endless circles, we had to follow compass bearings; first due east into this uninhabited zone, and then due north until we hit the Strickland river, and then we went home.
It was the dry season and we had already spent one dry camp, with only the water we carried with us, and in those steaming featureless flatlands, it was impossible to see where the next creek or river was. Mike Cockburn sent me on ahead of the carrier line with one constable and two carriers to scout for water. And hot, sweaty, smelly and parched, we suddenly came across a beautiful little waterhole surrounded by wild flowers, and adorned with water lilies and moss covered logs. It was only small, about 30 feet in diameter, and obviously a perennial soak, and in this desiccated bushland it was a welcome oasis.
“Water!” I yelled excitedly, and started to run towards it.
“Dohore, Taubada,” the young constable said quietly in Police Motu, placing a restraining hand on my shoulder, “huala gardina.” (Wait, Sir, there might be a crocodile.)
I looked at him in disbelief, a crocodile, here, in the middle of this parched bushland? Impossible, I thought. But already the constable had given instructions to the carriers, and they cut long saplings from the bush, and trimmed them into rough spears. Then cautiously, they approached the waterhole. And with each carrier holding his sapling at one end, each began to probe the water with the other end, taking good care to stand well back from the edge of the waterhole.
Because this was an exploratory patrol, the police were armed, and the constable loaded a cartridge into the breach of his .303. The bush was deadly silent as the carriers continued to probe the waterhole with their saplings, while the constable stood beside them, rifle poised and ready to shoot.
Suddenly, like a monster from the bowels of the earth, a huge crocodile sprang out of the water with a mighty splash, and tried to attack his tormentors. Quick on the trigger, the constable shot the crocodile as it lunged, the impact spinning the croc twice before it hit the ground. As soon as it did, the policeman fired again, this time killing it.
The carriers dropped their saplings and quickly dragged the dead crocodile away from the waterhole so that the blood from its wounds would not contaminate the water. Some time later, Mike Cockburn leading the patrol and following our trail and the sound of the shots, arrived on the scene. But by then I was still shaking from what could have been for me, a near death experience. To this day, I shudder to think of what might have happened if I had rushed ahead of my patrol party and plunged my head or my hands into the water.
And afterwards that night we sat around the camp fire beside the waterhole. While the carriers ate the crocodile, I mentioned to Mike how surprised I was to see the crocodile here, so far from the river. “Well,” said Mike, “considering there is so much game around, and considering this is the only waterhole for miles, if you were a croc, where would you be?”
And he was right. As cunning as sewer rats, the crocs knew which waterholes dried up and which didn’t, and where the game would have to drink when the river waters receded. All the crocs had to do was lie patiently in the water until a meal arrived. And they did this everywhere.
On another occasion, elsewhere in the Western District, I arrived at an estuarine village, on a routine census patrol. The tide was out, and the dinghy had grounded on a mudbank, and we had to wade ashore, carrying our patrol gear some 50 yards across other mudbanks interspersed with shin deep muddy shallows. There was no one in the village at the time who could help because all the men were away hunting in the bush. With only two policemen and a crewman from the trawler in the dinghy at the time, I had to help them unload, and together we carried the patrol gear ashore in relays, sloshing through the murky mud.
By this time I was well aware of the danger of crocodiles and I mentioned this to the Kiwai crewman who was assisting me to carry patrol boxes ashore. He cast a professional eye about then concluded, “Tide out, Taubada, not enough water for crocs to hide in,” and I was further reassured by the sight of children playing in the shallows near to where we had stacked the patrol gear onshore.
And when the unloading was over, I was standing shin deep in the water, near to where the children were playing, washing the mud off my hands. The water itself was so muddy, that I could not even see my boots. In fact I could not see anything below the surface, when one of the children, chased by the others, ran laughing through the water closer to me.
Suddenly, with a swirl of mud and a growl like a dog, a crocodile sprang out of the water beside me, and seized the child in its powerful jaws. I was transfixed in horror as the crocodile dragged the screaming child down the shallows until the water was deep enough for them both to go under…. Then the screaming stopped.
I was devastated by the experience, but there was nothing I could have done. The police were unarmed and they were ashore. I had a revolver, but it was also ashore inside a patrol box. In any case, it all happened so quickly, I doubt if I could have shot the croc in time to save the child.
But what horrified me most was the realisation that the crocodile had been lying in the water beside me all the while, unseen, although only inches below the surface of the muddy water, and only inches from me.
That crocodile could have taken me, instead of the child, except that I would not have been as juicy a morsel. He could hear the children playing in the water, and he just bided his time until one child ran closer to me, and therefore closer to him.
And all that night the village wailed over the death of the child, while I tried to sleep through the most horrible recurring nightmares which persist to this day. It was my second lucky escape from the jaws of a crocodile, and I was not sure how many more escapes there might be.
And if you thought children might have been safe on dry land, there were occasions when they weren’t.
On one such occasion I was camped in a village at Suki Lagoon. The village was perched on the only available high ground, which wasn’t very high. Squeezed on to a narrow isthmus with the lagoon on all three sides, the houses were two abreast, and all of them were close to the water. And from all sides, the flat wetlands stretched out everywhere towards the horizon.
It was mid morning, on a Sunday, and the patrol was at rest. I was sitting outside in the shade of the rest house, reading a book, and enjoying a cup of tea. The people were pottering around doing odd jobs, in their typical Fly River houses which were built on waist high stumps. Pigs and dogs lived below, scrounging food scraps which occasionally fell through the cracks in the floorboards above them.
In the house closest to me a mother who had just finished breast-feeding her baby put him in the shade of the eaves, in a bilum, which she hung from a protruding floorboard. It was the customary method of cradling a baby, Fly River style. Swaying gently in the luke warm breeze, the bilum was about one foot off the ground, with the baby sound asleep inside.
Suddenly, with a chill that still runs through my blood, I heard somebody cry “Crocodile! Crocodile!” and I looked up from my book to see right in front of me an enormous crocodile, running like a lizard on his two back feet, with his front feet stretched out in front. The crocodile swept past the house in front of me, snatching the baby in the bilum on the way. People yelled, dogs barked and pigs squealed, but to no avail. Within seconds the crocodile crossed the isthmus and plunged into the water on the other side, taking with him, the baby in the bilum.
In the stunned silence which followed, the only remaining evidence of this horrible incident was the trail of footprints in the mud in front of me, crossing the isthmus from one side to the other. I can still see the footprints… only two feet… and a line between them across the isthmus, … the drag marks of the crocodile’s tail.
There were too many experiences like these to tell here, some involving not only children, but also adults, and on one occasion I saw an adult taken from a canoe, by a crocodile lunging out of the river. It was an awesome, horrible sight, and one which I will never forget. And of course village pigs and dogs, which the crocodiles considered to be fair game, were frequent victims of crocodile attack. My horror of crocodiles never ceased during my first few years in PNG, but before I left the Western District, I got my revenge.
This happened one day when I was sitting in the office at Lake Murray Patrol Post, typing a patrol report. Most of the police and prisoners were cutting grass on the inland side of the station and most of the station wives were away in their gardens. The station was almost deserted except for four station kids playing jacks under a coconut tree near the lake, and my interpreter and the police orderly who were sitting outside the office, on the verandah.
It was a hot, hazy day, and as I typed away inside the office, the interpreter and the police orderly were carrying on a lazy conversation outside. Without really listening, I caught snatches of their conversation from time to time as they talked about this and that, but mostly about nothing in particular.
Then their conversation began to focus on a patch of duck weed, floating in the lake nearby.
“See that bit of weed,” one said to the other, “it’s coming closer,” and then there was silence. “It must be drifting,” said the other, and they thought about it for a while. There was no other sound except the click, click, click of my typewriter, and the laughter from the children playing jacks.
“But there’s no wind and no current,” the first voice added, “yet it comes closer,” and there was another long silence while they watched what looked like a patch of weed, detaching itself from the rest of the weed.
“I think it must be a crocodile,” one concluded, and there was another long silence. “I think you’re right,” said the other voice, and by this time, I was taking more notice. Then, without moving from his chair, the police orderly called from the verandah, “Sir, there’s a crocodile approaching the station.”
Still sitting in my chair, I peeked through the window, and saw what they saw. It looked like a patch of duck weed approaching the shore, increasing its distance from the bigger patch of weed… It looked like duck weed, but it was a crocodile, hull down in the water, with only its eyes and nose above the surface.
Why on earth would a crocodile come here, now, in broad daylight, I wondered.
Then I looked around, and realised – the station looked deserted except for the children, whom the crocodile had seen, and except for us, whom he had not yet seen. “He’s stalking the children,” the orderly said, reading my mind.
“We better go down and tell them to scatter, and chase him away,” the interpreter said quickly, but before he could stand up I said, “No. Sit still and stay where you are! I don’t want him to see you.” I knew they were seeking an explanation, so I continued, “If we chase him away now, he will live to stalk another day….. Let’s stalk him, instead.”
” But the children?” the interpreter asked anxiously?
“They are safe at the moment,” I said, “we’ll just keep it that way. Both of you, don’t move.”
By now I realised what had happened. The crocodile had probably been stalking us for weeks, awaiting a good opportunity. Today as he floated camouflaged in the duckweed, with the orderly and the interpreter sitting still on the verandah, he thought the station was deserted, except for the children. And he was nearly right. And for as long as the orderly and the interpreter stayed still, and I stayed out of his sight he would continue not to notice us, because his beady eyes were fully focussed on the children.
I got up from my chair, and opened the safe, and took out a clip of .303 ammunition. I took my own rifle from the rack and loaded it. Then I sat back in the office chair, leaned the rifle on the window sill, and waited.
The men outside could not see me, but they could hear what I was doing. “He’s grounded,” the interpreter said softly, and I saw the crocodile’s nose touch the shore. He was about 100 yards from my window sill; point blank range for my .303. But I remembered my basic rifle training: No fancy shooting; Wait for the best opportunity; and aim for the centre of the visible target. My visible target at the moment was only a nose and an eye, too small for an accurate shot…… ……I would have to wait till he came ashore.
The children were 30 feet from the crocodile, up a gentle grassy slope from the water. They continued to play jacks happily, unaware of the danger they were in. Although, in truth, I saw that the crocodile had a problem, and I knew he was considering the options. He could rush them, but at that distance, they might scatter before he could catch one. Or he could stalk them slowly, like a cat stalks pigeons. I remembered Mike’s training if you were a croc what would you do, and by this time I had had so many nasty experiences with crocodiles, that I was beginning to think like one myself. I knew exactly what this croc would do. He would stalk the children slowly.
“He’s coming ashore,” my commentators on the verandah alerted me, and by now the crocodile was emerging into my sights, as he slid his huge body out of the water, without a sound. Then, as agile as a cat, he began to creep towards the children ….slowly…. ever so slowly.
And as the crocodile’s legs left the water, his whole body was exposed in my rifle sights, including the soft belly skin of his left side. I was still sitting in my office chair, with my rifle resting on the window sill. I had the perfect shot, and I took it.
The sound of the shot reverberated inside the office, as the bullet hit the crocodile. The children screamed and scattered, and the force of the impact rolled the crocodile over three times on the grass before he stopped dead, literally. I had shot him through the heart.
The gunshot caused people to come running back from the gardens and the work places, and soon everyone on the station was gathered around the dead crocodile, admonishing the children for being careless, and at the same time congratulating me for saving them.
But it was a hollow victory. I am not a hunter, and I don’t like seeing wild animals shot. This particular croc was doing no harm when we first saw him, and if we had made our presence known to him before he came ashore, he would have submerged and gone away.
The problem was that he was a rogue croc. There was never any need for him to have stalked the children, because there were plenty of fish in the lake. The fact that he had stalked people at all, probably meant that he would stalk people again, continually, until eventually he caught someone, and that someone could easily have been me. So of all the nightmares I have ever had about crocodiles, I have never had a nightmare over this one.
For me there were no regrets about shooting this crocodile, for to this day I believe that the only good purpose on earth a crocodile can have, is to cover the handbag and shoes of fashion conscious ladies…… In my view, crocodile skins look better on ladies’ handbags, than they do on estuarine monsters stalking hapless children.
And every time a lady of haute couture passes me by, with belt and shoes and handbag crafted from the finest crocodile skin…….I think of the mighty Fly River, and of its crocodiles.