The crocodiles of Lake Murray
Lake Murray is a Shangri-la for crocodiles and water snakes. Fish and freshwater turtles abounded too when I was there in the early 50s, and the local Suki people lived well on fresh food the lake provided, and on sago from the surrounding swamps. Lake Murray is over 60km long, connected by the short Herbert River to the larger Strickland which flows fast into the mighty Fly (map in March 1998 issue, p13, shows location). Sometimes the Herbert would bring water back into the lake, when either the Fly or the Strickland was in flood. When both these big rivers ran high the level of the lake would rise considerably.
A supply vessel used to bring people and cargo to our Lake Murray patrol post at Mava and to the Unevangelised Fields Mission base about 30 km down the lake every three to four months. For a few short months a Qantas Catalina flying boat landed once a fortnight with a load of repatriated labourers. These were men returning to their villages after completing two-year contracts with oil search companies, on copra and palm oil plantations, and for the government administration. The plane would land pretty much on schedule, and tie up at a buoy far out from the station where the water was deeper and clear of reeds. Our station canoes would collect these men and bring them ashore, under paddle-power. (We had no outboard motors in those early postwar days at Lake Murray where the only internal combustion item was a Briggs and Stratton battery charger – a cantankerous one at that.)
On plane days I would get out to the buoy early to be ready to assist in the tying up of the ex-WW2 workhorse, the Catalina, and always took my single-shot Lithgow rifle to pass the time when the plane was late. Crocs would surface a short distance from the stationary canoes and it was a bit of a worry (to me, if not the locals!) sitting there on the glassy surface being eyed-off by these semi-submerged saurians. There were monsters among them which could overturn canoes. One four-metre giant came up onto the grass near our patrol post’s hospital one night and was shot by spotlight by the police night guard. Another came up under the house my OIC and I lived in – it was after our chooks. At least during daylight hours they preferred to remain in the lake Their eyes and the ends of their snouts could be seen as they eyed us, out there on the placid water.
One slug which I fired at a pair of eyes about 50m away seemed to skip off the water, and I was surprised to see a leg rise into the air as the animal turned on its side and sank slowly out of sight. There was the usual excitement among the paddlers when a shot was fired – whether it hit its mark or missed. I assumed I’d missed because no-one said I’d hit the croc … funny though, the way the leg lifted and then scarcely moved as it disappeared below the surface. Three days later a large village canoe came in to the station towing the bloated body of a 3m crocodile. It was found floating among reeds, out along the edge of the ‘airstrip’ not far from where we sat waiting for the plane to arrive. It was mine, they said, I’d shot it, no doubt about it. There were no holes or cuts in the skin, much as we scrutinised the carcase. A crocodile’s ears are just narrow slits along the side of the head, and here we found a very slight abrasion to the skin, just a few millimetres in. I was not convinced that the bullet entered there, and rather illogically demonstrated the toughness of a croc’s skull by firing a .22 long rifle bullet into the forehead of the skull. It flattened out like a five cent piece. We cut the skull wide open with an axe – and there was the lead slug, almost unmarked. It had entered through the ear alright and apparently caused instant death as the croc sank without any violent reaction whatsoever. There had been no shouts of “Oi pidia, Taubada, oi pidia vadain,” (You shot it Taubada, you shot it), just a lot of laughter at the way the croc’s leg lifted and slowly disappeared like a nonchalant salute!
A dance was organised for some reason – it was not just an excuse to eat the crocodile – and after dark the drums were still beating to give unison to the stamp of feet and the dirge-like chanting of the dancers. As the ‘big white hunter’ guest, I had pride of place in a deckchair in front of the dancers, alongside several village elders and in the light of a single pressure lamp hung on a tree. As guest of honour I was offered a choice bit of cooked crocodile, the section where the body becomes tail – and it stank to high heaven. It was cooked alright, but it was rotten. After three days dead in the tepid water of Lake Murray any animal would be rotten! To refuse the offering would have been downright rude. I put it – a sizeable chunk of the grey, rank stuff – to my mouth as if to take a bite. The lamp light was pretty dim and in a shadow from some standing people I kept up the pretence of munching away on the ‘treat’. The gesture seemed to suffice as no-one asked me if I liked it or if I wanted another piece, maybe from a ‘wing’ or the ‘breast’! My little dog Woe was hanging around and I coaxed him near, pushing him and the chunk of putrid meat under my chair when no-one appeared to be looking. To my surprise he stayed there, helping me to solve the problem of what to do – as long as he didn’t throw up in front of my seated hosts.
Sacrificing himself on the altar of loyalty, he cleaned it up, bone and all. Next day I was okay, but my dog was crook. He had broken out in little white pustules all over his tender belly. Being the brave little stalwart that he was, always nearby to protect his master, he rallied – but with somewhat of a jaundiced look in his eye. He got over it – and I promised him I’d never accept another piece of cooked or uncooked crocodile meat again.
(Published in Una Voce, June 1998, page 16)
Adrian Geyle was CPO for two years at Lake Murray, Kiunga, Gaima and Daru, Western District; PO OIC Green River, Sepik District; PO H/Q, Madang District. (1951-1955). Field and liaison work on two 7-month field expeditions to the Upper Sepik. Oil search operations. Gravity meter work. Supervising labour (1956 – 1957). Field work with Australian Petroleum Company, Gulf District. Oil search operations (1958). Recruitment Officer in Dept of Public Service Commissioner, Konedobu; Regional Taxation Officer, Lae. Assisting New Guineans grapple with the introduction of personal and business taxation into their lives, with the approach of independence (1966-1970).