The Crocodile Hunter: The Incredible Life and Adventures of Steve and Terri Irwin (9 page)

BOOK: The Crocodile Hunter: The Incredible Life and Adventures of Steve and Terri Irwin
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“Yes, I love
you,
my girl, but let me in!” I ordered.

Lick, lick, lick, she continued. I pushed her aside, flung myself in, fired up the outboard, and headed back to the boat ramp, eager to secure my catch and tend my wounds.

Once the croc was snug and secure in a wooden crate, I turned on the interior light to check out my bites and hits.

“Yep, your fingers are gonna need stitching, Stevo,” I muttered to myself.

When I looked into the rearview mirror I was a little startled to see a huge open gash stemming from the corner of my eye along my cheekbone. “There goes my chances at television!”

I guess I must’ve been still pumped with adrenaline because instead of going straight to Townsville hospital I wrapped a rag around my fingers, dropped the small croc off at N.P.W.S. headquarters, and went back to my camp. Skilled at administering my own first aid, I soaked my wounds in antiseptic, took a couple of aspirins, and fell asleep in my swag all curled up with my girl, Chilli.

Blue-winged kookaburras sounded the familiar wake-up call.
Kook! Kook! Kook! Ka! Ka! Ka!

Waking with a start, I muttered, “The traps! Gotta check the traps!” As I tried to get up, a sharp stab of pain near my eye made me wince. The pillow was stuck to my wound, which had been oozing all night. In a fit of aggression I ripped the pillow away from my face, pulling the wound open.

“Damn it!” I swore.

Trapping Crocs on Cattle Creek.

“Damn! My hand is sore,” I swore again.

This was no place to get a raging infection and I thought it better to soak my wounds and patch them up before I checked the traps. Tedious and time-consuming as it was, I took the time to dress my wounds properly. The whole time I was swearing and cursing as I knew the tide was coming in and the sun would be up in minutes.

Happy with my first aid, I wasted no time getting my boat in the water and speeding off to check the traps. As I sped around the S-bend I could see the trap site but no lead-in bait.

Excellent. Last night the croc had taken the lead-in, so things were looking good for a capture. Once a croc takes a lead-in, it’s only a matter of time before it will enter the trap for the big piece of bait.

Over the next five nights, this crocodile ate the lead-in baits every night. On the sixth night I decided to leave a huge piece of fresh meat in the trap, with no more lead-ins.

The next morning, just on daylight as I rounded the S-bend and spotted the trap site, I noticed the weight bag had dropped. The trap had gone off! A little puzzled as to what had happened, I slowly headed toward the trap. It was totally submerged beneath the muddy, tea-colored water on a full moon high tide.

“What the hell’s going on here?” I asked Chilli.

She just stared at me, loving the attention.

Thinking to myself that I’d have to come back at low tide to reset the trap, I cut the outboard and began to lean over and feel for the trap mesh. As I did, a jet of water spat up at me like a whale’s blowhole.

“Holy heck! I’ve got one!”

The water erupted into a whirlpool of murk and turbulence. Think quick, Stevo, what are ya gonna do?

With both croc and trap totally invisible beneath the water, I strained my brain for a decisive approach.

Tenderly I felt for the mesh of the trap with an oar. Gently I eased some mesh to the surface, then grabbed it with both hands. I was easily able to secure some mesh around the bow hook, as if there was nothing in the trap.

Then all hell broke loose.

The trapped croc plowed its head into my boat with such force it knocked me back to the floor with my dog. Back on my knees I shouted at Chilli to stay down.

Quiet again, I grabbed more mesh and hooked it over the bow. Again there was an almighty thump as the angry croc took to my boat.

I gained some more mesh. Before long the huge triangular scoots of the croc’s tail were visible. I hooked more mesh. As I grabbed for even more, the croc launched up out of the water and smashed its head and teeth into my boat. Chilli was shaking uncontrollably.

“Stay down, sweetheart, stay down,” I commanded.

With an almighty heave I now had the croc’s tail over the bow. This really made him angry and in a massive lunge the crocodile, pivoting off its tail, launched straight at me. I grabbed Chilli under my arm and jumped into the water as the ballistic croc attacked with such force, he landed straight in the boat.

“Holy snappin’ duck poo!” I gurgled in the armpit-high water.

Chilli quickly swam to the mangroves as I sliced at the ropes from the weight bag.
Bang!
The croc drove its gnarled, steel-like head into the side of the boat, denting it like a Coke can.

Trapping crocs Irwin-style: It can be muddy work.

Throwing the ropes over the entangled croc and boat, I sucked in a breath and dived under the boat. Within seconds I threw the rope over again and again, each time diving under the boat to entwine the croc and boat completely with ropes. Not happy with that, I drew my knife and hacked off big, bushy mangrove branches and threw them on top of the now almost-subdued crocodile. Gingerly, I leaned over the bow and pulled out some hessian bags, which I accurately tossed on top of the croc’s head as a temporary blindfold. His huge teeth bit deep into the bags in response. Perfect, I thought, he’s almost blindfolded himself.

Without wasting a second, I pulled the boat up to the mangroves, threw in a reluctant Chilli, and fired up the outboard. The start of the outboard really annoyed the croc and he bit down on the bags in retaliation.

With the combined weight of the croc, Chilli, and myself, and the water we’d taken in, the small twelve-foot boat was on the verge of sinking. As I gunned it toward camp, the croc’s head butted the boat so ferociously it split the aluminium. Water started squirting in. I thrust the boat into full throttle and headed straight for the mangroves.
Whoosh!
We pierced through the foliage and beached on the muddy bank. With desperation setting in, I bailed some water then jammed the boat into reverse. Once free from the mud, I again gunned it toward camp.

On the way back to camp the croc thrashed and tried to death roll. We took in more water and were forced to beach ourselves again. Again I bailed out water then took off. Then we were at the boat ramp where I slammed into the bank, ran a rope from my 4WD to the boat, engaged low, and dragged both croc and boat across the salt pans and mudflats back to my camp.

Confident now that I was on dry land, I positioned the truck’s bullbar against the side of the boat and tipped the boat over until the croc rolled out and onto the ground.

Now I felt sorry for the croc. On dry land, thinking I was going to kill him, the poor old croc’s eyes were wide open. I realized I had to move fast. If I didn’t get this bloke boxed up and blindfolded, stress would get the better of him.

Desperately, I fought the cramps in my forearms to secure a top-jaw rope. Then another and another. With three top-jaw ropes secured, I rapidly unraveled the mesh of the trap. Exhausted and in fear, the croc fought with the little energy it still had. Then it succumbed to the strength of the ropes as I dragged a wooden crate toward its head. As if it were planned, Chilli nipped the croc’s tail, which caused him to walk straight into the box.

“Wow, too easy.” I spoke too soon. The powerful head of the croc smashed into the end of the box and split it wide open. With a reflex action I dragged another bigger box in front of the croc. As he smashed through one box he virtually had nowhere to go but up into the bigger box. I curled up his tail and pushed with all my weight. Obligingly, the croc lurched forward, allowing me to slam shut the end.

“Gotcha!”

Agro by name and by nature. To this day, this particular crocodile commands a lot of respect. He’s never forgiven me for catching him and every day at home in the park he tries relentlessly to even the score. I have the utmost respect for him as he’s nearly got me on numerous occasions. He’s killed two lawnmowers, a brush hook, a shovel, my shoe, and my hat in his quest to remove me from his territory. I understand his territorialism and try hard not to upset him, but if he sees, hears, or smells me he’ll submerge and poise for an ambush.

Gotcha!
Chilli helps me to sort out crating this big croc.

Our daily croc demonstrations are the highlight of his day. He enjoys the opportunity to show off to his beautiful female companions Cookie and Mary. When the demos start he looks to his girls as if to say, “Watch me, girls, I’ll protect you.” Then he strikes with lightning speed straight toward me. His crocodilian ambush techniques and lightning-fast strikes are the perfect way to show park patrons exactly how a croc attack occurs. This makes it easy to educate people about the dangers of the often unseen predator. Which in turn is helping crocodile conservation.

Agro has never forgiven me for catching him and he tries to make a meal of me whenever he can.

STEVE
Chapter V

To the Top

F
ar North Queensland contains patches of lush tropical rainforest that teems with biodiversity. These steamy jungles are among the lushest places on earth, with some rainforests containing more species of flora and fauna than the whole of some countries. My interest, or should I say passion, for the tropical rainforests of Cape York Peninsula was kindled when I was a boy traveling with my parents on field trips.

On one such trip I was darting through the dense undergrowth looking for lizards with Dad and Mum. Spotting a dragon on a huge mossy granite boulder in the creek below, I shouted to Mum, “I’m gonna catch that one,” and proceeded to run down the steep rocky bank toward the creek.
Whammo!

My neck nearly snapped as it was thrown backward and my body was jerked off the ground. This was my first experience with the “wait a while” vine. I’d run straight into its long barbs, which had driven deep into my face and stopped me in my tracks. One of nature’s traps.

I screamed to Mum for help and she was quickly with me and pulled down on the spring-loaded vine until dozens of barbs came free from the skin of my face. Off I went again, wiping the blood off as it oozed from my cheek, chin, and ear. It wasn’t long before I spotted another lizard, then another. A couple of hours swept by and I could hear Dad calling me from up the gully. As I scampered up to him he asked me if I’d seen my mother. I hadn’t.

“You head up the gully then back to the truck and I’ll see if I can find her,” Dad commanded.

As a young bloke I had exceptional direction and orienteering skills, which led me back to our truck with ease, effortlessly negotiating the mountainous gorges and incredibly dense foliage that engulfed our truck. Within moments I got bored so I started to dig worms and toss them into the crystal clear creek where the hungry jungle perch would snatch them up. Every now and then I’d try and trick them by tossing in a twig rather than a worm. They would rush it thinking it was more food and then back off, realizing it was inedible.

Trips with my parents to the steamy rainforest of far North Queensland were the start of a love affair with this area.

Hearing a loud rustling coming from a thick patch of rainforest, I yelled out, “Dad! Dad! Did you find her?” There was absolutely no reply and the noise of leaves being crushed underfoot was now coming closer. Feeling very vulnerable and alone I sat motionless on the large mossy boulder.

A cassowary! Remember, Stevo, stay very quiet and still or it may attack, I thought. The giant bird walked straight out of the thick scrub into the clearing and looked straight at me. I was trying really hard to be a part of this rock but the bird kept coming straight tome. It stopped only feet away and looked right at me. It twisted it shead from side to side as if confused.

A little tearful, I said to the immense blue-headed bird, “Have you seen my mum?”

The tropical forest teems with wildlife including cassowaries.

No sooner had I got the words out than its eyes went wide and its head shot forward. Then it jumped and kicked the air and took off like a goanna in the midday sun. It tucked its helmeted head down and vanished through the thickest patch of “wait a while” vine. The helmeted head and coarse plumage of the cassowary allows it to glide through thick, impenetrable scrub with ease.

A long time passed and I was getting really worried about Mum, who was obviously lost. My faith in Dad’s extraordinary bush skills was the only thing holding back the panic and tears. As I leaned back on the tires of his truck, the pristine beauty of the rainforest tantalized my senses; unusual, breathtakingly beautiful birds of various species singing, and the crisp clear smell of the deep dark forest. I wasn’t game to leave the truck and search for lizards or my mum—I knew I had a job to do and that was to stay where I was.

Finally, after a very long time, I saw Mum and Dad winding their way up the overgrown track toward me. I was embarrassed at the tears rolling down my cheeks and desperately tried to dry them up so Dad didn’t think I was a sook. But, by crikey, I love my mum! As I pulled away from her embrace I could see her face. She was exhausted and flustered.

 

It was during these hours alone in the rainforest that I dreamed of becoming a zoologist who would one day be able to cite the scientific names of every rainforest species.

At seventeen years of age I got my driver’s license. I saved money religiously so that I could buy a car, and at eighteen I bought the first of my four-wheel drives. It was a clapped-out old yellow Toyota Hilux that had more rust than metal. I stripped it down to the chassis then spent many months restoring it to a good working truck that I knew back to front. This now yellow-and-black Hilux 4WD was to turn people’s heads from one end of the country to the other. And “Old Yella,” as I called it, was to be my home for nearly two months during a research trip to the Cape York Peninsula.

In 1985 the first specimens of an undescribed species of goanna were shot dead out of the rainforest canopy on the Peninsula. These specimens were collected for the Queensland Museum and used there to describe this new species.

From the moment I heard and read about this new goanna I felt compelled to help the species by studying live specimens. Dad was very supportive and he helped me to plan a seven-week trip up to the Cape to study both the goanna and green pythons.

It was to be the trip of a lifetime. I lived out of “Old Yella” totally entrenched in the jungle. Living like a possum, I’d occasionally come down out of the trees for a feed. Fortunately, God blessed me with orangutan arms. To study arboreal animals you’ve got to become one: I could climb anything.

I was so disappointed when it was time to go home to the Park but I’d gained a wealth of rainforest experience. Dad and Mum were envious and delighted with my knowledge on the new goanna species, and Dad and I decided that the next step in our research was to collect a pair of these goannas and study their breeding and behavior patterns.

Easily the toughest task was going to be catching these rare, elusive reptiles as they ran through the canopy like I run on a footy field. The museum people had had to shoot the goannas out of the canopy to catch them. I would have to catch them by hand with the least amount of stress and disturbance. I just love a mission.

Green python. What a little steamer!

It certainly turned out to be a lengthy mission. Dad was granted a permit to collect the goanna, then known as
Varanus prasinus,
in 1988 but it wasn’t until 1992, after years of painstaking tree climbing, that we’d gained enough knowledge to observe them easily and capture them. Our years of research and study has revealed much needed data on the species and I’ve now published several scientific manuscripts. Now known as
Varanus keithhornei,
the species has a descriptive common name as well—I’ve called them “canopy goannas.”

It was November 1993 that Dad, Mum, myself, Terri, and my gorgeous dog Sui went into the thickest jungle in Cape York Peninsula to try and capture two pairs of canopy goannas.

Mate! Can I climb trees!

A canopy goanna found curled up inside a hollow branch.

Mate! Can I climb trees! We spotted our first goanna scratching through the leaf litter for insects to eat. Once it heard us coming, it bolted straight up a huge tree. Without even thinking, I scrambled straight up the tree after it. Dad, Mum, and Terri surrounded the bottom of the tree and watched it closely to tell me where it was. It jumped from tree to tree—so did I. We were forty to fifty feet up and cutting across the thin branches of the canopy. Dad’s eyes were deadly—he watched the goanna go into a long, thin tree. I took the leap of my life and grabbed on—but missed the goanna. It flew up a thin, thin branch, but I managed to dislodge it, and as it hesitated to get a better grip, I made a grab and got it. Yes! I shimmied down the tree so fast my ears popped.

We were all so excited—the start of a breeding program of a goanna species so rare it was brand new to science. We ended up catching two pair of canopy goannas in less than a week. Several months later, we bred the goannas in our specially designed Canopy Goanna Breeding Facility. All the eggs hatched perfectly and I’ve got to say that baby canopy goannas are absolutely darling. After we bred both pairs and established much needed scientific data and manuscripts, we took them back to Cape York Peninsula where they came from and let the whole lot go: adults, babies, and all.

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