Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Katherine: Freshwater Crocodiles

Before we relocate to Chile, we are taking a week's  holiday driving a great big equilateral triangle (For a given definition of triangle, and an even looser definition of equilateral) through Australia's Top End.   


Sandor dedicated his holiday in the Northern Territory to eating his way through the flora and fauna of the Top End - prawns, crabs, sea-mussels, oysters, crocodiles, emus and buffalo, fried, roasted, par-boiled and served on a stick.   He even stooped to ringtail possum kebab.  (Roadkill style.)  I  never saw him defeated, even when faced with that most quintessentially Australian of gastronomic experiences:  the BBQ.  
            The Aussie BBQ is not an American BBQ - with its marinades and slow roasts and baked beans and breads - An Aussie BBQ is - well, it's a simple spread.
            There's your best cut of cheap beef, simple and stringy - the jaw-tearing sinews and tendons not tenderized by marinades or basting - but simply bashed into charcoaled submission over an open flame.  Ditto onions - thin and soggy and black.
            Wonderbread and margarine - or spongy, untoasted hot dog buns, if you're feeling swish.  Tomato Sauce (ketchup) and a big bowl of prefabricated Woolworths coleslaw, and if you're feeling really swanky, cubes of Tasty (TM) cheese and chunks of cocktail snags (sausages) for nibblies while the steaks are cooking.
            This menu has bested many good men and women, but it did not best Sandor.  He chomped his way through a rural Australian steak and declared it a wonderful, unmatched cultural experience.  And went back for seconds.
             In all fairness, Sandor had the right of it. That night we were eating our BBQ by torchlight on a sandbank on the shore of the Katherine River, drinking bush tea brewed from the leaves of the trees that brushed our tables, and in the company of five or six score of freshwater crocodiles, one of which had lumbered up onto the sandbank, hoping for a share of cow-meat.
            A frisson of exotic excitement (and a soupcon of bone-deep ancestral terror) is a seasoning that can't be beat.  Gnawing on a steak with the awareness of white teeth and pink gullet next to your ankles is a deeply moving culinary experience.

It had been a 300 kilometer drive from Kakadu to Katherine.  The road wound up from the floodplains of the National Park and headed into sandstone hills , our van chugging up the lips of escarpments above  great red valleys and swinging down the sides of crumpled red gorges.   We stopped in Pine Creek for lunch - where men had discovered gold while laying posts for the Overland Telegraph.  At the top of the plateau the road flattened out, and we came into Katherine.
            Katherine is not what one would call a lovely town. It looks as if once it was a thriving community, but now it is, more or less,only the gateway to the famous Katherine Gorges. There doesn't seem to be any industry here except the tourists coming through.
            We didn't fancy McDonalds, or  a BBQ in the backyard of our hotel.  Instead, Thea found us a night cruise with crocodiles. 

A history:  In 1879, a Mr Alfred Giles drove twelve thousand sheep  and twenty five hundred cattle from Port Agusta  at the tip of the Spencer gulf through the driest parts of the continent, all the way up to Katherine.  Most of them made it, too.  In one great sprint across a dry place  - ten days without sleep or water - he lost only 300 sheep.  It was a heroic endeavor by any standards of endurance, and it was meant to be the spearhead of a great northern wool industry.  Unfortunately, while the sheep, no-one followed him north. The trip was simply too daunting, and in Katherine in the 1880s, there was no reachable market for the wool. Within only 8 years, he had to sell up.
           He left behind four giant Indian Rain trees - one planted for each of his four children, and Katherine Township. 
            Our river cruise was at the bottom of a gorge on the edge of Alfred Giles' homestead- a dozen passengers in a tinnie.  (a tinnie is a small aluminium boat with an outboard motor mounted on the back.)  The river was narrow and swift, with dusty, silted banks. The silt marked the high-water line, and in a good season, that line can be very high indeed.  In 1998, heavy rains swelled the river so much that in a matter of hours, the entire town of Katherine, way up on the plateau, was under two meters of water.  When the waters flood like this, salt water crocodiles are washed down into freshwater territory and cause… incidents.  (Two-and-a-half meter saltwater crocodiles cruising the streets of Katherine are certainly what I'd call incidents.)  When the waters went down, we were told, Woolworths employees found two of them, making themselves very comfortable in the meat department of the town supermarket.
            Tonight there were crocodiles every where we looked - freshwater crocodiles.  Freshies are smaller, narrower, and more finely built than the saltwater behemoths - and they are, in theory,  scared stiff of humans. 
            Interesting fact:  Up on the Arhnhem land plateau where humans don't and never did go, the freshwater crocodiles have no fear of people.  Up there they will attack and threaten boats and treat a human as lunch.  Down here, 40 000 years of hunting have exerted selective pressure on the psychology of the crocodile. The freshies that stayed when they heard a noise and stuck up their head to look around - they got et.  By humans or salties, depending who was hungriest.   Today's Top End freshies won't go for you unless you step on them, or treat them like Disneyland robots and prod at them, hoping for a photograph. 
            This last bit of information, courtesy of our night river guide, was delivered in a very airy manner, and we gave each other long looks that said that, for choice, one still would not swim in narrow river with a freshwater crocodile hanging out on a branch every meter or two of river-way.   Or picnic on a riverbank alone at night.  So there.
            We puttered gently downstream, riding mostly with the current, sporadically fueled on spurts of reptilian adrenalin.  Our guide would spot a crocodile, approach the crocodile, and we'd see it skitter.  They truly didn't think much of us - one even indulged our terrible tourist appetites with an exhibition of the famous crocodile gallop - standing up on his hind legs and galloping across half a league of sand-flat into the water at 10 miles an hour.
            As we puttered downstream, it grew dark, and the crocodiles on the banks and branches blurred into the trunks and as the light faded, disappeared altogether.  Like Alice's Cheshire Cat with it's smile left till last, the crocodiles were dark smears on a dark night - and two ruby lamps, one in each eye, shining in the dark.
            We came ashore with torches.  Rough tables and chairs were waiting on the sandbank.  Our guides lit a campfire and offered us champagne. I stepped in a tin bucket in the dark.  Clang!  My torch went wide and I landed on one knee. Our guides set a table with bottles of wine - incongruously, a South Australian Chardonnay. From Adelaide, our town. And a crocodile came ashore and waddled right up to us, and he was large.
            "Who wants what?" Our guide called out.  "White or red?"
            "We really don't have an answer for you right now." Thea clutched the sproglet to her chest. She laughed, nervously. "There's  - um - there's a very big crocodile about two feet from my feet. And,  um - ?"
            "Is that so."  He said. He picked up the bucket I'd stepped in, and pulled out a steak. "He's been coming here at dinner time for about six years now, I reckon." He said.  He hefted the steak in his left hand, and the crocodile unhinged his jaw and exposed about a meter and a half of pink gullet. The guide flipped the steak into the crocodile's mouth.
            "He's a good boy."  He said fondly.

Cruising back upstream in the dark, we played at looking for crocodiles, shining our flashlights across the water and watching for eye-shine.  Crocodile eyes glow red, like coals, like rubies.  They sparkled in the water and on the banks, between tree-roots and under fallen logs.  Fish swam in circles in our torch beams and turtles came up to the surface, gulping at our light.  Their eyes glittered yellow. We whispered softly, and watched the night.

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