June 2007

The Nation Reviewed

Crocodile fears

By Kate Rossmanith
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In March last year, days before Cyclone Larry tore through Far North Queensland levelling towns and banana crops, a Port Douglas man found a 2.5-metre saltwater crocodile in his garage. It took six rangers from the wildlife park to rope the disoriented animal and return it to its nearby home. Residents and crocodiles have shared the narrow six-kilometre strip that is Port Douglas for over a century. On the beaches, on the primly trimmed golf courses of swish resorts, in lakes and creeks - in suburbia - Crocodylus porosus, the world's largest reptile, happily lives and breeds. You get used to them, locals say.

The story of the man, the croc and the garage is told by a plump, pretty ranger at the Port Douglas Rainforest Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary. I'm part of a group of tourists drawn in by a plain white sign: Next experience: crocodile. The ranger stands behind a low partition. She's wearing khaki shorts and gold earrings, and she clutches a freshwater croc called Fred. "We had a bit of a roll around before I could catch him. I used a rake and a lot of confidence. I shake every time," she says. Fred listens as the ranger delivers rehearsed facts about crocs, and on cue he puffs himself up, as if the dragon serrations along his back and the frilled, sweeping tail weren't enough. His jaw is taped shut by a thin strip of clear sticky tape.

Crocodiles look prehistoric because they are. Related to dinosaurs, they once shared the world with them, 230 million years ago. ‘Salties', I'm told by the ranger, have short snouts, with their teeth exposed, and can grow to be six metres long. "We've learnt to cohabit with them. We don't swim where we shouldn't. We don't approach them. They'll only lash out when they're breeding," she says.

Danger: estuarine crocodiles inhabit these waters, read the signs around town, but the 5000-odd locals don't need reminding. There's a shared knowledge about how and where to move about. "We keep our kids away from the water," Aaron, a young father, tells me. It's the morning assembly at Port Douglas Primary School and his six-year-old daughter, May, is one of a hundred children being led through a Wiggles rendition of ‘Advance Australia Fair'. A second-grader presents her essay about the Great Barrier Reef; behind her, cut-out fish and marine life crowd the ceilings and walls of the classrooms. Outside, May studies the swollen, translucent green ants on the playground seats. "You can eat their bums," she whispers to me. "You can pull their butts off and eat them. My friend did, and she's still alive."

Originally from Sydney's western suburbs, Aaron moved north with his wife and two little girls, seeking steamy weather and a quiet life. "We've never seen a croc in the wild, but we always expect to," he says. This expectation, this awareness, pulses away in the background of their lives. The family live in a weatherboard house near the ocean, with an unmanageable lawn that erupts in a lush fury after a drop of rain. "It's not always a conscious thing, but on some level we're always listening out for our dog's bark. Salties have been found in people's backyards," says Aaron, locking the gate to his property. His kids know to look out for still ‘logs' in the distance. They won't walk on the beach at dusk, for fear a croc could launch itself onto the sand and, in a gigantic swirl, they'd vanish.

The town's crocodile-danger signs are there for the 1.2 million tourists who visit the area each year. They come for the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, "and they come hoping to bump into a celebrity," a man from Port Douglas Daintree Tourism tells me. "We've had Paul Keating, Bill Clinton, Helmut Schmidt, the Saudi royal family, Kylie Minogue, Kate Hudson and many other personalities visit," he says. In 1987, when Christopher Skase purchased 142 hectares of seaside property here from the Bjelke-Petersen government and proceeded to build his all-in-one Mirage Resort, he could never have known that 20 years later there'd be crocodiles living at the 11th hole of the golf course. Visitors play the shot quickly.

Backpack-wearing tourists are encumbered with an uncomfortable checklist during an otherwise stress-free holiday. Don't swim here. Don't walk there. Move away quickly. For locals, though, the knowledge is so ingrained that it doesn't feel like knowledge at all. For Aaron's family, it feels natural to stay metres away from the water's edge and to dissuade the dog from wandering. For Port Douglas residents, the presence of crocodiles is incorporated into the way they move around: as the philosopher Edward Casey puts it, the place has become embedded in them.

But the peculiarities of the place also affect how locals think of themselves in the world. Living with large predators reminds them, however faintly, that they could be prey, that they could be food. For parents and children, for hotel employees and hospitality workers, for tour co-ordinators and public servants, the knowledge that they are merely animals positioned in the food chain shimmers in and out of their consciousness. "We could be gobbled up by a big crocodile," May tells me, her face scrunched. Just as she knows she can eat the green ants, she knows she herself can be eaten. It is no childish nightmare.

The notion of ourselves as food is a radical departure from what we think we are and how we fit into our environment. "Human identity positions humans outside and above the food chain, not as part of the feast in a chain of reciprocity but as external manipulators and masters of it," writes the Australian academic Val Plumwood. She survived a crocodile attack at Kakadu in 1985, during which she was ‘death-rolled' three times and had fleshy chunks ripped from her thighs. It altered completely the way she saw herself: "I glimpsed a shockingly indifferent world in which I had no more significance than any other edible being," she observes.

At the wildlife sanctuary we're allowed to pat Fred, so two German couples, a Japanese family, some curious out-of-towners and I crowd around the compliant croc. My fingers skim his back. He feels cold, but he also feels familiar. "The bumps on his body are osteoderm, the same stuff as our fingernails," says the ranger. Despite their appearance, the ridges on Fred's back aren't rough or spiky. They're rubbery and organic, and they feel good to touch. I rest my hand on him, palm open, skin on skin.

Kate Rossmanith
Kate Rossmanith is a non-fiction writer and lecturer in cultural studies at Macquarie University. She has been published in Best Australian Essays 2007.

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