Nota Kaki: Again, my own reference rather than your normal reading tid bits.
It's "the Wet" in Australia's Northern Territory, which means tropical cyclones, monsoon rains and stifling humidity. Out in the bush, 80km south-west of Darwin, heavy rainfall turns the red earth to mud and swells the Finniss river, partially submerging the trees along its banks and flooding the whole area. It was at this same time of year, and in similar conditions, in December 2003, that friends Ashley McGough, Brett Mann and Shaun Blowers came to a spot near the Kangaroo Flats to race their quad bikes. Their day out was to end in unforgettable horror when a crocodile killed Brett, then returned to circle relentlessly beneath a tree in which the other two had taken refuge.
Crocodiles have killed about a dozen people, locals and tourists, across northern Australia in the past 20 years. Many attacks are attributed to people ignoring no-swimming rules. But in this case, says Sergeant Garry Casey, who was in charge of the rescue effort that day, the boys were just unlucky. "They were in a spot they knew well and where they had never seen a crocodile before," he says. "They weren't being reckless or doing anything stupid. It was simply bad luck."
Four years on, the survivors are getting on with their lives, shielded by family and friends. After a couple of brief statements and a press conference at which the boys, pale and visibly shaken, paid tribute to their mate, none of those involved directly, or indirectly, has since spoken about the tragedy. Crocodile attacks in the Top End of Australia are not uncommon. But there was something in the boys' ordeal that ensured that their story continues to resonate. The events at Finniss river have sparked two killer croc films - Rogue, released in Australia last year, and the forthcoming Black Water, released next month. The latter claims to be "based on true events", but both are essentially monster movies. For horror, neither comes close to the factual account of the boys' experience.
On Sunday, December 21 2003, Brett, 22, and his two friends, both 19, left their homes at 11.40am, arriving an hour later at their usual racing area, south-west of the Kangaroo Flats and on the edge of Litchfield National Park. They often drove out to this spot, past the Tumbling Waters Holiday Park and down dusty gravel roads, passing through a landscape of eucalypt trees, pandanus palms, mangrove trees and giant termite mounds, until they reached flat salt plains - it's an ideal place for mucking about on quad bikes. Shaun later said he knew the area like the back of his hand because he had been camping there with his family since he was five and had "never, ever" seen signs of a crocodile. The trio spent a raucous, enjoyable day, spraying each other with mud as they roared around on the bikes. At 4.30pm, they went down to the river, to a spot 200 metres downstream from Walkers Ford, parked their bikes just up from the bank, and began to wash their clothes and boots, which were covered in sand and mud. They had noted that the water was fairly high; they thought this was normal for the time of year, but did not realise how much the river was in flood and that a strong tide was coming in.
Shaun's police statement detailed what happened next: "The three of us walked into the water among some stringy trees. The water was running a little bit at this spot... and Brett went out a little farther and was washed away. I don't know if he lost his footing or the current was a bit strong for him. After we saw Brett washed away, both Ashley and I went out after him. Ashley and I caught up to Brett and we both got in front of him as we went with the flow. I was in front, Ashley was next and Brett was at the rear. We were all within arms' reach of each other. It probably took us about 300 metres to catch up with Brett and then we began to look for a place to get out of the river. We all spoke to each other to check that we were all right. There was no real panic at this stage."
The three young men, caught in the current, travelled for 700m-1km as they looked for a way to get back to dry land. Shaun's police statement recounts the next part of the story: "Ashley yelled out, 'Croc, croc, I'm not joking, there's a fucking croc. Head for a tree, get out of the water.' I didn't see a croc, but swam to the nearest tree and climbed up into the first fork. I helped pull Ashley up into the same tree. We looked around for Brett and called his name out. I didn't see Brett anywhere or hear him call out. I didn't hear a call or a splash or anything. It wasn't very long after we got into the tree, maybe two minutes later, that I saw a croc pop up with Brett in his jaws. Brett wasn't moving, he was lying face down in the water and the croc was gripping him by the left shoulder. I know it was Brett because he was wearing his O'Neill riding gear, which was mainly yellow with black and white stripes. The croc was only about five metres away from us at the time. It was only a couple of minutes that the croc remained looking around at us. It went under the water with Brett and swam away. I did not see Brett again."
The two survivors described the crocodile as "big, black and aggressive" and around four metres long. Five minutes later, it returned and remained at the foot of the tree, bobbing up intermittently. The traumatised teenagers spent the night in the tree, keeping each other awake. Shaun was in the second fork of the tree, Ashley in the third. Just on nightfall, Shaun tried to move higher up and, in a heart-stopping moment, fell into the water. Terrified, he scrambled out again within seconds.
As night closed around them and the temperature dropped, Ashley moved down to the second fork so the two friends could huddle together and try to keep warm. Throughout the long night they didn't say much, apart from checking the other was all right. "Because we couldn't see each other, because it was dark, I had my hand on Ashley's foot," Shaun said later. "Whenever we moved, we'd say, 'I'm moving', and just check in on each other and make sure we weren't going to sleep. We were worn out from hanging on to the little tree. The tree was swaying all night because there was a lot of wind and rain."
The boys had been due to return home at 7.30pm that evening and when they didn't show up, friends went to look for them. They found the boys' abandoned car and empty trailer. By first light the alarm had been raised and search parties from the Marine and Fisheries Enforcement Section and the Territory Response Section made their way to the area. The search was difficult because of the rugged terrain, flooding and poor weather, but at about 10am Ashley and Shaun heard the shouts of family friend Wayne Mitchell, who was with police officers. They were on dry land and could not see the boys, but they could hear them. Shaun yelled back in their direction, telling them what had happened and warning them not to enter the water. He could still see the crocodile. The boys remained clinging weakly to the tree.
Sgt Glenn McPhee, an experienced police officer, was one of the team involved in rescuing the teenagers. "At about 7am we'd got the heads up that the kids were overdue," he says. "A million things could have happened to them - they could have been trapped by the flood waters, their bikes or their car could have got buried in mud, or they'd got lost in the bush. I don't think any of us thought it would be more serious than that."
As news came through of what had actually taken place, and Shaun and Ashley's precarious position was relayed back to police headquarters, it became clear they had to be rescued quickly. The river, normally a small channel about 10 metres wide, had flooded so much it was now at least 5km wide and the water level was still rising. Telling the boys to get out of the tree and swim towards the rescuers on dry land was out of the question. "We couldn't get a boat to them or bring one in because it would have taken too long," McPhee says." The weather was bad and we were conscious that the boys were distressed and probably hypothermic."
Bristow Helicopters usually flies work crew to Timor Sea oil rigs, but the firm can also be deployed for rescues around the territory, so when police called it offered one of its 15-seat Super Puma choppers. A six-man crew - pilot Captain Wayne Silby, senior first officer Max Neill-Gordon, winch operator Gordon McRae, wireman Milton Ellis, paramedic Michael McKay and McPhee - flew to the scene as mist closed in and drizzle came down, reducing visibility.
"We came into a hover above the tree with the intention of winching down to pick up the boys," McPhee says. "They were perched up in the forks and acknowledged us, but it was a pretty flimsy, dead tree, maybe a paperbark."
The downdraught of the rotor blades, equal to about 150-200km an hour, broke off the top branch and it fell into the water. "We aborted straight away because we were fearful we might blow the boys into the water or the tree would break up even more."
There was a marine life raft on board and it was decided that McPhee and Ellis would use that to rescue the teenagers. There was a tiny island in the middle of the river about 100 metres from Shaun and Ashley's tree, and the men were lowered down to it, where they inflated the raft. McPhee laughs as he remembers the moment they found out there were no oars and had to improvise using rubber flippers left from someone's diving gear. "We started paddling for all we were worth, but the current was pushing us the wrong way. The air crew saw what was happening and positioned the 'copter so that the downdraught blew us in the right direction."
The men had to augment their paddling by grabbing at vegetation to pull themselves along, always conscious that their small craft could itself be overturned by the force of the downdraught. "We knew we were sitting in a flimsy bit of rubber with the croc still out there, and that it was a big one and we were in its territory, but we were just focused on getting the job done," McPhee says. "We got up to the boys and said, 'Right, this is what you're going to do. Get yourself balanced and each of you is going to jump out of the tree and into the boat.' They hesitated - they were scared to move - and we had to persuade them a little bit, but they did it and we started to row back against the current."
McPhee believes the noise of the helicopter had by now scared off the crocodile, but it was still an anxious journey as the heavily laden boat crossed back to the little island. He says the boys were dazed, cold and wet, but in good shape considering what they had been through. In the dinghy the atmosphere was tense. "There was bugger all dialogue - we were committed to getting back safely," McPhee says. When they made it to dry land, all four were winched to safety. By 3pm the teenagers were back in Darwin and taken to hospital. They were both in good physical condition but deeply upset by the death of their friend. At a press conference two days later, Shaun said of the 22-year-old mechanic, "He was a quiet sort of fella, the best bloke I've ever really known."
For days afterwards, even on Christmas Day, searchers went back to the river in a futile attempt to track down the crocodile and retrieve Brett's body. Persistent rain, the aftermath of Cyclone Debbie, saw the flooded river rise by another two metres and become congested with floating debris as trees broke up and were swept out to sea. At times, it was too dangerous to search by boat, but helicopters flew over the area daily. As soon as the weather cleared, the ground searches recommenced. A week after the attack, a Parks and Wildlife Service ranger shot a 3.8 metre crocodile not far from the spot where Brett had been taken. The crocodile submerged, apparently dead, but its body failed to surface in the days afterwards. No one can be sure it was the killer as its stomach contents could not be examined. Neither the body of the 22-year-old nor any items of his clothing have been found.
In an interview with the local paper, Northern Territory News, Brett's parents, Jeff and Christine Mann, said they had encouraged Brett and his brother, Ben, to enjoy the outdoors and that the three friends were well aware of the potential danger of crocodiles. There was "no blame, no reason, no excuse. It was just one of those things... wrong day, wrong time," Jeff said. Emotions ran high among young people in the community, however, with Shaun's sister, Melissa, writing to the newspaper angrily: "I personally want this croc as a handbag."
The tragedy reopened a debate about culling. Many people in the area believe that there are too many crocodiles in the Northern Territory and that the reptiles, which used to be fearful of men when they were hunted, are now quite brazen. Culling does take place in a limited manner - crocodiles involved in fatal attacks are almost always killed - and in 2006 the local government considered allowing controlled hunting before eventually deciding against it.
Until any cull takes place, the crocodiles will continue to thrive. There are an estimated 70,000 now living in this part of Australia, their numbers having recovered dramatically since the 70s, when commercial hunting left only 3,000 in the wild. They are now a protected species and have become a major tourist attraction. Hiding half-submerged at the water's edge or sunning themselves on mud banks, they are a sinister presence, but an encounter with one - at a safe distance - has become a vital part of the Northern Territory experience. A study by Charles Darwin University found that crocodile attacks have even been shown to boost visitor numbers - lecturer Pascal Tremblay says bookings to the Northern Territory from Germany rose in the two years after a German tourist was killed by a saltwater croc in 2002. Crocodile farms, where the animals are bred for their meat and skins, have been developed alongside crocodile tourism, and the region has pioneered the commercial management of the crocodile population as a way of conserving the species.
Back in the 70s, the Finniss river became notorious among Australian croc-watchers as the home of Sweetheart, a 5.1 metre crocodile famous for taking bites at fishing boats. A real-life version of Jaws, the box-office star of the day, Sweetheart became a legend and its skeleton is preserved in the Darwin museum. Crocodile killings play to our primal dread of wild animals, a fear packaged and exploited by films such as Rogue, with which director Greg Mclean progressed from the outback psycho of his debut movie, Wolf Creek, to that other antipodean horror-staple, the man-eating crocodile. And for audiences the terror is thrilling - that's the point.
There have been three fatal attacks in the Northern Territory since Brett's death; in two the victim was snorkelling in the sea, in the third an eight-year-old girl was snatched and killed by a crocodile as she stood at the edge of the Blythe river. Yet tourists continue to flock to the region. The Jumping Crocodile Cruise, which lets passengers view crocs from the safety of an air-conditioned boat that travels along the Adelaide river, is one of the most popular tours. The reptiles are lured to jump out of the water by pieces of meat dangled on long lines by guides, and as the huge creature snaps at the meat, cameras flash wildly and tourists applaud before the animal disappears back into the brown water. "That's what you came to see, yeah?" says a guide.
In Darwin and the surrounding area, however, it's a different story. "It's something [the boys] will never completely recover from," Sgt Casey says, "but they're doing well and trying to get on with their lives." Now in their mid-20s, Shaun and Ashley still live locally. Shaun works for his family's business and one of his jobs is cleaning swimming pools. He tells customers that if they have any blow-up croc toys in their pools to make sure they are out of sight before he arrives. Ashley took the longest to get over what happened, and is said to be still very affected by the ordeal. Brett's parents are now divorced and both moved away after their son's death. Every year, however, Brett's family, Ashley, Shaun and their friends return to the spot where he died to remember him. "It's a nice occasion, obviously very sombre and emotional," Casey says. "Everybody arrives in their cars and goes down to the river to where he disappeared. Some people say a few words or maybe there's some music. Afterwards we have a barbecue and a couple of drinks in his honour."
McPhee and Ellis were given bravery awards for their parts in the rescue, and the search and rescue teams as a whole were commended by police commissioner Paul White for helping to save Shaun and Ashley's lives, and for their dedication in trying to retrieve Brett's body. "I still hope from time to time that we will find something, even if it is a piece of bone that we can run DNA on," Casey says. "It would be a nice closure for all of us."
Note: The Source.