I’m alone on the boat here this evening, Abraham is off somewhere. I’ve been lucky to have him as a companion. When you take up residence on a small boat with a stranger there’s always a fear that it won’t work out. But he’s been a great shipmate.
Anyhow, it’s bucketing down rain here, a frog-strangler. The muddy water is pouring out of the creek mouth just in front of the boat, leaving a brown section next to the blue … and the muddy water’s got me thinking about crocodiles.
Australia, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands are all home to salt-water crocs. Their name doesn’t mean that they just live in the ocean, oh, no. These saurians are perfectly happy to eat you wherever they might find you, fresh water or salt.
Now, let me start with a story about my mad mate Phil Palmer, rest his soul. Sailors have a saying, “He’d drink the alcohol out of the compass”, because ships compasses are damped by filling them with alcohol. Well, in Phil’s case it wasn’t just a saying … I’ve told this story before but it’s worth retelling.
I got to know Phil pretty well back in the ’80s, we both lived on a small island in the middle of nowhere. You get to know people in that situation, he was a good man. It was about that time that a young crocodile, not a baby but a young adult, started coming on to the island at night and prowling around folks houses … scary stuff, they are frightening creatures. They had been hunted for years in the Solomons, but the hunting was made illegal not long after I’d arrived … and by that time, they were back in full and terrifying force.
One day I read in the local newspaper, some white guy from Sydney or somewhere wrote a letter complaining about how people were being krool to the poor Solomons crocodiles and killing them. Yeah, right, I thought, he’s visualizing the crocodile in “Peter Pan” … the next week a monster croc came out of the ocean at a local “toilet beach” about a mile from where I lived, and grabbed a local woman by putting her whole head in its jaws, and started dragging her back into the ocean. She screamed and twisted and fought and finally escaped, at the cost of a hundred stitches to her scalp and neck and face …
Who’s ahead now in the race between the saurians and the hairless apes like me? Well, these days people in the flatlands are terrified of the floods during the rainy season. It’s one thing to have the floodwaters rise around your leaf house … it’s quite another to have that same floodwater carry a 10 or 14-foot (three-four metre) monster crocodile down the main path through your village and right up to the doorstep of your leaf house where you are sheltering from the rain, where it looks in the door and smiles, and you don’t have a gun ’cause it’s against the law, and with a crocodile there is no Plan B, it’s gun or run … well, it makes wading for higher ground a life-threatening excursion. I’d say the crocodiles are ahead at the moment.
So when a small crocodile started coming onto the island at night and inviting the local dogs to dinner, we knew we had to get rid of it. Phil said he knew the brilliant plan.
I said I hoped the brilliant plan didn’t involve dynamite, because local legend had it that Phil and his two brothers had been out one time, shooting crocodiles to make money from the skins back when it was legal. For a lark, the story went, the boys decided to use up some dynamite they had. They saw a croc, stuck the dynamite in a fish-head, lit the fuse, and tossed it to the croc … who promptly ate it down and swam over to see if the boys had any more goodies to eat. The dynamite, according to legend, went off just when the crocodile was going under the boy’s boat, dumping the three of them into the ocean.
Phil said no, no, no, way, it didn’t happen like that at all, he knew because he’d seen it with his own eyes, and besides he wasn’t there that day, that was just a rumor put about by his enemies, plus, he said, the crocodile wasn’t all that close to the boat when it blew up, and anyhow it hadn’t actually tipped over the boat, just rocked it some … which didn’t exactly reduce my apprehension about his new brilliant plan …
When he explained his brilliant plan, though, there wasn’t a trace of dynamite in it anywhere, which in my world is generally a plus. Phil said, and he would know, that crocodiles love turtle meat more than just about anything. So the next time someone from the island caught a turtle, when they cleaned it I should bring the scraps and the shell and put them on the shore, and toss a bit into the water nearby to fetch the crocodile. Then when he showed up and came out of the water, Phil would take his old .22 rifle, and I’d take his old clapped out 16-gauge shotgun, and we’d kill the croc.
Given the state of his Phil’s eyes, and the thickness of the coke-bottle-bottom glasses he always wore, I figured I’d do most of the shooting. And it actually turned out that way, although not exactly how I figured. Phil and I waited after dark in a small skiff in the lagoon with a flashlight, just offshore of where we’d put the turtle guts and shell. Sure enough, about eleven o’clock, here comes Mister Clampjaw, quiet, just his eyeballs and nostrils showing above the water. We drifted in behind him, equally quietly, to cut off his escape route once he’d climbed on shore. When he was up there eating turtle guts, me’n Phil made the count, 1-2-3. and then we started shooting. I blew off two rounds, and Phil shot one … and we both missed.
The croc ran for the water in that curious long-legged way they have, with his body lifted off the ground and sprinting toward us and the lagoon. You’d think they’d go on their bellies, but noooo, they stand up and sprint at a rate of knots. Terrifying. I had a pump shotgun, and Phil’s .22 was a bolt-action, so I snapped off two more shots just as the croc got to the water, with Phil’s second shot close behind mine. The crocodile slowed in the water and stopped moving …
The odd part was, when we hauled him into shore, he had been hit just once … a single .22 bullet right into his walnut-sized brain. Other than that, there wasn’t a mark on the crocodile, and in particular no evidence of a shotgun wound … Phil just laughed, that long easy laugh of his, and said it took practice. I had to agree, since up until that night, shooting at crocodiles was something that had completely passed me by.
My dear lady cooked up the crocodile. I hate to kill something and then waste the meat. It did actually taste kinda like chicken … if a chicken were to live under the ocean, say, and never brushed its teeth, and did pushups all day long. The meat was tough, with a briny taste, not bad, but redolent of the sea … some of the locals wouldn’t eat it because the croc was small, only about seven feet long.
And that is indeed small, the fully-grown males typically are over 4 metres [13 feet] long, and weigh about a half tonne [a thousand pounds]) … and they grow to over 20 feet (6m) long. Phil never let me forget it was his bullet put the croc down, coke-bottle thick glasses and all … and deservedly so. I did do most of the shooting like I figured … I just didn’t do any of the hitting.
But that’s not the story I started out to tell. To get into the mood for this story, you’ve got to imagine my friends and I sitting around a campfire at dusk, and Mike says to Peter, “Tell Willis the story of your sister and the crocodile” …
In Pijin it started like this: “Iu no save long sista blong me, bat time bifoa hemi gatem bus gaden lo Niu Giogia Ailan” … “You no save (know) sister belong me, but time before (once) him got’m bush garden long (on) New Georgia Island” … the night deepened. Peter’s from the West, black as coal, his face was swallowed by darkness, but his voice rolled on. I’ll tell the story in English, although it loses some of the Island flavor, so I’ll keep a little of the Pijin in it …
So, Peter said, she used to take her small dugout canoe and paddle upriver. Now, her garden was “farawei lelebit, might sikis mail”, far away little bit, might six mile. Every day she’d leave the logging camp where she stored her canoe, paddle up there with just her digging stick, and work in her garden.
And since we’re all kicked back by the campfire and time is of no account here in the Solos, let me digress and say that a “digging stick” is what you use when you don’t have the money to buy a steel tool. I couldn’t find a picture of one from the Solomons, but here’re two from Australia, pretty much same-same around the world.
So, Peter continued, one day she got into her canoe and paddled up to her bush garden. The kumara roots were ready to harvest, so she picked some to take home with her.
… the campfire sparks and flares, and the only thing I can see of Peter are his shining, smiling eyes … his voice rolls on …
She wanted to wash the kumara, he continued, so she went back to the river. A tree had fallen in, which gave her access without stepping into the mud. So she walked out on the tree and started washing, washing, washing …
And without warning, the head of a huge crocodile emerged from the river and clamped down on her forearm.
“Wat nao hemi duim”, we asked “What now him do?”
He said “Sista blong me, hemi strong fogud. Hemi faitim, faitim” … “Sister belong me, him he strong for good. Him he fight’m, fight’m” … she grabbed onto the tree with one hand to keep from being pulled into the river and killed. The croc pulled hard, she held fast, clinging to the branch, and pulled harder, fighting to not go in the water, fighting to stay alive …
… then, Peter said softly, almost in a whisper, “krok hemi roll olabout”, “croc him he roll all about”, the crocodile did a “death roll” where they twist over and over in the water … and he tore her arm off at the elbow.
My mouth fell open in shock. “Wat nao hemi duim”, we all wanted to know. The night, the fire, the warm wind, it all disappeared in an instant, replaced by the ghastly image of a young woman clinging to a fallen tree over a river with her arm torn off …
“Mi askim saim samting”, he said, “Me ask’m same something”.
“Hemi talem me ‘Me offim siut blong me, an me taim long arm blong me'”, which is:
“Him he tell’m me, ‘Me off him shirt belong me, and me tie’m long (around) arm blong me”.
Dear heavens, she wrapped her shirt around the stump of her arm, and with one hand and her teeth she pulled it tight enough to stop the bleeding … we all sat in silent awe, staring at the flames and contemplating her indomitable spirit.
“Wat nao hemi duim nex?” someone asked.
Peter said “Hemi talem me, ‘Mi tekim tufala Panadol'” … all we could do was shake our heads in true respect. She took two Panadol, which is the local trade name for Tylenol, and that was all she had for the pain …
Then, Peter continued, she got back in the canoe and half paddled, half drifted the six miles back to the logging camp where her canoe was stored. There she collapsed, and the logging company radioed for a helicopter that came and evacuated her to the hospital.
His voice trailed off … the only sound was the dying fire falling in on itself. For the longest time, no one said anything.
“Hemi long wea nao?”, someone finally asked, “Him he long where now?”
Oh, Peter said, brightening up, she’s still living there, and still working in her bush garden. Someone made her a digging stick with a place for her foot so that she could still push it into the ground. She gets along fine, he said, she always figures out some way to get done what she wants to do, even though she has only one arm.
I was reduced to mumbling and shaking my head …
Now, I tell this story for two reasons. One is to remind myself and others of the strength and determination inherent in humans in general, in women in particular, and in one young Solomons woman in specific. Her story serves as a true inspiration for us all.
And the other reason?
It’s because ever since then, whenever things go particularly wrong for me, whenever Murphy says I’m breaking his Law and I end up paying for it, when things are at their bleakest, when I’m in pain, I just say to myself “O, ating mi nidim tufala Panadol nao”, “O, I think me need’m two fellow Panadol now”, and things suddenly brighten up and my sense of perspective is restored.
Night coming on here, I’ll post this and walk into town. The rain has let up some, the sun is peeking through the clouds, I need to stretch my legs. There’s another tanktainer delivery tonight, always more to see.
And for you all, thanks for coming to sit round the campfire, and remember, when it looks like it can’t be fixed, that it’s more than we can bear … there’s always tufela Panadol to make everything all right …