The filming of Australia the Movie wasn’t the first time Darwin has played host to a bit of World War II storytelling. Peter Russell-Clarke recounts his own tale of dive-bombing planes, fake cows . . . and lightly barbecued crocodile.
Nowadays we eat more crocodiles than crocs eat us. Nevertheless, we humans still have a healthy respect for them. And so no-one ventured onto the pristine sand of the Darwin beach which smiled in an agreeable curve beside the hotel.
The reason was obvious.
The crocodile was absolutely at home on the warm sand. It was the only thing that disturbed the beach, except for the rippling waves, which crept towards the green monster before sighing and sinking into the fine grains of sand.
The crocodile yawned and continued to enjoy its solitude.
So, like other guests of the hotel, I swam in the pool – which was separated from the beach by a tea tree fence. The crocodile wasn’t a paying guest, or even and off duty employee of the hotel. It was a blow in. “We’ve put off the beach volleyball until tomorrow,” our day manager smiled at me. “Unless our visitor can be convinced to vacate early.”
Some small boys who had arrived on bikes threw stones at the sawtooth-backed reptile. It disdainfully ignored them. Even when they tiptoed into the water a couple of cricket pitch lengths further up the beach. They were, however, prudent enough to have one of their number keep cockatoo in case the croc decided to join their fun.
“Wouldn’t want to go a round or two for a pound or two with that bugger,” a distinctly Australian voice drawled from behind me. I was standing on the footpath overlooking the beach, but ready to scamper if the croc so much as swivelled a green eye in my direction. “Run as fast as a bloody horse if they want to, can an adult croc,” added the voice.
My informed friend was a leathery skinned male standing beneath a large stockman’s hat. His trousers weren’t tied below the knees with bowyangs, but they looked as though they should’ve been. His blue workman’s singlet was torn, exposing his navel. A ginger-grey beard hid most of his prune-like face. “If yer buys us a beer I’ll be forever grateful. M’name’s Percy, but they call me The Encyclopaedia, because of my extensive knowledge of Darwin.”
His grin was open and genuine, so I led him into the hotel’s tropical beer garden. I noted that he positioned himself behind a stand of palms. I suppose this was to hide himself from the judgemental eyes of the management. “I only drink beer, unless they’ve got rum to spark it up. Or a brandy even. I hardly ever drink whiskey. Unless I’m thirsty, that is.”
We’d hardly started our first beer and rum chaser (or was it the other way around?) when The Encyclopaedia launched into a potted history of Darwin, in particular the dark days preceding the arrival of World War II onto our shores.
“The Japs came in that way,” he wheezed, waving his arm vaguely towards the water beyond the crocodile. “Mind you, we’d been warned by the priest on Tiwi Island. Rang through from the public phone box. Told us, ‘The Japs are coming! The Japs are coming!’ . . . but our silly buggers ignored him. The planes zoomed all over the place like a swarm of mozzies. Bombed the ships as they wallowed in the docks, just like the buggers did at Pearl Harbor. Shot shit out of everything, then pissed off.”
I’d ordered a platter of barbecued crocodile, topped with sesame seed and sprinkled with chilli-spiked light soy sauce and greened with sprays of coriander. “Ya having a savvy blankie with this lot?” laughed The Encyclopaedia in a deep pitched wheezing bark that made his sun-weathered eyes water. “I ain’t finished my dissertation yet.”
I signalled a hovering waiter as my guest continued. “Course we’d learned our lesson. Whacked down makeshift landing strips in the scrub. Not that the poor buggers in our Wirraways could match the Zeros, but we had to do some bloody thing, eh? Then some bright spark got the CCC (Civil Construction Corp) artist William Dobell to knock up some papier-mâché cows. Black and white, they were. And they dotted them all over Darwin’s flamin’ air field. The idea was to fool the Japs into thinking that the land below was just farms and such, see?
“Now bugger me dead, a flash artist by the name of John Kelly cottoned on to the idea and started making sculptures of his own of black and white cows. Sold ’em too, he did. Made a good quid.” Now, I know this at least to be true because a larger than life black and white Kelly’s rendering of one of Dobell’s original “airfield cows” weighing several tonnes is hanging upside-down in a copper tree at Melbourne’s Docklands waterfront. Whether it confuses Japanese visitors as its predecessors did the attacking airmen is a matter for conjecture.
The Encyclopaedia downed his drink, wiped his lips with the back of his hand, smiled and walked through the gate and out onto the beach. Bold as brass, he strolled up to the somnolent crocodile, pulled out a rubber plug beneath its tail and, with a whoosh of air, the croc collapsed.
A TV camera crew walked onto the beach and set up their cameras and other paraphernalia. Lights hooked up to a generator blasted to life as a beautiful bikini-clad model strolled into shot. “Action!” shouted the director.
I couldn’t hear what the model’s words were, but I did hear The Encyclopaedia as he resumed his seat across the table from me: “My job was to keep the beach clean and clear for the TV ad. Dobell used cows. I employed a crocodile.”