Tuesday, July 23, 2024

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HomeIssue 1Close shaves in the Top End

Close shaves in the Top End

p1938-Larapinta-Peter-LatBy PETER LATZ 
After I left Mt Riddock station I did a stint as a builder’s labourer in Alice Springs, until I got a job as a government-employed stock inspector, and in April 1962 was transferred to Darwin. I was given the grand title of Stock Inspector Buffaloes and was sent out to a small government reserve on Marraki Station, 70 kilometres south-east of Darwin.
My job, supervised by veterinary surgeons from Darwin, was to try and pass on pleuro-pneumonia, a nasty cattle disease, to a small herd of half-grown semi-feral buffaloes. There was no way I could have carried out this job without the help of Colin, my assistant. I was new to this very different country, but Colin was born and bred there, and was a superb bushman. Of mixed Aboriginal and Timorese descent, he had spent his childhood in the bush (minus his father), and as a result had minimal education, at least in whiteman ways.
This job involved adventure galore, especially for a keen young desert bushman. Our first task was to go out into the scrub and catch us some wild buffaloes. We scrub-dashed our way through the thick bush and tall grass until we came across a herd, and then picking out a half grown one, chased it helter-pelter though the bush until it became winded.
One of us then jumped off the Landrover, grabbed the beast by the tail and up-ended it. After tying its legs with straps, the hardest job was getting this heavy animal into the back of our vehicle. Colin was an expert at this whole procedure, but being heavier and stronger, I soon caught up with him. We ended up being a good team, and soon became expert buffalo catchers.
Eventually, if we came across a mob with two suitable animals, Colin would leave me to throw one animal and then take off by himself to catch the second animal. The only trouble with this was that mother buffaloes are very protective of their offspring, and they would often come back to try to help them. Several times I spent many anxious minutes sitting on my captured animal while mum threatened me with her meter-wide, sharp tipped horns, until Colin came back and chased her away with the Landrover.
Another one of my tasks was searching for exotic diseases in wild pigs. To do this we shot them in the wild and then I cut them up to see what we could find (a detailed post mortem). Colin was an excellent shot and not many pigs got away from us. We both soon got a bit sick of shooting these animals, too easy with a good rifle.
Pigs can take off very quickly for the first hundred meters or so, but they soon run out of wind. To give the pigs a sporting chance we often took after them on foot, and if we could keep them in sight, they would soon stop running, and then challenge us with their dangerous tusks. We would then kick them in the face, jump on their back and stab them to death with a nice sharp knife. A rather cruel practice, but this was Australia’s ‘Wild West’ and we hated pigs with a deep hate. They not only polluted the waterholes, but they also dug up the countryside (making for rough scrub-dashing) and spread diseases among the other animals.
Colin and I got on rather well during my first year as Stock Inspector Buffaloes, but in the second year we ran into trouble. We had to take blood from our buffalo captives every Friday and then get these perishable samples into town as soon as possible. This Friday we had also branded our animals, with a fire-heated branding iron. Before I left to get our blood samples into the fridge I asked Colin to feed the animals and put out the branding fire. We then took off to Darwin, returning late that night.
We were both horrified to find that a bushfire had started and burnt down half the yard and injured some of the buffaloes. Colin had forgotten to put out the branding fire! The trouble was that I was the boss, and therefore I was responsible, and ended up with a ‘black mark against my name’.
The second problem involved our fresh meat supply. There were thousands of wild buffaloes around at that time, and because we were on a government lease, albeit in the middle of Marraki Station, there was no problem with us using local buffs for meat. Unfortunately however, one of our bosses in Darwin, who was Colin’s most-favourite person, didn’t like eating buff meat. He had a large family and depended on Colin supplying him with bush meat – but it had to be cow meat.
This meant we had to scour a lot of Marraki land, to find one of the few cows that survived on the place. It’s true that these cows weren’t branded, and therefore, in theory belonged to the Crown; nevertheless what we were doing was not kosher. I loved buff meat and hated to be involved in a semi-illegal practice, just to please Colin’s mate.
It’s true that I was not a good boss, being unforgiving of other people’s mistakes, amongst other bad traits. Even so I was totally unaware of problems simmering under the surface. It all came to a head one fateful weekend. Both Colin and I had friends visiting from town. Mine had brought out a flagon of wine, but Colin’s mates brought no grog as they were well aware of his problems with handling alcohol – something I was blissfully unaware of.
During the afternoon my mates and I left the others behind to go out and shoot some pigs. Unbeknown to us, and to his mates, Colin got hold of our wine flagon, emptied half of it into another bottle and then refilled our bottle with cold tea.
Early that night, after we had eaten our supper, my mates and I were sitting around drinking our diluted wine, wondering why it tasted so bad. Suddenly, with no warning, Colin, drunk as a skunk, burst into our circle and started to abuse me. I tried to calm him down with no success, and next minute he was back with a knife, and proceeded to threaten me with it.
“Don’t be silly Colin,” I said, and calmly wrestled it off him.
His mates tried to calm him down, to no avail, and next minute he was back with our rifle.
“Come on Colin,” I said, “give me that.”
I stepped forward to take it off him. Next minute there was a bullet between my legs, and I realised that he was serious. I consider myself to be pretty tough, but it’s surprising how quickly a bullet between your legs can turn you into a coward. So I took off into the darkness, while Colin shot bullets into the air and shouted abuse.
Eventually his mates disarmed him, and things calmed down. Next morning his mates told me that they were most worried when Colin threatened me with the knife, as he had apparently cut people while drunk in the past.
Sadly Colin got the sack, and later, in a similar incident, ended up fatally shooting himself. Even now, I often wonder if I had handled things differently, would Colin still be alive now. His mates told me that, right at the start of the incident, the best thing I could have done, was to have knocked him out with a good punch to his jaw.
I had very little contact with Top End bush Aborigines during my time as a Stock Inspector, for two main reasons. Firstly, my work gave me very little direct contact with them, and secondly, it was just not considered to be the done thing for people in my profession to mix with ‘ignorant savages’. In that part of the world, at that particular time, I was enough of an outcast already, because getting drunk appeared to be most of my work-mates favourite pastime, and I drank very little. There is little doubt that mixing with ‘blackfellows’ would have really buggered up my career.
Nevertheless, the traditional people I came across impressed me greatly, especially the old blokes who had been buffalo shooters in the past. (Tom Cole describes these people very well, especially in his book Hell West and Crooked).
Top End people were different from those I knew from The Centre, being much more ‘worldly wise’. After all they had had a long background of dealing with outsiders, first the Chinese and then the Macassans – some of them had even been to Indonesia and back well before us whites appeared on the scene.
Peter Pan Que, a man of mixed Aboriginal and Chinese descent, impressed me greatly. At that time he was an assistant to Don Tollach, a scientist who was conducting research on buffaloes. Peter is one of the best bushman I have ever had the pleasure to meet, and Don relied on him for much of his research. At this time, Don was considered to be the world expert on feral Australian buffaloes, but I consider that Peter knew more about these animals than Don did. Of course in those days, it was perfectly okay for the boss to take all the credit.
In my last year as a stock inspector, I spent several months as an assistant to the resident stock inspector at Elliott (half way between Alice and Darwin), where we attended to the very last of the big droving mobs to go on to the railhead at Mt. Isa.
While at Elliott I became friendly with a lovely old Aboriginal man who worked part-time as a gardener and general handy man at the stock inspector’s house. He guided me several kilometres north of the town to proudly show me a bush potato, an important food plant for him in the past. I didn’t know it at the time, but that particular population was one of the northern-most occurrences of a plant that, later in my life, I was to have a lot to do with.
The highlight of my three years as a Top End stock inspector was the last three months, which I spent as a meat inspector at Cannon Hills in a rough bush camp near the middle of what is now Kakadu National Park. In those days it was the back-of-beyond – in fact I was the first person to drive a conventional vehicle on the rough bush track to the escarpment, a route which has now become the tarred Arnhem Highway.
I spent every spare moment exploring the area. Never before had I seen so much wildlife, and I also discovered prolific cave paintings on almost every exposed rock face. A couple of Aborigines from the nearby Oenpelli Mission visited occasionally, to help at the portable abattoir and the sound of their didgeridoos at night added to the unique atmosphere.
By this time I had become a devoted reptile enthusiast, and for this and other reasons was offered a job studying Top End crocodiles, as long as I first went off to university and got myself a degree.
So I did just that, and while struggling to get my degree, I spent my summer holidays working back in the Alice. There I was fortunate enough to get to know another reptile enthusiast (or mad snake-charmer), Dave Linder. He was employed as an assistant to theGovernment Zoologist, but was considered as a bit of an outcast, as he was married to one of my tribal cousins, an Aranda woman from Santa Teresa, 80 kilometres south-east of the Alice.
He had fallen in love with the Tanami Desert, which at that time was the largest Wildlife Sanctuary in the world, and wanted nothing more than to be the first resident ranger. Dave broke every rule in the Public Service regulations by taking several of his wife’s relatives out to the Tanami, to help him with his wildlife surveys of the area. He was way ahead of his time, being aware of the considerable assistance Aborigines could offer on biological surveys, given their everyday acquaintance with the desert’s flora and fauna. Actually Dave was only following in the footsteps of the eminent zoologist Hedley Herbert Finlayson, who 40 years before, had come to the same conclusions.
MORE next week.
For earlier instalments see:
Part 1: Tomcat and Turpentine Bush: adventures in the Tanami 
Part 2: Being a cowboy: not all it’s made out to be



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