WILD DOG RIVER BY GREG BARRON
In 1973, after a two-year stint as a Nasho – a year of which I served in Vietnam – I first laid eyes on the tiny bronze relic that would wreak havoc on my life. I was back home in Cairns, working as a cadet journalist for the Post. The editor, Brian Grayling, and my late father had been mates, which helped me land the job. Good English marks in high school didn’t hurt either.
Most of the work, even court and racing reports, was interesting enough. I enjoyed putting words together, learning to write like a journalist, and, as Brian put it, ‘developing my style.’ He knew that I spent my weekends setting crab pots, throwing lures for barra or spearfishing, so that when a marine-related story came up he generally passed it on to me.
On one occasion the story involved a trout boat that ran aground off Fitzroy Island, something to do with the bottle of Inner Circle the skipper had drunk between eight pm and midnight. Another time I interviewed a couple of old fellas who misjudged the tide up the Mulgrave and got stranded on a mud bank overnight. I collected fishing reports from gun anglers along the coast and inland to the Tablelands, which I merged into a weekly column called, ‘What’s biting in FNQ!’
When a big assignment came along, I grabbed it with both hands – my first feature article and an interesting trip all in one – a one-hundred-and fifty nautical mile voyage north towards Cape York. I packed a box of my best lures: Nilsmasters and a few Ron Gallo originals from Purcell’s in Spence Street. I only owned a couple of fibreglass rods and I took both, along with a heavy handline and gear for five days.
I was soon steaming north in a clinker-built former crayfish boat called the Naika. This was my first-ever sea trip past Cape Trib and Cooktown. Island groups that had called to me in my dreams passed to seaward, and I would have given my right hand to stop and fish at every bommie or cay, and explore that wild reef for days and months on end.
Our destination didn’t have a proper name. It was just a short estuary, one of six that entered the sea between the Starcke River and Cape Flattery. One of my journo mates at the Post, however, had started calling it the Wild Dog River when covering the story a few months earlier. There, they reckoned, just above the flood plain, was a lawless camp made up of itinerant Murris, crabbers, croc shooters, barra fishers and vets – a crowd of lawless misfits who hated authority and wanted to be left alone.
The sudden interest in the place was due to the murder, before I started working for the paper, of an elderly loner who lived there, and the Queensland Police Service’s unsuccessful efforts to identify the killer. No one on the river would talk, no one had seen anything, and even cops wouldn’t lob into the camp without armed backup.
The Wild Dog, I knew from listening to the bearded old wanderers I hero-worshipped in the front bar of the Crown Hotel, had a passable channel to the sea, and calm anchorages in the lower reaches. When we reached the entrance, on the second day, Tom Baines the skipper, always with a Marlboro between his lips, did a great job of picking out deeper channels that wound around sandy banks and islets. A few times he had to back up and choose a different fork. We could all feel the keel touch, holding our breath until the spinning prop dragged us clear again.
I had my notebook resting on the rail, and a pen in my hand, pulling words out of my head and putting them down on paper, attempting to describe the herons and egrets that left their trident footprints on the sand; the mixed colour tones of water, and cormorants standing on the skeletons of dead trees drying their wings.
A croc slid into the water as we approached, a bloody dinosaur with an armoured head like a studded club. This was a rare sight in 1973. For decades the reptiles had been hunted almost to extinction, and legislation to ban the croc-skin trade was being debated in Queensland’s parliament.
Up ahead the channel snaked its current lines around another islet and into the river proper. The diesel note changed as we reached deeper water, jumping in revs with a growl, a clot of dark smoke issuing from the stack above the wheelhouse. Sand flies arrived in squadrons, targeting ankles first then working their way up. Owen, the deckie, passed me a can of Aerogard and I sprayed it liberally onto my skin.
‘Cheers mate,’ I said, and passed the can back. I liked Owen. He was younger than me – eighteen or nineteen, with a blaze of copper-red hair. He wore stripes of zinc cream on his freckled nose and cheeks, and was quiet most of the time, though I sensed that he would fire up when provoked.
Heading up the channel, around the first couple of bends, we saw a wooden dinghy anchored near some snags. Two bare-chested white but sun-browned blokes sat on the thwart seats, handlining. They stared at us as we approached. I gave them a wave and the younger of the two waved back, but there was nothing friendly about their faces.
The pair wound in their lines, retrieved the pick and got the motor started. They planed up the channel at three times our speed, leaving white lines of wake behind them. The river grew broader, with mangrove swamp on either side at first, and the smell of salt marsh was strong in my nostrils. After a couple of clicks, however, the ground dried out. A flat-topped hill dominated the skyline to the Northwest.
This was a strange place for a murder, I decided, as I stared out at the unspoiled beauty of the river, replaying the details in my mind. From what I remembered, the dead man’s cadaver had been carried by the tide down the channel and out to sea, where a passing yacht had fished it from the water; noseless, lipless and with only sections of its limbs remaining. The fact that the body had survived at all was surprising. Most of the crocs may have been hunted out, but not all, and there were plenty of sharks around. Maybe, I decided, they preferred live prey.
The cops in Cooktown suspected that a hole in the dead man’s chest had been caused by a gunshot, and this was backed up by the medical examiner. The situation became a public mystery, keeping tongues wagging for a week or two before lack of developments closed the story down.
‘You’re not there to investigate a murder,’ Brian had told me. ‘I want you back in one piece. Just lots of photos, a good yarn about the characters who live on the river, what they eat and how they organise themselves … all that kind of thing. If it’s good enough we can probably syndicate the story – maybe to one of the women’s mags, and I’ll give you a bonus.’
Roughly half an hour after entering the river I spotted the camp on the right-hand bank – a settlement built from castoffs and junk – humpies made from bush poles clad with ragged old sails, various boat timbers, and corrugated iron. A swarm of kids, of all shades, splashed and played around in the shallows. Multiple dinghies were moored to the shoreline, most of them homemade from plywood with a few tinnies. I saw one substantial vessel – a Steber work boat of around forty feet in length, with inboard diesels and a broad cockpit.
The skipper took us half a click past the camp then dropped the pick in the slower water outside of a bend. I helped Owen get the tender – a Brooker tinnie, off the davits. The cowling of the fifteen-horse Evinrude on the transom was sun-faded and scratched, but after only three pulls of the starter it spat out a clot of blue smoke and revved like a chainsaw. Owen shifted into forward, and the gear made a solid clunk as it engaged, before bearing us away at speed.
I had a better view of the camp as we closed in on the shore. More boats were drawn up on the bank, floating free with the high tide, tied to mangrove roots with old hemp ropes. I had not really thought too much about what kind of reception I’d get, but the people on the bank reminded me of meat ants when someone pokes a stick into the nest. They appeared to be gathering on the bank ready to intercept us. I saw a couple of slung rifles and a shotgun.
‘I’ll take you in close and you can jump off the bow,’ said Owen. ‘Come back for you at sunset. Same spot, OK?’
‘Right-oh then, brother,’ he said, then paused. ‘Good luck with this mob.’
‘Yeah, looks like I’ll need it.’
Owen cut the engine but momentum carried us in until the bow touched the bank.
Two men walked up. One had no shirt, a big gut and chest like a sitting Buddha. He carried an old double shotgun, with big fancy hammers. The other wore a singlet, showing off a boxer’s biceps and shoulders, tattoos snaking down over his skin in livid purple, red and green.
The tattooed man walked forward and caught the nose of the tinnie with his bare right foot, holding it there, yellow toenails pointing skywards. ‘I dunno who you are mate, but you can turn yer boat around, and piss off. You’re not coming ashore.’
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