Wild Dog River

Chapter Twenty-Eight – Survival


As I write these words, decades after the events described, I am aware that some readers will find the next part of my story hard to believe, fantastical even. Old bushmen from the Territory and Gulf, however, will know that what seems incredible, is rare but not unheard of. I will swear on any bible, on peril of my mortal soul, to the truth of my account. The basics, moreover, can be verified through clippings from the newspapers of the day.

Neck deep in brown flood water, shivering from shock and that kind of wet season cold that a southerner wouldn’t understand, I could see into that old croc’s mind. I understood how relentlessly he’d been hunted from his natural home on a real river like the Burdekin by the men who earned money from skinning the reptiles and selling the leather, leaving rotting carcasses beside waterways all over the north. Now the consciences of the city folk had forced a change in the law, but there was no knowledge of that in the croc’s tiny brain and he was still being hunted, as far as he was concerned. He had come here because he was tired and old, and he needed somewhere away from the guns. Not all crocs were man-killers by nature, but even so – old, big and hungry was a dangerous combination.

If I’d had faith that the current would carry me quickly past the spot and into the harbour I might have stayed the course – held onto the esky and floated on, taking my chances, but the tide was coming in, pushing up against the floodwaters, two great forces in opposition.  That meant that I was now scarcely moving, with a croc of nightmare-like proportions somewhere under the murky surface. Blood from my wounded shoulder was no doubt exciting his nostrils and goading him to the kill.

Throughout my life I had learned to trust a deep tingle in my gut – a warning bell and a reasoned approach to danger. Right then it was telling me that it was time to run. To get out of that water as fast as it was possible to do so.

I started paddling for the bank, trying not to panic, but with terror invading the base of my spine, like needles of ice. I saw the croc surface perhaps twenty yards away, amongst a patch of floating brown scum and driftwood. He eyed me off and again slipped below the surface.  I was as sure then, as it is possible to be, that he was coming for me.

I’m ashamed to admit that I panicked, letting go of the esky and floundering, splashing away towards the bank. I reached waist-deep water, ignoring the pain in my wounded left shoulder to use my hands like oars to drive me on faster. I clambered up the bank on one foot and a knee, struggling to raise my body, falling backwards as the bank collapsed beneath me. I’m sure I heard myself scream, in a gurgling, primal way, before trying to climb up again while my every step was met with mud that clung and slimed my legs.

Out of the creek itself at last, I fought the mud. Four, five yards from the edge of the water now, trying to run. I turned and saw the croc emerging from the creek after me. He was graceful where I had been clumsy, moving at three times my speed and already beginning to turn his head and upper trunk sideways so as to take me in those momentous jaws.

A final shot of adrenaline flooded my system. I floundered and fell, expecting to feel the irrepressible force of blunt fangs gripping my torso. Instead, I heard a terrible noise, one that had been more familiar to me in Phuoc Tuy province than here. It was the sound of chopper turbines, a police Huey, sweeping through from inland at a height of scarcely a hundred feet.

They were looking for me, of course, but even so I had the sense of being saved, for my understanding of the way that old river croc’s mind worked meant that the sound and sight of the police chopper and the ear-numbing clatter it made, would surely stop him in his tracks. I turned to confirm this, expecting to see the reptile slinking back into the water.

I had, it seemed, underestimated the old croc’s hunger and desperation. In a moment that I will never erase from my mind, I saw that beast of a thing finish his rush towards me. At a speed beyond belief, the sound of the chopper still in my ears, he took me around the middle, and dragged me back towards the water while I kicked and screamed. He took me down into the thick creek, where my yells were silenced by the brown water itself. I clawed at the last few feet of the bank, taking handfuls of slick mud with me.

The croc carried me down, into the murky waters of the creek. Thankfully when I had gone under, I had managed to snatch a breath of air. The floodwaters were too filthy to offer any chance of vision, but I saw that underwater world through a dark brown mist of growing pain where the croc’s huge molars were bearing down on my trunk.

It was strange how even in that most extreme of circumstances, my mind kept working. I knew that in most cases a big croc would either whip a big prey animal around on the surface to break its neck, or take it down to drown it. I guessed that with the commotion on the surface it was taking the latter option.

Next thing there came a sharp concussion, then another. I realised that someone was shooting at the croc, peppering the area with large calibre projectiles. The policemen in the chopper were using their rifles, I guessed.  The sound I heard was bullets striking the water.

The croc jerked wildly for a moment, spooked properly now, before swimming much faster, deeper into the murk. The world grew darker then, almost black, but the croc continued to writhe. Whether as a method of evasive action or because it had been hit, I did not know. I felt my skin tear under the force of his teeth. I lashed out with my fists at his head and anywhere I could reach, hoping to strike an eye.

Abruptly the croc opened its jaws and released me. I struggled free, wondering if it was merely trying to improve its grip – I’d heard that they will do this.  Yet, it made no effort to take me again. I could see nothing, but I sensed that the huge reptile had withdrawn, headed out and back to wilder places, now that men with guns had invaded his sanctuary.

I was free, for the moment at least, but in a bad way, with aching wounds in many places. Still, the urge to breathe forced me upwards. When I tried to reach the surface, however, I found only solid earthen walls above me. There was no longer open water over my head. It was nonsensical. My sense of panic redoubled. An undercut bank? I didn’t know. I forced myself back down and started to swim. My lungs were not just burning, they were close to exploding with the need to breathe. I had to find air somehow.

I kicked ahead with thighs that felt like they had been crushed by a hydraulic press. Loss of blood was chipping away at my will to live, and I was close to giving up altogether when my head burst through the water and I took a breath of air that reeked of age and old things. It was fully dark in that place – but I crawled to my knees on a slick surface of mud and water. I came to my feet, and staggered deeper into the darkness, away from the terror of the croc and the powerful jaws that had almost taken my life.

Blundering against dirt walls at first, after a minute or two they became firmer – something hard. I realised that I was in some kind of tunnel, lined with concrete. The floor was mud, but this might just be a covering. I moved on as fast as I was physically capable, careful not to accidentally turn back, and head back the way in which I had come.

Some distance on, feeling a little safer from the croc, I was forced to stop and try to take stock of my wounds. I was hurt, deep into the bones of my hips. On my lower back, not far from where my kidneys must be, there was a hole I could stick my thumb into.  The gunshot wound on my shoulder was a groove the width of a pencil. I could feel bone with my finger when I touched it, and yelped with pain when I did so.

I had no shirt to make bandages with, and I was shivering with shock and cold. Weakness came in waves. I closed my eyes, and my head swam with vertigo. My cell in C-Wing seemed so safe right then, but still I did not regret leaving that place. Even to die here would be preferable to half a century of being smothered under the weight of law and order.

I must have slept for a while, a couple of hours even, for when I woke the cold had deepened and my wounded limbs had stiffened. I had not, however, bled to death. For some time, I remained in that slumped-over posture, thinking back through the events of the afternoon and where I might be. It was most certainly a tunnel. Something old.

Over the following minutes I thought of several theories, and finally I realised that I must have stumbled upon some old connecting tunnel, from the World War Two fortifications that had once bristled across Townsville’s waterfront, constructed by American engineer units, built to move ammunition to the gun emplacements that protected airfields and the port. The croc must have found an entrance torn by water flow from the creek, and used it for some kind of lair.

There had to be a way out, for I could not bear the thought of going back the way I had come. Walking on was the only option. In that pitch darkness I rose to my feet, sloshing through the mud and water that made up the floor.

It’s impossible to convey my state of mind right then, and even now my fingers shake as I write. Consumed by shock and fear, I felt that I was being pursued from behind, and after a while the croc began to take on the form of the war dragon on the bronze medal I had found – that old and cruel face – the very reason why I had found myself in this situation in the first place.

The foetid air in the tunnel seemed to carry the breath of that mythical beast, and at times its head appeared in front of me, so that it took all my willpower not to turn around and face the river monster that had so nearly killed me.

Finally, up ahead, I saw a glimmer of light – perhaps just a lesser darkness, but enough to see that there was a substantial trickle of water entering the tunnel from the roof. Was it a way out? I wasn’t certain, but I had to try.

Reaching up, I took hold of some matted roots, and along with the scent of cleaner water, I could smell fresh air. That fact gave me strength. The first handful of earth and vegetation broke off, and I fell back. Trying again, I found a root as thick as a rope, and now began to haul myself up in earnest. With another handhold I was able to find a grip for my knee, and I began to slither, slide, push and pull myself upwards.

The water was coming through a crack in the soil – not big enough to admit my body. I tore at the ground around it with my right hand, using all my remaining strength, crying and grunting with the effort, craving clear sky and fresh air and anything but this subterranean pit.

My efforts were working, and when I forced a rock the size of my head out the work proceeded more swiftly. Finally, I could push through with my head and shoulders, then the rest of my body. I emerged into a small feeder creek, reached the surface and crawled onwards, onto the bank above.  It was dark now – the sun was long gone – and I realised that I must have slept for longer than I thought.

I half-walked and half-crawled to the top of a small rise nearby. There I stood, pumping air like a set of bellows, looking around at the floodplains and the nearby shimmering water of the harbour. In the distance, back at the creek, there were blue flashing lights and I guessed that the cops had managed to reach the area in a Land Rover or Toyota.

I opened my mouth and made a sound so terrible I could hardly believe that it came from my own mouth. It was the sound of a man who had believed himself dead, but had survived against the odds.

I understood how lucky I was. Was this a sign that perhaps the universe was, at least partly, on my side after all?

©2024 Greg Barron

Continued next Saturday.

Read earlier chapters here.

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