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Savage Tales from Australia's Wild Frontierrobert
By Robert Reid
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2008 Robert Reid
All rights reserved.
The founder of the Australian Crocodile Shooters' Club was not an Australian at all, but a Frenchman — and a woman's hairdresser at that! This most unlikely adventurer was Nice-born Rene Henri, who owned a salon in his adopted home of Melbourne. Despite this rather unmanly profession and his socialite lifestyle, Henri was by nature an outdoorsman and keen shooter, and had adapted well to Australian bush conditions.
In 1947, then in his early 40s, Henri first saw saltwater crocodiles in their native habitat while holidaying at Cooktown. He was immediately fascinated by the fierce animals and returned to Melbourne convinced there was an opportunity to establish a new sport in Australia's northern frontier.
He was back again a year later, determined to learn as much as he could about hunting these dangerous predators. It was a daunting task, but Henri persisted, and eventually sought out an Italian professional shooter named Guido Juneo, who lived on the estuary of the Annie River, a waterway that flows into Princess Charlotte Bay.
Henri began his search for Juneo at Coen, a one-pub town, 550 kilometres north of Cairns in the centre of Cape York Peninsula. The Frenchman spent a week in the pub, drinking with the locals and getting to know the lay of the land. Years later he wrote how the news spread quickly about the crazy 'frog' who had come all the way from Paris to shoot crocodiles! The truth was, Henri had been in Australia more than half his life and justifiably considered himself a true blue Aussie! Despite the pub banter, he was well liked and soon acquired a great deal of local knowledge that was essential for a stranger in those days to survive. It would have been near impossible to locate Guido Juneo without that knowledge. Even so, it took Henri eight months to make the connection.
Juneo was an eccentric, reclusive hunter who lived rough in a tent campsite, with just two or three Aboriginal helpers to keep him company. Henri described meeting the bushman at his lonely river outpost:
As we reached the big tent I jumped down [from the truck] in anticipation of meeting my host after months of waiting. I greeted the blond-haired thin man with my best smile and introduced myself, putting out my hand. In return I got a weak handshake and a sulky look! I could nearly read his mind, 'What is this bloody Froggy doing up here?' Perhaps he thought I was coming to compete for his skins. He was rather strange! However I had not come to criticise my host, who must have been a loner.
He certainly was. Henri, though, had come well prepared, with plenty of food and hunting gear, including a thousand rounds of .303 ammunition. This placated Juneo somewhat, but he was still suspicious of the French 'greenhorn', whom he obviously considered to be a liability in the dangerous business of crocodile shooting.
Indeed, when Henri first arrived in Cairns he was dressed in a tropical white suit in the style of the stereotypical African 'great white hunter', which drew a lofty comment from the town's newspaper, in which he was described disparagingly as a 'rabbit shooter'. But Henri was far from that, having hunted in the Congo, shot tigers in India and established himself as a crack shot in Australia while hunting wild pig and deer. He proved this at Juneo's camp when the sceptical host put the newcomer to the test by demanding he demonstrate his marksmanship, or, as he put it sarcastically, 'You can show me your skill with your famous sporting rifle.'
Henri later described the scene in a magazine article.
At daybreak the boys were gone and after a leisurely breakfast Juneo appeared with the smallest tin I ever saw and [said], 'This'll be your target'. He nailed it to the bottom of a tree. I asked for some time to sight my rifle for distance. I knew it was about 75 metres. Also for accuracy. Well, here it was! I felt like William Tell — I could not miss the apple! Raising my rifle to the target with a slow movement I emptied the magazine, blasting the target and filling the spot with lead!!!
Juneo's response was a succinct, 'Okay, you'll do, providing you do the same on crocs!'
As a result of Henri's shooting ability, Juneo came to accept Henri as a worthy contributor to his operation. Also, the Frenchman was a keen student and willingly pitched in to help skin crocodiles and prepare the skins for transport and sale by using the 'Juneo Secret Preparation'. Juneo's jealously guarded treatment resulted in his skins being light and dry, 'like cardboard', unlike the conventional arsenic treatment applied immediately to a moist skin, which often resulted in bacteria contaminating and ultimately destroying the hide.
Henri's description of the skinning process vividly portrays the harsh conditions these men endured in the early days of professional crocodile shooting.
I had brought with me three big curved skinning knives and a stone, as we had to sharpen them every ten minutes or so. Jimmy, the Aboriginal skinner, was a master at the art, quick yet with effeminate hand movements, that incidentally all natives have. He warned me to be careful and not put even the smallest notch in the skin, particularly in the belly of the animal, that being the most valuable part which would reduce it to half its value if damaged. I was amazed that contrary to any other animal I had skinned, crocodile had to be detached from the carcass inch by inch. There was no tearing the skin off. Hence the tedious and delicate work. We were skinning with our feet buried in the mud, yet with no human being around the mud was clean. As we worked I conversed with Jimmy and would glance across the river, where invisible sharks and crocodiles were cruising, whilst cat fish came near our toes to pick up bits of flesh we discarded. When the skin was off the animal the inner was snow white contrasting with the outward golden belly and greyish green side. The carcass was slid into the river to feed its own kind! The skin would be hung on a branch in the breeze for sometime whilst we proceeded with more skinning and at the end of the day they would be pinned down with long nails over shady dry ground.
Henri records that the enterprising Juneo ordered his men to 'stretch the skins to the limit to gain extra inches' as the skins were sold to buyers by their size!
Henri's stay with Juneo produced invaluable experience for his future crocodile-shooting enterprise and more than one hair-raising encounter with the giant animals. Once the shooting party camped under the stars on the North Kennedy River estuary, where it runs into Princess Charlotte Bay, not bothering to erect tents as they intended to stay there for just the one night. While Juneo set up his camp bed well away from the shore, Henri decided to take advantage of a breeze nearer the water, tying the four legs of his bunk to a cluster of small trees. It wasn't a good decision. Being close to the sea, the tides moved swiftly and silently through the mangroves. Henri tells the story:
I was wakened by a terrific noise. It sounded like a tornado going through the trees and I had been thrown out of my bed into the water! In full moonlight I could see my bed being dragged away at full speed towards the deep water. I heard a snap as the legs of the bed gave way and were swept away, while the rest of the bed was caught between two trees.
Henri's shouts brought Juneo to the scene and together they moved what was left of his bed to higher ground, where they lit two fires and slept between them 'like Aborigines'.
The next morning the two hunters inspected the scene. 'Well, you've had a visitor,' Juneo said. 'Look at the size of the prints. It was a big one.' It was immediately clear that a large crocodile had approached the sleeping Henri on the rising tide, but had become entangled in the ropes securing the bed, and, fortunately for the Frenchman, became alarmed and retreated back into deeper water.
Another near-miss occurred when Henri and his Aboriginal companion Jimmy startled two sleeping crocodiles while paddling a canoe near a riverbank. The agitated crocs reacted by charging the canoe and veering away at the last moment, almost swamping the vessel. But that wasn't the end of it.
'We had hardly wiped the water of their splashes from our bodies when we heard a noise coming from thick bushes on the overhanging bank,' Henri recounted:
Suddenly dead over our heads we saw the belly of a huge crocodile flying through the air. The end of its tail just missed the canoe and it vanished in the current.
This was uncanny. It was as if we had crashed in upon a crocodile gathering! Waves lurched the canoe so much that I really thought it would turn turtle. I grabbed my gun, but fortunately Jimmy balanced the rocking craft. Juneo had said you never know what can happen with crocodiles and how right he was!
Juneo also taught Henri that 'you can never relax in this part of the world' and that he should 'shoot to kill' without hesitation any time he was confronted by a crocodile. And from then on Henri did just that. The Frenchman recounts how he at last earned the total respect of the redoubtable Juneo while hunting with Jimmy on the North Kennedy River. After killing a medium-sized crocodile, his very first, the two dragged it to shore. Jimmy then departed, leaving Henri to skin the beast and continue the hunt alone.
I felt like a butcher sharpening my skinning knife. I made sure I had reloaded my rifle and stood it next to me. It was ready for any eventuality. Never has a crocodile been skinned with so much care! Now I could have a bag and wallet made which I had dreamed of all my life!
As the tide was rising I could see small crocodiles swimming under water and feeding on crustaceans or small fish. This, on its own was interesting to see. On the other shore some crocodiles were sunning ... then my instinct made me part two branches which were blotting my view on my left. Something seemed out of place. The tide had crept up by now and soon I would have to move further up. Having the sun against me I thought I could see a black shadow midst the branches. And the more I looked the more I thought it looked like the nose of one of those midget submarines which came right into Sydney Harbour during the War! I was debating whether perhaps I was dozing when the mass moved and at the same time I saw that it had been heaved by a powerful back leg.
A crocodile! Could it be the 'Bull'? The famous Bull of the Kennedy? No it couldn't. This couldn't happen to me. It would be ironical that after escaping the best rifles of the territory he would be lying near me!
It was true. The novice croc hunter was face to face with an animal that had eluded death and capture for many years. It was a prize much sought after by the professional shooters of the era — including Guido Juneo!
This was not real. It was too big to be an animal. It was like those antediluvians you see in picture books. In a word I froze. I even controlled my breathing. I checked the wind and luckily I was against it. Then I thought of the carcass lying not far away on my right where I had left it. Soon it would start to decompose and attract the master's attention. Then for half an hour or so I just watched. A very interesting study. I wondered at first why he had heaved and advanced only half a metre at a time. But then I realised that only the shiny grey greenish wet part of his body came out of the muddy water and he would not move till it had dried into a muddy colour.
If he moved across to go to the carcass which would soon be covered by the tide he would discover me! What could I do! I was stuck in the mud. I was just an amateur at this dangerous game and would a .303 bullet do the trick?? His head I now noticed was like armour. I needed an elephant gun!! Hundreds of things went through my mind. And the more I saw of him the more I dreaded him discovering me. Then I took the big decision. It had to be him or me!! I could not rise. It would have attracted his attention. So I extricated one leg from the mud and my knee became a support for my elbow. My muddy rifle would not attract his attention and I could see the 'match box' [the crocodile's brain target] well silhouetted against the sun.
I fired! This was my worst moment — the beast never moved. Usually the jaw lifts on impact and then flops on the mud but this had not happened. It was as if the bullet had missed or not penetrated the 'match box'. I stood and emptied my magazine and saw most of the bullets hitting the water on both sides of his head! However, I reasoned that he would have decamped with my first two 'misses' ...! I reloaded, to be ready, in case!
I nearly sent an SOS with three more shots. Though no doubt Juneo must have heard the fusillade and at any rate he would arrive sooner or later.
Ten or so minutes later I heard someone crashing through the mangroves and Jimmy appeared. As he saw the crocodile he stopped dead in his tracks, his eyes became white and terrified and without even acknowledging my hand wave decamped from sight back into the mangroves.
This made it worse. Did he see life in the animal!? Was one of his eyes still open!? Then he would only be stunned. It happened, I had heard.
After what seemed like hours the tall shape of Juneo appeared, with Jimmy cautiously behind him. They approached the big saurian from the back and Juneo probed him with the barrel of his gun from the side. Then he looked at his head and called: 'You blew his brain out alright!'
I could have dropped with tension and exhaustion but my mate was walking towards me, his hand extended. 'Congratulations' he said with a grin on his face. This was marvellous. This was unbelievable! And then he added: 'You know, he was really mine!'
Yes, I knew and as a matter of fact it was unfair that a mug like me should have the honours. 'Never mind,' he said, 'now you can shoot with me. I can do with an extra hand.'
The Frenchman who had learned to hunt in the Congo jungle had finally been accepted as a professional crocodile shooter in the wilds of Cape York Peninsula. Guido Juneo, whom Henri described as 'a master of his craft, careful, courageous, strong minded', had taught his pupil well.
Word had filtered out about the Frenchman's crocodile adventures and southern newspapers carried the story in great detail. Back home in Melbourne, Henri was deluged with hundreds of letters from people responding to the news, from 'little boys who wanted to carry my gun, to old ladies who told me off for being so cruel to such gentle animals!'
Henri embarked on a lecture tour, showing film footage he had taken on the Cape and inadvertently discovering a new industry — guided crocodile shooting expeditions for tourists with 'the spirit of adventure'. Henri placed an advertisement in The Cairns Post newspaper for a suitable boat to use on his tours and soon selected the Tropic Seas, a steel-hulled vessel owned and built by a local engineer, Vince Vlasoff. It was a fortuitous choice, as Henri and Vlasoff went on to become the leading partners in the Australian Crocodile Shooters' Club.
In 1949, Henri and his wife Joan embarked on their first voyage on board the Tropic Seas with Vlasoff and his wife Olive. On this trip the Shooters' Club was formed, with the ship's company as foundation members. Henri was elected president, with Vlasoff delegated to look after the club's future members and organise expeditions into crocodile territory. Joan Henri and Olive Vlasoff were the club's first female members.
Henri carefully selected people for his club from a wide range of applicants keen to become crocodile shooters. These hopefuls included a seven-year-old boy who offered to scrub the ship from top to bottom just to see a crocodile, to a retired businessman in his seventies, who wondered if his age would be a handicap! As it turned out, two out of every three applicants were rejected. Henri considered the essential qualities needed were 'good fellowship and a sense of humour, physical fitness, and shooting knowledge and ability'.
Henri then brought the successful applicants together in a relaxed atmosphere over dinner, where he quietly observed how well they got on together. Always a stickler for detail, the Frenchman left nothing to chance.
In July 1950, five new members of the first official 'Expedition Crocodile' of the Australian Crocodile Shooters' Club left Essendon Airport, Melbourne, bound for Cairns and their first meeting with Vince Vlasoff on board the Tropic Seas. The vessel was chartered for six weeks, twice the length of time planned for future expeditions, with an aim not only to shoot crocodiles, but to seek out new territory and experiment with different rifles and ammunition in difficult terrain. The new members were also given practical instructions in skinning and curing, and of course the highly dangerous technique of stalking crocodiles.
Excerpted from Croc! by Robert Reid. Copyright © 2008 Robert Reid. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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