Best mates - Bob Irwin and his son Steve.
Best mates - Bob Irwin and his son Steve. Photo courtesy Bob Irwin

Bob Irwin tells: The croc that took a bite out of Steve

MOST parents worry when their children reach young adulthood and travel overseas, and here was our son spending months at a time away from home in an isolated environment catching some of the biggest apex predators out there all alone.

But I knew he'd be all right, because this was what Steve was good at. I had had the chance to see that firsthand, having worked so closely with him.

That's not to say I didn't worry: I worried most of all while he was out on the water, because that was where the real danger was, where you had to play the crocodile's game.

But I knew that once Steve had a crocodile in the trap, he had the upper hand, and although he'd still need to exercise great caution, he could carefully work things out.

Steve was very practical like that. He would sit down with Chilli, his dog, there beside him, talking her through the whole thing until he'd worked out exactly how he would do something. It might take him an hour to figure it out, but I was always confident that in the end he could.

But the most worrying time came when a few days had passed without Steve making any contact with Lyn or me back at the park. Although he had no phone of his own, he'd often drive up to Stephen and Danny's house or to other friends' places to phone home.

This silence told me something was up. I decided to make a trip to Cattle Creek to check everything was okay. I also had a feeling that I might need to drive Steve's truck home and so although I hated catching public transport, I had to cave in and catch the damn bus.

Lyn hurriedly packed a first-aid kit, and I booked a ticket and was on my way.

After almost 20 gruelling hours confined to a seat, I persuaded the bus driver to stop on the main highway in front of the dirt track that led into Cattle Creek. Just as I started the 3km walk up to Steve's campsite, I ran into Stephen and Danny, who told me that Steve had been seriously injured and that they'd tried to get him to hospital, to no avail.

I just rolled my eyes.

"I'll take it from here, fellas," I said, as they dropped me at Steve's camp.

I could see him staggering up to me with a dirty, rotten piece of rag around his ankle. It was completely soaked with blood and mud and covered with all kinds of things he'd collected in his barefoot travels.

He was surprised to see me there. And as he told me what had happened, I shook my head in disapproval.

He had been in a hurry to get a nine-foot female called Cookie into the transport crate, ready to call me to come up and take her back to the park.

A nine-foot female weighs upwards of 200kg and that's about the upper limit for a bloke attempting anything on his own. It was the largest crocodile he had ever caught by himself, and I was buggered if I knew how he'd managed to do that.

But he got it sorted without any assistance whatsoever. He'd tied both ends of the boat to the trees along the riverbank so it was stable, and then worked with ropes to restrain the crocodile until he could grab hold of her safely, dipping the boat on its side and lifting the croc over the side of the boat.

He motored her back to camp in his dinghy with Chilli, unloaded her from the dinghy to the truck, and then drove to the camp just a little way up from the creek.

His next task was to get her out of the truck and into her transport crate - a rectangular box made of strong marine ply. I knew he was as strong as an ox, but I never really figured out how he managed some of those tasks.

What I did know for certain was that he was absolutely nuts for even attempting it by himself.

The crate's two ends could be removed so he could pull the crocodile through one open end with a rope and then secure the rear end so she couldn't slide backwards. But as soon as Steve had Cookie on the ground, he realised that the crate was too long for him to reach the end of the rope. Instead of walking around to feed the rope through, which was the sensible thing to do, he decided to wriggle three-quarters of the way inside the box himself, to reach the rope and pull it back out.

Prior to doing that, he'd taken the rope off Cookie's jaws. She was half-wrapped in a big tarpaulin and had a calico bag over her head acting as a blindfold to keep her calm. She had nothing at all restraining her incredibly powerful jaws and she was positioned right at the bottom of the crate.

As he propelled himself into the box, legs flicking from side to side, he inadvertently clubbed Cookie on the side of the head with his foot.

Crunch! She grabbed him. The most powerful jaws of any animal - beating even great white sharks - crushed down into his bone. She had him by the ankle and gave him a shake before fortunately releasing him and wandering off, still covered in all of the gear.

He reversed out of the box quick smart. A glance at his foot told him she'd done some pretty serious damage, but first he had to catch the crocodile all over again and secure her in the crate, and then manoeuvre the crate into the shade, before he could finally tend to his injuries.

For Steve, tending to his injuries just meant wrapping his foot up in a calico bag and getting on with things.

He told me the whole story with great gusto, but I was distinctly unimpressed.

"Steve, do you realise that this could have gone really, really badly for you? That croc could have taken your leg clean off!" I said, pointing out to him that if the crocodile had done a death roll while he was caught in the wooden crate, she'd have taken his foot back to the water as a souvenir without much effort at all.

"Obviously you're not going to go to the hospital to get stitches?" I continued, already knowing the answer.

"Nah. She'll be right," he said stubbornly. But the real reason was that he was concerned about leaving the traps he'd already set out on the creek.

He'd obviously weighed it all up. He knew that if he'd left a crocodile in a trap exposed to the sun, chances are it'd kill the croc. And we both knew that there was nobody to relieve him. It's not like you can say to the neighbour up the road, "Hey, I've got to get to hospital, do you mind checking my crocodile traps when I'm gone? If there's a 10-foot crocodile in one, just drag it into the boat by hand and I'll deal with it when I'm back. Thanks, I really appreciate it".

"Well, that foot of yours won't come good in this environment," I said, looking around at the mud and mangroves, just about the worst kind of bacterial cocktail you could ask for with open wounds.

"The way that's looking, you'll be coming home in one of those wooden crates yourself. Dead. I'm going to get the first-aid kit, and I don't care what you say, I'm going to patch it up."

He didn't argue, just replied, "That'd be great, Dad."

I sat him down, boiled some water in the billy on the campfire and set about cleaning his wounds.

They were nasty. Really, really nasty. His foot was covered in deep, purple holes that were pits of rotting flesh. It didn't take a doctor to work out that he'd need more than a few stitches. So I got all of the equipment ready from the first-aid kit and explained exactly what I planned to do.

"This is going to hurt you a lot more than it hurts me."

"Get on with it then," he said, and after that he didn't utter another sound. Not one, as I poked and prodded at these holes, digging out all of the embedded dirt and bits of gravel that had settled into them and washing out the whole thing with effervescing disinfectant.

I cut out putrefied flesh with a scalpel, all the while thinking what a state he had let himself get in without doing anything about it.

I don't have an iron stomach for the sight of blood and guts. And I could see what he was going through, but he was prepared to do whatever it took to allow him back out on the water to keep catching crocodiles.

Finally I latched on plastic staples that pulled the skin taut to close the freshly cleaned wounds and wrapped up the bottom half of his leg to keep the whole foot uncontaminated. I made it as watertight as I could manage and then I hoped like hell it'd be enough, because that's all I could do.

"It's no good me telling you to stay out of the water, is it?"

He shook his head. I'm convinced he thought he was part crocodile, because crocodiles heal pretty well even after serious injury.

They're known to be able to shut off their own blood supply to injured areas in order to stop bleeding and have an incredibly sophisticated immune system, able to fight off the most serious infections.

I'd seen many crocodiles minus a leg or with part of their tail missing. In fact, you'll seldom see a 15-foot crocodile that's whole. Nine times out of 10 an old crocodile will have sustained some pretty substantial injuries. They are remarkable survivors.

But I had to remind Steve that he wasn't a crocodile, that he was a lot more mortal than that, and it wasn't the last time I had to say it either. That bloke certainly put Lyn and me through our paces.

I spent the next day out on the water with him dismantling the traps and then we loaded Cookie onto the back of his truck and drove her home to the reptile park.

Thankfully, that foot healed up magically. And I say magically because that's the only term I can use to describe an injury of that severity healing itself without any intervention but rudimentary first aid.

Extract from The Last Crocodile Hunter: A Father and Son Legacy by Bob Irwin with Amanda French. Allen & Unwin, $32.99. Bob Irwin will be signing copies of his book from 10am-12noon Saturday at Annie's Books, 8 Kingfisher Dr, Peregian Beach.

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