Mike started his working life as an astrophysicist and made his way into tourism via the scuba diving industry. He built one of Australia's first backpacker




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НазваниеMike started his working life as an astrophysicist and made his way into tourism via the scuba diving industry. He built one of Australia's first backpacker
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Q. Do the soldiers really eat ants?

A. Only when they're hungry.

Q. Is it true they cook the ants on top of their tanks?

A. No. They cook eggs on their tanks. The metal gets so hot in the sun that you can fry things on it. That saves fuel and is good for the environment.

Q. Why doesn't the army provide proper ration packs for its soldiers then they wouldn't have to eat ants?

A. The correct name is termite and they're good tucker.

Q. What is tucker?

A. Grub.

Q. Why are termites good tucker?

A. The pupae are packed full of protein and that's what you eat.

Q. When do the soldiers eat termites?

A. When they are living off the land.

Q. What's wrong with kangaroos?

A. Nothing ... if you can catch one.

Q. But termites are small ...

A. See below.

Individual termites are small but the colonies are big. When you look out over the Australian bush and see gigantic termite mounds, think of each mound as representing a cow or bull. That's about the quantity of protein they contain.

When I lived in Townsville, many of my diving mates were in the army. Some were in Special Forces units. They told me about bush tucker and the packs of cards they carried on manoeuvres. They were about the size of playing cards and provided information needed to live off the land. One side had a picture of a plant or animal. The other told you about its nutritional properties and where to find it.

If you want to find out more, search the net for Les Hiddins. He was Capt. Hiddins when I knew him. He has since left the army and is well known for his books and TV-series on bush tucker.


17 Bulldust



My friend Luke has a cattle ranch in Queensland's northern gulf country. We first visited him about thirty years ago and made the trip in the family station wagon. It goes without saying that cars were different in those days.

As a young guy, I owned a BSA 350 motor cycle. When my financial situation improved I bought my first car, a Hillman Minx, built to wartime specification. It was a robust vehicle that could be got going with a hand crank when the battery lacked power to turn the starter motor.

I could get the station wagon going by jacking up the front wheels and turning them by hand. If the battery was totally flat and the generator was no longer operating, I could substitute flashlight batteries, linking them in series to achieve 12 volts. They could provide a good enough spark to keep the cylinders firing for a few hours.

I was recently on a bush walk with friends and we came upon a family whose vehicle had broken down. We offered to give them a push and were told that the car was an "automatic". There was no way to engage gears and get the engine to turn over.

The model is being promoted on TV. You've probably seen the adverts. Proud father is out in his new off-road vehicle with his adoring family. He splashes through rivers and climbs impossible mountains. Everyone is delighted and no one gives thought to what would happen if anything went wrong. The guy we met had a flat battery. His problem wasn't serious but he had no way of getting started. In a remote situation that could be catastrophic.

Modern cars are more fuel-efficient than their predecessors and have many other advantages. The improvement has been achieved through enormous technical sophistication. There was a time when mechanics did running repairs on the side of the road. Automobile associations employed people who went around in vans. Quite often they could get a vehicle going again. Now, if you need more than a jump-start or a new fan belt, you'll probably be told to wait for a tow truck.

Our station wagon was very different from the car I drive today. It had front-wheel-drive and low clearance. When I opened the bonnet, I saw things I recognised from my motorcycle days. The engine was uncluttered and it was easy to understand how it worked. When it didn't, it was not difficult to figure out what was wrong. Most of the time, I could do something to get the vehicle going again. That was important because the drive to Luke's place took us through some very difficult country. I'll tell you about the trip because we had a few problems. If you're going bush they could happen to you.

The five of us left Townsville on the first day of the school holidays and drove 900 km (550 miles) to the mining city of Mount Isa, where we camped for the night. Burketown on the eastern side of the Gulf of Carpentaria was our next stop. Up to that point we had been driving on bitumen (tarmac).

There weren't many bitumen-sealed roads in the outback and there aren't many now. While you are on them you are fairly safe. Most are transcontinental highways and carry a continuous stream of long-distance traffic. If you break down you probably won't have to wait long before someone arrives. On a dirt road you can wait weeks.

We left the bitumen at Burketown and took the dirt road to Doomadgee, which is a small Aboriginal township at the edge of an extensive reserve of land belonging to them as traditional owners. We filled the car with petrol and pressed on westwards. At first the road ran over hard ground. Then it descended into a flat plain and everything suddenly changed. The trees were smaller and the ground beneath our tyres was no longer brown. A vast expanse of light coloured soil lay before us, churned up by the wheels of passing vehicles.

"Bulldust!"

I'd been warned about it. The stuff gets into everything. The grains have the same feel as talcum powder and are of similar composition. In the wet it turns to slush. In the dry it breaks up and blows everywhere. The road had disappeared and a fan of trails spread out. As one route became impassable, drivers made another. Judging from the ruts, most of the vehicles were far larger than ours. I stopped the car and got out.

I wasn't going anywhere unless I was sure I could get through. That meant finding a route where the ground was sufficiently firm to support the car. After half-an-hour of bush bashing I marked out a track. We drove along it and rejoined the road on higher ground.

The going was easy for a while. Then we met another patch of bulldust and got bogged down. The kids knew the routine. They gathered brushwood while my wife and I jacked up one of the front wheels. The brushwood was forced under it and more laid out to form a track. It was now the turn of the other wheel. I reached for my spanner.

"Where the hell had it gone?"

Luke had warned me about bulldust. It swallows things up. He said that when his kids were small he used to tie them to a tree in a situation like this. I thought he was joking. Now I realised he was serious. A toddler could vanish in seconds. I looked around and decided my children were safe. The youngest was ten and too big to be at risk.

We found the spanner and soon had the other wheel raised. Brushwood was placed beneath it and we drove off. The road was firm for a while then we hit sand. I was used to that. It's important to keep up momentum. Get up speed on the firm bits and coast along on the soft. Avoid breaking sharply. Don't oversteer. Let the vehicle find its natural path.

We were going along nicely when a cloud of dust told me another vehicle was coming along behind. It was much bigger than ours and travelling fast. The light was failing and so was my judgement. I moved to the side to let it pass and got stuck. To my relief they stopped to pull us out. We said we were going to stay with Luke and they said they were going to see him too.

We reached Luke's place and our new friends were invited to stay the night. Their original plan had been to drive on but they had a problem. Earlier in the day they had picked up a hitchhiker and he was giving them bad vibes. Luke checked the guy out and decided they weren't imagining things. There was something sinister about the pale-faced man in badly fitting clothes and I'll tell you about him in another story.

I gave the car a thorough check before we left Luke's place. Bulldust can give endless trouble. Imagine tipping a bag of talc on your engine. Think of all the places it might end up. I cleaned filters and blew down every accessible orifice with a pressure hose. Everything had to be got right. The next part of our journey would take us to the far side of the Gulf of Carpentaria. The route was sparsely inhabited and we'd be travelling for two days.

We filled our spare fuel tanks. In those days, there weren't many petrol stations in the outback (same as now) and you could not make our sort of journey, in our sort of vehicle, unless you had friends who would top up your tanks. Luke's petrol was delivered in forty-four gallon drums and we tapped into them.

We said goodbye and headed westward. The road was in poor shape but adequate where it wasn't cut by flooding. Heavy rains had fallen the previous night and once-dry creek beds were raging torrents. We camped beside one and waited for the waters to subside.

The next day, I reconnoitred a route and fixed a spare radiator hose to the exhaust pipe, securing the open end well above any water level that we might encounter. That is important because water can be sucked into cylinders.

I put the car into low gear and drove slowly across, keeping the revs up and taking care not to stall. Going slow is important. Taking it at a rush can throw water up over the engine and short out the ignition.

Our next problem was bulldust. Despite my efforts, small amounts remained. Minute particles had penetrated the vitals of my engine. I could wax lyrically on their malign character. Sufficient to say that they'd stuffed my alternator. They had incapacitated the generator that charged the battery that started the engine and sparked the plugs.

I realised something was wrong when the warning light came on. We drove for several hours and the engine began to misfire. I stopped at the top of a hill figuring the battery would regain some of its strength if we let it rest. That worked the first time but not the second and I had to resort to my flashlight batteries, combining them in series to provide 12 volts. Mercifully, the kids had brought along a radio. It had a 9-volt battery and I used that when the first batteries were exhausted.

We limped into Borroloola and went straight to the filling station. A mechanic was on duty and he stripped down the alternator. To my dismay the bearings were crammed full of bulldust and totally wrecked.

"Can a replacement be fitted?"

"It'll take a week to get one sent up from Sydney," he replied. "Your best bet is to go out into the yard and see if you can find one there."

A hundred or so wrecked vehicles littered the dusty space outside. I went from one to the next. The bonnets were open and the engines stripped. There wasn't a single alternator that would fit my car. I gave up and was making my way back to the workshop, feeling despondent, when an image flashed before my eyes. For a moment, I thought I was imagining things. An alternator, just like mine, was poking out of the soil in a chicken pen. I went inside and dug it up. Most was missing but the bit with the bearings was still intact.

It was an amazing piece of luck. The casing was corroded and had to be cracked open before we could get to the bearings. They were taken out, soaked in kerosene and packed with grease. I installed them and they performed flawlessly on the 2000 kilometre drive back to Townsville. Later, when replacing them, in the comfort of my home, I broke one of the brushes that transmit current to the commutator. My car was out of action and I had to ask friends to give me a lift to work.

In retrospect, I feel foolish for taking children on such a trip. My bush skills got us out of a lot of trouble but things could have worked out differently.


18 Crocodile farming



When I was a boy the thought of farming crocs never occurred to me. My grandparents had a farm in Lincolnshire (England) and I stayed with them. Cows and chickens were the main livestock. There wasn't a crocodile to be seen.

I might have remained blissfully ignorant of the big reptile if I'd not got hooked on astronomy at school. My fascination with the heavens led to a degree in astrophysics and a precarious career as a stargazer. The demand for astronomers isn't high and I was soon racking my brain for an alternative way to support my family.

A job as a Canberra bureaucrat provided stable employment but was boring. I resigned and made my way north to the Australian tropics where I joined the staff of James Cook University in Townsville as its press officer. I was soon writing articles on subjects as varied as oral history, wind engineering and croc farming.

Now, it's one thing to write about exciting subjects. Getting involved is entirely different. So, when my wife heard me talking about the soaring demand for crocodile hides, she became alarmed. We were staying with my friend Luke on his property in Queensland's northern gulf country.

I should explain that the term property is used to describe a stretch of land that would be called a ranch in America. Luke's property was a quarter the size of Belgium but don't think of him as fabulously rich. The huge area was worth no more than a few moderately priced housing blocks in suburban Sydney.

The land was in Australia's savannah belt. In the monsoon season it floods. During the remaining nine months of the year it goes from green to brown to black. The last being when bush fires go through.

Luke was a grazier. He kept cattle and that was becoming increasingly difficult. There was a time when he mustered on horseback and drove his animals to the nearest railhead. Those days were gone. The government had embarked on a campaign to eradicate the twin scourges of brucellosis and tuberculosis from the northern herds. Droving spread diseases and cattle had to be trucked. That meant catching them.

One day Luke invited me to go out with his workforce and watch them round up some bullocks. In my naivety I expected a bunch of leathery-skinned men with wide-brimmed hats and elastic-sided boots. In the event, the only leathery-skinned man was Luke. His entire party consisted of himself, his ten-year-old son, Angus, and a nineteen-year-old Maori lad on a work-experience program. I later learnt that the young man's father was a vet and wanted his son to gain experience of real animal husbandry before going to uni and learning about it there.

Luke directed me to a jeep that had seen service during the Second World War. I got in on the driver's side and was looking for the ignition key when a voice brought me to order.

"Shove over, mate!"

Angus appeared by my side. The kid had been raised in adult company and didn't know how to behave like a child. I moved over and he took my place at the steering wheel. There were blocks on the pedals to accommodate his short legs and a cushion to get the rest of him high enough to see over the dashboard. I sat in the passenger seat and the nineteen-year-old crouched on the bonnet. Luke followed in an old cattle truck.



We were going after the bullocks that had been expelled from the herd by their dads and uncles. The young animals were hanging around in creek beds where the grass was still green and there was water for them to drink. They watched with puzzled expressions as we approached. We could have come from another planet. They'd never seen anything like us before. Big, doleful eyes registered bewilderment then alarm.

One turned and the others followed. Angus hit the accelerator and the jeep shot forward. The front was padded with old tires. The aim was to exhaust a fleeing animal and bowl it over. In this sort of contest, everything depends on stamina. A two-year-old bullock has a finite amount. A ten-year-old boy behind the wheel of a jeep has as much as his fuel tank holds.

Angus singled out a bullock and stayed a few paces behind. The terrain was flat and studded with parched grass and small trees. An experienced animal would have escaped down a water channel and left the jeep behind but the youngster kept to the flat.

The outcome was never in doubt. The bullock's pace slackened. Angus delivered a glancing blow with the tyres. The exhausted animal rolled over and the Maori lad grabbed it by the testicles. Moments later, Luke appeared and placed a halter round the animals neck.

That night, as we were having dinner, Luke admitted he was practising a very primitive form of animal husbandry but had no other options. In a year things would change. He'd shoot his entire heard and the government would compensate him. When the area had been declared disease free, he would restock with certified animals. That got me to thinking about crocodile farming.

A few weeks earlier, I'd interviewed a group of scientists who were working on research programs aimed at introducing new industries to the Pacific region. Crocodile farming was one of them.

In those days, a top hide from a three-year-old crocodile was fetching about $200 on the international market. That compared favourably with what Luke was getting for his cattle. Processing was straightforward. There was no need to truck the crocs to an abattoir. You were allowed to shoot them. Hides stacked flat so transport wasn't a problem. Luke would have to shoot his herd as part of the disease eradication program. Instead of leaving them for crows and eagles, he could feed them to crocs.

The sums worked out a treat. Crocodiles are cold blooded. That means they don't expend energy keeping warm. In fact, they don't expend much energy at all. Most of the time they lounge around in muddy pools waiting for their next meal to come along. As a consequence, much of what they eat goes into bodybuilding. Shoot a bullock, put it in a freezer and feed it, bit by bit, to a crocodile hatchling. Within three years, the last of the bullock will be eaten and you'll have a crocodile with a hide big enough to sell to the French fashion industry.

Luke asked if the hatchlings were prone to disease. I said they were extremely hardy. Baby crocs are accustomed to swimming around in one another's excrement. You could keep hundreds in a small pool and they'd remain in good health. And there would be no trouble finding dainty morsels for their tiny palates. All you had to do was hang up lights above their pools at night and moths would crash in under their own wing power.

On the other side of the table, our wives watched apprehensively as we sketched out plans for a joint business venture. Luke's wife was the first to speak.

"Won't it be dangerous?"

That was rich. Didn't the woman have any idea of the perils her family faced as bull wrestlers? I opened my mouth to speak and got a warning glance from Luke.

"Where are you going to get the eggs from?"

I said the government issued permits that allowed you to collect eggs from crocodile nests.

"What about the big bulls that guard the nests?"'

She had a point there. Daddy crocs can be very attentive when it comes to guarding the next generation. I said we'd wait until dad had gone off for a bite to eat then I'd sneak in with a collecting basket and grab some eggs. Luke would stand by with a gun in case dad got back earlier than expected.

That did it. My wife announced, in no uncertain terms, that I was not going to get involved in crocodile farming. It was far too dangerous and she wasn't going to take the kids away from Townsville to live in the bush. I'm a very obedient husband and bowed to her superior authority.

In the weeks that followed, Luke did a careful investigation of the croc project and decided to stick with the industry he knew. That was probably wise. Years later, a symposium on crocodiles was held in Townsville and some of the participants stayed at my hostel. Crocodile farming was now a well-established industry in Australia and I asked about it.

They told me that most successful operations are run as subsidiaries of chicken farms. The reptile helps dispose of heads and other parts that supermarkets won't take. Easy access to waste from trawlers is also an advantage because crocs cannot live on chooks alone ... an occasional bite of fish is needed.

David Paget got involved in croc farming when he was on the run. You can read about David in my novel Curtin Express.

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