By Fr. Hilary Fischer
There are two species of crocodiles living in Papua New Guinea. The first is called the freshwater crocodile and it lives mainly in rivers and lakes. The second is called the saltwater crocodile which lives at the mouths of rivers and out on the reefs. The second species is the most common in Papua New Guinea and is easily recognized by the fact that two of its front teeth are so long that they protrude right through the upper jaw and are visible at the top. The saltwater crocodiles or “salties,” as the Australians call them, are the most vicious of all the predators. Even people standing on the reef fishing are in danger of being attacked by them.
The events I’m about to describe happened at Puas after Father Kopunek built a new airstrip there. There was a man spearfishing at the mouth of the Matanalaua river when he was attacked by a very big saltie. He passed out, and came to again while the crocodile was pulling him through the water by his arm. He knew well the anatomy of a crocodile, and knew that there is an open space in its jaw behind the last teeth. He reached in with his other arm through this hole behind its teeth and started shaking the animal’s tongue and even grabbing its throat. The crocodile let go of him and he swam quickly to the shore. He was just a few hundred yards away from the mission clinic and got himself there as quickly as he could. By coincidence the mission plane was at the Puas airstrip because the director of the lay mission organization in Los Angeles was in the diocese visiting the lay missionaries his group had sent to us. The pilot, Bob Simmons, a lay missionary himself, offered to fly the injured man to Kavieng hospital while the director was visiting. A nurse went along to administer a saline drip because of his loss of blood. If there had been no plane available, the nurses could have handled the situation themselves, but the plane offered a much better alternative. They contacted Fr. Joe Gleixner by radio, and he met them at the airport and took the patient to the hospital. The doctors at the hospital were able to stabilize the patient, and Bob prepared to take the nurse back to Puas, and bring back the director.
In the meantime, at Puas there had been a heavy downpour of rain. These tropical downpours are often very localized, so Bob was not aware of it as he approached to land. Upon touchdown, the plane started to skid, partly because of the large tires used on grass airstrips, and hydroplaned all the way to the end of the airstrip. At that point it tipped over on one wing tip and was damaged so that it could not fly. There was no way to dismantle the plane and take it back for repairs so it had to be scrapped. This plane was a Cessna 336, a twin-engine plane with one engine in front and the other at the back of the cabin. The Bishop was able to buy a secondhand 336 from a commercial firm in the Highlands. This new plane was in very bad shape, and Bob, who was also a mechanic was able to take many parts, including the engines, from the crashed plane and to improve the cabin of the new plane. So our mission kept flying.
The second story took place on the same river, the Matanalaua and probably involved the same crocodile. There were two canoe loads of people coming down the river from their gardens up at the headwaters of the river. One canoe was well ahead of the other, and a man in the second canoe wanted to talk to someone in the first canoe. The current was very strong and the paddlers did not want to fight against it, so the man foolishly dove into the river and started swimming to the first canoe. He was about halfway there when there was a big splash and he disappeared. The people in the canoes realized that he had been taken by a crocodile and they made plans to recover the body if they could possibly do so.
The people knew that crocodiles don’t eat their large prey right away but generally hide them under a bank or in roots for a few days. They also knew that if they came out in force the crocodile would probably go hide. They could not be sure of this, though, so what they did was certainly a calculated risk. They organized many canoes and people and started up the river searching every possible hiding place. This meant diving into the river which would be dangerous, not just from the crocodiles, but from the swift current as well. They recovered the body hidden under a bank and took it home for proper burial.
These stories show how the people of Papua New Guinea learn to live with nature even in its more dangerous forms. In many places the people must go inland for drinking water to where the river is not salty but is clean enough for drinking and bathing. They know that crocodiles live in these places, but they also have to get drinking water. Sometimes they are chased by the crocodiles, but they learn how to avoid them and get what they need. They also bathe in this water with one eye open to the danger of crocodiles. They grow their gardens nearby because places near the rivers also have the most fertile soil. Even with all their knowledge they sometimes do foolish things such as the man in this second story and occasionally people do get taken.
Once, when I was visiting Fr. Bernard Miller at Lavongai Mission, an Australian who worked for the Health Department came by hunting crocodiles for the skins. This was legal in those days. He intended hunting that night in the river that flows between the Mission and the village of the same name. The villagers suspected there was a crocodile there that may have been responsible for the disappearance of children crossing the river to go to school at the mission. He invited me to go along, and I happily accepted, as he was considered to be a very successful hunter. His tools were a native canoe, his .303 rifle, a flashlight taped to its barrel, and a specially sharpened spear that could penetrate the back of a crocodile and stick there. That spear was important because a shot crocodile will quickly sink if not taken immediately. The canoe was loaded this way: the hunter in the bows, right behind him his trusted native spearman, four paddlers, then me, perched on the back.
Full darkness came soon after sunset, and we paddled slowly up the river, with the flashlight probing everywhere, and everybody watching for the flash of eyes. Very quickly we picked up a pair of eyes, set very widely apart, which indicated a big one. The paddlers pulled swiftly and quietly directly towards them, but the crocodile ducked before we could get close enough. He could have shot it at that range, but it would have sunk before the spearman could reach it. We soon picked up its eyes again, and again it ducked too soon. In this way we followed it up the river till a waterfall indicated the end of navigable water both for us and the crocodile. Then we patiently chased it all the way down the river, the paddlers getting better all the time at pulling quickly and quietly. Just in front of the sandbank that marked the mouth of the river, we got close enough; the hunter shot it and shouted to the paddlers to pull hard; the spearman nearly knocked him from the canoe in his eagerness to wield his spear, but he managed to sink it firmly into the crocodile’s back just as the front of the canoe passed over it.
We pulled the crocodile ashore right at the village, and the hunter and his helpers quickly skinned it. I don’t remember the exact size, but it was about ten feet long, a valuable trophy. He gave the meat to the villagers, who immediately started cooking it, and celebrated far into the night the downfall of that scourge of their village.