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Hunting for pictures – and crocodiles

December 15, 2014
by David Gray
<b>Arnhem Land, Australia</b>

Walking through a forest of native Australian Paperback trees, we suddenly stop.

“Look, crocodiles!” says aboriginal hunter Marcus Gaykamangu. I squint through the gaps between trees with bark peeling off like paper, and see nothing but mud and what water is left in the small oxbow lake, known in Australia as a billabong.

“There..!” points Marcus, with a hint of annoyance in his voice, and quite rightly so I thought. As a Reuters photojournalist I’m supposed to be a trained observer, but I can’t see the croc.

Marcus and his father Roy start running. When I finally reach them, there’s a herd of startled buffalo running off into the trees on the far side of the waterway, and Roy standing ankle-deep in water pointing his shotgun at the surface.

Roy starts walking across the billabong, treading carefully as the water rises to his knees. He half crouches as he walks – a true sign of a hunter closing in on prey. After a few tense minutes he makes it to the other side, but seems to lose sight of what he was stalking.

Using a long stick, he pokes at the murky water. Suddenly, he sees it. In one swift action, he takes a step back, takes aim and “boom!”

The shotgun is deafening as it breaks the outback silence, until now only interrupted by screeching birds.

I’ve wanted to photograph the daily lives of Australia’s Aborigines in their Arnhem Land reserve in the country’s “Top End” for more than 10 years.

Arnhem Land covers an area of around 37,000 sq miles, including the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, and access for non-Aborigines is by invitation only.

The Aboriginal clans in Arnhem Land have their own language and their bond with the land is incredibly strong and extremely difficult for an ‘outsider’ to fully understand.

Last year, during a patrol with the Indigenous Australian Army unit known as NORFORCE, I met Sergeant Norman Daymirringu, a Yolngu Aborigine from Arnhem Land, who invited me on a hunting trip with his family in an area just outside the community of Ramingining – a very bumpy and dusty 650-kilometre-drive east of the tropical city of Darwin.

As custodian of his family’s country, Norman is one who is allowed by tradition to pass on stories about his ancient aboriginal culture to relatives and those he deems worthy, and I was honoured to be a part of that and have him show me “Sacred Sites”.

To a “white fella” like me – this aboriginal term is not meant to be offensive, but just an observation of the colour of my skin a “Sacred Site” may look like a hill, a waterhole, or even an ants mound. But to the Yolngu people they tell stories of creation and tie them culturally to the land, which they sometimes call “Mother”.

At Yathalamarra, a community of around a dozen houses, we pick up some of Norman’s relatives for the crocodile hunt. Roy Gaykamangu, his three sons Adam, Marcus and Michael, plus his three-year-old grandson Johnny, pile into the back of our four-wheel drive and we headed into the bush.

After stopping at a few waterholes we decide to head off on foot to a more isolated billabong. With the sun blazing and temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius I was admittedly getting pessimistic about finding any prey, when suddenly Roy fires his shotgun, emptying the used cartridges in the dirt. At his feet or not far from his feet lay a dead crocodile more than 7 feet long.

Roy yells to one of his sons to come help and they meet in the middle. My first inclination is to warn them that there may be more crocodiles – but I stop and remind myself that I’m with experienced traditional hunters and custodians of this land.

Roy pulls the dead crocodile from the water, while Marcus keeps a lookout. Not far from the shoreline, the water starts moving. Marcus grabs at something beneath the surface. After lots of splashing, he holds up a baby crocodile bleating. As he holds the baby croc above his head, a splash breaks the middle of the billabong. It looks like its parents are not pleased.

Marcus quickly ties the baby’s mouth shut and the movement stops. He wanders downstream and grabs a boat hidden in the bushes. Using a stick as a paddle, he pulls up to the shoreline.

“Wow, its over,” I thought. “We can head off with a great catch and potential feast awaiting.” Apparently not.

Roy sits down, pulls out his knife, and starts to cut up the catch. I’m thinking, however, that we probably shouldn’t be doing this so close to the water’s edge where many more crocodiles are still roaming.

But with another huge smile across his face, Marcus says simply that it is much easier to “carry them out without all that skin.” He then makes me smile when he so eloquently adds ‘Actually, I prefer my crocodile with some pepper and lemon’. Of course he does!

As we are leaving, Roy grabs some tree leaves to wrap the crocodile guts up with, as nothing that can be eaten is wasted. A successful yet normal day hunting in the Top End has come to an end.