I’d been sitting out the back with Chris, a local lad just learning to surf, when I felt that instinctive tightening of my gut and stillness of the mind. In the Solomon Islands it was saltwater crocodiles I was terrified of, not sharks. A shark, if it bites (the chance of an attack is one in 11.5 million and the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) compares it to being attacked by an alligator…), will take a taste test that might mortally wound, or might not.
A croc is a different matter entirely. It is an invincible opponent, ferocious, and with the certain objective of killing you, if not with it’s crushing jaws (3,000 PSI) then by twisting you underwater until you drown. It will then take you to it’s lair and once you are sufficiently tenderised by decay it will devour you. There’s no taste test.
Young Chris had been chattering away about his girlfriend, Rose, who despite (so he says) being three years his senior, did not know how to play – is this the sort of conversation in the water he’d picked up from the Aussie surfers?
“It should be fifty-fifty, yes?” he asked. But I was preoccupied with the onset of dusk and the darkening of the sea’s surface by the stubborn trade winds.
The resort operators had admitted seeing the occasional croc swim across the bay at dawn or dusk, but no one had ever been ‘taken’ in the province, they reckoned it was apples. How could I take their assurances seriously though; apart from being Australian and accustomed to the perilous reptiles, I’d overheard the mention of a fishing river nearby that was too infested to safely take libelous tourists to. These crocs would “need to go,” which is what I think happened to the skull sitting atop the fish gutting station (above photo).
What’s more, a troop of fishermen thought they’d spotted a croc up a different river yesterday – a lure had landed on it, they said.
So for all of these reasons I felt very self conscious sitting on a surf board with my legs dangling in the water, like bait bobbing about.
“Chris, are there many crocs around here?”
“Oh yes, there are many.” I was impressed by the sincerity in his voice and the honest expression on his face; it was unlike the way in which he spoke of the apparently reluctant Rose.
“Are you afraid of them?” I asked.
“Oh no!” he said, as if it was a ridiculous idea.
“Because they are our ancestors, they are like human beings.”
How did these people, beat by the bible for a few hundred years, these God fearing people, how did they integrate animism into their Christian beliefs, I wondered.
“Is like this,” he began.
“They are our old ancestors. The crocodiles, they are here for our security now. If the enemy comes into our harbour the crocodiles will come to protect us. They will eat the other men.”
“When you die do you become a crocodile?” I asked.
“So where did they come from?”
“Men came in a wooden ship to the village. They were from faraway, Fiji I think, and they wanted people to work on their farms. This was in 1568 – I think, yes, 1568*.
“They took all the men, but left one man. He went walkabout in the bush for three days and brought back to the village one snake. He chop the snake into bits, lots of bits. They turn into animals. There was a crocodile, lizard, iguana, shark, ray, birds…I don’t remember what else.
“When the men came back in the wooden ship the snake was dead but now there were many animals to protect us.
“My grandmother tell me this story.”
It didn’t matter that it was a muddled version, whether it was true or not, because for some inexplicable reason I calmed and lost the fear. Just like that.
“Keri, do you have a boyfriend?”
I laughed and jokingly said, “Of course, heaps!”
“I think play is the best thing ever.” Chris was 17 years old, of course he did.
“Well, I think that surfing and kai kai are up there, too.”
“Ugh, not kai kai,” he said, making a face.
After a lifetime of eating soap-like taro maybe I’d agree. And with that, we paddled back to the boat as the sun disappeared from the austral horizon.
* Chris seems to have two stories crossed. In 1568 the Spanish discoverer Mendana was the first European to arrive in the chain of islands he named the Solomon Islands (after mistakenly thinking King Solomon had sourced his gold here). The wooden ship from Fiji that Chris mentions refers to the ‘blackbirding,’ which began in the 1860’s. Islanders were tricked or kidnapped and taken to work on sugar cane plantations in Fiji and Queensland, Australia.