Last Horse Standing by Mike Keenan tells the story of Jack Camp, a Kimberley stockman who went on a near fatal mustering expedition to Walcott Inlet in 1971. Based on a true story as told to Mike by Jack’s young jackeroo Peter Wann, the story tells of how Jack crossed the King Leopold Ranges and then the Isdell River to muster cattle grazing on the Walcott Inlet flats.
Things went wrong.
I was fascinated by the yarn. First of all it’s told well, but it also has special resonance for me because I rafted down the Isdell River when I was 16 as part of an Australian and New Zealand Scientific Exploration Society (ANZSES) expedition in 1983.
1971 was the year after a ban on shooting saltwater crocodiles was put in place. The salties had been hunted to quite low levels – although I suspect the remoteness of Walcott Inlet meant they were in reasonable numbers there. In the book Mike describes how dangerous the waters were because of the salties, how the Aboriginal people in the area called it Devil Devil.
In 1983 – some 13 years after the ban was put in place – you’d expect the numbers to have increased.
When we went on the expedition we knew saltwater crocs were to be avoided but we really didn’t know much about them or what signs to look for.
We thought they stayed in freshwater. We didn’t think about how far they might travel on land. We thought we’d be safe in our rubberised nylon yellow rafts.
Recently I transcribed my diary of that expedition 25 years ago. Here’s an excerpt. And be kind – I was only 16 at the time.
Around midday after a particularly large rapid with many of us feeling a bit annoyed with life – I was in front powering away and then K came up to talk to me. D went past and zoomed in front and W passed us as well and was between us and D.
Suddenly there was a loud cry of “BULLSHIT!” and I turned to see a large croc tearing into D’s raft – it narrowly missed his leg – it was just like JAWS and we were sure that if P had been there he would have made him rehearse it twice before shooting it.
D, after seeing that his raft was not an especially safe place to be anymore, decided to swim for a nearby rock. If it had been timed I doubt anyone could have beaten that 5 yard dash!! K and I meanwhile had made our own dash to a rock and sat there thinking that WE were next on the menu…
After we left the Isdell – clambering up a muddy bank with the odd crocodile slide evident – we followed the inlet on foot until we got to a skinny part – the ankle.
The sight of a large salty was enough to put K and me off and we decided to cross at an ankle deep ford. HOWEVER to get there we had to cross a muddy bank. It is hard enough without packs, with them it’s impossible.
Well after struggling down the bank and across the ford we looked ahead to find a mammoth task yet ahead of us. We staggered over soggy semi-firm sand towards the rest of the party. After much complaining and frustration we made it only to have to continue – we had barely gone a quarter of the way. My feet and legs were just so tired.
We had two more stream ford channels to cross (thigh deep!) and three soggy stretches as well as a slippery bank – all with heavy packs and leaden feet. I figured I might get a bit of a rest in between but no, it was push on.
It was later realised that had we reached the inlet half an hour later we would have either been trapped in the middle of the river by the incoming tide or have missed low tide altogether.
Because of course a saltwater crocodile would find it a real bother to swim the 2-300 metres to snack on us… not. We were very lucky.
But back to the book – Last Horse Standing – it’s worth a read – especially if you are interested in the outback and Australiana. The region Mike describes is wild and untamed – possibly even more so today than when I was there 25 years ago – and absolutely beautiful.