Robert adjusted the small telescope mounted on a tripod, then stood and gestured at me. He shifted his cigarette into his left hand and placed a stained finger firmly on the open hole in the centre of his throat.
‘Here, come and have a look at this,’ he rasped. ‘There’s a young male crocodile on the bank over there.’
I bent to look through the telescope and there it was, perfectly framed in the centre of my gaze, lying on the sandy bank on the other side of the river. It was greenish brown, scaly and leathery, with a long snout that tapered at the end and identified it as a freshwater crocodile.
‘Hey, boys, come and check out the croc.’
My two sons wandered over, crocodiled out after forty-eight hours at nearby Windjana Gorge, the Kimberley’s premier freshwater crocodile tourist spot. We’d seen hundreds of them sliding out of the murky dry-season waterhole to sunbake on the sand. It was hard to believe so many could survive in such a small body of water. What did they eat, we wondered.
The boys were unimpressed by Robert’s lone crocodile, but they dutifully bent to look through the lens. ‘How do you know it’s a male?’ I asked, trying to distract Robert from their lack of enthusiasm. He grinned at me, and I recognised the look immediately. I’d just walked into his trap and he was delighted. He put his hand back up to his throat. ‘Because it’s got its bloody mouth shut!’ he cackled.
He wandered back to his caravan, shaking his head happily the whole way. That was the first time I met Robert, and I liked the old bastard immediately.
Robert is in his mid sixties, a small, compact man with a grey beard that ends in a sharp point at his chin that draws your eye directly to the hole in his trachea. He has a high flush to his face that, combined with his permanent air of grumpiness, makes him seem always on the edge of a minor tantrum. It doesn’t help that he also throws his arms around a lot, probably a result of his difficulties with speech, but which can come across like the huffiness of a teenager.Between May and October, Robert lives on the Lennard River where it crosses the Gibb River Road, 120 kilometres from Derby. The Gibb, originally a stock route, is one of Australia’s classic four-wheel-drive routes. It runs 700 kilometres from Derby to Kununurra, and passes through some of the Kimberley’s most beautiful and rugged country. Its reputation as a rough and corrugated road has been lessened in recent years as mining exploration has brought improved all-weather road conditions on several sections of the road. Many dry-season travellers are disappointed to find that the first 100 kilometres from Derby are well graded and smooth, more like a highway than the remote and dangerous drive they were braced for.
Between the Windjana Gorge turn-off and the concrete bridge that spans the banks of the Lennard River a white sandwich board sits on the side of the road, announcing in red block letters that the Snack Stop is open. The track to Robert’s place follows the high riverbank for fifty metres, ending in a large turning circle. A narrow trail runs a few metres into the bush to a green corrugated iron structure that screens a toilet from public view. It’s a classic long drop bush dunny that’s been poshed up a bit for the ladies by the addition of a black plastic seat and lid.
A caravan is set up at the highest point of the river’s western bank. It sits underneath a permanent tropical roof—a steel structure designed to withstand cyclones. Under the awning, Robert has stuck up maps of the Kimberley, a snake identification chart and a noticeboard covered in photos that people have sent him. The images are almost all of Robert: he stands proudly by his van with an assortment of gorgeous young women in tiny singlets and tinier shorts, tanned cyclists balancing dusty bikes against their lean legs, and old couples and their dogs. A special frame holds a photo of Robert with Barry Humphries. The two men have an identically triumphant smile. They both look delighted to have met such an interesting character all the way out here.
Robert doesn’t live in the caravan. It has been converted into a shop from which he sells drinks and snacks to passing tourists. He passes mugs of tea and coffee through a sliding window onto a shelf that holds a jar of sugar, a mug filled with teaspoons and a tub of sweet biscuits. Holding out the tub and rattling it vigorously is his way of saying ‘Help yourself’. One of the doors is held open with an occy strap. The entrance is blocked by an ice-cream freezer that draws car-weary kids in like a magnet. The perspex lid is covered with their greasy hand and nose prints.
Under a large river gum, Robert has put out wooden picnic benches and hundreds of pot plants, creating a lush outdoor café. Plastic orange mesh strung between rusted steel pickets creates a barrier to stop kids and dogs sliding down the sandy slope to the muddy water far below.
The first time I met Robert, I was just another one of the hundreds of tourists who pass through each year. They are drawn in by disbelief—a snack stop all the way out here?—and the simple luxury of an ice cream. They climb out of their dusty four-wheel-drives and exclaim in wonder at this unexpected oasis, and then all ask Robert the same questions, which he writes down in a battered exercise book. After we became friends, he pulled out the book and showed us his favourites. My sons read them out and Robert crowed his standard responses.
‘Do you live here?’
‘No, I fly in by helicopter every day from Derby.’
‘Do the crocodiles have their babies here?’
‘No, there’s a special maternity ward for them at the hospital in Broome.’
‘Where do you sleep?’
‘In the five star hotel over the hill.’
He actually sleeps on a stretcher bed beside the caravan; outside, under the stars, not bothered by mosquitoes or moths or snakes or bugs. He has a colourful crocheted blanket that is tucked in tightly over the mattress and his dog sleeps by his side.
‘Don’t you get lonely?’
‘No, because you buggers keep coming in and asking me stupid bloody questions!’
‘Why do you live here?’
When we got to that one, he gave me a look. By then we weren’t tourists any more. A year had passed since we had first travelled through the Kimberley. Now we lived at the small community of Imintji, a hundred kilometres down the track towards Kununurra. That made me a neighbour.To Robert, I was a good neighbour because I never passed his place without stopping. Lennard River was halfway from Imintji to Derby. I always broke my town runs there for a cup of tea and to check if he needed anything. Often he did, so on the way back I’d stop again to offload cartons of soft drink or bags of groceries. Once it was his car radiator that I’d dropped off to the mechanic in Derby in the morning and picked up again on my way out.
On the way home, I’d leave Robert’s and drive past the surreal rock formation of Queen Victoria Head at Yammera Gap, where the road cuts through the Napier Range. From there the road traversed steep hills and flowing creeks. Sealed only at the river crossings and the steepest jump ups, the track was rocky and corrugated. On the worst sections, only the seatbelt stopped my head from hitting the roof and I would hear the shopping crash around in the back. Every time I drove that road, my heart thumped in my chest as the car veered unexpectedly on a patch of loose gravel or thudded into a pothole. But tears always clogged my throat when I got to the lookout at the top of the King Leopold Ranges and looked down at the country I was lucky enough to live in.
Once—the day I had to wait for his radiator—I was running late and it was getting dark when I left Robert’s. He had other visitors that afternoon and, at his suggestion, I drove home behind them. Although I didn’t have to worry about hitting stray bulls in the deepening dusk, because their truck was clearing the road ahead, I drove most of the way half blind. The dust from the truck hung in the still air, reflecting the beam of my headlights back at me. When I finally got home, my husband hadn’t been worried. Robert had fired up the satellite phone he kept for emergencies to call and tell him I was on the way.
One day Robert spoke longingly about my predecessor at the Imintji store.
‘Lovely girl. She used to come and mind the van for me. Sometimes I need to go into Derby, but I can’t leave the place empty.’ He looked at me.
‘Just ring me, Robert. Any time.’
A few days later he did, his scratchy voice barking over the sat phone.
Dylan, my eight-year-old son, and I arrived at the Snack Stop early that morning. Robert showed us around the van and gave us our instructions. ‘Help yourself to whatever you want and make sure no-one steals anything. Don’t drink all my beer.’
Not long after he left, a truck pulled up and three young men climbed out and asked for coffee, Coke and pies. Dylan handled the cold drinks and took the money while I dealt with the hot stuff. On the bench beside the kettle was an old tea strainer that Robert had said was to catch stray frogs that might have climbed into the kettle overnight. I was pretty sure he was joking, but I did it anyway, pouring the boiling water carefully through the brown mesh, looking for intruders.
It wasn’t even nine o’clock yet, but it was already hot. After breakfast the men walked down to the muddy waterhole that was all that was left of the river and jumped in for a swim. Dylan went with them. A year ago he was a city kid and now he was splashing about in murky brown water with three big Aboriginal blokes. He seemed to have completely forgotten that crocodiles lived in this river.
Not many people came in. It was late in the season and getting too hot and humid for the tourists. By midafternoon the only customer we had was Gerry. He had come to help Robert pack up his pot plants and take them into Derby for the wet season. Gerry was about Robert’s age but looked more worn out. He used to own a cattle station 200 kilometres away and he had just sold it to a conservation organisation. They were planning to remove the cattle and turn the property into a nature reserve. Gerry was going to live in Derby. ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself in town,’ he said. He sat with us and drank a beer while he waited for Robert.
The final question that Robert showed us in his book was, ‘Why did you put the sticks up there?’ We all looked up at the brittle grey twigs lodged in the tropical roof above the van.
In a few months the rain will start to fall and the Lennard River will flow. At its peak it will rush through the Napier Range into Windjana Gorge, where it has carved out a path that is a hundred metres wide with cliffs up to thirty metres high. Soon the water will rise up the bank to flood the spot where we were sitting. It will keep rising until the roof above us is submerged.
The sticks were from last year’s wet season. Floating debris caught in the corners of the metal roof as the water retreated, reminders that this is a transient, seasonal place.©Lorna Hendry