Sunday, April 3, 2011

Hugo, Heather and the crocs of Olive River

I've met some strange and interesting people travelling the world as a journalist over the years but right up there near the top of the list come this pair on a boat trip to Torres Strait in 1997, so read on:

THE ageless watchers on the bank would have heard us puttering up river long before they spied Heather, Hugo and me stepping from the dinghy into the pitch-tar blackness of a Cape York Peninsula midnight.
We clattered about in muddy, knee-deep water dragging the ancient tinnie and its battered outboard up the bank from which, mere seconds before, the watchers had slid stealthily beneath the Olive River to do whatever it is crocodiles do when unaccustomed things go bump in their night.
For about 10 months of the year Hugo Julcher, 65, and Heather Schlaegl, 58, share that little section of Temple Bay, near the tip of Cape York, with about a dozen resident crocodiles and God only knows how many local snakes and transient sharks.
So my guess is that Heather and Hugo not only would have seen the two watchers on the bank in front of their shack as we approached out of the night but most likely would have known them by first name.
You see, their's is but a small, exclusive colony of crocodiles with almost daily eyeball-to-eyeball contact on the banks and in the water that rushes past their front door ... make that their front half door, because half a front door is all there is to this home away from home, probably the least luxurious shack I have encountered since visiting black townships in South Africa in apartheid days.
Most of the building material has come from combing the wide, white beaches within easy walking distance of that lonely shack about 180km south of the tip of Cape York. Material like the sail which makes up the eastern wall and the railway tarp that provides about half the roof, fishing net, the flotsam and jetsam, the odds and ends that have been turned into just about every stick of furniture in the place.
Sure, it doesn't sound much, but it's a dream home to this amazing couple, a 10-month-a-year haven from the rat race of Cairns where Heather owns a small block of units.
Maybe it was the excitement of coming home to this tiny, often damp outpost in the wilderness that caused them to overlook formal introductions between myself and the reptiles but they failed to mention them altogether as we disembarked.
Thus fortified by their lack of concern about deadly creatures of the night, I stumbled through the water, the mud, the bush and the blackness helping unload their meagre provisions.
This finished, we each had a can of beer to ward off the tropical swelter, I flashed off a few photos of them filling a chaff bag with black-lip oysters from the spot so recently vacated by their evil-eyed neighbours, and returned a mile out to sea to board my transport to Torres Strait, Jardine Shipping's mother ship, Torres Express.
It was only next day that a Torres Express crewman, who had been following our dinghy up the Olive the previous night with more stores, mentioned the crocodiles just a few metres from us which he had clearly seen in his spotlight. There was a torch in Hugo's tinnie but after about 20 years fishing and living around the Olive, he doesn't need spotlights, or any other new-fangled contraption for that matter, just his instincts.
Well, that's not entirely true. He and Heather have a generator that works a frig and a dim light. They also have a transistor radio which receives the ABC at night and first thing in the morning but not during the day.
As well, Hugo made a giant technological leap into the future this year when he purchased an EPIRB, an emergency radio beacon, which can beep out an SOS in case of an emergency.
Before this historic event, all emergencies at that Olive River outpost were tackled first-hand. That's the way they do it up that way. If you get crook you look after yourself until you get better ... if you get better.
Seven years ago I was swigging rum (medicinal purposes only, mind) with one of the Cape's pioneer cattlemen, the late Rod Heinemann, at his station, Bramwell, about 50 inaccessible kilometres west of Hugo's shack. Old Rod, well into his eighties then, mentioned one of his worst times on The Cape, being bitten by a redback spider out on the track with a mob of cattle and miles from anywhere.
"I was pretty crook and had to lie down for a fair while," said Rod as if he was yarning about the bloody weather. "But I came good in the end." Do they make 'em like that anymore, I wonder?
Hugo Julcher is of the same vanishing breed - tough, independent, adventurous. If you were around in post-war years you will remember the type. Thousands of them came out here after the second war from all over Europe seeking work but looking more for adventure.
They couldn't speak the lingo too well but they worked hard and played hard and won a lot of respect for that, as well as with their devil-may-care attitude and their mitts.
Hugo hit Australia from Austria in the early '50s on a promise of work in his trade as a cabinet maker but it wasn't available when he arrived and that sort of sent him off on a tangent. Since then he's worked in every state at just about every job you care to name, including buffalo shooting in the Territory.
He even has a kindly cop to thank for dragging him out of a Melbourne gutter one time and sending him to a friend's farm up country to dry out. He still doesn't mind a drop in the morning, the afternoon and the night, but it gets awful dry on the Olive River when his meagre supply runs out after the first couple of weeks.
Supplies simply don't come in because there is no way to order them, so they take what will last longest when they catch the mother ship, Torres Express, on its first run of the prawning season from Cairns to York Island in Torres Strait.
When it has travelled close to 700km north from Cairns, Hugo and Heather climb into their loaded tinnie, day or night, rough or smooth, putter a mile or so from the mother ship across a dangerous bar, and hey presto! Their paradise opens up.
The crew in a following dinghy unloads the rest of their supplies and that's often the last they see of another soul for two or three months. About 10 months later they catch the Torres Express on its last run of the season and rejoin the rat race for Christmas.
Occasionally they have unannounced visits from passing fishermen, yachties and some of the strangest wanderers imaginable.
Several people in kayaks have dropped in on their circumnavigation of Australia. Others have come in on 14ft catamarans like the one I sail in Bribie Passage. I'm mildly adventurous, not raving bonkers, see.
A bloke wearing a sarong and calling himself "Victor the Nomad" sailed up the Olive some time ago in a most incredible craft on his way to New Guinea where, he told Heather, he "just wanted to love people".
Someone farther down the coast had given him a near-wrecked 12ft tinnie. He patched it up, found a piece of blue plastic tarp for a sail and headed north with no rudder or centreboard. The last Heather and Hugo saw he was sailing wonkily in the general direction of New Guinea. They believe we was taken into protective custody a little farther up the coast, somewhere about Thursday Island.
Another time a Yank calling himself "Friendly" wandered in off the beach. He was walking up the coast to Bamaga from who knows where.
"Everything he owned was in a small sugar bag," said Heather with the wide-eyed surprise you would expect from someone trying to explain away an elderly couple who live with crocodiles way up Cape York for the hell of it.
"He didn't have any food. He was living completely off the land. He said hello and had a bit of a talk then headed north along the beach."
As "Friendly" disappeared into the shimmering northern haze, life returned to workaday normality for Hugo and Heather on the Olive River. That includes a lot of time beach combing, looking for bush tucker, fishing and crabbing, although crabbing is a mite unconventional.
Crab pots and dillies are out because the crocs gobble 'em up getting at the bait or the crab. So Hugo sinks fish frames in shallow water near the bank and when the muddies appear for a feed he spears them.
And you won't believe what this incredible duo do with those delicious giant black-lip oysters. They use them for fish bait because they're tired of eating them.
"It's not hard to get tired of oysters if you eat too many," Hugo said. "But they're very good bait."They're tired of barramundi too. Just too many of the bloody things in the creek.
"I've gone right off barra," Hugo said. "Give me mangrove jack any day."
They have an amazing selection of bush tucker (pictured) in the district including fruit and nuts from a variety of natives like currajong, lillypilly, wild grapes, passionfruit and especially coconuts. They get the sweetest of fine honey by whipping grevillea blossoms on to plates. They also grow what vegetables they can.
Hugo has a great recipe for fish cakes mixed in with roughly grated fresh coconut. He also has some great recipes for the occasional feral pig he bowls over.
In fact, Heather and Hugo could probably teach the Bush Tucker Man a thing or two about scrub cuisine and thought they were about to be so invited when the man himself, Les Hiddins, turned up at Heather's Cairns units a couple of years ago.
But he was more interested in details of a RAAF fighter pilot who crashed his F18 just a couple of miles from their Olive River shack. Much, much earlier Heather and Hugo had given RAAF search parties information about a strange noise they heard at the time the plane went missing, but as is often the case, the advice appears to have been overlooked.
When the crash site was accidentally discovered a couple of years later it was just about where Heather and Hugo figured it would be.
They don't miss much, the people who live by their wits in the wilderness, and that particularly goes for what most of us regard as the comforts of home.
Maybe you'd like living in a colony of crocodiles where you get to know the neighbours on a first name basis. But think twice because it's like Hugo told me when inviting me to stay for a week or two - you don't have to be mad but it's an advantage.
The unusual pair aren't living with crocodiles these days because Heather died back in Cairns a few years after I met her, but Hugo kept going back to his lonely hut for several years. Then, in the early 2000s, he just disappeared from his lonely hut on the Olive River. There is no prize for guessing how he met his maker.


  1. My father only mentioned his older brother (Hugo) a few times and the place where he lived (Olive River). I had thougtht many times that I should go and visit Hugo. I was at work one night when a work mate asked if I had a relative called Hugo. I said yes, and he passed me the clipping from the local paper about his disappearance. I was devistated. It was only this year that I had a chance to try and see where Hugo lived. After acquiring permission from the land owner, I was able to get within 10km of Hugos' place. Hopefully next year I'll take a boat to get the rest of the way. Thanks to the land owner and all the people who have assisted me so far. Rik

  2. Hi, Im Riks sister and yes he did make it back there