October 19th, 2002
Chance, said Louis Pasteur, favours only the prepared mind. If you want to get lucky, he thought, you've got to put the work in first; in his case, work that involved an awful lot of time staring down microscopes into small dishes teeming with things that none of us really want to find in our breakfast. Pasteur lived at a time when if you wanted to make a name for yourself, being prepared was pretty important; he numbered Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel among his exact contemporaries, both men who in their own way had a pretty non-trivial impact on the way we think about our world today. Their hard work, allied with the odd bit of good luck, helped us understand how we and everything else evolved, exactly how genetic inheritance works and why it can be a really bad idea to eat last night's curry for lunch if it hasn't been in the fridge overnight. They wanted to change the world, and by most modern measures of such things they succeeded.
I, on the other hand, just want to stay alive.
It is this which has determined the course of my preparations for tomorrow's trip to the swamps of northern Australia. Sure, it would be nice to get lucky, fish-wise; and to this end I have taken note of Pasteur's dictum, spending much of the last week tying the Pink Things and Crazy Charlies and Clouser minnows and epoxy shrimps that will help me and the boys catch boatsful of large, powerful and handsome fish of the sort that Paul Arden has as yet never caught. But it would be even better if I get lucky enough to keep all my limbs while we're doing it.
As preparation techniques go, this is not something that typically bothers even the most intrepid flyfisher. For most of us, the worst that Mother Nature is likely to throw our way is a hatch of size 20 olives when all we're carrying is size 14s; or, perhaps, in a year less climatically unpredictable than this one has been, a gentle shower at a time when we have left our waterproofs in the car. Both fairly annoying, to be sure; but not quite in the same league as realising that the log you just stepped on to get a better cast at a tailing fish is in fact a large specimen of Crocodylus porosus, the Indo-pacific saltwater crocodile.
Salties, as they're known to the people who live with them, are interesting creatures. Long before that nice Mr Cook and his merry men turned up to provide them with a new and bounteous source of protein, they were redefining the term 'fishing hazard' in the waterways of tropical Australia; the Aboriginal people have been treating these impressively well-adapted creatures with cautious respect for 60,000 years or so, for the very good reason that any lapse of concentration when out for one's morning constitutional often had spectacularly fatal results. These days it is comparatively rare to end up as crocodilian sushi, but it does happen; often enough to fishermen that it is worth studying some avoidance techniques before deliberately immersing oneself in their environment.
So there has been some anxious research going on chez Geer this week, in an attempt to find out what my chances are here. This is a ludicrous exercise in conflicting emotions. On one hand, the more I find out about Hinchinbrook the more excited I get by the thought that I will very soon be up to my knees, or perhaps even my ears, in barramundi and trevally and permit and queenfish. On the other hand, I become more acutely aware that this is an exercise in folly of a quite alarming kind; my research tells me that short of staying out of their way, there is no real defence against a crocodile once it has decided that you're the snack it can eat between meals without ruining its appetite. But let's leave the crocs out of the equation for a minute and consider one or two of the other hazards that can spoil your day north of the Tropic of Capricorn; box jellyfish, in particular, make the snakes and spiders of the region seem really quite cuddly and affectionate by comparison. The stonefish and sharks are merely minor irritants compared to this horror, which sees off three or four times as many hapless waders and bathers as any of Australia's better-known assailants.
You are, of course, much more likely to be involved in a fatal encounter with your fridge than with any of these creatures. Sunburn and dehydration represent far more serious hazards; even the burns to your fingers caused by a fish taking 250 yards of line with its first run – whatever Paul says, an inevitable occurrence, trust me – are more likely to kill you. Still, it is instructive to explore one's inner reserves of paranoia from time to time, not least because such exploration tells you exactly how obsessive you have become about your formerly harmless and pastoral pursuit. Anyone who flies to the other side of the world and risks becoming crocodile shit in the interest of catching a fish must really want to catch it, or at least have the sorts of psychological problems that can only really be addressed by confronting extremely dangerous aquatic predators.
So this is, really, just a form of therapy (albeit one in which the other participants are extremely unlikely to ask about my relationship with my father). I'll tell you more about how sane I'm feeling about it all next week. Meanwhile, I'm off to buy some Crocodile repellent. It may not do quite what it says on the tin, but at least I won't get dengue fever; something that Pasteur would approve of, I'm sure.