Migaloo Me, Down on Alligator Creek

NAIDOC celebrations, the Voice campaign, the  re-naming of  geographical features such as K’Gari (formerly Fraser Island) Me-Mel (Goat Island) and the (temporary?) addition of another popular tourist attraction, Mt Tibrogargan, to whitefella no-go zones — this is the acrimonious state of affairs in 21st century Australia, a country both divided and tirelessly hectored. It was different once, back when I was a lad growing up in the 50s in remote North Queensland. That was where I met an indigenous man who taught me how to land a tasty crab dinner.

I knew the best fishing holes near our bush home outside Townsville like the back of my hand, but that was all fresh water stuff, so one day I decided to venture into the great unknown.

The estuarine reaches of Alligator Creek sounded ominous, but even a young kid like me knew that was a misnomer – if there were any toothy reptiles sunbaking on the banks or lurking below the surface, some early explorer would have named it Crocodile Creek. Maybe he was some Yank from Florida who couldn’t tell the difference. Anyway, they both bite and they’d also have to change the name of the Alligator Creek Meatworks down near the mouth.

I set out early one Saturday morning before the rest of the household had stirred. A hessian sugar bag was stuffed with a water bottle, a couple of apples, some Vegemite sangas, my hand line, a small bucket and a landing net (OM, I am and have always been an optimist). I strapped those to my bike, then best mate Rover, the kelpie-cross, and I set off on the journey as the sun was just creeping up in the east.

The Bruce Highway crossed Alligator Creek about 12 miles to the south of our home at Stuart but that was also a freshwater reach with some nice fishing and swimming holes. I wanted to try something different – the tidal saltwater stretch miles downstream which I’d never seen before. Boy and dog turned off the highway, down a dirt track and travelled some distance before reaching a dry salt pan, and in the distance a row of mangroves lining what I hoped was the creek, minus any crocodiles – or alligators.

The white, salt-encrusted surface remained solid enough to ride on over about half that distance, then my wheels started to sink in, so I proceeded on foot until we reached a high bank leading down to a broad stretch of water and an incoming tide. Eureka! But why didn’t that Yank call it Alligator River, it looked big enough? I found it without any compass or road map. It looked good and Rover and I had it all to ourselves – apart from the sandflies and mossies that came with the territory. At least there was some shade from overhanging mangroves, and a  gully leading into the creek was packed with small mullet. I managed to scoop some out with the landing net and into the bucket. Live bait, no less.

I’d used live prawns to catch pan-sized barramundi in the lower reaches of Stewart Creek and this technique wasn’t much different. Soon there was a mullet attached to my hook and out it went. Rover and I sat patiently for an hour or so before I felt a tug on the line, then I had to hold on as something tried to make a run for it. Fortunately there were no snags or hidden logs and within a minute or so I had a nice colourful fish thrashing on the bank among the swamp couch.

At the same time an unexpected voice called out, “Hey, boy, what you got?”

I looked up and standing on the top of the bank was a black man wearing navy shorts and a khaki shirt with the arms cut off at the shoulders. Crocodile Dundee must have visited the same tailor several decades later.

“Boy, that’s a nice Mangrove Jack you caught, but look out for the teeth, he can bite your little fingers off!”

Well OK, I’ve never seen one of these before, but I could see what he meant as this pretty maroon fish with silvery vertical stripes had a mouth full of sharp fangs chomping at the hook.

My audience of one clambered down the bank.

“I’m Jimmy, what’s your name, boy?”

“Hello Jimmy, I’m John”.

“You all alone out here? I’ve never seen any white boys here before … let me help get that angry fella off your hook, quick smart”.

I watched as he used a knife to expertly prise the hook out of the Jack’s mouth and put it in my sugar bag.

“Better wet that in the creek, keep him cool and fresh in the shade,” my new mentor advised.

“Are you going to fish here too, Jimmy? I’ve got some live bait”.

“ Nah, John boy! I’m after muddies today. You and your dog want to tag along, see how it’s done?”

“Don’t you need a crab pot and don’t you have to wait overnight or at least until the next tide to catch them?”

I hadn’t told my parents where I was going but I knew there would be hell to pay if I wasn’t home by nightfall.

“Johnny, no! I use a hook, drag them out of their holes in the mud. No need to set pots — that’s Migaloo way!” (I had no idea what that meant then, but he wasn’t referring to a white whale, just white fellas).

Well that sounded interesting and I was hooked. I followed him back up the bank where he had left his “hook” – a long piece of steel rod with a right-angle bend on one end – and his own hessian bag. We ventured along the banks of the gully and the surrounding flats — Jimmy’s eyes peeled for a tell-tale burrow where mud crabs sheltered when they weren’t actually out and about in the waterways. Pretty soon he thrust the hook down a hole, felt something solid and within seconds he had a large, angry crab out on the bank, claws outstretched and open, ready to defend itself and snap off a toe or finger if one got in the way.

Jimmy just waved his left hand in front of the crab to gain its attention, then grabbed it behind its rear flippers and lifted it triumphantly with his right. It was a trick which I would remember and try to emulate in later years. (I’ve still got 10 fingers and toes, too).

“He’s a big buck. Good tucker!” He wrapped some twine around the claws, pinning them against the hard shell, then dropped it in his bag before repeating the same trick with other holes. Jimmy was right, this was much quicker than using a crab pot “like you Migaloo white fellas” and he taught me the difference between the female Jennies and the male bucks, but as he said, they all tasted the same.

Aboriginals as traditional custodians are allowed to take both, but the females are illegal for us white fellas, along with the use of crab hooks in most states. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, just the way it is. It was also the black man’s way to only take what they needed, so after he had four crabs in his bag he smiled and said, “The next one’s your’s, John boy”.

Fortunately it was a buck and obviously legal size. He tied it up for me and we headed back to the creek bank where I added the muddie to my own sack, scaled and cleaned the fish and then packed up my gear.

“You a long way from home, boy?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a few hours ride, Jimmy”.

“You stay safe John boy”.

Rover and I finally made it back to Stuart as the sun was sinking in the west. My Mum and Dad looked both surprised and pleased when I showed them my catch.

“You didn’t catch them down the creek, did you”. More a statement of fact than a question.

“Yeah, down a creek”. No need to get Mum worried about alligators or crocodiles – I’d been there, done that and I wasn’t planning a repeat trip any time soon.

Rover would have been happy with that, seeing he’d cantered beside me for at least 30 miles that day. But I never saw Jimmy again.

This is an extract from John Mikkelsen’s Amazon Books memoir, Don’t Call Me Nev

12 thoughts on “Migaloo Me, Down on Alligator Creek

  • rosross says:

    Great article but what I find amusing is that any of it would be deemed aboriginal. My dad, uncles, grandfather all went fishing in creeks, rivers and ocean, all went out crabbing, gathering yabbies, killed rabbits for the dinner table and generally foraged. All humans have done this and many still do. It is not aboriginal and never was aboriginal. My dad kept ferrets, smelly things, to help with the rabbiting.

    Aboriginal hunting today is generally done with a rifle and a Toyota and I have read some up north don’t mind using a bit of explosive to “catch”fish.

    • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

      Perish the thought rosross, “explosive” isn’t a nice word and we FNQ ers called it Mr. Nobel’s expanding bait and when instructing beginners we advised the user to take a butterfly net due a bit too much expanding bait had the catch du jour in the upper branches of a tree down in “the groves.” You can’t “hook” muddies anymore but since a muddy goes into the hole forwards and backs out you can stick your arm down the hole and grab them by the back swimmers. The ladies aka Meri’s up on Manus Island (Momote) used to do just that so one supposes that’s “thems the rules” for muddies but of course there is bound to be one somewhere who hasn’t read the rules so we always hooked them, about 30 a week for my mate and I to flog around the back doors of pubs and restaurants to pay for our beer consumption. My mate was a watchmaker, an excellent one at that and he always repaired watches, clocks, and guns by the tide tables for good tides meant good fishing and bad for fixing watches etc.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    These are wonderful stories, all well told.
    Inspires me to think I could write a few of my own, but that’s for another day.
    Happy to read such happy stories of times, like mine, that are long gone now.
    It really was another country, then.

    • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

      North Queenslanders Ms Eliza, Mr. rosross and Mr. Sherington are North Queenslanders and almost close enough to be Far North Queenslanders judging by their comments on scylla serrata aka “muddies” and their general comments to this August site are pertinent and always well worth reading. They would probably measure things between the eyes to save hauling long measuring devices about or maybe even use axe handles to measure other stuff but we won’t go there. A FNQ or NQ er can usually be identified by their use of “A” at the end of most sentences and by their use of elastic sided boots tho that can never be a hard and fast rule for a University educated one may even be advanced enough to wear shoes with laces and able to tie the laces neatly. Sadly, they are a dying breed or like me live far away from our beloved FNQ bush tho memories of that deep silence can be refreshed by listening to the theme song of Dr. Who penned by Ron Grainer who was born in Atherton and grew up in Mt. Mulligan.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    About 1948-1954, when I was a kid like you relate, we lived on Bowen Road, within easy reach of the smell of the meatworks. We made tinnies and used old aircraft belly tanks to sail the creek that might have been within a few km of your story place. When it came to muddies, we made galvanised wire cages baited with heads from the fish shop. As to the “race” thing, we had a mixed bag of school mates but race was not a factor among us. There is only one Human race. Similar to how you learned about mud crabs, we learned about snakes from Naomi Ramsamy’s father Ram Chandra when we schooled in Mackay..
    For decades, my idea of the best meal possible was a hot mud crab straight from the boiler, with an icy cold beer. Still the same, except I gave up the beer in 1983.
    Your article evokes good memories, thank you. Geoff S

    • rosross says:

      Yes, when the blokes in the family caught crabs we boiled them in seawater on the beach. Would not be allowed now. And I don’t think you can shoot rabbits. A farmer friend told me he was inundated but had to poison them. All that poison polluting the land instead of a few bullet casings. It cost him a fortune to get someone with an excavator gather and bury the bodies. Poison soil for a very long time but not allowed to shoot them.

      • Rebekah Meredith says:

        July 17, 2023
        Here in WA, our family has a friend who shoots rabbits. I’m pretty sure it’s legal, since he is a man who is very skeptical of the establishment, but overly careful (in our opinion) of finding out whether or not he is breaking regulations.
        I don’t know about other states.

      • vickisanderson says:

        Also legal in NSW, as far as I know. Where we are – in the NSW Central tablelands, don’t see many rabbits these days – just an occasional hare. But we do have plenty of feral pigs – which locals shoot. Doesn’t seem to be much trouble shooting roos that are eating crops, either.

  • Brian Boru says:

    You lucky people, BUT. (Or is that C.Q. but).

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Interesting piece John.
    I grew up on a cane farm up river on the Home Hill side on the Burdekin just south of Townsville, in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and I’m afraid I never detected anything remotely like his depiction of an Aboriginal among ours.
    The men who knew how to live off the land when I grew up were all the white pioneering farmers, who took up blocks of virgin bush in the nineteen tens, and had to live for years on bush tucker in tents, off what they could shoot, catch and grow in their vegetable garden with their families while they cleared the land by hand, before they could even start growing cane, like my English grandfather & father and uncle.
    I rather doubt an aboriginal would have known the description of the red fish as a Mangrove Jack because we never knew it, and we caught plenty of’em when they got trapped in the fresh water lagoons. because they are really a salt water fish that come into the rivers from the estuary regions. The only name we all knew them by was the local common one of Red Brim ( bream).

  • call it out says:

    My country uncle taught my city based brother and I to catch bream in the local creek, and trap rabbits down along the sand dunes. My aunt taught us which shellfish to collect, and how to cook them. My father taught me to fish in the sea, and how to gather pipis in the surf. My country cousins led us to the local mulberry trees. All of that within 100km of a capital city, and much of it lost now. Kids gaze at screens now.

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