Four years on, how does Steve Irwin`s family

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Four years on, how does Steve Irwin`s family
where the
are
Story Trent Dalton
Photography Russell Shakespeare
Four years on, how does Steve Irwin’s family cope with missing
him? They go crocodile hunting on Cape York.
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indi Irwin props her right leg on
a rock in the river bank, cringing
as her mother details the moment
of her conception. “Bindi was
conceived after an awards show
in LA,” Terri is saying. “We
both didn’t want to go to the after-party …”
“Oh great,” says 12-year-old Bindi, balancing
on the rock now. “I’m gonna have to wear
a paper bag over my head for the rest of my life.”
“Hey, we’ve sexed crocodiles together, we
can share anything,” says Terri.
I have just inserted the middle finger of my
right hand into the posterior opening of a Cape
York crocodile, a watershed moment in a fourday croc research tour with the khaki-clad Irwins
and a 30-strong team of scientists, animal
wranglers, cooks and several bushmen with
unnerving knives. There is no obvious organ
rising inside the croc’s cloaca so I proclaim it
a girl. “Spot on,” says Professor Craig Franklin.
The University of Queensland zoologist is
two years into a ten-year study of crocs in the
pristine river systems of the Steve Irwin Wildlife
Reserve, a 135,000ha Cape York sanctuary
created by the Howard government in 2007 and
run by the Irwin family as a living tribute to the
late crocodile hunter. Wrestling the croc’s jaws
shut, Terri smiles proudly as the beast covers
my hand in a gush of slimy white fluid. Nothing
brings people together like a crocodile sexing.
Six-year-old Robert laughs hysterically at his
mother’s recollections of Bindi’s conception.
He throws a handful of dry leaves in the air.
“That’s yuck!” he screams.
Terri smiles at her son. “Wes helped us with
your conception,” she says, referring to Australia
Zoo director Wes Mannion, who was Steve’s
best friend. Robert drops his head, hands over
his ears. Terri explains she was working to
a strict biological clock, endeavouring to have
a boy. The family was camping on one of their
North Queensland conservation properties.
“The time came and we asked Wes to take
Bindi for a walk to find some snakes,” she says.
“Seven minutes later … ”
“Oh, please?” begs Bindi.
The Irwins got their boy, an irrepressible
tearaway with dirt on his face and cuts on his
legs. He seems less the product of a man and
a woman than something grown from a seed
dropped by a bushlark in the red outback dirt; a
boy made of soil and saltwater. His resemblance
to his father, who died on September 4, 2006, is
as unsettling as it is profound: the way he skids
down the steepest incline of a ridge while others
walk around it; the way he converses in private
with stink bugs, or hides in trees for hours just
to capture nature’s endless pantomime from
a gallery seat. He seems deeper than his dad,
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smarter. But I only saw Steve Irwin on television.
“No, he was extremely intelligent,” says
Franklin. “He was such a complex man. He was
one of the best naturalists I’ve ever worked with.
People only saw that image of him. And he was
fully aware of that image and what it meant.”
“Hi Mum!” Robert calls, high up a tree and
reaching for a distant branch.
“He is Steve,” says Terri. “It’s amazing. Bindi
is so much like Steve with this empathy that she
has. She’s hard on the outside and very soft on
the inside. Robert just is Steve. Even the style
of his writing, the mannerisms with his hands,
the way he walks. It’s a really interesting study
in nurture versus nature. There are little things
about him that are so much like Steve that he
couldn’t have gotten from mimicking his dad
because he was only two when he lost his dad.”
Robert hangs from a branch, sloth-like. His
blond bowl-cut hair falls from his forehead, his
eyes roll back inside his head. He’s chewing on
something. “I’m just eating green ants,” he says.
“You can eat green ants?” I ask.
“Yeah, if their bums are big enough.”
“What do they taste like?”
Bindi kindly answers for her brother: “Like
a sour lolly.”
The kids are home-schooled. Robert briefly
tried mainstream primary schooling but four
walls and a whiteboard weren’t going to work
for Steve Irwin’s son. “I’m glad we’re doing
distance education,” says Terri. “He would
have been the naughty kid because he would
have been bored. When he got bored in school
we had him tested and the teachers said, ‘You
know, you have someone who is very gifted,
he’s like a 98.6 percentile in his age group’.
They recommended that he just learn at his
own level. He’ll be starting fourth grade this
month and he’s six years old. It’s not off-thecharts amazing but it is amazing.”
Terri has the stance of an explorer; a hardy
frontierswoman. She always seems to be
marching uphill, pressing forth. Onward and
upward. An optimist. She doesn’t read bad press.
Don’t engage, she says. She doesn’t let her
daughter Google her own name. If Bindi did
she’d find, among fan pages from around the
world, barbs of criticism from parents who think
she’s too young to stand under the spotlight. She
might find the new single from Australian singersongwriter Dan Kelly, Bindi Irwin Apocalypse Jam,
a bizarre fantasy about Bindi helping save Kelly
from flaming tornadoes ravaging the Earth. She
might find comedian Fiona O’Loughlin’s
controversial comments on ABC TV in March
suggesting Bindi needed a slap in the face.
Pouring scorn on a 12-year-old girl seems
a cheap way to mine a laugh. To see Bindi in
person – a deeply contemplative, sometimes
Free spirit … The image of his father, six-year-old Robert
has been protected from the media, not the natural world.
sorrowful, unfailingly polite, extremely welladjusted and, yes, natural, young girl – such
comments seem careless and ugly. Then there’s
a moment – nothing stage-managed, just a little
moment by a tree – when she looks you in the
eye and says she wants to carry on the family
business because it means she might save a few
hundred thousand animals; because she thought
her old man was the greatest thing in this world
and following in his footsteps helps her feel close
to him again, and you believe her. She knows the
game because she learned it from her dad. The
spotlight keeps the money rolling in and the
money – millions of it – rolls on to the animals.
“Don’t engage with the bad stuff,” says
Terri. “I teach that to Bindi. If there’s
something about us in a magazine I’ll look at
it first before I let her read the magazine. One
time I missed an article. It was a story about
a man who was stalking the family. This man
ended up going to jail. She didn’t know
anything about it and I wanted to keep it that
way. And she reads the magazine and she goes,
‘This guy went to jail for stalking us!’ If she
hadn’t read that she never would have known
and a 12-year-old girl shouldn’t go through life
fearful. You should go through life being
optimistic and having fun and being a kid.”
Robert slides down the tree trunk and zips
past his mother toward an aluminium boat tied
down at the edge of the Wenlock River.
“C’mon, we’ve got crocodiles to catch,” he says.
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His sister follows. In the boat, Bindi adjusts
her brother’s life jacket. She picks a blade of
grass from his hair, rests a protective arm across
his shoulders. Her best friend. Terri’s eyes
linger on her children. She sees the past and
the present. She sees the future of
conservation in Australia. And she can’t help
thinking something’s missing.
ULYSSES IS WAITING. The smell of death
You should go through
life being optimistic
and having fun and
being a kid.
▲
drifts downriver from a bend in the Wenlock
they call “Chicane”. Franklin eases the throttle
on the outboard motor. “That’s about as close as
you’ll come to what a dead body smells like,” he
says. It’s a crocodile bait: half a wild pig, what
local bushmen call research “volunteers”.
Rampant pigs are one of the greatest threats
to ecological stability in the reserve. The greatest
threat is mining. Cape Alumina has proposed to
strip-mine 12,300ha of the reserve in a project
Cape Alumina chief executive Paul Messenger
says would generate $4 billion and 1700 jobs for
locals, many of them indigenous. The reserve,
or “Steve’s Place”, as Terri calls it, is Aboriginal
land. She faces the daunting task of convincing
Cape York traditional owners, representing some
of the most disadvantaged people in Australia,
to resist the economic benefits bauxite mining
might represent and help her fight for legislation
that guarantees the reserve’s protection “in
perpetuity”. In June, Natural Resources Mines
and Energy Minister Stephen Robertson
declared the Wenlock the tenth river protected
under the Bligh Government’s Wild Rivers
conservation scheme. But he added that
“mining, tourism and other developments can
still occur where they do not threaten the river”.
Queensland Senator Mark Furner was at
our campsite last night. He’d brought his
daughter, Sally, to see what he considers the
most precious and untapped wildlife reserve
in Queensland. Over camp burritos, he called
the mining project “absurd”. “Absolutely
disgraceful,” he said.
This morning, wildlife ranger Cecil Arthur,
a traditional owner from the local Taepathiggi
people, said he was offered $3.5 million to sign
over his claim on the land. “My heritage isn’t
worth that,” he said. “My stories, my ancestors
aren’t worth that. I can’t act soft. If I act soft
they will steamroll me. What structure do they
have for developing my people? Where’s the
daycare centres? Where’s the cultural centres?
This runs out in 15 years with the mining. Then
we’ll be left with another Napranum.” That
community, in what is known as Weipa South,
was a ghetto, he said, a place where children
Bindi’s age were having abortions. “Forty years
we’ve had people mining our land. We should
have golden pathways for our kids to walk on.”
I fill my water bottle straight from the river.
I can’t see a single impurity through the plastic.
“There are more fish species in these river
systems than anywhere else in Australia,”
Franklin says. So far his team has discovered
157 bird species on the reserve, 43 reptile
species, 19 amphibian species, a growing list
of rare and threatened native species. And the
research is in its infancy. “We don’t even know
yet what we stand to lose,” the professor says.
Terri has started a petition called “Save
Steve’s Place”, to which she has attracted
300,000 signatures from around the world. When
someone asks for an autograph, she asks for
a signature. Terri versus the power men in suits.
There’s a story in the Bindi Wildlife Adventures
book series in which a team of bauxite miners
visit the reserve and fall so in love with the
place that they reverse their mining plans. The
real world doesn’t work like that. If Terri wins
today, the miners will wait till tomorrow.
Four boats tie off at a river bank near
a weighted rope-bag trap. The air is hot and
sticky. Hundreds of flies buzz around the pig
bait. Inside the trap is a 4m crocodile behemoth
named Ulysses, a huffing and puffing “apex”
predator who, one can only presume, won’t
take kindly to scientists fixing a satellite
tracking system behind his head. He’s
dangerously rested. He will emerge scoring for
a scrap, desperate to return to the river. Terri
enters the trapping area, singing: “Take me to the
river, drop me in the water.” She stops suddenly:
“Oh my god! Look at the size of that thing.”
The core crocodile team of eight men, led by
a rugged protégé of Steve’s called Briano, feed
a looped rope around the croc’s upper jaw.
Briano has a swag full of riveting campfire tales
about Steve, like the time they went to
Indonesia and saw a croc eating human remains
in the wake of the 2004 tsunami; like the time
Steve went to wartorn East Timor to fish a maneating crocodile out of a toxic water tank.
The team includes Chris Hanna, whose
Scottish family donated $12,000 to wildlife
conservation and in turn got to accompany the
researchers upriver. His parents, Gordon and
Iris, watch from behind a fallen tree trunk.
Gordon recently recovered from a massive brain
haemorrhage that doctors said would kill him or,
at best, leave him in a vegetative state. “He
walked out of the hospital six days later,” Iris
says. When Chris told his father he wanted to
go to Australia to rescue animals, Gordon
didn’t hesitate to say, “Do it. Life’s short and
frighteningly random. Live your dream.”
“Pull!” says Briano. It takes the full strength
of eight men to drag Ulysses out of the trap. He
growls – a deep, guttural, prehistoric rumble.
They need to jump the crocodile to tape his
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deadly mouth shut. But the setting is not ideal.
The area is tight, too many trees for ropes to get
caught in; too many roots to trip on. A silent
tension fills the scene. Ulysses could crush
a boar’s head in one bite. “His head’s like
concrete,” whispers Franklin. “Don’t go
anywhere near the head. If he got a chance to
swipe at you he could snap your legs.” Crocs
can whiplash, leveraging from the tail. Snap.
Briano assembles the jump team. “Terri will
go first,” he says. “And then the rest of the
jump team. You will go like a stack of
dominoes. Bang, bang, bang, bang. You’ve got
to get in there and get those back legs off the
ground so he can’t push off.” The team lines
up behind Terri. It will take six people, maybe
more, to keep Ulysses at bay.
Standing nervously at the back of the jump
team are two teenage surfers from Los Angeles,
Zeke and his best mate Dylan. Zeke is the son
of actor Beau Bridges, but he never mentions
it. Beau stars alongside Bindi in this year’s Free
Willy 4: Escape From Pirate’s Cove, her first lead
role in a feature film. “She’s a natural,” said
Beau, a passionate conservationist who leapt at
Terri’s offer to take his son crocodile hunting in
the deepest wilderness of Cape York. Not that
long ago Zeke’s uncle, Jeff, was in the Kodak
Theatre accepting an Oscar for Best Actor.
Nobody says it out loud in camp, but it’s widely
acknowledged how cool it is to share a cup of
Bushells with the nephew of The Dude from
The Big Lebowski. And here’s Zeke now,
sharpened bowie knife strapped to his belt,
about to leap onto a giant croc.
Ulysses is furious. He begins to death roll in
the air, making great twisting leaps, arching,
heaving, every muscle pulling the ropewielding scientists closer to his snapping jaws.
Short, sharp directions are given. “Too much
rope.” “Coming round, coming round.” “Back,
back, back.” The ground thunders when
Ulysses lands. Dr Hamish Campbell, working
alongside Franklin, will later study the video
footage of the scene and count the number of
death rolls at an incredible 32, unheard of for
a scientific catch. Bindi taps my shoulder. “Just
remember where you need to run if you have
to run,” she says, pointing behind us. “Stick
to a path. You don’t want to fall over yourself.”
Ulysses rolls again, whipping his body in
mid-air, pulling a rope from Hanna’s hands
and bringing the young Scot’s rear end
frighteningly close to his teeth. A stray rope
catches briefly on a tree. Panic ripples through
the team, but Briano remains calm. His relaxed
voice steadies the situation. If he berates
someone at this point, the whole operation
falls apart. People freeze when screamed at.
The split second it takes for someone to digest
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Like father, like … Robert and Bindi jump their first crocodile
in the Cape York wildlife reserve named after their dad.
embarrassment or regret is the split second that
Ulysses drives the back of his head into theirs.
The beast lands flat on the ground and
Briano spots his moment. “Okay, jump team,
wait for my call. On this death roll … ” Terri
breathes deep, hunches down. “Terri, go!”
And the 46-year-old widowed mother of
two dives face-first onto the head of the 4m
crocodile. She says she goes into a dreamlike
state during a jump. Slow motion. Tunnel vision
on the crocodile’s eyes. Her elbow pushes down
on its mouth as the rest of the team secures its
long, thick body. Its mouth is secured by tape.
A calming wet blindfold is placed over its eyes
and a shade canopy is erected above it. And
Briano takes a breath.
“Oh my god!” shrieks Terri. “This is one
seriously Olympic crocodile!”
Wrangler Stuart Gudgeon, Head of
Crocodiles at Australia Zoo, smiles. “He’s
pound for pound the toughest fighter I’ve ever
caught,” he says later.
Terri nods me closer: “Put your hand on him.”
I place a gentle hand on Ulysses’ head. For
reasons I don’t know, maybe something about
age and wisdom, I’m immediately struck by an
image of my late grandfather. The crocodile’s
skin – soft and warm and alive – has got me
thinking about loss and time and meaning.
The beautiful killer has saddened me. “You’re
in the presence of a dinosaur,” whispers Terri.
Some families picnic …
the Irwins wrestle crocs.
The croc breathes deep and his breath lifts
my hair. It’s fresh, like a sea breeze. “We still
know so little about them,” Terri says. “You
get up close and they’re soft and chubby like
a baby’s skin and then you learn that they’re
great mothers and fathers, extremely protective
and intelligent parents and they’re affectionate
lovers and all the myths just fall away.”
Franklin and Campbell quickly and
painlessly fix the satellite tracking unit to the
back of Ulysses’ head. More than a hundred
crocodiles will be tracked in this river system
using world-leading technology developed
uniquely by this team. Franklin then makes
a small incision in the croc’s side and inserts
an acoustic tag that will allow the team to track
his movements underwater for about ten years.
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TERRI IRWIN IS WEARING Ellen DeGeneres’S
It was this team that discovered crocodiles can
stay underwater for seven hours. This team
that tracked a crocodile as it made a 900km
overland odyssey to return to its home. They
take blood samples, temperatures and body
measurements from Ulysses. They want to
know: where do the crocodiles go? Why have
their numbers stabilised? What more can they
tell us about life?
Robert lifts the crocodile’s tail. He counts
the number of scutes, or bony plates, running
down it. He speaks like a scientist giving
a tutorial. “There’s some unusual scute
patterns here. Double scutes, single scutes.
They’re hard-ish. Soft-ish.” He flexes the tail
as if it were moving through water. “The
individual bits of the tail are fitted together
like armour.”
A thought strikes him like lightning and he
bounces on his backside. “I remember this
one crocodile, he was so big he sank the boat!
His name was Stevo. Not, like, my dad, but
another crocodile named Stevo.” Everybody
remembers Stevo, a monstrous crocodilian
wonder caught a year after Steve Irwin died
and named in his honour.
Terri turns to her boy: “You know, Robert,
your dad used to do this all by himself?”
Robert looks up, awestruck. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.”
Bindi looks over to her mum. Then
she drops her head, waving a long blade
of grass around like a conductor’s baton.
underwear. She tells us this. It’s what she does.
She makes jokes. Edgy, risqué jokes. The
underwear was given to her by DeGeneres after
Terri appeared on her TV talk show. She also
has gifts from Letterman, Leno, Larry King.
The jokes are a coping mechanism, she says.
“I’ve been thinking about Steve on this trip. It
feels like he’s still here. It’s been really, really
hard. And I tend to diffuse that with humour.
The more emotional it becomes, the sillier
I get. Rather than just sit there and cry, I go,
‘Let me tell you where Bindi was conceived.’
It diffuses it for me.”
She was 27 when she met Steve. Before
then she had all but given up on finding her
soulmate. She doubts she’ll ever find another.
“People always ask me, ‘Have you started
dating?’ And I don’t know what to say. I mean,
‘for as long as we both shall live’, you know?
And, I’m still here. My heart is still with him.”
Two months before losing Steve, she says,
the family completed a ten-year business plan.
That plan was prolonged by Steve’s death. But
big plans remain: Australia Zoo Las Vegas;
and a resort at Australia Zoo, their home near
Beerwah on the Sunshine Coast. The purses of
cashed-up American holidaymakers just might
help their campaign to protect the Australian
wilderness forever. “Once this land is
protected,” says Terri, “I don’t think we
should look at it 50 years from now and go,
‘Now, let’s mine it’. There’s protection in
perpetuity. That’s how I feel.”
She turns to her children, who are lost in
a game. Bindi is pretending to be a news
cameraman and Robert is a star gracing the world
with an interview. “The challenge for me is that
I’ve always enjoyed being the sidekick while
Steve was the front man. I do find it awkward
getting out there and saying, ‘Look at me,
I have a message’. Steve did that so naturally.
If I can bring that message to the masses, then
I will have left the world a better place when
I die. And then Robert and Bindi will be stuck
with it. They’re gonna have to continue.”
Robert bounces around the team scientists
pretending he can’t talk. He mouths long
sentences, but no sound comes out.
“Initially, after losing Steve, I didn’t want to
eat or sleep,” says Terri. “I could care less. But
Bindi and Robert … ” She pauses for a long
moment. “It’s a daily journey. It really is. A lot
of people are awkward about approaching me,
‘Do I mention Steve, do I not mention Steve?’
I just say ‘carry on as if he was still here’.
“With Robert and Bindi we watch Steve’s
DVDs. We talk freely about him. They want to
keep his work going. It’s about nurturing that.
That’s why this trip is so important. For a lot of
kids who have lost their dads, if they’d been
fishing with their dad or they’d been surfing,
if they can keep doing that, it feels good.”
Some families picnic, others play board
games. The Irwins wrestle crocodiles. Deep
into the Wenlock River, the research team drags
a 2m crocodile onto an oval sandbar of the
finest, softest yellow sand. The setting is
surreal, dreamlike. It feels like we’ve crossed
some invisible line between civilisation and
a remote and fantastical land of the crocodiles,
something straight out of Robert’s imagination.
Grey clouds shift over exotic trees that grow
for 60 years, flower once and die. The tide is
coming in, threatening to submerge the entire
sandbar and leave us all wading in a river full
of crocodiles. The team must work quickly.
“Robert, you will be jumping the head,” says
Terri. The boy hustles into position. “Bindi,
you will come in behind him.” It’s Robert and
Bindi’s first jump together, a big occasion for the
family, a crocodile hunter’s holy communion.
“I’ve got butterflies flying around inside me,”
Robert says. “Excited butterflies.” He hunches
down, adopting that famous stance of his
father’s, hands out in front, knees bent in
readiness, equally propped to attack or defend.
“Patience, Robert,” his mum says. “Focus.”
The croc lays eyes on the boy, turns, raises
its head. The team leader makes the call:
“Robert … go!” And Steve Irwin’s six-year-old
son dives on the crocodile, his teeth gritted,
elbow in front, head to the side. He’s in there
with every fibre of his being. He puts his full
weight on the croc’s head as Bindi follows in
hard, tackling the crocodile with her right
shoulder. A perfect jump. Briano and his team
stand stunned, passing looks between
themselves, each acknowledging the moment
that somehow brings them that little bit closer
to their old friend Steve. The boy beams.
The crocodile is secured and the team takes
a breather. Terri and Bindi pass their hands
along the creature’s back. “One day he’ll be
14 foot long and owning this river,” Terri says.
“Yeah,” says Bindi. “The next generation
will step forward.”
Terri nods knowingly. “Robert,” she says.
“I think you should name him.”
Robert thinks hard for a long while, turning
his head to the grey sky, to the river, to the
trees, to the water rapidly shrinking the sandbar.
“It’s the weirdest name ever,” he says. “But
I think I want to call him Tide.”
“Tide!” says Terri.
“Yeah, Tide,” the boy says.
His mother smiles: “Perfect.” n
To view a gallery and track Ulysses and other crocs of
the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve, visit couriermail.com.au
Follow team research at www.australiazoo.com.au
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