Monday, September 5, 2011

Crocodiles in our kitchen.

This was back in 1955 and is a true story. To find out how many we had in our kitchen, you’ll have to read the full story. We had been in Australia for only four months and were experiencing our first “culture shocks.” I hope that you enjoy reading the following story from my life.Werner
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When I, with my wife, Karola, and 14 months old daughter, Sonja, migrated to Australia from Germany in 1954, I was assigned to Harwood, near Maclean, in northern NSW to cut sugar cane. After the season ended I sought and obtained employment on a banana plantation in Coffs Harbour in 1955. The reason for this was that for some unknown reasons, after I had my appendix removed at the tender age of four, I had acquired an insatiable desire for eating bananas. I called this my “Banana deficiency syndrome,” more about this at the end of this story.

We travelled by buss from Maclean to Coffs Harbour. Mr. Murphy, my new boss, picked us up at the bus depot, and took us to a grocery story for supplies and then we were on the way for the ten km trip to the banana plantation at Korora West north of Coffs Harbour, on the north coast of New South Wales.  We arrived just after 5 pm on a Friday afternoon and were taken to our new abode, a typical old Australian cottage, as well as the place of my new employment. The 16 acre plantation was on a steep hill. The cottage had an L shaped veranda in front and sitting on two metre high posts on the front, while the back of the cottage was level with the ground and only a metre away from the banana trees. (The banana is actually not a "tree" but a herbaceous perennial, related to the heliconia and travellers palm family)

The back entrance to the kitchen was a stable door. The cottage and the toilet was a mighty culture shock for us, but more shocks were to come. It was Friday, and we had the whole weekend to settle in and to acquaint ourselves with our new surroundings. The cottage contained the barest essentials: a wood stove, a table and four chairs, a double bed and a single bed, and a meat safe hanging on the veranda - no refrigerator.

After Mr. Murphy had shown us all that was necessary; he left for home to Coffs Harbour, saying that he’ll be back in the morning to see how we had settled in. He was just a few metres away from the cottage when he turned back and said: “Close the bottom half of the back door in the evening as there are rats, bandicoots, carpet snakes, and other animals in the plantation who may seek shelter in the cottage.” With this last advice he parted. Karola and I looked at each other with bewildered surprise, unable to speak for a moment, and then I repeated, still somewhat in shock, Mr. Murphy’s bombshell statement. “Carpet Snakes in the plantation!”

For those people who don’t know what a “bandicoot” is, click here.

Before we even settled down for the evening meal we closed up every gap in the old cottage with newspapers and towels, only the top half of the stable door was open until bed time. What we didn’t realised at that point of time, was, while we took action to prevent unwelcome visitors coming in, we had already animal inside, which we didn’t see in the dimly lit kitchen. The toilet was about twenty meters inside the plantation, located between two banana plants. It was a marvel of Australian ingenuity, it was like a sentry shack with a bench, but with a hole in it, and under the hole was a big pan, which had to be emptied and disposed of regularly.

That was another culture shock for us, and needless to say, we didn’t use the toilet that night and made use of our daughter’s chamber pot, when nature called.  Another thing we eventually had to get used to was, to frequently chase a carpet snake away from the toilet seat where it waited in ambush for a rat or bandicoot, before we could use it. It was easy for the snake to get into the toilet shack as there was a 20 cm gap at the bottom of the door.

Looking through the top half of the stable door on a moonlit night; the banana plants looked like sentinels of the night and with the banana leaves rustling in the evening breeze added an eerie feeling of being alone and left to our own devices. With the nearest neighbour 200 metres away; being on the moon would not have been a lonelier place for us, which added to our uneasiness. 

After a somewhat restless night’s sleep, we had breakfast on the veranda, shaded by banana plants. Following the breakfast I said to Karola that I’m going to explore the surrounds and the plantation.

I had just walked past the packing shed about a hundred metres from the cottage when I heard Karola call out, “Werner, Werner, come back please!” The tone of her voice had a ring of urgency in it. I made a full turn and hurried back, but she met me running half way down the pathway with Sonja in her arms, with a terrified pale facial expression. Before I could ask her, what’ the problem was, she told me, nearly breathlessly, “We have about six young crocodiles under the wood stove and in the woodpile in the kitchen. 

Somewhat perplexed, I hurried back to the kitchen, thinking it was strange that Mr. Murphy didn’t mention crocodiles, only carpet snakes. The stove nook was a bit dark, and Karola pointed out where she’d seen these “crocodiles,” but kept her distance. I approached the wood pile very slowly and cautiously and armed with a big stick in case I got attacked. “Holy mackerel," I exclaimed”, you are right; we do have crocodiles in the kitchen, but they didn’t seem to be aggressive, and I slowly backed out of the kitchen. Needless to say, we stayed out of the house until those crocodiles had been removed. We expected the boss to call at any time and waited in the packing shed until then.

In the meantime I was thinking about the book I had read about Australia, which mentioned that crocodiles only occur in the tropical north, and we were only in northern  New South Wales –  strange, I thought, perhaps the book was very old or the crocodiles have since reached northern NSW. 

All of a sudden, I had a brainstorm.
This would make an excellent news story for the major regional newspaper in my former locality in Germany and I could already envisage the headline: “LOCAL LAD MIGRATED TO AUSTRALIA, FOUND SIX CROCODILES IN KITCHEN.” What a selling headline that would make, and by the time the newspapers put their touch to it, the crocodiles would probably be twice the size. “I would write this story as soon as it was safe to go back into the house.” I said to myself.

I was very much absorbed in my mental compilation of this news story, when I heard a car door slammed shut, interrupting my thought processes. To our relief, we saw that it was Mr. Murphy. “Thanks heavens for that," we said. I greeted him with, “We have young crocodiles in the house!” “What? Crocodiles?" he exclaimed, somewhat incredulously and with a chuckle. 

I got the impression that he wasn’t unduly worried and perhaps knew all along about their presence, and probably knew that this wasn’t the man-eating variety. “Please come and I’ll show you,” I said, and as we walked towards the cottage, holding my two hands apart, I added. “And they are about that long.” I pointed out the creatures to him from the outside, and to my amazement he had the ‘courage’ to walk inside. With a hearty laugh Mr. Murphy told me that those "crocodiles" were in fact “blue-tongue lizards” and that they were completely harmless and would eat flies and other insects around the house, and they were there just for a warm spot. I called out to Karola, still waiting in the packing shed, that the ‘danger’ was over and she could come back.

To read more about the Australian Blue tongue lizards click here.

The biggest lizard we ever saw back in Germany was about 15 cm long, so the Blue Tongues with over 30 cm were huge in comparison. But after Mr. Murphy’s clarification, we allowed the lizards to remain inside as our house guests. 

Sadly, however, from that moment when the crocodiles became blue-tongue lizards, the news story I had planned to write, lost its newsworthiness.

Our friend, Dymity Higgins, who with her husband went on a sea cruise, and Tonga was one of the places where they stopped. After reading my blog postings about crocodiles in our kitchen and bananas, she sent me this picture of a banana skin throw away dish, which is cut from the banana trunk  and used to serve food. What an ingenious idea. Click on picture to enlarge.
Following is an extract from my “Banana deficiency Syndrome” story. Nowadays I grow my own bananas in our backyard and to read about it and the health benefits of Bananas click here.

I still remember vividly when my mother came home from hospital with a new baby brother (Horst) when I was just four and a half years old.  The following day I was taken to the same hospital for an appendectomy.   Visitors asked me what they could get for me from the hospital kiosk and each one, without fail, was given the same emphatic instruction, “Get me some bananas, please!”

This was despite being the son of a wine and fruit growing family. I had all the fruit I wanted at my disposal - except bananas - which were an imported commodity.  However, bananas were the fruit for which I craved continually.  I often wondered whether the sudden longing for bananas was caused by the removal of my appendix, or because I just wanted to be difficult and ask for fruit that didn’t grow on our farm. Or was it perhaps that I lacked potassium in my diet or had contracted an affliction such as the “Banana deficiency syndrome?”   No matter where I went or was taken, I was always looking for a fruit stall to buy bananas. This yearning for bananas never diminished and neither did I find an answer to this enigma – until I migrated to Australia.

Bill, the son in law of Mr. Murphy and I, were the only employees working at the plantation, but he also lived in Coffs Harbour. Monday morning (March 1955) was my first workday amongst the bananas; I had reached a milestone. In whichever direction I looked, I could only see banana plants, I had to ask myself; was it real or am I dreaming?  It took twenty years to get so close to so many bananas. The question, whether I could I be cured of my affliction still lingered in my mind. Did I? You’ll find the answer at the end of this story.

For me, one of the most pleasing aspects of a day’s banana harvest was when we came across two fully ripened bunches that had been missed previously.   We had a feed, and they tasted like all tree-ripened fruit, much better than the ones we buy in the shops.  When Bill told me that I could have the two ripe bunches, as they were too ripe to be packed or sold, I thought Christmas had its Second Coming.  I was literally in clover, and when a few days later we went harvesting again, more ripe bunches were found and a few days later some more again.  In no time, I had accumulated six bunches all hung up in the spare room of the cottage.

We (especially me) had bananas for breakfast, for lunch and for dessert after dinner, and we had bananas in between mealtimes.  This went on for about three months as I had a lot of catching up to do for all those years when I couldn’t get enough bananas were finally over.  After three months of a steady diet of bananas, my affliction, the ‘banana deficiency syndrome’, had finally been conquered, and very soon I couldn’t stand the sight of them anymore, much less eat one.  The new prognosis was ’banana saturation syndrome’.

Thinking back about our primitive abode in Coffs Harbour NSW in comparison to the modern accommodation our illegal boat people get; makes me wonder if they would have accepted this like we did without complaint.

My grandmother who constantly advised me not to go to Australia and always quoted the following German proverb to me. “The fried chickens will not fly into your mouth there.” This is equivalent to: “There is no such thing as a free meal.” My reply was always, “I don’t expect this,” and when things were tough, I always thought of what Grandmother said to me.

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Please note! If you want to comment on this or any other postings and select “Anonymous;” as the sender; it will not be published. The blogger.
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My thought for today.Werner
Life is like a mirror, we get the best results when we smile at it. Anonymous


Marite said...

Thanks for the story, Werner, I really enjoyed it!! But I must admit there is one thing I never got used to in Australia and that was BANANAS ! We were offered bananas on the boat on our way to Australia, but it was something that never appealed to me!

Barbette said...

Oh, Werner, you can tell a good tale. I thoroughly enjoyed your 'crocodile' adventure.

Debra said...

What an interesting and well told story. I also found the stories in the links fascinating and informative reading. I’m a citizen of the USA and live in the northern state of Ohio. I must admit; I didn’t know anything about the benefits of pineapples, nor did I ever hear anything about “Blue Tongue Lizards” and the “bandicoot.” Thank you for sharing this with me.

June said...

That was an interesting story about the "Crocodiles" but it is better to be safe than sorry. Thank you.