Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Swimming with Crocodiles:
An Australian Adventure
By Will Chaffey
Picador (Pan Macmillan)
ISBN 9781405038423, Trade Paper, May 2008, $32.95, 320 pages
Swimming with Crocodiles is an interesting hybrid: a coming of age story, mingled with travelogue and Nat Geo styled adventure tale. Eighteen year old Will Chaffey was rejected by a number of universities after completing his High School diploma at the prestigious Milton school, and decided to take a trip overseas to Australia. It was there he met Geoff Cunningham, adventurer, nomad, and herpetologist, who took him along on a trip deep into the Kimberleys in Western Australia. It’s a good story, gripping and thoughtful. Chaffey manages to successfully toe the line between providing the reader with a good deal of information on the flora and fauna – some of it magnificent – of the area, and creating an engaging plot with a deeper underlying theme.
With all the skills of a fiction writer, Chaffey presents a cast of interesting characters – students, scientists and hippies, from Bill, the grad student biologist from Berkeley who led his team of trappers and data collectors, to Peter, the South African farmer giving his land back to the forest. But the most interesting character is Geoff, the strange herpetologist who convinces him to join in and split the petrol for an exhibition into the remote Kimberly, ostensibly to find new reptile species, take photographs, and become the first white men to walk the headwaters of the Prince Regent River to the falls of the King Cascade. If they had succeeded without a hitch, it would have been an interesting story, full of Geoff’s extensive knowledge of the land and its inhabitants, particularly reptilian and of Chaffey’s observations and sometimes wide-eyed wonder. But there was a hitch. After forty days in the wilderness, they reached their end-point – The King Cascade. Then they sit down to wait for a boat to come in and collect them, but nothing comes. After 10 days of waiting, no boat arrives, and they end up having to walk another 250kms to get out. The adventure becomes a life or death story where starvation is just around the corner, exhaustion threatens to overtake them, and the pair almost end up as croc food. What Chaffey discovers about himself and about the world he lives in during that close shave makes for an exciting read.
Throughout the book, Chaffey punctuates his rich descriptions of the land he is discovering, with his fears, his sense of the future, and his growing self-development. His sense of time and space changes, and he begins to see, everywhere, the bigger context of his role in the world and of its fragility:
It occurred to me that if you did not spend two months in the wilderness in your youth, you might never discover who you were: you might fundamentally never discover your true self, stripped of all conditioning, ideology and belief. I was the child of professional parents, who grew up in a suburb of Boston, and yet here I was, no more than an Earthling. Nature was the final context, and everywhere it seemed that context was being destroyed. (191)
This sense of both the fragility of nature, and the fragility of man within nature, becomes an underlying theme that carries the book beyond simply a travelogue. We begin to identify with Chaffey as a character, and his development becomes meaningful, but we also put his experience into our own context, and it therefore becomes meaningful to us. Not all of us will have to reach into crocodile infested waters to retrieve a lost fishing rod – our only means of obtaining food, and not all of us will come to the brink of starvation and death in an environment both beautiful and unforgiving. But most of us will experience things that will change us, force us to grow, and question what we knew about ourselves. In this way, as readers, we can identify with Chaffey’s experience, and enjoy it as both a story and as an informative foray into one of Australia’s most forbidding, and compelling landscapes.