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ReportsFriday, 19 April 2002
Noosaville --> Beerwah, Australia (meeting Steve Irwin) The institution of Aussie Sunday night TV is The Crocodile Hunter, featuring a mad Queenslander wrestling giant man-eating crocs in the name of conservation and getting himself attacked by dangerous wild animals. He's huge in the United Sates and a true action-man Aussie legend.
Today I met up with Steve Irwin in person!
I woke up in the cosy caravan in the Watson's garage in Noosaville. After a shower in the house, Steph gave me some cereal for breakfast and made me a sandwich for on the road. Glen supported me and drove me to the Ettamogah Pub, the well-known strange cartoonlike pup which is a part of Aussieworld. I thanked Glen for letting me stay. It all was a pleasure for him and he even invited me to come back north and spend coming Sunday fishing with him. "Just to have a break after the coming exciting days." Great!
At Aussieworld I was picked up by the sound recordist of the Channel 9 film crew, who would take me along to the Australian Zoo in Beerwah. Because we were way too early (it was only 9.30am), we had a stroll around the Aussieworld, where I remarkable met up with my host of tomorrow, Lloyd Mills! He is the marketing manager of Aussieworld, which is a fascinating road-stop theme park along the national Pacific Highway. After a complimentary cup of coffee it was time to hit the road to Beerwah.
At the entrance of the zoo I met up with the reporter Ben and the rest of the film crew. This day could never been realized without the help of the backstage producers at Channel 9. It was their idea to have me meet up with Steve Irwin ("Who?" "You know! The Crocodile Hunter!" "You mean The Steve Irwin?").
It took them quite some hassles and preparation before they got the green light to have me visit the zoo and meet up with Stevo. Even at the zoo itself, Ben got some media instructions about what to do and say and where to move. This was going to be exciting!
I was introduced to Stu Morton, who works at the marketing department of the zoo. He was going to assist us while we were there. He took us into the zoo, where I passed grinning crocodiles (thanks for those double fences, guys!), alligators, venomous snakes and birds of prey.
The Australian Zoo is now a prosperous international tourist attraction promoted as "the home of TV's Crocodile Hunter". Two hundred staff wearing trademark Croc Hunter khaki shorts, shirts and bush boots man the entry booths, animal enclosures, 1,500-seat restaurant, and a souvenir shop packed with Croc Hunter merchandise. This includes talking dolls depicting Irwin and his Canadian-born wife and co-presenter, Terri, and "Bindi-wear", a range of clothing named for their young daughter, Bindi Sui (herself named after a crocodile from Babinda, and Irwin's dog, Sui).
Stu showed me the famous tortoise Harriet, which, as DNA-investigation concluded, is the oldest giant land tortoise in the world. Harriet is one of three tortoises collected in 1835 by Charles Darwin. Two of them died in the Brisbane Botanical Gardens in 1929. I just couldn't believe that this vast creature was over 167 years old, but it seems to be proven!
While being toured all the way through the zoo, the film crew did some shots of me, Ben and me, crocodiles and me and me again. The people visiting the zoo probably couldn't understand what this was all about. And as soon they saw the cameras, they started to ask where Steve Irwin was. Like we knew!
then it became time to meet up The Crocodile Hunter.
As the host of the TV phenomenon The Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin enchants 500 million viewers daily! all over the world with his outrageous exploits dealing with the biggest, baddest, and most bizarre animals in the world. Steve's keen knowledge and fierce passion for wildlife as well in his trademark enthusiasm and respect for nature encouraged him at a young age as he shared his parent's passion for Australian Wildlife. Together with Terri the fearless duo spread their undeniable love for wildlife the world over, educating people about the importance of protecting our natural treasures.
We had to leave the park and go for a little drive. We ended up in the bush, where I saw some cars surrounding a (what looked like a) big old tool shed. Inside people were busy filming and I suddenly figured out this was a film studio. Through the open sliding door, I could see Steve sit behind a desk in this studio setting and he waved to me to come in.
"Hi Ramon, how are you doing?"
"Great, it's nice to meet you."
And without any further introduction necessary the always-dressed-in-khaki Steve took me inside and showed me the studio. "We are here filming episodes for our new TV series called The Croc Files".
At the back wall there was an office room and a wall divided it with Terri's room. One wall further I saw the tool shed. Just like on TV. Only one camera has to move up and down this setting and film the personalities in the different settings. Fascinating.
Steve introduced me with his wife Terri, the well-known parrot Cloe and with the producer John Stainton. The Channel 9-filmcrew was on my back all the time and I noticed how excited reporter Ben was in meeting Steve personally. It was at the end of the day when Ben admitted to me how big of a fan of Steve Irwin he was. I already noticed that from the beginning, as he was shining bright like a little kid that got his favourite toy for his birthday.
Before I continue, I'll provide you with some information about Steve Irwin.
A bit of history
Steve's father, Bob Irwin, was a plumber with a passion for reptiles and when Steve was given a gift on his sixth birthday, this emerged into the start of their animal collection fauna park. Steve was totally excited to receive a twelve-foot scrub python by the name Fred, although the difference in their sizes meant that he couldn't in fact play with it, or he might have become its next meal!
As the years passed his dad was being recognized as the greatest herpetologist (one who studies reptiles) in Australia and admired throughout the world as a legend for catching highly venomous snakes, with nothing more than his bare hands and sharp reflexes. His dad became Steve's hero. His mother also became a pioneer in Australian history, known as the Mother Teresa of wildlife rehabilitation. Way back in the sixties and the seventies, very little was known about caring for or raising orphaned kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, wombats, platypuses, snakes and lizards. She developed pouches (small bags) for kangaroo babies, known as joeys. She developed formulas and nursing techniques for orphaned koalas, and raised Sugar Gliders when scientists were still endeavouring to work out what they were. To Steve his mum was Mother Nature.
Their house was a giant motherhood zone just in the middle of their so-called Beerwah Reptile Park. By 1980 the park had grown at an incredible rate and was upgraded to the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park. Steve and his dad got deadly serious about capturing and relocating crocodiles that were deemed dangerous throughout Australia.
Steve met Terri when she made an unplanned stop at the Reptile Park in 1991 and the two fell in love and married in June 1992. In 1998 their daughter Bindi was born.
Steve's experience with cameras started on an early age. As a young kid he used to hang up a camera in the bush while wrestling with animals in his attempts to catch them. He had to film it, because his father didn't believe any of his stories.
With the camera tied to a tree, or on the boat seat, he recorded his horrifying ordeals. Every so often his grinning, mud-caked face would pop up before the lens. "Didja see that!" he would holler, bug-eyed, before rushing off to deal with the next crisis.
It was decades later when the Australian Channel 10 came over to film the big move of crocodile Graham, who had grown too big in his park enclosure and was fast becoming a danger to the other crocs. Instead of grabbing the rope, Graham suddenly had hold of Steve's right arm and started to drag him into the water. The only thing that Steve could do is to jump on the croc's head to scare it away to deeper waters. Channel 10 rushed to the studios in Brisbane with the footage and Steve was taken to the hospital. The offer of filming wildlife documentaries almost becomes logic after this event.
All in all, the reception of their wildlife documentaries has been a bit overwhelming to them all. To date, their series has gone to air in over thirty countries, most recently in the United States where Steve Irwin has become a hero.
This was going to be Ben's most unforgettable day, he interviewed Steve Irwin. In the studio, and outside, Steve demonstrated what danger really means and Ben was very happy. I accidentally noticed that Ben isn't any different than most of the reporters I met during my travels. He had not really done any preparation or research before he fired his questions to Steve.
Ben: "Do you feel any competition with Crocodile Dundee, the fictional character, versus the real person?"
Steve: "Oh mate, firstly I think 'Crocodile Dundee' was an exceptional set of films. Really, really good. The best thing about 'Crocodile Dundee' was the whole world got to glimpse Australia, and I guess that's what Crocodile Hunter's all about too. I reckon Crocodile Hunter's like a combination of Tarzan and James Bond, where when I'm dead and buried they'll be working out who the actor's going to be to play Steve Irwin, because I'm a real life character. I've rescued crocs since the day I could walk. I catch snakes getting them off the road. My mom was a pioneer in wildlife rehabilitation. I am flesh and blood. I'm not an actor. I live as a wildlife warrior. I put my life on the line. I will die for conservation. That's my destiny and that's why God put me on this planet -- to conserve and educate people about wildlife."
The interview was interesting; I mean I was right there, next to Steve!
Ben asked if Steve was as overcaffeinated and enthusiastic in real life too. "Yes," answered Steve, "this is me, totally me! I am just enthusiastic on what I do. If you want to be successful in something, you have to be enthusiastic. And I love the camera, I love to directly talk to the people at home and tell them all about wildlife."
"I gain more power and understanding of animals if I'm right in among them, and I'm finding myself doing more and more of the filming, as it's hard or too dangerous to get a cameraman in as close as I want to be. Hearing, smelling, and seeing the animal and its surroundings is always my prime objective."
I saw a dozen face expressions during his talks and his hands were always pointing out something or going around in the air.
"Almost fifty percent of my time is spent on filming; the other half is taken up with our zoo, which is our base, and from here we're saving the world from Beerwah. And to be honest, whenever I can have a day off, you'll find on my board surfing the waves. "
"Years ago," explains Irwin, "I started seeing things about meself in The Crocodile Hunter TV series that I didn't like, and I was starting to change. John Stainton, who directs and produces the series, warned me not to. He said if we were gunna prosper, and do this for the rest of our lives, I had to stay the same as I was the first day we met."
Stainton forbade him to view the shows until they went to air, and took responsibility for all business and media negotiations.
"That way," reasons Irwin, "I can travel through life just being me. 'Cause, deadset, the secret of our success is just havin' raw Stevo."
Thus, when Stainton directed their first movie he unveiled the storyline to Irwin in "little bits ... and I'd just spit my unscripted lines to camera".
The plot of Steve's "The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course", his first feature film involves him rescuing a croc from ruthless Americans who want to retrieve a spy satellite beacon it has eaten. Or something like that. Although filming finished months ago, Irwin says he hasn't seen the rough cut - or even the script - and doesn't really know "what the heck goes on". Stevo, as he calls himself, reckons it's because he's kept away from anything that might tempt him to change his manic 'natural' style. The style that has made him perhaps the most famous Australian in the world.
His wildlife documentaries have made the happy, croc-wrestling presenter a cult hero in the US, where his most avid fans are children. Irwin's uncertainty over what takes place in Collision Course doesn't hold back his prediction that the MGM production could be "...potentially the greatest film the world has ever seen!"
Sorry, but I had to laugh out loud when he said that. Hihi.
And of course, his rising international fame was a topic. "In the US, I have to go undercover and I need to have bodyguards surrounding me, it's crazy! I appear on national talk shows, I am spoofed on South Park and Sesame Street, and countless khaki-clad American kids rush around screaming my words 'Crikey!' and 'What a liddle bewdy!'".
Even former US powerbroker Newt Gingrich talked about Steve Irwin having "significantly impacted on American culture".
"Fame is our platform for promoting wildlife conservation - and ultimately to help save the world... that is our gift, our destiny, our passion. Our mission statement Conservation through exciting education is the driving force behind our family. If you don't excite people about wildlife, how can you convince them to love, cherish, and protect our wildlife and the environment they live in?"
As the interview by Ben continued I sat back and was introduced with the TV-parrot Cleo, who walked around on my shoulders saying "Hello" throughout the filming. Terri sat next to me.
Not knowing exactly how Channel 9 got me into this, I just had to ask her if she knew anything of what I am doing. She was told all about it but hadn't seen the website yet her crew had and they were amazed.
"Lately in America," she said, "I met people who talked about you travelling through Australia." I was stunned! "You are pretty famous," she said.
Okay, okay, stop that, Terri, I am losing my breath. Here I was staying with people who probably end up in encyclopaedias, telling me that I am famous! Yeah right, that just doesn't get into my head.
"What you are doing must be very tiring," she said, but I replied it was almost as a job for me. Meeting different people and report about it. "But that is the fascinating thing about what you are doing," she said with an expressive enthusiasm that she probably took over from Steve.
"Steve and I demonstrate how marvellous it is to work so closely with nature," she told me. "The other life form we share this planet with are exciting, vibrant, interesting creatures, and Steve and I are determined to show how important wildlife conservations is to them and to us. You, on the other hand, are promoting the world and its inhabitants. You expose the beauty of worldwide kindness of humanity, to everybody who wants to know about it."
Somebody offered me some water
"All I ever wanted to do was be my dad!" I heard Steve say in the camera. "He was the greatest herpetologist ever, and our snake trips - when I followed his big long footsteps, mimicking him, wanting to make him proud of me - that hadda be the highlight of my life!"
After the Channel 9-interviewing was over, their own filming for the 'The Croc Files' continued in the shed. John Stainton sat behind a television with Terri, discussing if the latest recordings were okay for TV, or if a Steve-talk had to be done over again.
From the time the Crocodile Hunter-series first appeared on the Channel 10, Australians didn't warm up with Irwin's hyperactive style. Irwin and Stainton can't disguise their irritation over this. "Australians don't know how to watch Steve," said Stainton to me. "Some might be embarrassed by him, or think he's too ocker... but the show is made for a mass audience, and we make no apologies for that."
"There's no doubt that many Australians experience a collective shrink over Irwin's showman-like tricks," Stainton explained to me. "Unlike Americans, they're put off by his emotional testaments to his own honesty, the preachy tone of his saving the world' pitch, and his hair-trigger, often comical sentimentality."
Irwin's US breakthrough came when cable television's Discovery Channel launched a new network, Animal Planet. By the late 1990s, "the croc guy" - still almost unheard of in Australia - was one of North America's hottest stars.
US students devised a game in which they scull their drinks every time Irwin says 'Crikey!' or 'Isn't she a beauty?'; South Park created an Irwin character who says things like: "I'm going to sneak up on that croc and jam my thumb in its butthole!"; and The New York Times introduced a glossary explaining Irwin's Aussie phrases.
None of this seems to have had much effect on raw Stevo, who still goes to bed by 8.30 pm and rises at 4 am to go surfing or work around the zoo. "I don't get off on hotels and limos and jets," said Steve with full honestly. "He don't even drink, smoke or use coffee!"
Irwin has taken a number of "minor hits" from crocs and non-venomous snakes, and often jokes to tourists about how certain crocs are always trying to eat him for having captured them. But any mention of people eating crocs, or crocodile farming, makes him as cranky as a nesting taipan. "I loathe it! I disgust it! And am totally horrified!" he growls of the numerous Australian farms where tourists can sample crocodile meat. "People say it's cool to eat crocs and kangaroos. But, geez, we're the only nation in the world that would eat our national anthem... I'm here to tell you it's not right! It's embarrassing for Australia that we eat our own wildlife."
I was taken outside by security guards as it was getting time for the crocodile demonstration in the zoo and Steve had to get moving. While the Channel 9-cameras were rolling, Terri suddenly put on a big python around my neck. "So would this be a nice girlfriend for you?" Ben the reporter asked me. "She loves good cooking," Terri said, "however she can have some bad-hair days too." The python was gliding around my neck and its tail went down between my legs. "Oh! Crikey!" I screamed. I lifted my cap off my head, exposing that strange hair of mine. "But I have everyday bad-hair days, she won't accept me at all!"
Steve took off and the film crew and I headed back to the zoo. Half an hour later, at the crocodile demonstration area, I saw this huge crowd cheering for Steve. Meanwhile Stu had told me a couple of times, that I was "so lucky", because no individual gets that close with Steve.
When Steve Irwin was announced as the host of the demonstration, the mass went mad! He was escorted by a khaki army of staff and security guards and ran to the fenced off area and jumped over the fence, right into the enclosure of the notorious crocodile named Graham.
Steve welcomed everybody to the zoo and the Channel 9-cameraman was standing right behind in the enclosure with the crocodiles. A member of security hold the cameraman tight at his belt, in case things become to dangerous. "And I want to welcome a special guest, Ramon from Europe, who is on a special mission in Australia. Ramon where are you?" Oops, I put up my hand. The crowd went crazy and I went totally red in the face.
Then Steve started the live, hair-raising and educational crocodile demonstration, telling people all about crocodiles and how dangerous they are or can be. With some meat in his hands, he got the attention of Graham and he'd let him dive out of the water a couple of times.
The show is very amusing, especially when Steve stood next to the croc and told everybody to be silent. "Now watch this!" And nothing happened for five seconds. "Did you see that?!!" And Steve walked away. The crowd applauded and cheered.
Some twenty minutes later, the show was over and Steve hurried back over the fence. As he passed me, he whispered "Good luck, mate" to me and there he went, surrounded by the khaki dressed security officials again.
The cameraman had a sweaty shirt and felt the prints of his belt inside his stomach. What an experience for him it was to stand right in the croc's enclosure!
Stu, our assistant, took us along to the food court and treated us on some lunch. After lunch the film crew had a short chat with me about what I was doing in the zoo and what my upcoming plans would be. "That's a wrap, thank you Ramon!".
And after a whole day of filming here and there, they all thanked me and the crew took off, leaving me behind in the hands of Stu again.
"So, let's get you to the place you'll be staying tonight," he said me. I was driven out of the park in a Landrover and ended up at the so-called Conference House (used for groups of people who have functions at the zoo and need nearby accommodation). It was a big house, with an enormous living room and six bedrooms and two bathrooms upstairs. Sliding doors opened up to the back veranda were I saw a big rocky pool in the back yard. "This is your home for the night," Stu said and I was amazed.
I put down my backpack as Stu showed me around. The fridge was filled with all kinds of needs, I could use the phone line and for dinner Stu arranged me some Chinese food that I could heat up in the oven. Outside, on a table, a Australian Zoo-flag was covered by a big basket with Australian Zoo-goodies. "This is Steve's present to you." I had a close look at all the contents and saw a video, t-shirts, books, mugs, pins, caps, chocolates, etcetera. He got me quiet now! "Just select whatever you can take with you and we'll send the remaining stuff to your home address in The Netherlands."
When Stu left me, I immediately installed myself and took ownership of the big king-size bed and went for a dive in this pool outside. The zoo had closed and all members were walking to their cars on the car park, next to the garden. They probably didn't understand who was that crazy guy who was diving and splashing around in that pool
I connected my laptop and started writing reports of earlier days. I had my Chinese dinner and went to bed pretty early this night.
No wonder, after all that had happened I just need time to process everything.
Strangely enough I dreamt about crocodiles in the hallway and the python suddenly functioned as my pillow.
But crikey! What an experience!
Good night Beerwah!
PS: I hereby want to thank the folks at Channel 9 and the Australian Zoo to make this exhilarating and enlightening day possible for me. Steve, Terry and John, thanks for making time for a chat. John, I'll speak to you later about the letmestayforaday-documentaries ;-)
Meet Steve and Terri Irwin on their website at www.crocodilehunter.com.
The upcoming movie also has a website at www.crocodilehunterthemovie.com.
Interested in more Steve-talk? Read an interview with him here.