Obituary: Rod Ansell
THEY CALLED Rod Ansell “Crocodile Dundee” because his adventurous life in the wilds of Australia’s Northern Territory inspired the 1986 hit film of that name.
It propelled the actor Paul Hogan to fame and fortune playing the character who wrestled crocodiles and mesmerised buffalos. But Ansell, the real Mick Dundee, never saw a penny from royalties and had to settle for the myth surrounding his tangled life. His death on an outback highway, at the age of 44, could almost have been scripted for a sequel called “Mick Dundee: the final shoot-out”.
From what can be pieced together of police reports, Ansell became involved in an altercation at a house south of Darwin on the night of 2 August. He fired shots at the house and one of its occupants then fled into the bush. Police surrounded the area, set up a road block on the Stuart Highway, the road that links Darwin and Alice Springs, and lay in wait.
Next morning, Ansell came out of hiding and crawled towards the road- block armed with two guns. He stood up and fired, killing a policeman. Another policeman returned fire and Ansell fell dead. Why did he shoot up the house in the first place? Why did he walk into a police trap when as skilled a bushman as he could easily have slipped away? Did he have a death wish because his life had turned bad? The questions are unanswered; no doubt they will be rich fodder for film producers.
I met Rod Ansell at his home in the Northern Territory in 1988. He lived with his wife and two small sons on Melaleuca, a large property in beautiful semi-tropical country between Darwin and the Kakadu National Park. He ran buffalo. Ansell was strikingly handsome with blond hair, blue eyes and bare feet. The bare feet were his trademark. He seems never to have worn shoes, even when travelling on aircraft and staying in city hotels at the height of his fame. His looks and charm captivated women. And the charm was not all rough-edged. He had an engaging laugh and would talk at length about the bush and its animals.
That year, the Northern Territory government named him Territorian of the Year for his role in putting the Top End, as Australians call the region, on the world map.
He arrived in the Northern Territory from Queensland at the age of 15 to work as a buffalo-catcher. The story that brought him fame, but no fortune, happened in 1977 when he was 22. He was travelling with two dogs on the remote Fitzmaurice River when a crocodile overturned his boat. For the next two months he and the dogs lived off the land until Aborigines stumbled across them and brought them into civilisation. The press went mad over his story. Ansell was said to have survived by shooting sharks and drinking buffalo blood. No one seemed to mind if the details grew ever more incredible. A hero had been born.
Ansell was flown to Sydney to be interviewed by Michael Parkinson. He told Parkinson that he preferred to sleep on the floor of his five-star Sydney hotel in his swag, a bush bed-roll, rather than in the king-size bed. Paul Hogan said later the idea of the Crocodile Dundee film, a bushman adrift in the big city, sprang from the interview. The Hogan character in the film sleeps in the same manner in a hotel in New York. Ansell also recounted his adventures in a documentary film and a book, both called To Fight the Wild (1990).
By the time I met Ansell two years after the film’s release, the Crocodile Dundee myth was already starting to fade. He was no longer interested in talking about the story, perhaps bitter that no money had come his way. The family were living in deprived circumstances.
Ansell complained that their livelihoods were threatened by an Australian government programme to shoot wild buffalo in a bid to eradicate tuberculosis from the cattle industry. The disease was then proving hard to contain in the buffalo which had been introduced to the Northern Territory as beasts of burden from Timor in the 1820s, and which had since proliferated to herds of about 300,000.
Officially sanctioned shooters were killing the beasts from helicopters. Conservationists supported the campaign, claiming the buffalo had caused untold environmental damage in the Top End. But Ansell was leading a farmers’ protest against it. “No country has ever successfully eradicated the disease completely from free-range conditions,” he told me. “If you have just one wild animal left, it will still be there. All this money would be better spent on research on Aids.”
Ansell eventually lost Melaleuca. His marriage disintegrated. In 1992 he was convicted of cattle rustling and of assaulting the owner of a cattle property in Arnhem Land, in the eastern Top End. He was fined and placed on a good behaviour bond. He continued to blame his troubles on the campaign to wipe out the buffalo. He told reporters he was living on unemployment benefits and “bush tucker”. When he died he was living on an Aboriginal outstation at Urapunga on the Roper River, about 300 miles south of Darwin. He had an affinity with the Aborigines, who had initiated him as a white member of their community.
Rodney William Ansell, buffalo farmer and bushman: born 1955; married (two sons); died Darwin, Northern Territory 3 August 1999.