Meet Rod Ansell, a Daring, Real-Life Dundee
What’s left of the battered green 1985 Toyota is bouncing along at 60 mph, no road in sight. The goggled demon at the wheel is heading straight for a towering thatch of young gum trees, and he has got the accelerator soldered to the floor with his bare foot. There’s no windshield on the speeding wreck—no roof or doors, for that matter—and the constant whorl of dust is blinding. But the madman smashes through the trees, unleashing a shower of unhappy green ants who bite viciously through his fatigues. Oblivious, he careens through a dried riverbed, scales its four-foot perpendicular bank, resumes the race on open plain and closes in on his lumbering quarry: a 900-lb. feral water buffalo. With a nudge from the Toyota’s bull bar—a specially rigged fender—the beast’s hind legs buckle and it drops. Throwing on the brake, Rod Ansell, about 5’8″ and pushing 125 lbs. after a good meal, hops out, wedges his knee into the animal’s shoulder and ropes its tire-threatening horns. “I think,” drawls the white hunter with an Aussie accent, “we’ve caught ourselves a buffalo.”
Welcome to Australia’s Top End—the wild, wild north of what may well be the world’s last continental frontier. And meet your host, Rod Ansell, the buffalo catcher, cattle tosser and Aussie back-bushman who claims his own adventures triggered the creation of Mick J. “Crocodile” Dundee.
Rod doesn’t tango with 17-foot crocs or sport a necklace made of their teeth. And the only thing that gets him to the Bark Hut Inn—a watering hole 50 minutes down a dirt road from his homestead—is a mail or grocery pickup. In fact, Rod, 33, doesn’t care for beer, mobs or shoes. Last time he put on a pair was before boarding a plane. The ticket taker “said something about germs,” Rod recalls. “I said I bet the bottom of my feet were a lot cleaner than the bottom of his shoes—I watch where I walk. He said, ‘Right, mate, probably are.’ ” Rod wore thongs up the ramp, then chucked them.
So what does this Daniel Boone from Down Under have in common with the star of “Crocodile “Dundee? Superficially, both are handsome, blond, blue-eyed samplings of male Australiana who tend to fib about their height: Hogan gets measured with his boots on, and Ansell lays claim to an inch or two that aren’t rightfully his. Other than that, they’re as disparate as the Polo Lounge and the pub at Humpty Doo—a roadside attraction on the three-hour drive from Darwin to Rod’s. But compare Rod to Hogan’s “Croc” character, and there are more similarities.
In 1977 Ansell was stranded for two months on a deserted stretch of river in the Northern Territory. After his rescue, word of his wily survival—we’ll get to that later—spread. He re-enacted the misadventure for a 1978 documentary that is still aired on TV, and he co-wrote a book, To Fight the Wild. In 1980 TV host Michael Parkinson invited Rod to Sydney to chat about his episode on his “talk-back show.”
When “Crocodile” Dundee came out six years later, “people started ringing me up and saying they saw all these similarities between my experience and the movie,” Rod says. Ringing up? Not exactly, He and his wife, Joanne, also 33, and their two sons, Callum, 8, and Shaun, 6, live on a rustic homestead called Melaleuca about 10 miles from the closest phone—an outdoor booth at a slaughterhouse. They communicate by radio. Still, they went to check out the film. “An excellent movie, hey?” Rod says. “Good fun. But it was so obvious where he got his material from.” Not that Rod cared—until early last year.
That’s when he and Dominick Macan, an adventure-tour planner Ansell picked up hitchhiking in the Territory in ’86, decided to go into business. Macan, who works with Ocean Voyages in Sausalito, Calif., thought Rod’s setting would make a good vacation spot. Convinced, Rod made a call to Hogan’s office in Sydney to ask permission to bill himself as the “real Crocodile Dundee” in his promotional brochures. Rod got back a letter from Hogan’s partner, John Cornell. “Sorry mate,” it read in part, “but you cannot use ‘Crocodile Dundee’ in any advertising either in Australia or the U.S.A. Lawyers from Paramount and Rimfire Films [Hogan’s company] would descend on you from a great height.”
“I really can’t understand their position,” says Rod. “I explained very carefully that I was willing to sign a piece of paper saying I had no rights to royalties. All I want is the right to say what they’ve already said: that Hoges got the idea from myself. It could really help my little thing here.” In an early radio interview, Rod claims, Hogan cited the Parkinson interview as the spark that fired his Dundee creation. No transcript of the radio show exists, but newspaper interviews with Cornell and Ken Shadie, the balance of the Dundee script-writing team, made the connection for posterity. In July of ’86 Shadie told a reporter that having seen Rod on TV, Hogan “thought this was the ideal character for [himself].” Memories of Rod have since faded in movieland. “All I can say is the story came from Paul Hogan,” Shadie says now. “The idea for ‘Crocodile’ Dundee came from Paul Hogan’s head,” says a spokesman for Cornell.
Rod was disappointed but undaunted. His brochure, written by Macan, cites him as the “bushman superstar” who inspired the movie “Crocodile” Dundee. What if Paramount should make good on Cornell’s threat? “Well, I guess they’d win, wouldn’t they?” shrugs Ansell. “They’ve got more money, hey?” Wife Joanne, a soft-spoken Melbourne native, stands firmer. “I think Hogan’s being really bad mannered,” she says. “Let him try whatever he likes. We’ll stand up and knock him back down again.”
Whether Rod’s story is filmlore, folklore or remarkable fact, it’s a yarn worth spinning. In May 1977, after a cattle-catching job in Kununurra, Western Australia, Rod decided to take a fishing trip. He entered the Victoria River with an 18-foot motorboat, a nine-foot dinghy, two bull terriers and some canned food and water. As an idyllic first day drew to a close, a large croc capsized his boat, sending him careening into the current, along with his dogs and provisions. The main boat was lost, but the dogs and dinghy survived, as did Rod’s swag (a grungy canvas bedroll), rifle, knife, a can of powdered milk, another of peas and a box of wet matches. After a night of drifting out to sea, he washed up on an island off the shore of the Fitzmaurice River, north of the Victoria.
Then his real adventures began. It took two days to find fresh water upriver. When excruciating heat depleted his body’s salt supplies, he says he shot a wild cow and sucked blood from its neck before curing the meat. When he craved sugar, he captured tiny bees hovering over his dogs’ water tin and, webbing a strand of cotton from his shirt around their legs, followed the flying string to their hive and honey. Savvy about the wiles of crocodiles, he was careful to change his habits daily to prevent their snacking on his dogs when he was away hunting. Finally, after seven weeks, Rod heard horse-bells tinkling and was rescued by two aborigines and a white man gone walkabout from a reserve 140 miles away.
Even in the rough-and-tumble world of the Outback, Rod’s ordeal made big news. In some eyes he was a hero. In others he was an elaborate storyteller. “I’ve been lost in the bush but never been tempted to drink cow’s blood,” sniffs one old-timer. “That’s going too far.” Others wondered just what Rod was fishing for in crocodile country—poaching is punishable by a $2,000 fine and/or six months in prison. But for the Aussie TV audience, this wry-humored anachronism who gave cattle-tossing tips and claimed to be an honorary aborigine was a charming glimpse of a culture gone by. For Rod, who flew to Sydney for the show, urban customs were no less exotic.
“I had been living in a rough camp,” he recalls, “and Parkinson’s people picked me up at a mission airstrip and dumped me at the Sebel Town House in Sydney—the flashiest place they could find.” (The hotel is the city’s answer to the Plaza, where the movie Croc stayed in New York.) Still, Rod adapted to the show’s limo (another Croc scenario). He befriended the driver and directed him to Toyota dealerships to find a differential for Rod’s “motorcar.” The next day, the maid found the differential next to his swag—which lay on the floor next to the bed. (Sound familiar, Crocsters?) “She cleaned around it,” deadpans Rod.
These days, Rod makes do back at Melaleuca. Buffalo catching, his main line of work, is a backbreaker. In exchange for cheap rent—under $16,000 a year for 60,000 acres abutting Kakadu National Park, billabongs (ponds) and rain forests included—the Northern Territory government requires that he rid his property of the wild, often tubercular buffalo and repopulate it with a domestic TB-free herd. Buffalo meat, usually exported, is an important part of the Northern Territory economy. So far he says he’s caught more than 2,000 animals and has only 500 to go. None too soon. “It’s one thing to catch a few buffs,” he says. “I really enjoy that. But it’s another to go flat out seven days a week. The novelty can wear off.” The physical toll may not. Rod has broken an arm, toe, foot, shoulder and assorted hand bones, cracked his collarbone “heaps of times” and chipped his elbow. Ansell says he’d like to get into more domestic work.
To date, Rod and Joanne have had exactly two paying guests at Melaleuca, named for the paper bark trees that cover it. “It was like going back 100 years,” says Bob Koch, a San Francisco newlywed who spent five days there in April on his honeymoon. Joanne—who helps with the buffalo catching, dug the 10-foot-deep ditch for the septic tank and can hold her own under a Toyota hood—has been leading their home improvement program. They’ve added two guest rooms to their corrugated iron-roofed home, have “proper lights with switches,” fans, and, when the newly installed water pump is working, a shower, tub and toilet. “We’ve gotten quite flash,” Rod laughs. The cement-floored common room is spare, but there are idiosyncratic homey touches: an alligator skull, dried buffalo horns, cassettes ranging from Ravel to Meat Loaf and a punching bag dangling from the ceiling. Outside, winged wildlife abounds: sulphur-crested cockatoos, wedge-tailed eagles and lorikeets. Wallabies are everywhere—including on the dinner plate—as are brumbies (wild horses), boar, buffalo and dingoes.
“I can’t see us ever going into town,” says Joanne, who met Rod while she was working on an aboriginal reserve in the Territory. Rod grew up in southern Queensland, the third of four children born to parents who later raised cattle. By his own admission, he was a “shocking student,” interested more in filling the garage with shoe boxes of silkworms and the backyard with his 14 pet wallabies than in grammar. At 17, he left home and learned to toss cattle. The trick involves wrapping the animal’s tail around your hand and feinting one way and the other until it, weighing close to a ton and very angry, trips over itself and falls. (We don’t suggest trying this at home.) He crisscrossed the Territory plying his trade on a series of cattle stations and aboriginal missions until securing the lease for Melaleuca in 1985. Not even the tempting Linda Kozlowski is likely to lure Rod into the urban jungle. “All those people jammed into one place,” he says, shaking his head, though a few checking into Melaleuca for a week at $1,000 each wouldn’t be bad.
As for the specter of a Paramount lawsuit, Ansell adopts a “no worries” attitude. “I’ll take that when it comes, as it comes, if it comes,” he says, lamenting what he considers a lack of courtesy. “I mean it’s not like Hoges ever called me up and said, ‘Hey Rod, mind if I use bits and pieces of your story?’ When I asked, I thought he’d say, ‘Yeah, sure mate, go ahead.’ But it didn’t happen like that at all, hey?” Welcome to Hollywood, Rod.