Stop us if you’ve heard this one: An intrepid New York reporter with impeccable taste in clothes flies 10,000 miles to the Australian Outback in search of a wily adventurer who makes his living where the fruit bats and buffalo roam. No, it’s not “Crocodile” Dundee, the movie; it’s the story of how People staff writer Margot Dougherty got the story on Rod An-sell, who may—or may not, depending on who’s talking—be the real-life inspiration for actor Paul Hogan’s $375-million movie character.
The similarities are intriguing. Ansell, who makes a living trapping feral water buffalo, lives in a dusty compound 150 miles east of Darwin, in Australia’s scarcely populated Northern Territory. “Darwin is in the middle of nowhere like I’ve never seen no-where,” says Dougherty, 31, who also has reported stories in Argentina, Nicaragua and Pakistan. “I felt a sudden surge of appreciation for the shopping mall.” When Ansell failed to pick her up as planned, she rented a car and drove through the scrub for three hours until she located his camp. Rod was not home. Luckily, some hired hands were and offered Dougherty food and a floor to sleep on.
“They told me about a kind of poisonous spider that travels in pairs, and they said they had caught one just before I arrived,” says Dougherty, who now wonders whether the fellows were putting her on. At the time, though, she says, “I heard these scratching noises at night, and I was sure it was the other spider. At least I thought it was an interesting way to go.”
Two days later, Ansell showed up. Dougherty’s first impression? “I knew he wasn’t going to be Paul Hogan, though I didn’t expect this little guy with dirty feet. But he turned out to be fascinatingly resourceful, with a surprising political awareness and a great deadpan sense of humor.” For starters, the 33-year-old bushman took her out to round up buffalo, which often are diseased and thus a danger to local cattle. “It was so hot I thought I was going to faint,” says Dougherty (correctly but rarely pronounced “Dock-er-ty”). “Afterwards, the guys shrugged it off as an easy catch—’Like getting a poodle,’ they said, because we hadn’t bashed the jeep and no one had been gored.” Other highlights included a boar hunt and an alfresco meal spent dodging fruit-bat deposits.
Unlike the mythical Crocodile Dundee, Ansell has little truck with the local reptiles, though he did introduce Dougherty to several representatives of the species. Very much like Dundee, however, Ansell made a name for himself in Australia by surviving in the wilds for two months after his boat capsized on a remote river in 1977. Whether this incident helped inspire “Crocodile” Dundee is a matter of colorful debate (see story, page 102).
Dougherty, an eight-year veteran of LIFE magazine who moved to People last year, came away believing that at least some of the first film drew on Ansell’s life. “There are too many quirky similarities in their stories for it to be sheer coincidence,” she says. Put more succinctly: She went out to find a real Dundee, and done did.