“Be careful. There’s big ones out there”, she said. The words spoken seven months ago now ring loudly in my ears. I’m in the middle of the Kimberley at sunset and the drone is working its magic over croc infested waters. This is her maiden voyage outside of Broome and hopefully the start of a new project if all goes to plan. Everything is picture perfect. White-bellied sea eagles glide overhead, crocodiles bask in the sun and Archerfish swim in the shallows. Blue skies, red rock and silence. This is the stuff of movies.
I’ve set my alarm for 15 minutes of flight time just to be safe. Enough time to get her back safe and sound. I carry on playing Speilberg as the drone buzzes it’s way through the rocky gorge, croc shaped silhouettes occasionally breaking the dark green water. 10 minutes in and I suddenly lose control. Sensing that the batteries are low the drone initiates Return To Home mode much sooner than expected. In theory all is good – I’ve tested this before with perfect results – although not over water – and not in the arsehole of nowhere. Now all I can do is stand and watch as $1500 worth of gear hovers over Croc Gorge. Suddenly it comes to a stop over water and slowly it starts descending. Just slow enough that I’ve got time to panic but not slow enough that I can do anything about it. I watch and wait, quickly realising it’s not returning to home at all. My mind races. It’s too far to run and swim for a heroic just-above-the-water catch. Instead all I can hope for is a crash landing into a nearby tree or a hard landing onto rocks next to the river. Even a broken drone is better than wet drone I hastily conclude. I make a mental note of exactly where it’s dropping just in case an emergency retrieval is warranted.
It clears the height of the first tree, and then the second – meaning it must be over water now. As it descends I accept that a dry landing is no longer on the cards. With one tree to go – the tree that’s overhanging the water – it disappears into snapping branches and a sudden puff of green leaves – and plonks downwards into the dark waters. F#*K!!!! So much for my delusions of movie making grandeur. Suddenly I’m in search and rescue mode – it’s my beloved drone after all! – despite the fact that a wet drone is almost certainly a dead drone and a wet GoPro is pretty much stuffed. Nonetheless I scramble like a lunatic over rocks and boulders and slip and slide my way down to the water’s edge. I can see on the opposite side a patchwork of green leaves floating on the water marking ground zero. Suddenly I remember the owners of the gorge telling me last year “Be careful. There’s big ones out there’”, referring to the crocs of course. With a drone in distress I de-robe to my undies, take a deep breath and gracefully belly flop into the water. I’ve been to this gorge before and haven’t yet mustered the courage to swim its breadth because of the crocs. I’ve paddled in the shallows as they slump on hot rocks a stone’s throw away and curious eyes breaking the water’s surface. The locals – and my 3 years of Kimberley experience – tell me they’re supposed to be harmless. Now I’m about to find out. I hit the water with a splash and already the far side seems a mile away.
I’ve never been a confident swimmer – especially out here, on my own – and suddenly I’m less confident than ever. “Be careful. There’s big ones out there” echoes in my head. At this stage there’s no going back. My thoughts jump between a sunken drone – Titanic-like in the mud and silt – and the very real risk of the sudden snap of a hungry, confused crocodile (he probably doesn’t get too many Irishmen doing laps out here in their undies). It’s after sunset by this stage and the light is fading quickly so time is of the essence. If I find the drone I’ve got 2 choices: scramble the hour and a half around the gorge in bare feet to get back to where I started sometime after dark. Or get it onto dry land and tackle a second lap of the gorge back to safety. I reach the far side and, thank Christ, the drone has landed in about 4 feet of water – the carcass half visible. It’s completely submerged and soaked to the core so it’s probably beyond repair but at least retrieving the body will make me feel better. I climb up the muddy bank, breathless, arms tired, dripping drone in hand, like a modern day Neanderthal. I quickly pull out the battery and memory card and vigorously shake the shit out of it, to put it technically.
The initial postmortem tells me the GoPro is dead and the drone has no signs of life. Deciding it’s best to air it out overnight – rather than try to swim it back across – I set it on a rock, pop the memory card in my mouth, and splash back into Croc Gorge. “Be careful. There’s some big ones out there”. This time I’m already half exhausted and careful not to spit or swallow the memory card in the process. Any croc that tackles me now probably stands a good chance of an easy feed and a free 36GB memory card. One arm stroke after the next I imagine the rescue team that is tasked with piecing together the mystery of the missing Belfast boy. Day one finds hiking boots, shorts and a remote control. Waterlogged drone soon discovered on day 2. Day 3 brings a pair of white jocks, shredded, on a nearby rock and a healthy looking crocodile smiling from a distance. With my imagination in overdrive I reach the banks where I started and use the tree roots to pull myself up and out. This is the point in the movie where the guy sighs a huge sigh of relief just as a croc drags him back into the water, the movie fading to black as Never Smile At A Crocodile jingles over the credits. Thankfully no croc lunging today thank you very much. I’m alive. Drone diagnosis? Waterlogged. Forecast? Bleak. GoPro? Probably dead. At least the undies got a rinse.
And just when I thought the story was over I retrieved the drone and the GoPro the following afternoon. Amazingly after almost 24hrs of drying out in the Kimberley sun and with a fresh battery in the mix, they both whirred back to life! 100% happy and healthy. Maybe the swim was worth it after all. Not only that but the SD card and the 10 minutes of flight footage also survived the crash and a dunk in the water. Everything survived except for the last 30 seconds of footage – the infamous moment of splash down – just after the GoPro created a new video file which corrupted when the card was flooded. The drone was back in the air in time for sunset, back over croc infested waters. Delusions of movie making grandeur continue.
“Be careful. There’s big ones out there”.
Never a dull moment.