Fed up: Bob Irwin breaks his silence
IT'S BLOODY DRY. Brisbane's suburban and semirural greenery disappeared into the rear-view mirror hours ago and now the D'Aguilar Highway winds northwest through dusty paddocks occasionally dotted with languid herds nuzzling lifeless blonde tussocks.
The South Burnett's patchwork of irrigated crops startle with unexpected vibrancy, even as the arrows of fire-danger signs outside Blackbutt, Nanango and Yarraman hover over the yellow "Very High" rating.
Turning off the highway, dual lanes narrow to rough-edged bitumen ribbons, then make way for a maze of dirt roads and eventually stony tracks far better suited to four-wheel-drives than our sedan, carefully crawling through a veritable tinderbox of eucalypt forest near Kingaroy, 212km northwest of the capital city.
Carved wood slung between tall timber posts lets us know we've reached Camp Chilli, signs along the entrance fence declaring the 260ha private property is dedicated to wildlife and habitat conservation. Prominent large red letters warn: Access Restricted.
This is the remote, gated sanctuary Bob Irwin - respected conservationist and environmentalist, father of late Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin and grandfather to celebrities Bindi and Robert - shares with wife Judy, 64, and her veterinarian daughter Bonny, 32.
When the world fell in love with the over-the-top enthusiasm, passion and showmanship of Steve, embraced his American wife Terri, and then doted on children Bindi and Robert, the shy and reserved Irwin Snr was more than happy to quietly lend his support away from the spotlight.
Nearly 13 years after he, the family and the world mourned his only son's unexpected tragic death, Irwin, 80, guards his privacy more than ever and rarely leaves his secluded home.
Still, undying fascination with the Crocodile Hunter's family and legacy means Irwin is never completely free from the public gaze. Lingering speculation around his estrangement from Terri, Bindi and Robert, the way he left Australia Zoo and his health continue to fuel headlines, despite the steadfast refusal of all involved to publicly discuss details. Until now.
When Bindi, 21, and fiance Chandler Powell, 22, the former professional wakeboarder now living and working at Australia Zoo, announced their engagement in July, an uninvited, unwelcome stranger came to Camp Chilli, repeatedly asked Irwin for an interview, and resisted persistent requests to leave.
Irwin's unwillingness to comment was subsequently falsely reported in a tabloid magazine as a refusal to wish the celebrity couple well, disinterest in his famous granddaughter's life and as reigniting a long-running "family feud", alongside unauthorised candid photos taken during the visit. A figurative match was struck and thrown to fuel-laden ground that day. Irwin is fired up. He's reported the trespass to local police, written to Bindi and is determined to publicly set the record straight once and for all.
"It's wrong, it's totally untrue. I knew, because of the magazine (the reporter) said he was from, it was going to be another one of those garbage, junk-type stories … but you can never be prepared for the fact it might be upsetting to so many people,'' Irwin says.
"Although a lot of untruths and rubbish and absolute garbage have been written by scumbags in the past, you reach a point where you've had enough. It's important everybody knows the truth, not just Bob and Bindi.''
"RIGHT, let's get on with it.'' Irwin is no hypocrite. He freely acknowledges the critical role media played for decades in spreading his and Steve's core wildlife conservation message, fuelling Steve's multimillion-dollar film and television career, and transforming his original Beerwah Reptile Park into the internationally renowned Australia Zoo.
Journalists were courted by The Bob Irwin Wildlife & Conservation Foundation, run from 2012 until his retirement in July last year, as it advocated for wildlife and the people supporting them, as they were for the launch of his 2017 autobiography, The Last Crocodile Hunter: A Father and Son Legacy, written by friend and former Australia Zoo employee, Amanda French, 33.
It's the enduring and, at times, invasive interest in his private life - even after being addressed in his book - he can't understand or tolerate. Quite frankly, he says, it's none of anybody's business. Still, I find myself sitting on Bob and Judy's veranda, sharing a lunch of delicious quiche and salads, followed by freshly baked raspberry and coconut cake, all washed down with endless cups of tea.
Yes, Irwin's well aware of the irony of inviting a journalist - albeit one he's met socially as a friend of French - home to address rumours and request privacy. Before, during and after my visit several people emphasised just how extraordinary this situation is, what a difficult decision for the childhood stutterer who hates public speaking and would "rather be hanging on to the back of a crocodile, covered in mud and mosquitoes, than in front of a camera".
Such is the depth of Irwin's distress, anger and frustration. He and Judy wrote to Bindi and Chandler to congratulate them on their engagement and wish them a long, happy future together after seeing the offending article. They have not received, nor do they expect, a reply. For Irwin, that's not the point.
"I want (Bindi and Robert, 15) to be able to do what they want from day to day, enjoy life, enjoy the animals, achieve things, without worrying about things that should never be presented to them (like that article),'' he says.
"Much the same as any other parent or grandparent, I would wish (Bindi and Chandler) all the best - which I do - and hope things go really, really well.'' He adds, "No, I haven't had an invite to the wedding and, to be perfectly honest, I wouldn't expect to be invited to the wedding.''
Asked, if invited, would he and Judy attend what's slated to be a lavish star-studded, televised affair at Australia Zoo next year, Irwin doesn't hesitate: "Yes, we would.''
While he hasn't seen Steve's children for more than a decade, Irwin - Poppy to seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren - watches over them from afar. "If they wanted to, of course I would" like to spend time with them, is a position he's publicly maintained for years. Australia Zoo's media team did not respond to requests for an interview with or a written response from Bindi.
"I get messages (from friends) constantly about how Bob and Bindi are doing, what achievements they've made, what interests they have, and I also watch television like everyone else. They keep me up-to-date.
"Both Bindi and Bob have achieved a lot in a short space of time; mind you, they're both only young yet … But they've done well and … I would say Steve would be pretty happy with the way they're going."
NO FAMILY FEUD
In his typical blunt way, Irwin maintains there is no family feud. He resigned from Australia Zoo in 2008, two years after Steve's death, aged 44, from a stingray barb to the heart while filming documentary Ocean's Deadliest on the Batt Reef, near Port Douglas, in far north Queensland.
Irwin, Terri and Steve's best friend Wes Mannion, then the zoo director, had a "different opinion on a lot of things'', including the running of the zoo, and he was ultimately accused of being a "disruptive influence''. Irwin wanted to continue Steve's work in the way he believed was best. He negotiated a financial settlement reflecting his 36-year career with management, enabling him and Judy to buy a property, build their home and receive a "modest" weekly wage for life.
Steve had been managing the park his parents, Bob and Lyn (who died in 2000), created and opened in April 1973, for about 10 years when in 2004, a few months before Bob and Judy married in the zoo's Kangaroo Heaven, full ownership was legally transferred to him and Terri.
"In his mind, it's all done and dusted; it's over and done with,'' says Judy, refreshing the pot with her husband's preferred Bushells. He's a teetotaller who drinks nothing but black tea, dismissing water as only good for showering.
Irwin maintains he harbours no animosity towards Terri but he hasn't seen her nor set foot on the 400ha Beerwah campus, home to more than 1000 animals and 400 employees, attracting 700,000 visitors each year, since. Still, in his autobiography, he wrote that he'd "put my heart and soul into that place, and I think a part of me will never leave, will always be there alongside Steve".
"Australia Zoo will always be successful. I don't know much about it now, because life's different and you get out of touch, but from what I can gather, from what people who have been there have told me, it's still really, really good and well worth the visit,'' he says, fresh cup in hand, signature cap on his head and khaki shirt on his back.
"All good zoos these days have to have a really good education program. That's what it's all about. You can't just stick animals in a cage and forget about them. You've got to do it for a good reason - education and awareness, and that's how you get people to respect the animals.''
Irwin found himself flooded with requests to champion the causes of people and organisations dedicated to various wildlife issues around the country, culminating in the establishment of his own not-for-profit foundation.
He's saved southern hairy-nosed wombats being buried alive by South Australian farmers, been arrested protesting coal seam gas on Queensland's western downs, and helped establish feeding stations for cassowaries after 2011's devastating Cyclone Yasi.
He's campaigned against the proposed Traveston Crossing Dam, which would threaten the endangered lungfish and the Mary River turtle, argued for greater protection of koala habitats, the Great Barrier Reef and humpback whales from illegal slaughter by Japanese whalers in Australian waters, and worked alongside Cairns' Colin Riddell to see the Native Title Act - which allows hunting of endangered dugongs and sea turtles - changed to make indigenous people subject to animal cruelty legislation.
Tree kangaroos, bilbies, bats, seabirds, sharks, South-East Asian Sun Bears and, of course, his beloved crocodiles - Irwin has stood up for them all.
Irwin caved to repeated requests for an autobiography to share stories of his family's life, his and Steve's adventures, and to reinforce their core conservation and education message.
Any suggestion he capitalised on his son's fame is dismissed as "just absolute rubbish", saying the entire book advance went to French and "average" sales meant there was no profit.
"I just regard myself as an average ordinary Aussie guy that was probably doing something a little different than most people were doing. My legacy is nothing really but Steve's is special. Steve's will live on for another 50 or 100 years. In the short time he had - and it was fairly short - he made a hell of a difference to the way people view wildlife and conservation in general.''
TOGETHER AT CAMP CHILLI
These days the only visitors to Camp Chilli Irwin concerns himself with are family and the kangaroos, sugar gliders, possums, snakes, lizards and abundant bird life. It's just the way he and Judy, a long-time wildlife carer, like it.
"It was a hard decision to retire. I liked the things I was able to achieve with the help of a lot of very, very good people but I was getting very tired of the public side of it - the interviews, the media, the speaking, the travel, all that was wearing me down,'' says Irwin.
"I realised I was getting a bit short-tempered, wasn't as content as perhaps I should have been and I thought, well, maybe it's time to let the younger ones take over. There are a lot of really good young people out there now, capable of making their own way and doing their own thing.
"If you asked me 10 years ago, I would have said the world's stuffed. My generation in particular have made so many mistakes, making the planet a bad place to live. But now, with the generation that's out there, I think we've got a pretty good chance of getting it right. They've got their heads screwed on, they've got their ideas right, there's enough people out there now that know what the problem is so they'll get it fixed. The planet has got a good future.''
With that settled, Irwin is thoroughly enjoying the quiet life at Camp Chilli, the sanctuary surrounded by national park and state forest named for his and Steve's favourite croc-catching campsite at Cattle Creek, near Ingham. He fills his days slashing paddocks, maintaining tracks, fences and dams, building sheds, cutting firewood, looking after miniature horse Samson and walking the bush he loves.
Irwin laughs at rumours of his imminent death, saying, while he never thought he'd see his 80th birthday, he's still in pretty good nick. A broken ankle and a broken big toe - one on each foot - in the last six months have slowed him down but he quit smoking three years ago and has had no trouble with his ticker since a heart attack in 2010.
"I wouldn't mind a few spare parts if I could get them, but generally speaking I'm doing pretty good. I've got the normal old age symptoms most people have; you can't do what you used to do and, believe me, that is frustrating. That just drives me mad.''
As for the intolerable grief which almost felled him when Steve died, well, that has never left. "The only people who would understand are those who have lost a child when they shouldn't have. Your children shouldn't pass away before you do. I did it really hard to start with, but it's not something you ever get over,'' Irwin says quietly.
His favourite photo of the pair catching crocs in the Nesbit River, Cape York, has been enlarged to hang prominently in the kitchen, while the long hallway is lined with family photos and Steve's first crocodile removal permit, obtained for $10 in November 1989.
His earliest croc-hunting home movies - "Hey Dad! Watch this!" - are cherished mementos, too painful to watch often. "From time to time, the emotion bit catches up with you, when certain things happen, but you learn to live with it. You know it's always going to be there, you know it's not going to go away. You learn to live with it and make adjustments,'' says Irwin.
"We were two peas that came out of the same pod at one stage. There was a lot of difference in years but he loved the things I loved, he had a special way with animals and he was a quick learner. We were lucky to have that opportunity to spend all that time together, nobody else around, doing the things we loved doing.
"I can remember sitting around campfires some nights and we'd say, well, one of us is going to wear it sooner or later, but it was something we both accepted. We both realised you can only get away with making the odd mistake for so long, that sooner or later it's going to catch up with you.
"And it did, eventually, catch up with Steve unfortunately. But look, he wouldn't have wanted it any other way. He died doing what he loved and not too many people can say that.''
Outside, gum leaves rustle in the breeze and birds call. Miniature horse Samson chews hay near the woodshed while ball of canine fluff, Millie scampers through the long grass. Irwin sips his tea, crumbles a wedge of cake and smiles.
"I talk to Steve regularly. He's pretty happy with the way things are going along.''