Don’t let the crocodile wrangling or fly-boy helicopter skills mislead you: Matt Wright considers himself a risk-averse guy. Exercise in relativity, maybe, but once you’ve seen Matt in action, his statement seems more like a testament to the dude’s intuitive understanding of the Australian bush. Crocodiles, in particular.
Matt knows crocodiles from teeth to tail. When he’s not harvesting croc eggs in Australia’s Northern Territory, he’s filming for his TV show Monster Croc Wrangler (aka, Outback Wrangler). Or guiding clients on wildlife tours. Or tearing up the skies in his helicopter. Or whipping an airboat.
You get the idea.
This dude lives the life many a couch-bound male fantasizes over. CONVICTS caught up with Matt on our recent trip to outback Australia. We got his word on the strange beauty of crocodiles, his troubled relationship with New York, and how he became the bush man he is.
G’day. I’m Matt Wright and I do a show in Australia called Outback Wrangler.
How’d you get into flying helicopters?
I’d seen ‘em on cattle stations and knew that’s what I wanted to do for a career. I saved up a lot of money by working on the rigs and at cattle stations. I bit the bullet and went to get my chopper license then started as a junior master pilot up here in the Northern Territory.
Where did you go to school?
Willunga. I went to school down in Willunga High School, South Australia.
What was growing up like?
Life at home was good. It was fun, enjoyable. Lots of adventures. My stepfather used to take us away a lot fishing or up onto the cattle stations and my father was a wool classer. He lived on a lot of different cattle stations, moving around and shearing sheep and classing the wool so it was always good fun.
Have you always had that keenness for adventure?
Ever since I can remember. John and I would run across the hills catching brown snakes and bring them home. Our parents wouldn’t know where we were half the day and they’d be worried. We’d get up at daylight and get back at dark and have one hell of an adventure.
Johnsie and I have been mates ever since we were kids. We grew up, got in a lot of trouble and got out of a lot of trouble but we’ve always been best mates. Even to this day, we’re catching some of the biggest crocs in the world. He’s collecting crocodile eggs which is just an extension from when we were kids. Now, we’re adults and still playing with some serious wildlife.
Did you find your way into any real trouble as a kid?
No, not when I was a kid. You got no fear when you’re young–you don’t know the consequences. Whereas, when you get a little bit older, you respect things a bit more and understand that if you get bitten–some pretty serious consequences come with that.
How does the Aussie character relate to that upbringing?
Oh, definitely the freedom, but even the freedom now is getting lost. What we had as kids isn’t there anymore. The parents didn’t worry if you were running around down the street at your mate’s place or his parent’s place but these days it’s not so safe anymore. Kids are a lot more protected and don’t get the opportunities to make mistakes and find adventure. Without that, you lose a lot of life skills. As a kid, you’re learning and growing. That’s where Aussie spirit came from: being kids and getting out there and having a crack.
How often do you have kind of an ‘Aw fuck it, let’s just do it’ moment?
Haha. It’s nearly a day to day thing. If you don’t take a chance and don’t take a punt and don’t take that risk you’re never gonna get any reward. You always gotta take some sort of risk to benefit yourself. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.
What’s the innate attraction of wildlife?
Wildlife is what’s so unique about planet earth. That and the environment we have. There’s millions and billions of people but only a few species of wildlife around. It’s fascinating to watch and see.
Tell me about the moment when being a helicopter pilot became a career?
I’m still working on the career side of things. The opportunity always presents itself some way. The only reason I fell into what I do now is because I saved a bit of money and took the risk of doing my helicopter license. A lot of people said you’re wasting your money, you’re not gonna get a job and you’ll hate it. I can look back now and say: you were totally wrong. I love it and it’s opened up so many doors. I’ve got a TV show. I work with a crocodile egg collection and my have tourism based out of that as well. There are so many different opportunities fall under that one decision I made when I was younger to do my helicopter license.
What’s going through your head when you’re up in the air flying?
When I’m not actually having to work, if it’s myself and Kai and we’re heading away for the weekend or coming home in the evening after fishing, it’s beautiful. You sit up there, sit back and cruise. There’s no one else up in the sky. Not much traffic up there. It’s just freedom.
Talk a little about wildlife conservation?
These days, the problem is that people think there are too many crocs. People think they should start killing them when in fact the crocs have just gone back to their normal, sustainable levels after getting shot out. Now, trying to keep the balance between humans and crocodiles or humans and wildlife in general is a tough game. I’m not the only person in the world trying to do it. There’s lots of people who strive for the same balance that we do: not too extreme on the people, not too extreme on the animals. It’s a tough thing with the crocodiles.
I still collect crocodile eggs but that’s a commercial industry which protects the wild population. A lot of people don’t understand that. Keep a level head and don’t get too one sided, that’s as long as the safari hunting or culling or something like that doesn’t come in. I know there are still permits put out and there are animals that have to be destroyed. That happens. People living off the land. I’m not gonna save every crocodile, but I can educate people so they don’t feel the need to kill them.
Can you tell me about collecting crocodile eggs.
The collection of crocodile eggs started back in the mid-eighties. There were 4,000 crocs in the wild then. We’ve now got 120-130,000 in the wild. Now it’s a sustainable agricultural industry. The eggs get taken out of the wild, but in the areas that we collect them 90% of the young gators would die. We’re taking something that was gonna perish in the wild and making an industry of it. It’s an apex predator, everyone wants to kill it and it’s the top of the food chain but if you can relate that back to where someone’s making a little income out of the animal, they’re not gonna go and start shooting ‘em for no reason. They get a bit of income so they treat the crocodiles like livestock. And that’s the balance, the trade off: we can protect the wild population but we have to farm the eggs or farm the crocodiles. That’s how it works.
Are your crocs familiar with you? Can they recognize you or communicate with you in any way?
Communicating probably isn’t the word with animals. You can talk to your dog, but the dog doesn’t talk back. Understanding the animal and knowing their behavioral patterns and how they’re gonna interact with you is an entirely different story. That’s just knowing how to work with wildlife. John and I have both done it our whole life and it’s second nature, but it still doesn’t mean that you’re not gonna get caught out one day.
Many close calls?
There’s been a few close calls. Yep.
In terms animals and hunting, what do you see the future looking like?
That’s probably one of the toughest questions, you know? Where is the world heading? If it’s all gonna be a huge war and people are droppin’ nukes I don’t know what’s gonna happen to the animals, but I know that the animals are the last on the list. Ideally, big parks will be the last place animals will end up.
Well humans would probably go before the crocs.
I think that yeah I think crocs will be here well after well after humans
Changing gears a bit. Say you’re running from the cops and you have all these vehicles at your disposal. Which do you choose?
You can drop the chopper on the roof which makes it’s hard for the law to keep up. We’ve got the skis, we’ve got the choppers, we’ve got the airboats, we’ve got the four-wheel drive, we’ve got the buggies. There’s lots of different modes of transport for the different areas we operate in and it’s good fun. Lot of toys comes with a lot of expense though.
I’m sure. How much fun are you still having everyday?
There is a lot of fun to be had. It’s just trying to get the time off and manage everything. Once you get on top of it, sure, you can have fun but you gotta make sure everything’s tip-top and ready to run before you can get out and enjoy your own equipment.
Talk a little bit about the crew you work with?
The crew, the team that work around and with me has been selected over a lot of years. We hang on to the best. All of them can multitask, can fly a chopper, drive an airboat, take the vehicles out, drive the trucks. Having those people around who are able to put their hand up mechanically and also understand crocodiles. It’s hard to get that all in one person but we’ve got a good team. If someone lacks in one point, another person picks it up. Everyone works in together and we’ve got each other’s back. That’s how we operate.
What does your wife Kaia think of your adventures?
I think Kaia would like me to just stop coming up with ideas and come home a little bit more and look at having a family. I wanna do all that too, but first and foremost is keeping the business running. She doesn’t worry about me with the crocodiles, she doesn’t like me dealing with a couple of the big ones on the lagoon…she doesn’t want me getting too close to them but she knows the risk in it all. I’m pretty risk averse, I try not to take too many chances.
What were your 20s like? How much fun did you have?
Not much. Teenage years, my twenties through my thirties was pretty much working striving, trying to make stuff happen. No holidays no birthdays. I don’t go to people’s marriages, don’t go to funerals. It was work, work, work, and it’s paying off. Now hopefully we can put other people in charge. I’ve met a beautiful wife, Kaia, that I can spend a bit more time at home for.
That’s awesome. What are your fears?
People. New York, haha. Just the wildlife sort of things don’t worry me too much, but you’ve always gotta have some sort of fear to keep your edge.
Are there any people you’d like to meet, on a professional level?
Not really. I’ve got some good people around me and I chat to them. As life goes on you gravitate towards good people and they gravitate back. That’s just how it works right? To actively go out and try and seek someone that’s up there, it might not ever work.
I didn’t ask the question properly: is there anyone dead or impossibly distant you’d like to meet?
Yeah yeah but even to that: there’s no one there really. We’ve got really good friends around us and I’ve got good mentors. As life goes on I’m sure I’ll meet other people that will give me good advice or bad advice. There’s no one really that I really wanna go out and meet.
What is time off for you? Whats the ultimate day to chill?
Today’s good. Just getting out on the boat with a group of friends, couple beers, to catch a few fish and chill. If it’s just Kaia and I we’ll just kick back and watch a movie, have a bit of down time. But we’re going to New Zealand next week so that’ll be chill.
Kaia told me that you snore badly and fart in your sleep so what do you have to say about that?
I do, especially after a few beers. I’ll snore really loudly and I do drop my guts something fierce. She does well to put up with it.
Great answer. We’ll end on that one. Thanks Matt.