The last person to see Steve Irwin alive has revealed new details about the ‘flawed’ Australian icon and how his near-death experience with a deadly snake in Africa was kept secret – until now.
Justin Lyons was Irwin’s trusted right-hand man for more than a decade. He recorded the Crocodile Hunter’s first documentary in 1996 and witnessed his tragic death from a stingray attack 10 years later.
The pair filmed encounters with the deadliest creatures around the world, but the cameraman said Irwin’s greatest threats were his personal demons and the weight of expectation.
‘Steve always had a sixth sense about so many things and I think he had a premonition about his death,’ Lyons told Daily Mail Australia.
‘On that final doco, I’ve looked back, and there were signs there that were confronting and troubling.’
The pair met shooting a commercial for Power’s Beer in 1991 – Lyons’ first job under director John Stainton.
The ad saw Brisbane Broncos players sitting by a river drinking beer before a crocodile jumped out of the water and tried to steal a can.
A man’s arm fended off the reptile, before opening the stubby and drinking the beer. The stunt actor was a young Steve Irwin.
‘Him and Stainton got chatting, Steve told him stories about catching crocodiles. He had all this home movie footage he’d taken himself,’ Lyons said.
‘He bought himself a VHS camera and stuck it in the fork of a tree and he’d talk to it. Whenever he’d go into town he’d post them home to his family.’
After watching the footage they immediately took it to a network producer, who said they had to re-shoot Irwin’s footage using professional equipment. The first documentary they shot together was during Irwin’s honeymoon.
It didn’t take long for fame to follow. In 1996, the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet took on the Crocodile Hunter program, sending Irwin’s stardom into the stratosphere.
The environmentalist was not only the most popular man in Australia but had the fastest growing show in the United States.
College kids were playing drinking games watching this show, drinking a beer every time he shouted his classic slogan ‘Crikey’.
‘In the States he’d be mobbed. They’d recognise him at LAX, it was like Beatlemania,’ Lyons said.
‘You’d hear a murmur going through the airport, it nearly started riots. He’d been in a room with Antonio Banderas and Will Smith and they were more excited to meet him. He didn’t even know who they were.’
However the fame would wear on Irwin, according to Lyons, who said the constant travel from Australia and the USA coupled with the intense spotlight ‘changed’ the wildlife warrior.
‘He struggled with fame. In his final years the fame got to him,’ Lyons told Daily Mail Australia.
‘I don’t think he knew how to handle it. He was always in pain, he used to flog himself. His knees, ankles. That combined with the pressures of Discovery Channel upping the ante to make things bigger and better each time.
‘At the time I didn’t realise it, but putting the whole thing into context in the final years, you could see he was a changed man. He wasn’t the Steve from beginning.’
Lyons said Irwin never spent time with his real friends because he was always working, which had an impact on all of his relationships.
‘He took the brunt of the fame himself. He had friends but only a handful of people he trusted. He never saw his best friends when he got famous, in that way he was a bit of a loner,’ Lyons said.
‘Steve was an alpha male in every aspect of his life. He would go and wouldn’t sleep, go, go, go, like there was no tomorrow, then he’d crash.’
The 50-year-old revealed his special relationship with Irwin’s children, particularly Bindi, who he often looked after on long shoots.
‘Bindi and I spent a lot of time together. We’d go up to far north Queensland and while they were doing whatever Bindi and I would go off,’ he said.
‘She’d say to me ‘I don’t really like bugs’, but she was expected to do all this crazy stuff. I don’t think she really wanted to do it.
‘But it came naturally to his kids. They’d been coming on doco shoots, I filmed their births. They’d had cameras on them since they were born. They didn’t know any better.’
Lyons said he believes Irwin, who he repeatedly described as having a ‘sixth sense’, had a ‘premonition about his death’ and is more convinced since watching over old tape of his final weeks.
‘There were signs that were confronting and troubling,’ the filmmaker revealed.
‘He made a speech after releasing a crocodile and went around to each person, all 12 of us, and thanked everyone individually for their contribution. He got all teary and moved on to the next person.
He got to me and said: ‘Justin, you can get f***ed!’ We all laughed but thought we’d never see that again.’
Lyons said the final time Irwin saw his wife and children, he expressed an out-of- character display of emotion – another sign he may have felt the end was near.
‘A few days before he died, we helped load the family into a seaplane. Steve stood on the roof of his car and waved to them until the plane disappeared. I’ve never seen him do that before,’ Lyons said.
‘Then the day before he died we filmed with this massive sea snake. When he let it go he pushed it on top of me. I had to dive underwater to get away from it. It would’ve killed me.
‘I’ve never seen him do something so reckless. I shouted at him, he was laughing. He wasn’t quite right. There was something else going on. We knew the fame had worn him down, his shows weren’t that popular any more. He wasn’t in a good head space, it all led to this point. Was he being more reckless swimming over this stingray?’
The crew had been through a lot together – plane and chopper crashes, being robbed at knifepoint in third world countries – but arguably no bigger than when Irwin was bitten by a black mamba – a highly venomous snake in Africa – which has never been publicly reported until now.
Lyons said the TV icon was extremely lucky to survive the attack given the lack of appropriate care in the remote area.
Everyone at the scene was immediately sworn to secrecy. That secret has lasted until today.
Irwin was aware of the mythology that had built around him and was desperate to make sure it remained – he had told his team he never wanted to die from a snake or crocodile because everyone would roll their eyes, as if they knew it would always end that way.
‘We weren’t allowed to talk about [the snake bite in Africa]. He was intent on keeping his reputation intact,’ Lyons revealed.
‘He couldn’t let anyone know he was bitten and nearly died. He never wanted to die like that.
‘That pressure on him, he wouldn’t have ever spoken to anyone about it. The one thing he didn’t want was to be killed by a croc or snake because people would say ‘of course’.’
Lyons believe Irwin would be ‘furious’ with how everything has played out with his family, crew and the zoo if he were still alive.
His father, Bob Irwin, saw his relationship break down with Terri and the Australia Zoo staff – and is no longer allowed to visit his son’s memorial within its walls.
Stainton and Lyons too are estranged, and have no contact with the Irwins. Neither does anyone from his original team.
‘He’d be furious. His old man is a special character, it was a love-hate relationship. He was very hard on him physically and emotionally. But he’d be heartbroken that relationship has broken down.
‘Stainton and Terri’s relationship changed. Terri wanted all of the footage. Her relationship with Stainton became untenable.
‘She thought ‘I’m a widowed woman, I want total control of the future for my life and kids’ lives’. I don’t think she had a huge say before, it was all Steve. She took over the running of it all.
‘Stainton and I fell apart, we did some things each other didn’t agree with. Terri, I’ve been in touch a handful of times but overall I’ve had nothing to do with the Irwins since Steve’s death.’