Big barra dreaming
An excellent fishing adventure in the Northern Territory’s Tiwi Islands
THE helicopter swoops low over lush vegetation, does an observation circuit around a clearing and settles with a bump.
It’s been a 20-minute flight from Darwin and we’ve reached our target — quite literally, the middle of nowhere. We’re on a remote riverbank on the east of Melville Island, the big one that comprises the bulk of the Tiwi Islands in the Northern Territory.
The pilot has put us down where there had been, until flash flooding and a cyclone wiped it off the map last year, a barramundi fishing camp. Even when it existed, I’m told, it sported the most basic facilities. Now there’s just a dusty fuel trailer and a couple of tinnies with powerful-looking outboard motors moored at a pontoon. Beyond that, nothing.
The chopper pilot unloads our gear ( we’ve been given strict instructions to each bring no more than 10kg) and whirls back up into the cloudless sky. He wasn’t on the ground long enough even to cut the engine. Silence falls. It’s late afternoon.
There had been plenty of feral buffalo on view from the air. There are dingoes and snakes, obviously. Scorpions, probably. And it’s the Top End, so you know there are crocodiles. Big bastard ones.
It strikes methat a five-day fishing trip in these conditions is likely to be way out of my comfort zone. I don’t even know how to tie a line. They probably don’t even call it tying a line up here. And what do you do with a (presumably very large) barramundi when it decides to humour you by offering to be caught? (Let alone a shark — and yes, that does happen. On day one.) Kiss it and toss it back in?
These questions and more are put to one side as my companions and I make nervous jokes about having to camp under the stars, with just wildlife for company. For a few minutes there is no sign of the promised pick-up. Then the distant roar of a motor is carried on the still air and a four-wheel-drive appears minutes later, driven by camp manager Scotty. He’s one of several fishing guides who is about to answer, over the next few days, many of those questions of mine.
It turns out the newly rebuilt camp is a few kilometres away, far enough from the Johnson River to avoid suffering the same fate as its predecessor during the next wet. With the Toyota loaded up, we bash through a bush track to get to the camp.
My anxieties are reignited by the sight, as we pull up, of two feral buffaloes facing off against a wild dingo, its teeth bared, just metres away from where we’ll be sleeping. I quickly shelve plans for an early morning jog.
Scotty and his offsider, Johnno (learning their surnames seems less important than discovering they are great company and even better cooks), have prepared dinner and they join the six of us in the camp’s open patio for sunset beers.
We’re to get an early start fishing the river tomorrow so, after a prolonged bout of good-natured ribbing based around individual performances on previous angling expeditions, sexual ability and preference, and general moral and aesthetic capacity, the night winds up.
I am sharing a twin room with a long-time mate with previously unknown snoring talents. He is later to make the same observation of me.
Over the next five days I learn a remarkable amount about fishing — in particular the baitcasting method preferred in these mangrove-lined riverways, where repeatedly pitching a lure from the boat with pinpoint accuracy into gutter mouths and around vegetation is the key. I not only catch the first barramundi of mylife — several dozen of them, in fact — but the biggest fish I’ve ever hooked, a 101cm threadfin salmon (delicious when served that night as spicy fishcakes).
a lot to discover about the significance of barramundi fishing in the Top End; if you’re from down south, it’s something you make pilgrimages up here to do — sometimes even as the last item on the bucket list — and if you’re from the Territory or tropical north Queensland, it’s as much a religious ritual as, say, following football is anywhere else.
Fishing for barra on Melville, however, is even more specifically entrancing, as becomes clear very early on.
Our two boats, each containing one guide and three of our group of six, are the sole craft on the river. The only objects of any comparable size are the many crocs, either submerging slowly as we roar by or sunning themselves on riverbanks, staring unblinkingly.
The primal nature of it all is emphasised on one occasion when we are followed silently up the river by a sea eagle, its giant wingspan casting a shadow as it ghosts from treetop to treetop. Suddenly the bird swoops to take a chunk out of a decent-sized barramundi thrashing at the end of someone’s line, leaving us to feed what remains of the fish to a nearby one-eyed croc.
Cue giant reptile leaping out of the water at the fish being dangled off a pole from the boat’s bow, and some stunning photographs of same.
The second half of the trip, after we’ve spent a couple of days exploring the Johnson River and nearby Goose Creek, is based out of the main facility of the Melville Island Lodge, looking over the Arafura Sea from the small settlement of Milikapiti. The lodge is spectacular — simply but stylishly appointed, with enticing views across the water, lavish attention from managers Mick and Lyn Chick, and the cachet of having had guests of the calibre of celebrity chef Tetsuya Wakuda and cricketer Matthew Hayden. Both men have a longstanding relationship with the Tiwi communities and are mad-keen barra fishermen; Wakuda even left one of his knives as a gift for the lodge’s chef on his last trip.
Here I also meet Tiwi Land Council figure Andrew Tipungwuti, one of the driving forces in Tiwi politics and an advocate for the advancement of his people, as well as working in his day job as a marine ranger. Tiwi Islanders have in recent years been able to ban commercial fishing from their waters and significantly restrict non-Tiwi recreational fishing (there is a permit system in place for the southern part of the islands; the north is generally out of bounds to non-Islanders), as well as building on other Tiwi economic drivers such as forestry and sand mining.
Tipungwuti, who chairs a board that this year bought the lodge from its founder, Mike Baxter, to run as a community endeavour, is passionate about fishing and Tiwi prosperity. The board will soon be expanding the business now rebadged Tiwi Islands Adventures to include a third facility, on neighbouring Bathurst Island.
Baxter remains involved with the enterprise as its manager, saying the intention when he established it was always to hand over to
the indigenous owners when the time was right.
‘‘This is the Tiwi people’s first foray into a commercial tourism enterprise, and they have a great asset in that,’’ Baxter says.
While in Milikapiti I visit the Jilamara Arts & Crafts Association, a recently expanded gallery and museum boasting an extraordinary collection of traditional and modern works, as well as paintings for sale by Tiwi artists.
Local painter Brian Farmer Illortamini happens to be at the gallery and explains that one of his works, which has caught my eye, illustrates the seaweed and leaves used to cool the skin after a jellyfish sting. I buy the painting, as well as one by Ian Cook illustrating stark geometric figures, and another by senior Tiwi woman Dymphna Kerinauia, whose style follows a flowing series of bold staggered shapes.
On the morning of our departure we visit the nearby Tiwi College. This is an impressive initiat- ive only several years into an experiment to foster Tiwi cultural momentum by taking a few dozen teens out of their communities Monday to Friday, educating them, and housing them in group homes; they return to their families on weekends.
Principal Ian Smith says the college runs a rigorous curriculum that is showing positive results. Hayden has taken a direct inter- est, backing the development of a kitchen garden and barramundi farm on college grounds.
Too soon, a small, singleengined fixed- wing aircraft descends from the clear sky and lands on a ragged strip alongside the school. The big city awaits, but I know I’m hooked. I’ll be back. Stephen Fitzpatrick was a guest of Tiwi Islands Adventures.
Stephen Fitzpatrick, left, goes barramundi fishing on Melville Island, with friend Jim Harnwell and fishing guide Scotty at the wheel
Fitzpatrick’s catch of the day