Big barra dream­ing

An ex­cel­lent fish­ing ad­ven­ture in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory’s Tiwi Is­lands

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - STEPHEN FITZ­PATRICK

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).

There’s

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.

PIC­TURES: SHANE CHALKER

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

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