32. Australia Road Trip: Karumba! The Gulf of Carpentaria
Access to the Arafura Sea
Remote, tropical, tough - Karumba is 'Outback-Next-Sea'. Great fishing, always hot, but watch out for crocs.
Normanton: Historical and Hysterical
The town of Normanton has a history similar Cooktown in so far as it was once the gateway to a gold rush in the remote never-lands beyond the coast. In its heyday it sported dozens of pubs and some grand civic buildings. Today* there are only three pubs and one grand civic structure. There is a desultory feeling to the place – it feels disjointed with its incredibly wide main street, low level buildings and surrounded by vasts tracts of what I call wilderness. It’s the wet season too so there are very few non-locals about, almost none in fact, as the Cyclone has pretty much cut Normanton off from the East Coast. The only road access now is from Cloncurry, almost 400 kilometres to the south.
The town appears to be populated by large groups of Aboriginals, mostly men, who hang out on the street corners and on the verandah of the Central Hotel. Walking about these streets, we feel like real foreigners, which we are, and the only white people. That’s not quite true - there are dangerous looking cowboys driving about in Toyota pick-ups.
When we arrived earlier this afternoon, after the nerve-wracking journey across the flooded savannah, we checked in to the only caravan park in town and luxuriated in the clean and homey, insect-free shower rooms. We then decided that we would take an early evening walk before treating ourselves to dinner in a pub or restaurant. All is well as the sky clears and the humidity lifts a bit. We are clean and can at last relax after what has been a gruelling few of days, in the wake of Cyclone Larry.
The Pubs of Normanton
The Purple Pub is Normanton’s most visible drinking establishment. It is a two story colonial hotel and is indeed purple, The words “Purple Pub” written across the façade confirm this fact. We stop in for a drink.
There are not many folk in there at this time of the day but the two ornery looking white guys at the bar stare at us for what feels like way too long while we wait for the interminably slow barmaid to serve us our drinks. It feels a bit like a ‘Deliverance moment’ and I swear, there is a glint of dribble on the stubbly chin of one of them there good ole boys.
We eventually get our drinks, but the starers are still staring at us like they want to take us home and fricassee us over their barbeque pit. It’s not a good feeling and I nudge Sheila to casually hurry up and finish her drink. She doesn’t get it at first because she scolds me loudly, saying “Relax Mick, we only just got here.” I want to say “Wolf Creek” to her, but as it is when she turns around, see the bros and next thing we are out of there.
As night drapes itself over Normanton it gets hot, real hot, and the humidity returns like a hot, wet blanket, and there are mozzies. Cane toads congregate in gangs on patios and footpaths all through the town so you have to watch where you are walking. The Central Hotel is the Aboriginal’s pub, not that there is apartheid or anything, but we are feeling out of place anyway, and don’t know the local etiquette so we don’t go in there. Anyway, The Albion is the only place in town serving food tonight.
The Albion is a single story, corrugated iron building with a verandah across the front. From the top of the road it looks inviting and trendy with a big colourful mural of a cowboy painted on the side. After stepping gingerly over a gang of toads hanging out on the verandah, we enter the bar, causing the conversation amongst the half dozen or so patrons to stop. We feel well out of place here too, but a pub is a pub, and we are hungry so we order and eat a passable counter meal without getting into a fight with any of the hard looking bastards that call themselves customers in this bar. Though we’ve only been in Normanton for a few hours, we are finding it hard to like. I blame it on the wet season - the Outback the equivalent of the depths of winter in Alaska, a time when cabin fever sets off murderous outbursts of emotion. I guess we are a bit unfair in our judgement of the town but first impressions last and I can’t see us growing to love the place any time soon.
Off to Karumba
After one itchy night in Normanton we make the crossing to Karumba. I say crossing, but it is really a 70km strip of dead flat, dead straight road that crosses a vast tidal flat. The treeless savannah on either side of the road glistens with water and the birdlife is phenomenal - huge brolgas, egrets, herons and cormorants, eagles, hawks, kites, crows, magpies, galahs and sea gulls.
Despite the sea-level-flatness of the landscape, the road is dry enough for us to forget that we had passed through hundreds of kilometres of flooded landscape only the previous day. Forgetting reality and underestimating the Australian environment is becoming a habit with us.
This is my second visit to Karumba. The first time was in 1982 when I managed to escape from the toughest job I have ever had - working as a deckhand on a Gulf of Carpentaria prawn trawler. The Port of Karumba served some what was then a huge fleet of fishing boats. It was a wild old place too, overrun with every desperado and hard-as-nails opportunist imaginable, including sea-drunk commercial fishermen, luckless gold miners, wild aboriginals in search of town action and desolate looking cowboys in from the bush. I don’t recall there being any tourists back then, other than the ubiquitious barramundi fishermen and assorted feral pig hunters over on a long weekend from Townsville.
What a difference 24 years makes. Today, there are only a few trawlers working out of Karumba, and the Point, where the docks used to be, is now a resort town of sorts, catering mainly to the hundreds of Barramundi fishermen and Grey Nomads. There’s a couple of smart caravan parks, some motels and a couple of shops. Just about everything is named the “Sunset” this or the “Sunset” that, because Karumba has some exhilarating and spectacular sunsets over the Gulf of Carpentaria (aka the Arafura sea). There is a smart new pub out at the Point called the Sunset Tavern, where we have a superb meal of Barramundi and Gulf King Prawns while watching the legendary sunset. The fresh seafood is of the finest quality and makes me homesick for my old trawler days when we would eat a tiny portion of our catch every day.
A Croc called Krys
There is a sandy beach here too - pretty well the only accessible beach on the entire Gulf coast. You wouldn’t want to swim off it though. The place is stiff with Saltwater Crocs. In fact, in Normanton, 70 kilometres up river, there is a life-size statue of Krys, The Savannah King, largest croc ever captured. This is a creature of dinosaur proportions, caught in 1957 by a Polish woman called Kristiana. The plaque on the statue says that Krys was 8.63 metres long – that is 28 foot in old money – one big mother of a salty is what I call it.
Karumba Point is a few miles north of the town proper. In my brief sojourn as a trawlerman, I spent one night and half a morning here. The night was a surreal experience - a bit like ‘Crocodile Fellini’ in the outback, and to be fair, it warrants a hub all of its own – suffice to say that it involved an old truck, a several dozen drunk fishermen and a hotel with an open sided bar that was known back then as the “The Animal Bar.”
It was after this memorable night that my fellow deckhands and I caught the weekly bus to Cairns via Normanton, Croyden, Georgetown, Mt Garnet and Mareeba; a twelve hour marathon over dry and dusty outback tracks. This was the same bus that was allegedly driven Shorty, the little grey nomad chap that we met way back in Hub 17 at Red Rock, NSW - what a tiny world it is!
The Famous Animal Bar
Further reading on the subject of Burke & Wills
A bit about Barramundi
One of the great Australian pastimes is fishing, in all its many forms - from Beach casting to rock fishing to spear fishing. For the Aussie recreational fisherman there is no greater adventure than to go on a barramundi safari into the far north. This big, fighting fish is not only good sport, it also tastes bloody delicious mate! here follows a bit of info garnered from Wikipedia and other sources...
The Saltwater Barramundi caught in rivers around Darwin, Northern Territory, has a much better taste as the fish is cleaner. Many Queensland anglers travel to the Northern Territory to fish the once a year fresh water run off which produces some of Australia's greatest Barramundi catches. The Northern Territory rivers such as East Aligator, South Aligator, Daly River, Shady Camp, Roper River and Victoria River has great reputations amongst national and inter-national fishing circles, attracting many each year.
In Australia, barramundi is both wild-caught and farmed for export to the global market as a table fish, and some recreational fishermen enjoy the pursuit of barramundi as well. Barramundihas been popularized for human consumption because it has been viewed as a sustainable fish, with strong stocks, a healthy habitat, and careful stewardship all contributing to the longevity of barramundi as a species. The fish is widespread and shows no signs of being at risk.
Back to the present…
On our second day in Karumba we learn from the lady in the caravan park office that both Karumba and Normanton are cut-off from the rest of Queensland by flooded creeks and rivers. In fact, we were probably the last vehicle in from the east before the road at Creen Creek near Croydon became totally impassable and the road south to Cloncurry was drowned by flooded creeks for much of its 330 km length. Locals tell us that every year Karumba gets cut off from Normanton and Normanton gets cut off from the rest of Australia, sometimes for up to six weeks, depending on rainfall. There is a problem brewing this year - Cyclone Larry and the monsoon that preceded it has dropped a hell of a lot of water on the region and all that rainfall is now filling the vast network of rivers, creek and watercourses of the Cape and Gulf country and is moving, inexorably, toward the sea, which is where we are. Being trapped here for any length of time would be an undesirable experience for both of us. The ghosts of 24 years ago would surely haunt me - after six weeks, I would probably want to join them.
The lady in our campground gives us the word early next morning - a party of school teachers have made it through to Cloncurry from Normanton, but experts are predicting that the road will become totally impassable again within 24 hours. If we are going to go, we have to go now! We pack up with some haste and head back to Normanton. The 70km road across the salt plain is scarily wet. Six inches of water covers several dips in the road and we think ourselves lucky to reach the broad empty boulevards of Normanton.
We sensibly check in at the local police station where a very cute young WPC, tells us that we might be able to make it south - “if we hurry,” but our van is slow and the road is long, narrow and fraught with danger, from road trains as well as floods. We have to take a chance and flee or else we might be stuck here for… ever? As we pass the “Thank you for visiting Normanton” sign just beyond the turn off to the dump, I realise that I am about to enter unknown territory, a place I have never been before. From now on, whatever country we pass through on our journey deeper into the outback, all will be as new to me as it is to Sheila.
A few Kilometres out of town and we meet our first challenge. A 500 metre long floodway with water at 0.3 of a metre. It is a tense crossing, with Winnie in first gear and the engine at idle speed, we feel like we are floating through a swamp and at any time the engine will stall and we will be f**ked.
We make it through and carry on at a snail’s pace, slowing down to a crawl every few hundred metres or so as we cross yet more floodways. The flat, featureless land is awash for 183 kilometres, at least to the nearest habitation, the Bourke and Wills Roadhouse. There is a skin of scruffy, chest high acacia covering much of the land along this lonely road. The blacktop itself is so narrow, that an oncoming road train could not pass. The road suffers badly from subsidence. In places it almost induces nausea as we go rock along as if at sea. Sometimes we can see past the thick acacia bush and catch glimpses of… more acacia bush - there is no indication of any stations or habitation. Occasionally, a copse of stunted, over-watered trees line the roadside and we can see that instead of earth there is water. The land is literally flooded as far as we can see into the scrappy bush. After an hour or so of slow southerly progress I see a 4x4 in the side mirror. As it approaches it turns into a police vehicle. We slow down and pull over as it draws alongside. After exchanging “gooday mates” with the lone police officer, he tells us that a place called Capsize Creek is predicted to flood later in the day but we should be able to make to Cloncurry if we hurry. I don’t ask him “…Is 80kmh classed as hurrying?” He goes on ahead for a few miles then we see him heading back toward Normanton. We are on our own again.
As the miles click by it looks like we are going to make it to Burke & Wills at least. Then, about 20 kms out from the Roadhouse we encounter our biggest floodway yet. It is like a huge lake bordered by swamp, marsh and shitty, thin trees.
We stop at the point the water meets the road and ponder our perilous position. I am loathe to walk in too deep for fear of crocs and snakes, but the flood-depth marker is many hundreds of metres away, so we have no way of knowing exactly how deep it is in the centre. After half an hour of waiting and wondering what to do, a glint in the distance alerts us to a vehicle heading our way. We watch anxiously as a lone 4x4 ploughs through the water from the south. There’s a big bow wave, and it looks too deep for us. The truck emerges from the water dripping. The driver stops and I ask him what the depth is in the centre. About half a metre he reckons. I’m shitting myself now. That is too deep for us I think. We’ve done 0.4 of a metre but not 0.5, and every centimetre counts when it comes to flood the electrics in the van. But we can’t turn around now as the flooded roads that we have already driven over will be even further under water if we go back. Besides, the road is too narrow to safely turn Winnie around without getting bogged in the verge. We must cross this expanse at all costs. A short while later another 4x4 sails through the flood and this time I stop the driver and asked him to please wait for us to cross in case we don’t make it. Perhaps he could push Winnie to higher ground with his truck if we stall. He agrees and at that moment another car pulls up behind us. I am now considerably more confident. Even if we go under and flood the engine, at least there are three men, three women and a 4x4 to push us out. It takes us 15 minutes at one mile an hour to grunt through the flood. It is interminable with the water lapping at the doors and the engine beginning to sputter, but we make it. I’m so hyped up by this time and Sheila is a nervous wreck but we are happy. The other car follows us but is not so fortunate insofar as the water comes in their doors and floods the inside of the car. We give them all our old newspapers to mop up the mess and after making sure their car will start again we leave them to it.
Soon the Burke & Wills Roadhouse comes into view in a drier, dustier landscape – at last we are onto high ground. Sheila reckons she has never been so happy to see a place in her life. There is a tangible sense of relief just to get to this god-forsaken café, and we are still only halfway to Cloncurry. The Burke & Wills Roadhouse is named after two heroic 19th Century explorers, the first men to cross the continent from south to north, from Melbourne to the Gulf. The fact that they both died on the return journey doesn’t take away our sense of elation at making it through the endless floods that have dogged us since leaving Karumba. There is a feeling that we have finally left behind the curse of Cyclone Larry and its creeping flood waters.
The road from here to Cloncurry is still flood prone but the land rises into a typical red rock and dry scrub, outback landscape. There are lots of cattle on the road and the birdlife is no less impressive than it was at Karumba and Normanton – Giant wedgetail eagles soar menacingly overhead, stately Brolgas strut through the grasslands, flocks of Galahs dice with death in front of the van and countless other flyers launch from the roadside as we pass. We take out a couple of small birds but keep on moving. It’s another 180kms to the ‘Curry and the day is dwindling. We cross Capsize creek, about 50 kms from Cloncurry – it’s water is down, and we laugh at its muddy ooze. Who cares? We are now back on the main road from Townsville to Tennant Creek and tomorrow, God willing, our Outback adventure really begins in earnest.
The Road Trip continues...
From Cloncurry, the intrepid Road Trippers (Mick and Sheila) are planning to head due west into the vast red heart of Australia, kissing the floods and aftermath of Cyclone Larry goodbye forever. Or are they? Next installment coming soon.