Mysterious mug punter writing under the nom de plume Shawtodds provides another epic yarn about a fabulous barramundi fishing spot which also got an Australian Prime Minister into trouble .
Allan Stewart and key offsider, Nym , at Nourlangie Safari Camp in the Woolwonga Aboriginal Reserve .
At the time I speak of, Allan Stewart, Top End identity, aka the Great White Hunter, operated a hunting and fishing lodge at Nourlangie on the edge of Arnhem Land and there are few places you would rather be except for standing in line to collect a winning bet, or maybe making it to the brasco just in time.
Let me tell you a little about Al who was perennially short of the readies and usually all he had for company in his kick was moths. Formerly a PR man for a group of blokes who held the lease on Nourlangie, Al somehow acquired the operation when they called it quits and vowed to transform it into the premier attraction for well-heeled southerners eager to bother buffaloes or cut a swathe through the barramundi population, both of which there were heaps.
Al's problem was that he was always struggling to find the cash to keep things going and when he visited Darwin it usually was in search of a temporary handout. He put the bite on quite a few citizens, even if they were sometimes harder to find than a Fannie Bay bookie offering over the odds, but one way or another he managed to keep Nourlangie staggering along.
LOST SHIRT AT RACETRACK
It happened as I was walking off Darwin's Fannie Bay racecourse one steamy February afternoon, very sad because I had just sent off my holiday pay and blown any chance of fleeing the dog days of The Wet and spending the next four weeks in Sydney lounging around in pubs with old mates and maybe even occasionally chucking myself into the surf at Bondi. So this was my frame of mind when I bumped into Al and he asked why I look like somebody who dropped a fiver and finds a dog turd, which was spot-on because I had exactly tuppence (2 cents in today's money) in my sky rocket. Al invites me to come out to Nourlangie to shoot buffalo and catch barramundi for his paying guests . All I have to bring is my own "smokes".
Next day I met Al at Darwin airport --my total luggage three tins of Log Cabin fine cut because at that stage quirlies, which I rolled very thin and are all I can afford to feed a 20-a-day habit. Al is loading supplies for the camp into a careworn single-engine four-seater. As I recall ,it was a Beechcraft Bonanza owned by a Darwin wharfie who is a flying nut and buys it after cracking it big in Queensland's Golden Casket lottery.
And I didn't want to think too hard about whether he had a license for charter work, but what I do know for sure he was the cheapest way to get to Nourlangie short of walking. Otherwise he would not have Al's business. We piled on board and because all the freight compartment was full I found myself with a bloody great Remington desk-top typewriter on my lap.The tower, somewhat dubiously I thought, cleared us to take off, , and we trundled down the runway and labored into the air with instructions to fly to 3000 feet and maintain that altitude until it's time to descend at Nourlangie. Some bloody chance!
It was apparent from the start we had a weight problem -- or should I say an overweight problem. Five minutes into the flight it seemed we are still close enough to the ground to piss on it. A bumpy 20 minutes later we were over the flood plain, stretching threateningly to the horizon and with no place to land that would not be our final resting place. By now I was sweating heavily and it had nothing to do with the weather. It had to do with the fact we were still only at one thousand feet over this tiger country in an overloaded plane.
As we struggled to gain height a note of worry crept into the pilot's voice and he opined to Al, " What the hell have you got on board, Stewart? This plane is overloaded to buggery." Al had the grace to look abashed and I was wondering what to do if I shit myself, a proposition, which, while not odds-on, is giving it a nudge.
The pilot added considerably to my anxiety when he said if we did not gain any more altitude we would have to start chucking stuff overboard to lighten the plane and the first thing to go will be the typewriter sitting on my knees ,which will be a relief , sort of. Then the pilot gave Al a really heartfelt spray as he yelled, "Fuck you Stewart and fuck all this shit you've loaded on board. AND WHAT'S MORE YOU'LL BE THE FIRST TO BLOODY COMPLAIN IF WE CRASH."
Hard to top that even if the reasoning was crazy.We did indeed make it to Nourlangie and sank gratefully to the landing strip for more fun times, not. In incredibly oppressive heat and humidity we unloaded the plane until a seeming mountain of supplies sat in a forlorn pile, waiting to be collected by Nym, Al's Aboriginal jack of all trades who Al assured me, was on his way to take all the stuff into the camp in the Nourlangie truck. The camp and landing strip stand on a half-mile long hump of land on the flood plain. The only way in was by plane, until the Dry once more made road access possible.
TRUCK STUFFED, BEER WARM
Unchained from its weight, the plane escaped back to Darwin, mocking us by zooming up like a rocket and making a derisive pass over our heads as we waited for Nym , who eventually ambled up the path after the half-mile walk from the cluster of huts and larger dining pavilion which made up the lodge. Nym was a welcome sight but as far as I was concerned would be more welcome if he was driving the truck. No such bloody luck.
Nym explained that the vehicle had given up the ghost for a number of electrical reasons, will not start and there was no way he could breathe life into it. Al, always a deft hand at dealing with adversity, said no worries, we would take the supplies to the camp in two ancient wheelbarrows. This prospect made me think I would have been better off spending my vacation mucking out stables at Fannie Bay wearing a hair shirt.
I gloss over the next two hours getting those supplies to the camp --three trips a half mile down a rough bush track then back again. I was not comforted by Al's advice to keep a sharp eye for buffaloes, although, he said offhandedly only lone rogue bulls were likely to charge. Great. Just what I needed , skewered by a frustrated buffalo blowing off its testosterone.
By the time we lugged everything into the camp I could barely trust myself to speak to Al, even if I could, because, to quote the immortal words of Bazza McKenzie, my throat was dryer than a dead dingo's donga. I was consumed by thoughts of an icy-cold beer sluicing down my neck and making my skin pop as it replaces the gallon of sweat expended on the hated Nourlangie Wheelbarrow Trail.
Unfortunately the camp frig is a kerosense-powered beast which does not do icy cold. Cool, yes but not icy cold .
The bright side is I will have fun getting stuck into the barra population to maintain a supply of fresh fish. The same applies to hunting buffalo for meat, although I was soon to discover, it was a stretch to call this caper fun.
The fishing was a snap as the billabongs and lagoons dotting the swamp around Nourlangie teemed with barramundi and catching them was easier than doing your dough at the track. The fish, plump voracious bronze beasts had experienced little fishing pressure and chomped almost anything. At Nourlangie the favored lure was two .303 cartridges strung together with a treble hook between them and one at the end. Chucked into a barra pool this crude but deadly wobbler attracted a bite almost every throw. No rods were involved and I skull-dragged them with a 50lb. line wrapped around a beer can.
Sport fishing it was not. Most of the fish were in the 4 to 8 lb. range an ideal size to feed guests at the camp. Personally I gave the barra a miss at the dining table because their eating qualities left much to be desired -- taken from the fresh water their flesh borders on the mushy and its taste, muddy. The same fish caught after it returns and spends some time in the salt water of the estuaries is a noble beast, firm and flaky of body and a taste of briny delight.
The fishing boat at Nourlangie was a 12ft tinny powered by a one-manpower motor -- that is to say one joker and a pair of oars. Here a word about crocs may be apt. You may well ask were they not a matter of concern when abroad in their territory in such a small boat? These days certainly, then, not a problem.
When the first Europeans were settling the north, the swamps, rivers and estuaries of tropical Australia were home to very many saltwater crocodiles maybe even outnumbering the mozzies which is to say and they were thicker than ten Northern Territory coppers lined in a row. By and by people got around to shooting the dickens out of them for their skins and by the time I was at Nourlangie they were very scarce after decades of jokers trying put a couple of .303s in their scones.
They retreated to the impenetrable reaches of the swamps of the great flood plain fighting a battle against extinction. If you wish to get a picture of the swamp country and its characters at this time, go no further than "Crocodile Hunt", by Territory chronicler, award-winning journalist and prolific author, the late Keith Willey who brilliantly recounted the dying days of the professional hide hunter in his iconic book, now I believe sadly out of print.
In 1974, nine years on from my time I am writing about, the federal government declared all crocodiles protected species and their numbers rebounded, giving grist for the mill of the NT News known waggishly by many Darwin residents as the Crocodile News as it dearly loves to splash tales of crocs snaffling the unwary, lazing in suburban backyard swimming pools and cruising off the town's beaches looking for marks.
All those years back the lack of crocs at Nourlangie explains why I had no hesitation sliding into the tea-dark water to unhook a lure snagged in the depths. Most times I landed enough barra to feed the camp in the first half hour and and from then on it was catch and release until I was weary and wondering if it was beer o'clock.
I had been at the lodge for five days when Al announced we were going buffalo hunting to replenish meat supplies as three paying guests from Melbourne were flying in for a four-day experience of the untamed outback.
Innocent that I am, I expected this expedition, led by the Great White Hunter himself, will be an adventure to remember and a source of wonder as I recounted it to rapt grandchildren dandling on my knee. Previously the biggest game I had hunted was rabbits and I thrilled to the challenge of tackling the mighty descendants of the Asian water buffalo loosed into the Top End swamps after the failure of the first white settlement at Port Essington.
Come the day of the big hunt I discovered Al is a little careless with the truth when he said "we" were going buffalo hunting as he will not be present having other pressing matters such as taking a kip in the long, hot languid afternoon. He delegated a joker name of Bill Dean as the point man. Bill, self-proclaimed bushman extraordinaire and one time partner of Keith Willey in their crocodile hunt, was in his late twenties and hailed from down Wollongong way.
He drifted around the Nourlangie - Jim Jim vicinity occasionally spending a few days working for Al before trekking off through the swamps to lob at another bush camp. He was a big fan of bush tucker and his delicacy was file snake a non-venomous species very much present on the flood-plain. "Grab 'em by the neck, wring their head off, find some dry land make a fire and chuck 'em on the hot coals. Delicious. Tastes...... just like file snake," he told me. Bill had another strange quirk, claiming "When I catch a barra I only eat the guts. The flesh makes me real crook." I was not able to test this claim, and I wished mightily I have a steaming heap of barramundi guts to offer him, but the opportunity never presented itself.
Laden with two .303 rifles and two backpacks for the meat we clamber into the camp boat and with Bill doing the navigation and me handling the hard yakka , we set off through the swamp. Bill assured me it was practically just a spit to a spot he knew was crawling with buffalo. It turned out to be a pretty long spit because it was 45 minutes before we nosed into dry land and the haunt of the herd. With Bill leading, rifle athwart, and me lugging the rest of the gear, including the spare rifle, we trudged through the speargrass, which I soon found, was aptly named. All the time were accompanied by a head-high mist of insects.
Finally we spotted our quarry, great grey beasts slowly grazing and snuffling through the grass. I was transfixed -- would they charge us or break into a panicked stampede before Bill could get a shot. He was looking to bring down a yearling heifer, because the older animals, particularly the bulls are "on the chewy side" which is Billspeak for inedible unless you are a lion.
BATTLING SPEARGRASS, INSECTS
We sneaked up on the grazing animals which did not seem the least concerned that we, or rather Bill had buffalo steak in mind. He picked his mark and loosed off a shot, sending the herd into a panicked rush for the exits. Bill assured me he hit his target and says we must chase the mob to finish if off.
For more than an hour we blundered through the speargrass trying to find the wounded animal which had me thinking maybe Bill was not such a great shot because when he fired we were close enough to the buffalo to exchange phone numbers, and, I was to learn later, most hunters regarded shooting buffalo as difficult as shooting farmer Jones' moo-cows and about as risky .
At last we spotted it -- a young heifer which was obviously not feeling too chipper . Bill lobbed a couple more bullets into it and presto-- we had meat for the camp. The intrepid hunters had delivered. Bill drew a knife which would do Crocodile Dundee proud and we set about skinning our trophy and hacking off the choice cuts. Here I will give you a primer on Buffalo Butchering 101 which, on a discomfort scale of one to 10 is about an 86. The massive swarm of insects which habitually accompany buffalo immediately abandoned the carcass and descended on us but thankfully did not bite but tried to crawl into every orifice.
I discovered a buffalo's hide is very thick, maybe not as thick as the bitumen on the Arnhem Highway but close. And tough. In the heat, the flies, the blood and the sweat we carved up that f....ng buffalo and jammed great chunks of quivering meat into the backpacks. The walk back to the boat was weird with the meat continuing to quiver like dozens of tiny restless animals. Bill explained that because we butchered the animal immediately after is was killed the nervous system took some time to realise it was game, set, and match. Our exhausting stroll back to the boat gave me time to consider the future course of my life and then and there I decided this will be my last buffalo hunt because it is an outing which is as much fun as being burnt at the stake, only lasting longer.
Buffalo hunting apart, the enchantment of Nourlangie has stayed with me for life -- a serene and beautiful place of birds descending like great white flowers to decorate the flooded forest, lagoons strewn with giant lily pads, and harbouring deep dark, pools where the barramundi waited and at the camp itself, a shy invasion of wild life, wallabies, dingoes, and even buffalo drifting in from the bush at dusk, padding around the huts where, lying on your bunk you are enfolded in the vast silence of the outback night barely broken by the squeak, and rustle of tiny animals hunting and being hunted, and the soft padding of something bigger. I must says it was a magical experience, up there with cracking a Caulfield-Melbourne Cup double for serious cash, which I do a few years later when Tobin Bronze and Red Handed salute.
In 1978, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser was charged with poaching after a well covered fishing safari to the Dreaming Lagoon , then part of the Woolwonga Wildlife Sanctuary .
The odd charge was brought against him by Roy James Wright, of Darwin , who was serving nine months in Fannie Bay Gaol for taking fish with a gill net. Wright , described as one of the Northern Territory's most colourful fishermen, was convicted in 1974 for fishing in the same area as the PM had thrown a line. Wright claimed he had been invited to fish by an Aboriginal born in the sanctuary .
Fraser had fished the lagoon at the invitation of Northern Land Council chairman , Galarrwuy Yunupingu. Darwin magistrate, Tom Pauling , later the Administrator of the NT , dismissed the poaching charge.