Catching a Queenie


After several false starts of going seawards…either a grim  forecast that didn’t eventuate or words of weather gloom and doom that didn’t eventuate either…it’s off to the boat ramp to check out the swell and the number of trailers and trucks parked indicating how many others have taken to the waves. As every other house in Alyangula has a boat in the driveway a boating grapevine is well established and the real early starters are all prepared  by previous evening . Not so here where sleep ins are at a premium but by nine we are packed, sunscreened, fishing shirted and hatted and the boat has taken on the appearance of an echidna with rods and antenna bristling  and a tackle box also bristling with very spiky fluoro sleek lures. At the jetty am very impressed by the way A and E manoeuvre the boat on trailer down the ramp and into the water…including that complicated business of reversing with anything in tow that involves turning the wheel one way to make the trailer turn in the opposite direction.

All aboard with landing nets at the ready and rods lured it’s a gentle bob out under a bridge at the port where a ship is being loaded with manganese ore carried on a conveyor belt pouring in a constant black spout into the hold. Into open water and the swell is a tad more than bobbing  and heading west the green and yellow fringed island of Connexion is the destination, encouraging too is the fact other boats are heading that way too and we are not alone!!  

Like many other coastal Aborigines, Groote Eylantders are a maritime people whose staple diet originally was one of fish, turtle, dugong and stingrays supplemented by small bush animals…goannas, flying foxes and wallabies….and edible fruits, root vegetables  and  yams . Today the staple diet is more likely provided by the local supermarket though turtle and dugong are still hunted in the traditional way from boats using spears and harpoons and on our short and muddy attempt to reach Emerald River a group of woman and children were gathering  fruit from trackside bushes.  As I’ve written a few times now this is the ‘Wet’ season as opposed to the ‘Dry’, a somewhat simplistic way of defining the seasons in northern Australia. The Aboriginals recognise a more complex and certainly more elegant association of flowering and fruiting of particular plants with the presence of particular foods.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                In September for example when the wild plum, Mangkarrkba, flowers it is time to hunt the Thorny Skinned Ray, Dirimba. Perhaps  September is Stingray month as the flowering of the Red Kurrajong , Bush Currant and yellow blossomed Awulka tell that the Yimaduwaya, Yimurnirna (stingrays) and Yilyanga, the Shovelnosed ray will be have plenty of fat and be good to eat. The cicada and the tree cricket sing in November to ripen bush  fruit heralding the arrival of north west monsoonal winds (Yinungkwura)and the ‘wet’ while the south east trade winds (Mamarika) announced by purple flowering Rough Barked Gum characterize the ‘dry’ and the fattening of yams and roots. These two winds in particular form the basis of the whole seasonal cycles and are important totems and in the centuries before establishment of missions on the island in the early 1900s the Macassans, trepang  (sea cucumber)fisherman from the Celebes arrived with the n-w monsoons and departed  on the s-e trades.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Not, perhaps, different  to peoples all over the world who live in and depend on their country for sustenance, shelter and survival and where the blossoming and fruiting of say a hedgerow bramble goes hand in hand with the apple tree and the onset of autumn, a delicious pie and lots of clotted ivory cream! Here on island some of  the ‘hand in hands’ are the flowering of various wattles and a fat catch of Emperor fish (Amungkwa), flowering Merrika and tern egg collecting and by the time Burrawang (cycad)nuts are ready for harvesting , the Tamarinds are ripe and the Cocky Apples are flowering it’s turtle time. The language sounds as poetic and flavoursome as the plants and animals it describes and on the island where Anindilyakwa is the first language and English when spoken the second it is the tongue of everyday.

Meanwhile back on the water and the nw monsoon winds are ruffling the wave tops frothy white and we are on the lookout for circling birds, spiralling and dipping towards the waves. I guess these are terns of some sort and gulls and suddenly it’s all go. Birds are diving, the water seems to be boiling and fish are leaping up higher than the boat and flopping back. Elayne casts with what turns out to be ‘the lucky lure’ and before the neon pink has had a chance to fully submerge a fish has grabbed it. It’s a Queenie!! … less romantically known as a skinny or leatherskin.                                                                                                                                                                             A lean mean fighting machine with a forked tail, silvery white flanks and belly with a yellowish tinge, presumably teeth and not at all willing to come peacefully. Yes, it did get away….but wait there is more…I caught one!! which we did get on board, well Andrew did after a great effort of reeling it in not helped by the dreaded birds nest tangle that had mysteriously appeared during my attempts at earlier casting. Between us wielding landing nets, Elayne driving the boat, a lurching horizon and a dribble of blood…human not fish…pictures were taken and Queenie released. After floating belly up for a while and presumably getting its breath back it took off in a shimmer of silver and flick of the tail. Having googled the Queenfish the one we caught was a decent size (about 80cm) in the scheme of things and perhaps we should have done the whole catch and eat bit…apparently it’s a tad dry but does well in a marinade of lime, vinegar, chilli and onion, a dish known here as ‘numus’                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Triumphant and with the swell increasing as is the wind it’s back to the boat ramp to wait our turn. At the scene of the boiling water another boat had been bobbing as well, a dad and FOUR children calmly casting into cauldron . As he singlehandedly loaded the boat back on the trailer we hear of their fishing success in a one breath sentence….’Brody and Molly caught queenies and I caught a mackerel and as it was coming out of the water a shark came up and bit it so we almost caught a shark too in fact we all caught a fish except for dad who was driving the boat and helping us.’ Out of the mouths of babes.

Now to find out what might be flowering or fruiting in the bush that promises swirling birds and jumping queenies.

On Island, Off Island

Depending on whether you are on or off the island this is your ‘status’…so here I am ‘on island’!!

Groote Eylandt is Australia’s third largest island, roughly rectangular in shape and mapped and named by Dutch navigators in the 17th century plying their trade between Holland and the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. In the Gulf of Carpentaria 50km east from the Arnhem Land coast the traditional owners are the Warnindilyakwa people referred to by their language name, Anindilyakwa. They were brought to the island on a series of songlines which created the rivers, land, people and animals, naming everything in the region. According to legend the island was dark in the beginning and daylight was brought by Barnimbirra, the Morning Star. The star is one of the three totems…as I understand it a totem is a natural object that serves as the emblem of a family or clan…. that appear on the land Council logo along with Yukwurrurrindanga , theSawfish and Mangwarra, the Hammerhead Shark. The Hammerhead and Sawfish came to Groote from the mainland travelling through Bickerton Island, landing at the Angurugu River moving up river towards Central Lake.  Lots more on all of this to come as I try and get more of a handle on the complexities of the 14 clan groups who make up the two moieties on the archipelago but what I’ve gathered so far is that clans, totems and geographical areas are inseparable . The clan is regarded as the owner of totems…. a clan may have several totems some of which may be shared with other clans ….. ceremonies, objects and places associated with them including mythologies, songs and paintings.

Meanwhile back to island life.

Since arriving and being fully luggaged at last on Christmas Eve thanks to Andrew’s persistence and, after a reluctant start, a concerted effort by both airlines to find the errant bag it was all go on Christmas morning with gifts, shorts and T shirts and undies which had, in case, been  replaced from the GE shop. There were a huge selection to choose from ranging from bejewelled thongs to colossal bloomers and a few in betweenies so gathered up those available along with the requisite toothpaste etc…working on the principle mind you that having spent a small fortune on all this gear the case will turn up!!

Christmas through Boxing day and to now has been a wonderful slow waltz of prawns and soft shell crabs, beer in bottles that smoke when they leave the fridge and hit the humidity, big sleeps under a ticking fan and air conditioning and waking to drink rooibos tea in a garden where the grass has grown overnight and fruit bats are settling in to roost in a three storey mango tree. They start their evening squabbling and cackling and end their day as we start ours doing the same thing while they find a suitable twig or branch to hang from managing to look menacing and very cool at the same time. In the morning before settling in for a sleep a number will take off and fly to another tree…mango trees seem to be their roost of choice….gliding through the air on wings the colour and structure of a well used black umbrella.

I’ve  forgotten how amazing the tropics are and how the air smells. Rich and perfumed, delicate and decaying, it’s all happening in every breath.  Grass, trees, flowers and everything vegetational literally grows as you watch and houses are built to blend in to where they are and make the most of breezes and winds, especially through the wet season. Andrew and Elayne’s house in Alyangula stands on stilts so the living area is already a story high beneath which they also live as does their bbq, laundry and storeroom packed with fishing gear and a very secure room built with a high concrete floor, metal walls and access through a hatch and staircase  in the living room upstairs should a cyclone threaten or hit.                                                                                                                                                                    The houses also have internal gills!! True!! As well as being on stilts, having high ceilings, fans and banks of louvre windows the rooms with internal walls have half of that internal wall as a slatted wood  louvre so air circulates throughout, how simple and how perfect.

 This evening we take a long walk through Old Town, where they live, and New Town, separated by a small matter of years of construction and as I lag behind on the walk to photograph frangipani trees dropping their fragrant flowers to the verge and road, those gardens of long established tenants thrive triffid like with giant stands of exotic foliage..hands of bananas, clusters of papaya and coconuts, brown and dry on the ground and gleaming green in the palm waiting to clump to the ground. In the spindly eucalypts honey ants glue the leaves into big pawpaw shaped nests accessed by a tiny hole through which there is a constant stream of amber coloured ants with big green bottoms.

 The plan has been to take the boat out and fish and generally potter around on the great wide blue out there which looks very inviting though the skies look less so as to the east big gunpowder grey horizons mutter of the Queensland rough weather while to the west the white beaches of Bickerton Island and Connexion Island look gentle and clear. The Wet is just as it sounds, very wet with potential for lots to change weather wise very quickly and being on a boat perhaps not the greatest idea. So it’s down to a bbq spot by the ocean and a stone and dirt groyne to wander out on with rods and gear in hand which is followed not long after by a wander back with rods and less gear in hand being snagged by all sorts of hidden stuff loitering under the surface. Tomorrow we will try again and hopefully have a trip around at least part of the island which is proving to be impossible to visit on land.

Today we tried to get through to the Emerald River, travelling through the town of Angurugu, one of the three towns on Groote which include Alyangula and Umbakumba in the north east of the island. Lots of muddy road though  not impassable, big toffee coloured pools of water which we prodded with sticks and travelled through and then a REALLY big lake of water across the road dribbling in from a billabong reflecting cycads and  eucalypts into which Andrew  take two steps reaching  knee level and the promise of the dreaded sink hole capable of swallowing who knows what. All this with the potential of a lurking croc….already sighted on front beach (am planning to see he slither marks on the beach) and on the second fairway on the golf course, near the well named water hazard…so we return back to lunch at the Dugong Beach Resort  highlighted by a waving gecko perched on a rock. Lazy afternoon siesta, long walk, another steaming  beer and the end of just a lovely day.

Dusk is noisy with fruit bats settling in for the evening, chittering and squabbling in a sort of morse code competing with cicadas that have set up a steady rhythm that no-one is going to interrupt and cheechas, house geckos adding their voice. The island has a rich biodiversity with birds, fish, amphibians and mammals including the endangered Northern Quoll which seemingly is not so endangered as one wandered through the garden of our bbq hosts the other evening! With no foxes, pigs, cattle, goats , horses, cats or cane toads..there are dogs though…..on the island the native species have much more chance of surviving, apart from perhaps some eating!  In the garden there doves, Galahs,Corellas and  Sulphur Crested cockatoos, the hoons of the neighbourhood cocking their yellow crowns and hanging off telegraph wires like trapeze artists and the big treat on the first early morning, a Tawny Frogmouth doing a great impersonation of a branch tucked away under a grapebunched blossom of a lemon coloured wisteria.

On island…..mmmmmmmmm.

Perth to Groote Eylandt

Up early to a blustery wind shaking the pine and eucalypts and down to the airport to find mobs of disgruntled travellers poking the touch pads of the automated booking in system and muttering about the lack of living and breathing souls to help solve the problems. The baggage drop system too  is on go slow, conveyor belts groaning under the weight of suitcases and  boxes labelled fragile…fragile seems to be the word of this earlyish hour . Find a very helpful ‘breathing soul’ who sorts out why my booking reference won’t register and weighing the bag with baited breath find it’s only 3kgs overweight, a miracle considering how much stuff has been packed into it, and paying the grand total of $9 in fees  say goodbye to the case as it creeps up the conveyor belt. It really is goodbye as it doesn’t get to Groote.

I love airports. They speak of travels and  journeys, goodbyes and hellos, happiness and sadness, excitements and frustrations, departure and arrivals and finding that unusual book for the flying hours. Tracy Chevalier’s ‘Remarkable Creatures’ is this journey’s companion in print.  The story of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, fossil hunters in the very early 19th century digging from the cliffs of Lyme Regis (now firmly on the bucket list) ammonites, coprolites, ichthyosaur bones and the FIRST EVER plesiosaur skeletons. Mary, at the tender age of 12, was scouring the beaches to find ‘curies’ to sell to feed the family and Elizabeth, spinster of London, had set up house with her two unmarriageable sisters ( no looks or dosh, how typical). Together they took on the elements, scientific prejudices against woman as being capable of independent thought and discovery and the church preaching creationism and  Mary’s work and finds contributed to the changes in thinking about prehistory and the history of the earth. In 2010 the Royal Society included her in a list of ten British women who had most influenced the history of science ….what a girl.

Perth to Darwin plane is packed and am seated between a sweet boy looking rather like Scooby Doo’s mate, wearing aviator sunglasses and photographing clouds through the window and a ruddied faced man smelling of Brut and breakfast beer. Sitting behind in two rows a pod of unaccompanied minors chatter, squeak and chirp like dolphins, yelling out as we bank into the Darwin landing ‘we’re going down’!!!  Onto the tarmac and the air is tropic thick, humidity and heat slapping exposed skin like a warm, wet towel while pores relax and open sucking in the moisture. Catch a cab and head off to Casuarina shopping centre and buy cheeses white and soft, blue and potentially smelly and return through the suburb that was once home in the mid 80s. Back in the airport and the waiting area is sprawling and hangerlike carpeted with a swirling patterns of blue and  ochre ,  rainbow fish and birds .Lined on one side by shops and a well patroned bar and on the other by walls of windows steamed with rain and heat a glass and concrete box jutts out  where the smokers congregate. Perched or sprawled on chairs  the weary doze, the nosy watch and listen and the anxious check their watches and departure screens. A family of …I discover later as we get off together at Groote…islanders sit in a group, three generations the youngest a baby boy contentedly sitting on a knee and the other a little girl ,pretty in shocking pink and silver sandals with enough energy for all. She shimmies and tap dances her way across the space clutching a plush plane almost as tall as she is.

 Finally onto the plane, this time a 30 seater with two gleaming black propellers and a motley group of passengers including the Groote Eylandt family who get comfortable and promptly fall asleep and a well watered but weary fellow who wishes everyone a merry Christmas several times, asks for some mysterious volume to be turned up and also falls asleep. These little planes have a handle on take offs and landings akin to pullback toy cars…ie stay stationary for as long as possible while revving madly before a roaring take off as if being released by an elastic band and the reverse for landing, braking madly after a couple of hops which the versed take as a signal to grip the headrest of the seat in front.  As we fly out of Darwin travelling north the map of land below widens into a dense green channelled by milky brown rivers that blend with the vegetation in the marbled colours of mangroves, water and trees fanning into estuaries at the coast. With night falling quickly this all fades and vanishes equally quickly and it’s into a very black sky that we fly with no light to indicate what is up or down.                                                                                                                        Katherine, the cabin crew…. all one of her….. is young , slim and bespectacled with blonde hair scraped back into an efficient knot, as efficient as she is. Juggling the usual safety demonstrations and  issuing dire warnings of carrying alcohol into restricted areas she offers  trays of potato chips, chocolates, fruitcake and drinks all  manipulated with great skill through the cabin in a space not more than 45cm wide and definitely not suited to the more generously proportioned crew of the earlier  flight.The lights of Gove suddenly appear like an illuminated fairground and it’s into Gove airport where it looks like half  the town has turned out to chat and people watch  and then it’s back on board for the final leg.   Andrew and Elayne are waiting and the luggage is not..well the cheese has arrived but not the suitcase. .noooooooooooo.

Writing this later, the case was eventually found though not quite sure where as there was a lot of buck passing initially then after a flurry of activity, very impressive for a Christmas Eve, suitcase arrived in on the afternoon flight. Phew!!