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.