In the waters of Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Paul Connelly finds a remote fishing paradise.
I’m sitting on a fibreglass fishing boat a few metres from the rocky south-western tip of Groote Eylandt.
As the sun beats down and a gentle swell slaps the hull, queenfish leap out of the water, their sleek silver scales catching the sun like mirrors before gravity compels them back into the drink. Beneath us, in water as clear as gin, is a maelstrom of baitfish, sportfish and at least three 1.5-metre sharks cruising about like spirits in a haunted house. No wonder those queenfish are jumpy. Who wouldn’t be?
Groote Eylandt (“Big Island”) – the name given to it by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman on a day in 1644 when his imagination failed him – is a 2300-square-kilometre island off the coast of East Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.
The Gulf of Carpentaria is one of Australia’s best-stocked bodies of water: marlin and sailfish for Hemingway types, estuary barramundi for others and plenty of options for those who, like me, barely know their stern from their bow. These are the waters that fishing enthusiasts think about when they need to go to their happy place.
Inhabited by Aboriginal islanders for millennia, Groote Eylandt is home to – and owned by – the Anindilyakwa people. Their rock art, depicting mainly the fauna that sustained them, is a glorious and fascinating adornment on an island resplendent with raw tropical beauty – intricate sandstone formations and secluded bays where vast stretches of snow-white sand ease their way into the turquoise sea. And all of it basking under an endless blue sky that blazes pink and orange at the close of the day.
But first impressions give little hint of the beauty that awaits. The airport, which is run by the Groote Eylandt Mining Company (GEMCO), is no more than a stretch of tarmac and two large sheds with an awning in between. It sits beside one of the world’s largest manganese mines, which GEMCO leases from the island’s traditional owners. On the short drive from the airport to the north-western mining town of Alyangula, there’s little to see beyond (and largely because of) the vast road trains carting mounds of manganese from the mine to the nearby port.
After ducking through Alyangula, where signs remind passers-by of sleeping shift workers, and driving past the golf course on which crocodiles are known to bask, you reach a pocket of bushland that’s home to the island’s only visitor accommodation, Groote Eylandt Lodge.
Image credit: Damian Bennett
It’s here that tourists, business travellers and locals treat themselves to a night out, either dining in the restaurant or taking up positions on the back deck overlooking the sea – one of Groote’s biggest drawcards. Which takes me back to the boat.
Although it’s taken us almost an hour to get here, skipping through the swell, I figure we’ll be moving on. After all, we’re hardly going to throw a line in when there are sharks about. Then again, what would I know? This is the first time I’ve been fishing (if you don’t count a school fete game involving a paddling pool and a magnet). “Let’s get amongst it,” says the boat’s skipper, Andrew Darby, casting a line, and when it stops fzzzzzzz-ing he thrusts the rod into my hands.
Almost instantly, it strains, trying to escape my grip. I shove the butt end into my belly. The fish on the end of the line zigs and zags, bending the rod into an arc so extreme I fear it will snap. I try to listen to Darby’s instructions but I reel when I should pull – and pull when I should reel.
Image credit: Damian Bennett
I take so long about it that just as I see the enticing flash of the “queenie” beside the boat, it’s taken by a shark. “Bloody hell,” I exclaim. “What kind of sharks are they?” Darby’s burly offsider, full-bearded Groote Eylandt local Scott Wurramarrba, grins. “The kind with teeth,” he says. (Turns out they are whaler sharks.)
Less than an hour later, our boat, Inungura Arrarra (West Wind), is sitting two kilometres from shore with the sonar showing what looks like a helix of baitfish beneath us. “Where there’s baitfish, there’s usually something bigger sniffing around,” says Darby.
Again, we throw in our lines, this time rigged with sparkling lures that, to passing fish, apparently resemble aquatic morsels. The rod bends dramatically and after a fight that leaves bruises on my abdomen, I get the fish close enough to the side of the boat for Darby to snag it with a gaff and haul it in. The first fish I’ve ever caught turns out to be an 80-centimetre-long, seven-kilogram northern bluefin tuna.
It seems like a good time to retire from the sport but a further 20 kilometres out to sea, Darby cuts the engines and I get another bite. These waters really are idiot-proof. By the way the fish is pulling me about, Darby reckons it’s a “GT” (A what? I think). Although I’m distracted by an inexplicable craving for a gin and tonic, I manage to haul a tear-shaped, 15-kilogram giant trevally with lips like Angelina Jolie into the boat. I’d kiss it but I’m too busy losing my lunch over the side – all that rocking has finally taken its toll.
By dinner, thankfully, I’ve recovered. Courtesy of the lodge chef, my day’s work sits before me in the form of tuna sashimi, accompanied by a Spanish mackerel salad. I couldn’t be happier if I’d picked the grapes for the cold pinot grigio that complements it all.
The following day we’re back in the boat, heading to Groote’s tropical northern archipelago and ending up at North East Island, which Wurramarrba says used to be a stopover for Macassan trepangers (Indonesian fishers of sea cucumbers) from as early as the 1700s.
We explore an idyllic beach then cut in and out of gorgeous secluded bays framed by pandanus palms, cycads, stringybarks and casuarinas. Along the intricate shoreline are formations of orange-hued sandstone that look like badly stacked playing cards. The water lapping the rocks and small beaches is turquoise and clear – and it would be utterly inviting if not for the knowledge that crocodiles like it, too. Though the traditional people often fish and camp on these remote beaches, we don’t see another soul. It’s exhilarating.
Image credit: Damian Bennett
But there’s more to Groote than a bountiful sea. On our final day on this island of contrasts, we pile into Wurramarrba’s four-wheel drive and, after visiting the townships of Umbakumba and Angurugu, where most of the island’s 1500 or so traditional owners live, we head bush.
A 15-kilometre bounce along a dirt road brings us to Groote’s northern coast and the spectacular Jagged Head, a wide scimitar of sand lying between parentheses of heaped rock. Then, retracing our route, we head south-west back towards Angurugu, where two Indigenous children tear about the quiet streets on a quad bike, their smiles almost incandescent. Diving into the bush again, we rumble alonga dirt tributary for a few kilometres until we pull up next to a sparsely vegetated hill that looks like a giant cairn of white boulders.
We climb to an overhanging ledge at the top, startling a rock wallaby on the way. When our eyes adjust to the dim light, we see that the underside of the ledge is coated, strikingly, with ochre-coloured paintings, some thousands of years old.
This is one of Groote Elylandt’s 80 or so rock art sites – and one of the best. Scenes and subjects spill into one another; every glance is rewarded with something new. Most paintings are depictions of Groote Eylandt’s abundant fauna: turtles, crayfish, goannas, fish. “The animals depicted were the food of the day back then and it hasn’t changed much,” says Wurramarrba. The artwork, he adds, indicates the respect the traditional owners have for the animals that have sustained them throughout history – and still do.
We drive back to the lodge as daylight begins to wane. Soon we’re cleaned up, sitting deck-side and gazing out to the bountiful sea. As the sun drops into the water, it sends out a silent instruction to pick up a cold beer. Given what nature has achieved in this rugged corner of the universe, who am I to argue?
Top image: Damian Bennett