Fishing

A wallaby stamped its foot and woke me.

We were camped on a high bank on a bend in the Leichhardt River, not far from Burketown. In that time and that climate, for us camping meant a ground sheet and a tarp. Con and I and little Matt and Lizzie had been invited to visit some Finnish fishermen at their camp.

The wallaby was only two metres away from me, staring at me. It stamped its foot again. It was quite unafraid but looked resentful at having its place invaded.

Soon the wallaby hopped away, and the fishermen got a campfire going, with a barbecue grill over it. They filleted one of their fresh barramundi catch and threw it on the plate. I’ve rarely eaten anything that tasted as good as that barbecued barra straight from the river.

Leichhardt River en.wikipedia.org

Their gravlax was good too – raw barra sliced thin, wrapped in little bundles and pickled with lemon juice and onions.

When we moved to Burketown, a local fisherman brought us a barramundi and filleted it for me on the back landing. Barramundi and prawns – that’s one way those locals expressed friendship to a newcomer.

I’m not a fishing person, but fishing was my grandfather’s favourite thing in the world. Living in Nambour, he would drive to Tin Can Bay with friends, put up a tent and go fishing. For bait they’d dig yabbies and eugaries at low tide out of the wet sand, then fish with rods off the surf beach at Inskip Point.

My grandfather (standing) and others digging for bait, 1940

I’ve got the little Box Brownie photos taken when my dad joined them on their 1940 fishing trip. He helpfully put little crosses above himself in the photos.

The angling party, Inskip Point, 1940.

There are ardent fishers all around Australia, on inland rivers and lakes and around the coast. The only things that change around the country are the types of fish and the discomforts involve in catching them: heat, cold, storms, crocodiles.

Our Joe in Far North Queensland sometimes goes fishing himself, but usually buys from a mate, a devoted fisherman out of Mission Beach who catches more than he can eat. He charges Joe a flat rate of $20 a kilogram for filleted fish.

“Rosy job fish,” Joe tells me. “Red emperor, cobia, coral trout, longnose emperor, Spanish mackerel, black nannygai, finger mark, tusker, saddle tailed sea perch.

“We use the Spanish mackerel for curry.

“Best are finger mark and tusker.”

“I was thinking of lashing out on some barramundi for Christmas,” I tell him.

“Don’t do it on our account. We used barra for curry, too.”

Baby Joe with a barramundi, Yarrabah

None of these fish, caught wild, would sell for less than $30-$60 in a Brisbane fish shop.

In 2018, Con and I spent a night at the Commercial Hotel, Tara, on the Western Darling Downs. It was the eve of the local fishing competition, to be held at the Tara Lagoon on the edge of town, and talk in the bar was all about fishing. All native fish caught would be returned to the lagoon; the exotic carp, a major pest, would not. The Tara Fish Re-Stocking Association was running the competition.

Tara Fishing Competition at Tara Lagoon. September 29, 2018 courier-mail.com.au

That reminded me of Hamar Midgley.

Hamar Midgley was a woodworker and furniture maker in Nambour, where my family lived; and he loved fishing. The Midgley house was a timber Queenslander on what is now National Park Road, with a paddock out the back running down to the creek. I remember some magnificent Guy Fawkes parties and bonfires in the paddock.

The Midgleys were good family friends who lived a close-to-the-earth lifestyle and would never be wealthy. Then Hamar was offered the perfect job. I remember him saying with delight to my father one day, “They’re going to pay me to go fishing!”

Hamar Midgley had become, through his own dedication and research, a leading amateur expert on Australian native fish species. Much of Queensland’s fishing is done in freshwater lakes, dams, rivers and creeks, and it was Hamar who made that possible. In the early 1960s he carried out Australia’s first official release of native fish into a waterway, at Borumba Dam, south-west of Gympie. Now, over fifty lakes, dams and waterways in Queensland alone have been stocked with native fish.

“Hamar in his dinghy and bush hat with a long tom, Jabiru, NT” http://www.fishingworld.com.au/news/vale-hamar-midgley

For over forty years, Hamar worked as a full-time fisheries consultant for the Queensland Government, travelling out west with Mary to waterways unknown except to locals. In the early 2000s I visited them at their home at Bli Bli, on the Sunshine Coast. Mary told me of their research, camped far from amenities and recording of the dawn chorus of bushland birds. What a glorious life.

“Hamar and Mary at a bush camp sorting the catch-of-the-day” http://www.fishingworld.com.au/news/vale-hamar-midgley

In 1994 Hamar was granted an Honorary Doctorate of Science from UQ for his research into Queensland’s fresh water fish species. He died in 2014, but it’s largely thanks to his work that fishing in Queensland’s inland waterways is flourishing.

Not so on some of the wild rivers in the Far North. At the Chillagoe Cockatoo Hotel, we met a group of recreational fishermen heading home. They’d just returned, disappointed, four hundred kilometres down the dirt road from the Mitchell River on western Cape York.

Disappointed fishing party at the Chillagoe Cockatoo Hotel Motel

“There were no fish,” they told us. “Big fishing concerns are flouting the rules. You’re not allowed to stretch nets right across the river, so they put one most of the way across, then another from the opposite bank a bit further upstream, then another from the same side, making a zigzag of nets across the river.

“For us blokes who head up there for a fishing weekend, there’s not much point anymore.”

How can fishing be regulated in the wild country of Cape York, with its small population and huge distances? There are no fishing clubs keeping an eye on things up there.

Back on the Leichhardt River those Finns also complained about rule breaking fishermen reducing fish stocks.

That barramundi was memorable. Still, the best fish I ever ate was a humble catfish. My uncle pulled it out of the Balonne River, somewhere near Dirranbandi, with a hand-held fishing line. He filleted it, built a fire on the riverbank under the gum trees and fried it on the spot. It was perfect.

Good to Go!

This year, when it comes to travel, Queenslanders have few choices. Because of the pandemic, no overseas or interstate travel is allowed, flights within the state are few and expensive, and most long-distance train services are on hold.

So, if we want to travel, we’ll need to hit the road, and we’re being urged to do just that, now that COVID-19 seems to be under control here: to take a road trip, explore Queensland, and support regional tourism. Let’s do it.

This a big state, with huge distances to travel. We can’t do it all in a weekend; but the school holidays are coming up soon. Let’s go – and let’s take the kids!

Queensland has many fascinating, beautiful and well-known places to visit. Here are some of my favourites, and they are places that kids will enjoy.

Chillagoe

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Chillagoe is an old mining town on the Burke Development Road, in dry, rugged country 205 kilometres west of Cairns. With a population of about 250, it’s an interesting place with a wild west feel to it, with caves, strange and rare karst rock formations, heritage-listed ruins of a copper smelter, and the extraordinary Tom Prior Ford Museum.

In the Chillagoe-Mungara Caves National Park, take a tour led by a competent National Parks guide through the spectacular Chillagoe limestone caves.

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Chillagoe limestone caves athertontablelands.com.au

17 kilometres out of town to the west are the Mungara caves, where you can rove through a labyrinth of caves and gorges, past amazing rock formations and Aboriginal art sites.

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Rock paintings at Mungara Caves

They say that the designers of the film “Avatar” based their flying rock islands on the cliffs of Mungara.

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Also in the national park, the atmospheric old smelter ruins look spectacular in evening light amongst the red hills.

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Copper smelter ruins

In the town creek there is a beautiful swimming hole. In summer, so hot here in the tropical inland, it must be irresistible.

On the edge of town, visit Tom Prior’s amazing and eccentric collection of old Fords, in his original mechanic’s shed, open to the public by contribution. I like this kind of museum – years of work by an expert and passionate collector, displayed in its authentic setting.

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Tom Prior’s Ford Museum

Carisbrooke Station

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The Winton area, in Western Queensland, beyond the black soil plains and in the land of spinifex and red bluffs (jump-ups, in local terms), looks wonderful on film. Think of Aaron Pedersen, the lean, gruff detective of 2013 movie “Mystery Road”, poised on the red rock bluffs of Carisbrooke Station, ready for a shoot-out with the villains.

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Aaron Pedersen in “Mystery Road” filmink.com.au

Winton, 1358 kilometres from Brisbane, now has its own film festival: the “Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival”. Also the “Way out West” Music Festival, Outback Writers Festival, the Australian Age of Dinosaurs centre (a must), Waltzing Matilda Centre – and Camel Racing. But the real beauty lies out of town.

Several years ago we took a three-generations family road trip from Brisbane, ending up with a farm stay on Carisbrooke Station. In the late afternoon, tired and hungry, we turned off the Kennedy Development Road forty kilometres west of Winton and drove down a deserted gravel road, trusting that we would eventually find our home for the night. The kids yelled out in excitement when a mob of kangaroos bounded across the road in front of us. Until now, all they’d seen was roadkill.

When we finally pulled in front of our accommodation, we knew that the trip had been worth it. The whole huge bowl of the sky was filled with the reds and pinks of sunset.

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Carisbrooke Station sunset

The corrugated iron workers’ quarters we’d booked had four simple bedrooms, a kitchen/living room, and a barbecue out the front so we could keep looking at that wonderful sky while dinner cooked, until the sunset faded and a million starts appeared in the clear, dry air.

Farmer and guide Charlie took us up on to the jump-up next day, to explore, boil the billy and look out over that magnificent countryside.

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Charlie boiling the billy

We drove up to join the red gravel Winton-Jundah Road and visit Lark Quarry Conservation Park, site of the famous dinosaur stampede – inspiration for the stampede of large and small dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park”.

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Site of the Lark Quarry Dinosaur Stampede

On the road back to Winton, we met one of the mining road trains that we’d been warned used this road. It was trailing a huge cloud of dust. People have died in head-to-head collisions in these dust clouds.

Pulling off the road, we waited while the trucks thundered past and red dust blocked the sun, settling on the cars and into every crack and crevice.

Next day, back in Longreach, the cars were loaded on the Spirit of the Outback and we started the twenty-four-hour train journey back to Brisbane.

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Cars loaded on the train at Longreach

It’s a loss for the tourist industry in Longreach and Cairns and elsewhere that travellers can no longer drive one way and load their cars on to the train for the return journey. For working families and school kids, time is limited. To spend three more days driving back to Brisbane would have made our family trip impossible.

Charleville

Years ago, so I’m told, when the Commonwealth government was granting money to outback towns to develop tourist attractions, Charleville, 745 kilometres west of Brisbane, was offered money for a Cobb and Co. Museum. The locals thought it over, and had a better idea. At the local high school were teachers keen on astronomy, and there were other enthusiasts in the district. The climate in Western Queensland is perfect for star-gazing – open skies and dry, clear air. Why not start an observatory instead? So the Cosmos Centre was established at Charleville, and Toowoomba got the Cobb and Co. Museum.

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Big Sky Observatory at the Cosmos Centre, Charleville queensland.com

On a cold winter night we went to the Cosmos Centre for a session at their Big Sky Observatory. We sat with blankets over our knees, among families and children, taking turns to look through telescopes operated by remote control to focus on particular galaxies and planets, while the well-informed staff told us what we were looking at. Above us the Milky Way sprawled across the sky.

Next day, we visited another Charleville highlight, the Bilby Experience: a not-for-profit centre dedicated to the preservation of those cute local creatures, with a chance to get up close to them, support their protection and buy a bilby t-shirt.

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Charleville Bilby Experience abc.net.au

In Charleville we stayed at the famous and spectacular 1920s Corones Hotel. For children, having the run of a big, old country pub is great experience.

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Corones Hotel, Charleville

Con and I slept in a room with a private terrace, original furniture and tiled bathroom, once occupied by visiting celebrities such as solo aviator Amy Johnson, and singer Gracie Fields, brought in to entertain the American troops stationed here during the war. Harry Corones, the Greek immigrant who built the hotel, was an ardent supporter and original shareholder in QANTAS, which began here in central-western Queensland.

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Original Souvenir Booklet for Corones Hotel guests

With its 60 metres long central corridor, its original bar room and ballroom, stained glass and brass and timber fittings, this once-luxurious hotel, the wonder of the west, has seen hard times, but new owners are bringing it back to life.

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Fine details in Corones Hotel

We took a guided tour of the old hotel – startled to find that our (untidy) room would be part of the tour.

These fine old country towns have suffered from changing conditions, the downturn in the wool industry, loss of banks and shops and young people; but they are full of staunch locals and interesting sights. When the premier says, “Queensland, you’re good to go!!” it’s places like these she is urging us to visit.

And when we get home to the coastal towns and cities where most of us live, and we begin to wash the dust off the car, we’ll pause, and feel a sense of pride that we’ve been out there, far from home, supporting our fellow Queenslanders, and having fine adventures along the way. And the kids will never forget it.

If they need reminding, they just need to go to the movies.

 

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On the road

 

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