The Call of Karumba!

Jennifer caught this barra trolling right on dawn at Karumba.

Jennifer caught this barra trolling right on dawn at Karumba.

It is well over forty years since I had my first magazine article published and during that ensuing period I have been privileged to visit, fish, and write about some of the most exotic locations on Planet Earth.
My wife Jennifer (my fishing mate) and I have fished all over tropical Australia, and selected regions in the rest of it, plus International countries such as P.N.G (about 15 times), South East Asia, Alaska, South Africa, Egypt (3 times), Costa Rica (twice), Brazil (3 times), Peru and Argentina.
Yes I have been around a little, but with places like that at my beck and call it would be reasonable to assume there would be nowhere up this way I would even be interested in, let alone want to spend time at.
Not true old mate. There is one tiny town in North Queensland that we visit and fish twice a year for eight or nine day trips. And that is Karumba, a tiny fishing village that lives on the south east corner of the Gulf of Carpentaria.
What is the attraction of this tiny town of six hundred permanent residents? Well it has certainly mellowed from the days when the prawn was King and you could get a fight, a feed, and something else, every night at the “Animal Bar”.

But it still is a pioneering town to some degree where men are men and the women are damn glad of it, the people are friendly, the food is good, the beer is frosty cold, and the fishing is excellent.
Naturally the fishing is the big drawcard at Karumba and thousands of visitors (better make that tens of thousands) flock there every year to do battle with said fish, and, mud crabs so big they are almost a menace to low flying aircraft.
Yes tourism is extremely important at Karumba, but if you’re the kind of person who wants to go night clubbing, five star dining, or dancing in the street best you stay home as Karumba is just a simple town with simple Aussie attractions.
I first visited and fished Karumba about 25 years ago and Jeez was it an adventure just getting there back then. The bloody road (if you could call it a road) had pot holes big enough to lose Volkswagons in, and, you could be stuck on that muddy goat track for days if it rained. Now the two main highways to Karumba are tarred, and you can roar up there in the family limo with no worries, although you have to be careful during the wet.
Look, let’s you and I slip up to Karumba for a week or two. I live at Gordonvale (15 Ks south of Cairns) and we leave here about 5 in the morning for the 750 kilometre trip to the Gulf, and it’s a great trip indeed.

Mareeba based fruit grower Anne Leighton was very happy with this crab.

Mareeba based fruit grower Anne Leighton was very happy with this crab.

Up the Gillies Range, across the Tableland, and breakfast at Mt. Garnet or Innot Hot Springs where we meet the rest of the group. Full of bacon and eggs it’s back in our Land Cruiser trayback with our 4.7 metre V nose custom built punt, “Raptor”, behind and it’s heigh- ho silver and westward ho.
Through Mt. Surprise at a great rate of knots (we have lunch here on the return trip) and we stop at that great little shady park in Georgetown and crank up the old Thermos and bikkies. Lunch is at Croydon (top little town) and onto Normanton.
It’s only about 80 Ks to Karumba from Normanton but now we’re getting excited, especially when we break out of the woodland and start across those big flood plains. Birds everywhere, especially Brolgas, and then to the left we see that huge shed of Zinifex’s. And around 3 p.m. we’re there.
But of course that’s day one buggered — so for the last couple of years we have left the day before, stopped at Croydon for the night, and into Karumba by 9 a.m. We throw everything in our room and are fishing by lunch time which means we haven’t lost a day.
We have stayed at Ash’s Holiday Units for years and years and it’s great. Nice big airy rooms that are air conditioned with everything you’d ever need in them, a good clean pool to relax in, excellent fish cleaning facilities, and Ash’s fish and chips are famous all over Cape York.

The late Ashton Colahan (who started this operation) believed if you wanted barra and chips, or king salmon and chips, that’s what you got and PLENTY OF IT.
But there a lot of self contained units, motels, and three caravan parks at Karumba, so accommodation is not a drama, but YOU MUST BOOK WELL IN ADVANCE.
Okay we’re all settled in so let’s go catch a fish. There are two boat ramps at Karumba, and both are not bad. Karumba is right on the eastern bank of the Norman River, and while this is a boaties paradise you can catch big fish from the bank if you don’t own a boat. More on this later.
Okay let’s go catch a fish. Karumba is famous for grunter (javelin fish) and so it should be as they are wide spread in the Gulf, grow to about 4 kilos, pull like a D9 bulldozer, and are superb eating with white nutritious flesh.
Righto we’ll go and try to catch a few grunter, so we’ll head out the shipping channel towards the leads that run out for several miles and fish around the big sand bars, or the edge of the channel, but first let’s drop over a few crab pots.
Well it’s been a great few hours and we have 4 or 5 nice big grunter, several blue salmon, one king salmon, and two whopper fingermark about five kilos a piece. And just for that famous icing on the cake — four big cranky old mud crabs.

The wealth of a nation-This is the Zinifex ore loading facilities at Karumba.

The wealth of a nation-This is the Zinifex ore loading facilities at Karumba.

Back at Ash’s, Jennifer washes the boat while I peel the fillets off our fish. She then vacuum seals them with her Foodsaver, and into the freezer. A nice long cooling swim and it’s beer o’clock. It’s only 5.30p.m; but we’re so relaxed we’re almost comatose when she quietly remarks “I don’t feel like cooking tonight” and I immediately answer “Screw the cooking. Let’s go the tavern”.
I really enjoy the Sunset Tavern as it’s only a couple of hundred metres from Ash’s, and it lives right on the foreshore of the Gulf of C. This is one of the few places in eastern Australia where the sun sets in the sea, and to sit in the beer garden and watch Sol slip beneath is one of life’s little joys I can tell you.
And the food at the Tavern is excellent; although I am seriously peeved they took ‘Sunset Duck’ off the menu. That was the best duck north of Bowen.
The next morning we troll upstream of the ramp using deep lures chasing barramundi and Jennifer nails two, both about eight kilos. Nice fish, so we run way upstream to beat the turn of the tide and get two more. Ahh! – Life is good.
We sit under a tree and gobble mud crab to our hearts content. Did I tell you life is good, although the alternative is not real flash. We come back early and go for a drive uptown to have a look around. Like all women, Jennifer has to check out the supermarket, the bakery, post office, butchers shop and every other shop in the town while I look bored, but I soon find someone to discuss fishing tactics with.

There are so many options for the boat owner at Karumba I would need this whole mag. to detail them along with tackle and techniques. As far as tackle goes we use quality baitcasters and 20 and 30 lb line (either braid or mono), but the secret to serious success up there (or anywhere else for that matter) is the bait.
I take up TOP QUALITY squid and prawns, and can generally catch plenty of mullet with my cast net, especially in the rivers to the north.
Okay you don’t even own a boat, but you’re going to spend a few days at Karumba relaxing and just enjoying life, but you’d like a feed of fresh fish. Well there is excellent fishing from the sand bank right beside the boat ramp down at the spit. I have seen big black jew and barra pulled from here.
Or you can turn right just before the Sunset Tavern and the road runs along the top of the beach beside the airstrip. You can stop anywhere along here, or even right in front of the Tavern, and have a fish, but you need an incoming tide about 2/3 full. This is the home of big blue and king salmon, huge barramundi at times, even the occasional grunter and mud crabs use this as their highway number one.
But what I do suggest is you go out on one of the charter boats for either a 1/2 or full day charter. There are a couple of charter boats at Karumba, but as I have only been on one I can’t say what the others are like, but I’m sure they would be good.

I have spent a lot of time on the 8 metre “Sandy Belle”, which is skippered by Paul Donald. Paul and his wife Kerry run Kerry D. Charters, and it’s a brilliant operation, and, top value for money.
On a charter boat you can relax and let some other silly bugger do all the work and make all the decisions, and life is sweet after you’ve caught a couple of nice fish.
There are also hire boats at Karumba by the way.
So you see you have dozens of options as far as fishing goes, but what you must do is go see the Barra Farm. That is awesome as you’ll see the big breeding barra, plus all the other infrastructure of a full on aqua culture facility.
And you must, repeat MUST, have a few drinks at the famous Animal Bar. Sure it’s just a shadow of its wild past, but you never know your luck, and it’s a top place to check out and an excellent venue for a leisurely meal.
One other thing is be careful driving around Karumba as you can easily run over a local. No not some clown staggering home full of wee wee and bad manners, I mean a wallaby. Karumba is the wallaby capital of southern Cape York and the bloody things are everywhere during the dry.
While Karumba is still a pioneering town, with some rough tough characters, it has a big heart for a small community. A big SOFT heart actually, and this was bought home to me big time last year. Here is the story.

Eddy and Heather Olorenshaw from Adelaide were blessed with three children, but the two boys suffer from Cystic Fibrosis, and one also has Global Dyspraxia. Life hasn’t been a bed of roses for the boys and Kieran (15) spent three months in hospital last year.
The boys big sister, Karyn, works on Augusta Downs and naturally enough the boys desperately wanted to see her, but money was tight and it looked hopeless. After all it’s a damn long way from Adelaide to Cape York.
However they applied to the Make a Wish Foundation and their wish was granted. I tell you these foundations deserve to sit on the right hand side of Christ and deserve all our help, and especially government help.
The family spent a few days on Augusta Downs and those tough cattlemen took them horse riding chasing pigs, and all the things you do on a working cattle station and the boys had an absolute ball. Then the pair expressed a wish to go fishing at Karumba.
Paul Donald was contacted and asked for a quote to take the family fishing. Paul was horrified and said “Don’t talk money to me. I would be honoured to take the family as my guests”. Paul and Kerry slipped out the day before the family arrived and set some crab pots, and on the day the boys caught some whopper blue salmon and were thrilled to bits when they pulled the pots and there were big crabs in them.
The boys have trouble coordinating at times, but the fish were on their best behaviour and Paul helped them out a little.

Back on shore the boys threw their arms around Paul and gave him a big hug of thanks. Now Paul is a big man, and as tough as nails, but that blew him away and he told me “Jeez John! I had to walk away to stop bursting into tears”.
But it didn’t end there I can tell you. Paul arranged for the family to visit the Barra Farm and would you believe they lowered the water level of one of the big tanks so the boys could get in and pat a huge barramundi. Now these are big strong fish but they were also on their best behaviour and just lay there.
Ash’s Holiday Units put the family up for the night as their guests and the Sunset Tavern hosted them for dinner. When the chef heard the story he went above the call of duty and did their catch of fish and crabs into a sea food masterpiece.
So you see this reputedly tough town opened its heart to two sick boys and gave them memories that will last forever. Sure I know it was a case of “there for the grace of God go I”, but you must admit Karumba did its best and never dreamed of thanks. Well Karumba I’m thanking you right now. Well done folks.
And what about those cattle folk on Augusta Downs? Tough enough to hold a bull out to pee, but with hearts as big as Cape York. You did well people!
Look I know Karumba is just a bush town and a far cry from other places I visit, but to be honest- it’s me. Sure it’s laid back, but it’s still a vibrant little place that dreams away on the eastern bank of the Norman River in the South East corner of the Gulf of C.
I feel like I’m at home there and if I forget my shoes and shirt no one gives a big rats bum. Karumba is simply how you find her——end of story.
But hey! Don’t take my word for it go and see for yourself. I’ll be there in April and June and if you see a white Land Cruiser tray back with barras painted on the doors come over and say “gidday”.
We can have a bit of a chat and tell each other how lucky we are to be at Karumba up there in the Land of Lots of Time.

FOOTNOTE.

“While Karumba is still basically a pioneering town it never ceases to amaze me at the changes each year brings. There is almost every camping experience known to man at Karumba, and now the old town has gone way upmarket with the End of the Road motel. This four star facility is total beach front and lives right beside the Sunset Tavern. A friend of mine, who just happens to own a very large tourist complex on the east coast described it as “Bloody excellent, and definitely four star”.

Now there is a BYO restaurant where the food is top shelf. I have traveled extensively, and eaten in more countries than I care to think about, and Mick’s Seafood is as good as anything I’ve ever experienced and I mean that. Mick’s is in Massey Drive, very intimate and quiet, and just the place for a romantic dinner.

So now you can fly in and stay in a four star motel and eat in a venue as good as anywhere I’ve ever found. Where will it all end?

By John Mondora

Catching the bait for the clients of Sandy Belle.

Catching the bait for the clients of Sandy Belle.