Burketown Fishing Trip
Route taken to Burketown
Geographic and Historical Context of Burketown
Burketown (population approx 200) is located 2,115 kilometres (1,314 miles) to the north west of Brisbane, with the nearest larger town being Normanton, 227 kilometres (141 miles) to the east, and the nearest city being Mount Isa, 425 kilometres (264 miles) to the south. The town is roughly 30 kilometres (19 miles) inland from the Gulf of Carpentaria.
The town is situated on the Albert River named after the Prince Consort in 1841 by Capt John Lort Stokes when charting the North West coast of the continent following up on the initial work of Mathew Flinders some thirty years earlier. The town was established in 1856 by pastoralist Robert Towns to act as a port for the growing cattle industry and was named after the explorer Robert O'Hara Burke who had died several years earlier after having completed the first trans continental crossing of the continent. Towns (a Sydney based pastoralist and financier) also established the port in Townsville.
The town's early development was held back by the occasional cyclones and the outbreak of typhoid probably brought back by sailors and merchants who regularly visited the nearby Indonesian port of Batavia (Jakarta).
One of the major attractions of Burketown is the opportunity to witness the local meteorological phenomena called 'The Morning Glory' - long tubular clouds, sometimes up to 1000kms in length, hovering above the Gulf coastline. This occurs mostly in the Spring between the months of August and November.....here's hoping!
During our last trip home from Darwin in July 2015, we decided to stop over in the town of Burketown for some R&R and it had left a favourable impression on us. Burketown, like other outback towns likes to brag and give itself a memorable sub-title and in this case "Australia's Barramundi Fishing Capital". As our fishing opportunities last year at Lorella Springs had been spoilt by the drought we felt it would be good to give the town's reputation a proper test.
Planning for the trip began almost as soon as we got home. We soon managed to secure, in principle, support for such a trip from two keen albeit aged adventurers (Neil Macdonald and Les Furber) who both had form in adventure travelling and fishing. The month of September appeared to suit all and so the trip slowly took shape with refinement of the dates, vehicles and boats to be used and the purchase of a lot of ancillary gear to ensure the success of the trip both on and off the water.
Age-induced memory impairment has made the task of packing and checking of gear (which should by now be second nature to us), to have become a more vexatious task and one which involved, on this occasion, frequent unnecessary revisits to the same battery, spare tyre, tackle or tool box et al. However, we at last, reached a consensus that we were ready to go with both vehicle and campervan stuffed with enough gear to undertake several trans-continental crossings.
As coordinators we decided we should take charge of the evening meals and leave breakfasts and lunches to be sorted out by the individual parties. We, of course, intended to dine regularly on fresh fish and crabs but just in case the gods were against us we set about pre-preparing a number of meals and then vacuum packed and freezing them. These meals could then be readily accommodated in our 80 lt bush 240v/12v freezer during the trip. In all we managed to prepare 9 evening meals for 4 persons in this way.
The Journey Out
We had first to visit our vacant home in Yeppoon to check that nothing had gone astray during our recent sojourn in Brisbane and thankfully found everything pretty much as we had left it. The other two had decided to leave Brisbane and head south west to Goondiwindi to visit relatives and then press further west to Quilpie and Windorah before turning north for Longreach where they were to meet us on the 6 September at a pre-booked Caravan Park.
As it turned Neil and Les were lucky to have made it because heavy unseasonal rains out west had resulted in many main arterial roads being closed because of flooding or just closed to prevent unnecessary damage to their gravel surface. Their trip coincided with the annual Birdsville Races which were flooded out and the races postponed to a day or two later. Many visitors were unable to make it and many more were stranded in the town for an extended stay.
For our part we had an uneventful drive out to Barcaldine encountering very little traffic. However we did encounter a a convoy of Mini Mokes heading east amid much flapping of canvas awnings. The downs country driving west from Alpha was just a sea of green Mitchell Grass and native herbage but few cattle or sheep to be seen to take advantage of the plentiful feed. Unfortunately most graziers had destocked years before on account of the long-lasting drought. These lush conditions prevailed all the way to Cloncurry. I should have some photographs comparing the country today to what it looked like when we last travelled this way in 2014.
Our mates Neil and Les made our rendezvous in Longreach almost the same time as we arrived. After congratulating ourselves on our timely arrival we quickly set up camp and attended to some serious house keeping issues involving eskies and a warm carton of beer brought from Brisbane.
Setting up camp in Longreach
It was then off exploring the town and to identify a place for dinner which we found at the former Longreach club's premises - now the Birdcage Hotel which served a mighty fine steak and a bottle of red.
A couple of chaps in Galah St pose outside a bra laden fence to support Breast Cancer research
Next day, after a leisurely breakfast, we drove north west up to McKinlay stopping in Winton for an alfresco lunch in the park.
During the day we were past by an almost continuous cavalcade of dirty 4x4 vehicles heading south - presumably all survivors of the recent Birdsville Races. During this stretch I had to pass two quite long cattle road trains each sitting just below 100kph - quite nerve -wracking after such a long time from encountering such behemoths on the road; viz:
We did stop at Kynuna's Blue Heeler pub but found the ablutions filthy and the veranda under attack from a swooping magpie and so we travelled on to Mckinlay - home to the pub stage set for the Crocodile Dundee movies. It was not all that bad but not all that authentic of Mick Dundee's exploits.
Holding up the Pub at McKinlay
Next morning found us in a quandary with Les having undertaken to meet an old friend in Cloncurry but one who subsequently proved most difficult to contact on account of his job taking him outside the traditional Mobile/WiFi range. While Les eventually made contact with his friend and arranged for overnight accommodation, we decided to press on north west to ensure we met our pre-booked arrival date in Burketown of Friday 9 September. Telstra's Bigpond service had already declared my email service to be corrupted and had suspended my service - what a blow - this is the last thing you need when travelling around the country.
To date we have been very lucky with fuel prices with it remaining under $1.30/litre all the way - the cheapest being $1.10 at Emerald.
Welcome to "the Curry" - now drought broken
Fat cattle at dam en route to Gregory Downs
We decide to leave Les and Neil in Cloncurry so as to be able them to meet up with Les's friend and re-acquaint themselves with family there and instead to press on and drive to Gregory Downs Roadhouse some 350 kms further on. We arrived about 1600 hours and decided to stay at the well-shaded camping area behind the pub where for $20 you got access to reasonably clean ablutes but no power.
After setting up camp we sauntered into the pub for 'happy hour' and met a very interesting Aboriginal man "Mookie" brought up in Doomadgee but who had worked in Katherine and Mt Isa and whose father was related to old Willie Shadforth from Seven Emu Station. He gave us a few tips about catching Barra on the Albert river as well as how to catch Cherubim downstream from the causeway on the nearby Nicholson River. He was quite cheeky about the official closed season for Barramundi fishing commencing in October - "nothing wrong with pink-eyed salmon during closed season" he said with a wink.
Mookie also gave us some advice about J Yanni a local identity up in Burketown who we had previously been advised to seek out for local fishing tips. A very interesting tribal elder who had been one of the 'stolen generation' back in the 1960s.
Gregory Downs Hotel and overnight camp
Mookie (beard plaited by his grandchildren) and one of his sons and grandson
Mookie's extended family had come down from their camp to enable his grandchildren to swim in the Gregory River's waterhole - they also took advantage of the ice-cream and sweets available for sale at the pub.
Next morning we tackled the final 140kms to the Gulf and Burketown. However, before tackling the road we popped down to the well known swimming hole on the Gregory River - just a couple of hundred metres from the hotel. Now there are many clear signs advising people for health and environmental reasons to avoid camping along the river banks but instead we saw 100 plus Grey Nomads in massive rigs camped cheek by jowl along the river bank making it difficult to day trippers to access the famous swimming hole. One would have thought the local council should just 'pine log' the access to to vehicles.
Grey Nomads camped on riverbank contrary to Council signs
Our early morning start was rewarded with sightings of a wide variety of native animals and birds including a flock of Brolgas, imperious Bustards, emus,, wallabies by the hundred plus quite a number of Wedge-tailed Eagles feeding off the road kill. This was new for this trip as the recent rains had obviated the need for wildlife to forage close to the deadly roads. Now into the Gulf Region the place was dry as a bone with quite heavy road kill by the roadside for all carnivores to devour.
Thirty kilometres out of Burketown our fuel gauge came on and so we had to pull over and pour one of our spare jerry cans of diesel down its thirsty throat. Towing the van with the dinghy up on the roof has reduced our fuel usage to just over 7kms per litre.
Another traveller's chore and a welcome sign
We then spent close to 3 hours setting up a camp with all possible conveniences in readiness for the other two's arrival which we expected the next day. To our surprise they rolled in just after 1600 hours very chirpy. We have been charged $210 for the weeks powered site which is not bad considering where we are. Putting the dinghy trailer together in the full afternoon sun proved particularly taxing.
Camp HQ for the next week (NB Neil's minimalist seating arrangements) .
After a quick tour of the pub to watch an ARL elimination final we then organised our first barbecue on Amy's Baby Webber - it worked a treat and the grass fed rib fillet steak was excellent. The following morning we were off for a tour of the town, the launching facilities on the river some 6 kilometres away and then drove another 15 kilometres to the Nicholson river in search of the elusive Cherabin (fresh water prawn) supposedly much favoured by our quarry - the Barramundi.
Down on the Nicholson River Causeway
The following day (Sunday with everything in town closed) we decided it was time to wet a line and try out the single Cherabin we had managed to snare overnight. Launching ramp while all tidal is a bit narrow and took a bit of manoeuvring. But once on the water we were quickly tied up to some mangroves to set up our crab pots which we quickly dispatched in some likely places. However, the manager at the caravan park had told me earlier that no crabs had been seen in the river since the onset of the drought some three years ago. Still - we had to give it go. Les and his able mate Neil were soon hauling in fish - alas they only turned to be Catfish. Both boats worked well with their 9.8 hp motors - we managed to get ours up and running in excess of 20knotts.
Launching Ramp's pontoon and Fishing on the Albert River
That night we celebrated Les' 79th birthday with a meal of local Barra in the pub. While it was nice the serving portions were a little mean given that we were charged over $30 each. I also organised a small Black Forest 'birthday' cake. Very riotous night finished with a glasses of port before retiring.
Les' Birthday Party
J Yanni (well known local identity at Burketown Pub
An early morning inspection of the pots down on the Nicholson River were rewarded with another couple of Cherabin for use as bait while fishing. These Cherabin tho not many in number were huge - probably 8-10 inches in body length.
Another day on the Albert River in very blustery conditions proved a little frustrating. A check of our crab pots revealed nothing and then I decided we should try and fish a deep hole opposite some creek mouths some 5 kms downstream from the launch place. The coordinates for this spot had been identified in Matt Flynn's North Australian Fish Finder 2007 and so I had marked them in my GPS. Unfortunately the other two in the bigger of our two dinghies didn't like the windy chop and resultant spray and unilaterally decided to turn around on their way there. We found the spot and despite a valiant hour of trolling and utilising some prawn bait failed to raise anything.. .....nor catch any mud crabs - are the consequences of no wet season rains for 3-4 years.
The journey back up stream to the landing proved a little easier as we had the wind to our backs pretty much the whole time but it was tiring and hard on a sore back - the dinghy really needs a couple of collapsible seats liked it used to have. Really to fish the Albert effectively one needs a good 4.5m runabout with a 40 hp outboard - like the boat we towed around Australia and now owned by Ben.
Never one to give up, we decided we should try launching our dinghy in the nearby Nicholson River and troll its crystal clear waters. Since our first trip to this river, a retired couple from Cairns had decided to make a camp there. He had a boat and had already caught one barra and lost another - surely a good sign. Unfortunately, the other two did not share our enthusiasm for such an excursion and instead went back to the Albert River to retrieve their crab pots (alas, without any success). The navigable upstream section of the Nicholson River proved to be slightly longer than 4kms and was very reminiscent of many top end billabongs like the 4 Mile Hole as it was lined with shady paperbarks and Pandanus Palms - very beautiful but for us sadly again no fish were caught. While dawdling on the river, we were surprised by the sight of Neil and Les in a the boat belonging to the Cairns camper - they had been invited out for a look.
We decided it might be more profitable to attack this river later in the evening and so left the dinghy in the river and returned to camp. Later, I managed to tempt the other other two to accompany me for a final fishing assault on the river while Maria tried her hand at casting into the saltwater side of the river from the causeway. While she actually caught a barra and subsequently lost it, we three caught nothing.
Neil and Les had decided the day before to leave a day early so as to be able to check out another friend/relative in Townsville and so we decided, given the poor fishing, to also pack up and take off for our next designated stop down at Lawn Hill (Boodjamulla) National Park - some 200kms south west of Burketown. While it took them no time to pack up their two small sleeping tents and cover their boat, for us the task was much more onerous involving the disassembly of the boat trailer, throwing the boat on top of the car and then packing up the camp annexe (including the WAECO freezer) and finally the camper itself - oh yes and do the weeks washing as well - it took until after midday to complete.
One saving reward, was my discovery while driving out to find a lost broken trailer part, of the long sought after Morning Glory cloud hovering above the sky just west of the town. I quickly drove back to camp and alerted the others to come and have a look at this iconic Burketown event.
I did enquire about the cost of flying over to the fishing resort on Sweers Island (www.sweers.com.au) and while the per night tariff of $365 (all inclusive) was OK the charter flight for the four of us would have been $1800 making it a little too expensive for us mug fisherpersons. It is also possible to camp on a 5 km long freshwater hole on the Nicholson River at Kingfisher Camp (www.kingfisherresort.com.au) 160km south west of Burketown.
Our trip to the Gulf did identify a couple of new bush experiences; viz:
Neil's Breakfast Supreme recipe of a slice of toast lathered with Vegemite and topped with a fried egg sunny-side up; and
our 2000 watt Turbo Oven's incompatibility with our campervan's 240volt wiring.
The other two boys left at about 0900 while we toiled on with our own extensive re-packing. I then went around to the local professional barra fisherman 's house where I purchased just over 4kg of freshly frozen barramundi fillets. We had seen them unloading the frozen slabs the day before.
Pro Fisherman Marto's tender which services his big trawler moored down at the mouth of the Albert River and some of the Barra fillets we purchased
Then it was back to the servo to fill the vehicle plus two jerry cans with diesel ($1.40/lt) and off we went.
The initial 70 kms of the road out to Lawn Hill is maintained by Century Mine and is great. However, the final 30 kms are very badly corrugated and it took us nearly an hour to crawl along this section.
Access road to Lawn Hill
But at last we found ourselves a camp in the park and set up a quick camp just in time for 5 O'clock drinks before dining on Spaghetti Bolognaise. The National Park is equipped with excellent ablution facilities - flushing toilets and cold/warm showers. It appeared to be only a quarter full with a lot of the visitors choosing to stay at the privately-run Adels Grove Camping Reserve some 10 kms away from the Gorge. They may well have been travelling with generators.
Next day we set off on a number of the well-signed walks around the gorges of the Lawn Hill Creek a tributary of the Gregory River. These walks take you to either falls or spectacular lookouts. While Maria limited her exertions to the 3.5 km track to Indarri Falls lookout, I detoured to scramble up the quite steep track to Duwadarri Lookout and was rewarded with magnificent views of the Middle Gorge, I then continued on to the Upper Gorge Lookout a round trek of about 8kms. All tracks are well maintained but offer little shade and therefore become quite exhausting in the middle of the day. Plenty of lizards and rainbow parrots - but it is the views of the red sandstone escarpments and gorges which are the real reward for one's effort.
View of Middle Gorge from Duwadarri Lookout
Indarri Falls (boundary of Middle and Upper Gorges) taken from Indarri Lookout
Upper Gorge from Lookout
Canoeists in Upper Gorge
Riverside Walk back to camp through these red sandstone cliffs
In the afternoon we arranged to hire a canoe ($57) and took to the gorges on the water. The canoes are very sturdy and with a broad flat bottom almost impossible to capsize. The breeze on the water offered welcome relief from the heat and after about 45 minutes we had reached our destination at the fine swimming hole in and around the Indarri falls. These falls are shaded by Livistona Palms, paperbarks. You can swim behind the falls and even tho only a couple of metres in height the water coming down is quite hard on the head. We played around here for about an hour before heading back.
Keeping up energy levels
Maria 'playing' in the Indarri waterfall
Here we made the error of not using the canoe to help access another couple of walks across the far side of the river. A bridge previously used for this purpose was washed away in the last floods and the Parks and wildlife people have been a little tardy in replacing it.
Our WAECO freezer was showing signs of stress on our second day out without the car's battery having been recharged or access to 240 volts and the temperature had slowly crept up to 0 degrees instead of the usual range of between -5 to -10 C. This posed a threat to our load of frozen barra fillets so we had to move quick the next day and decided to drive south east down to Gregory Downs and Cloncurry. To avoid the expensive fuel stops at both Gregory Downs and Burke & Wills Roadhouses, I utilised one of my jerry cans I had filled up in Burketown at a more moderate cost of $1.40/litre. It proved a long hot drive down eventually to Kynuna Roadhouse which offers far superior amenities than does the iconic but down-at-heel Blue Heeler Hotel. We actually had quite a reasonable meal served up to us there which could be accompanied by a glass of passable Sauvignon Blanc wine. The couple who own the roadhouse are remarkable old folk both in their late 70s who shuffle about with quiet authority - "we close everything at 9 o'clock".
Next morning we got a 0715 hour get away and drove down to Winton for some brunch and fuel ($1.26/lt) then it was on to Longreach more fuel ($1.19). We had intended to stop at the soon to be boom town of Alpha but it did not appeal and then we aimed for Rubyvale but noticed our fuel would not permit such a 40 km deter and so we had no choice but to run to Emerald with a fuel warning light coming on 10kms out of town. We had made it but the cost of driving over the Drummond Range and taxed our fuel reserves. We immediately fuelled up ($1.10/lt) and headed into a caravan park next to the golf club where we later wined and dined - nothing to get excited about here. We had inadvertently travelled approximately 780kms that day and driven for over 10 hours - buggered.
We awake next morning to rain and so we had to pack up the van wet - ugh!....still, only 350kms to Yeppoon. We drove through the rain practically non-stop to Yeppoon and after arriving about midday copped another downpour as we were un packing the camper - everything very sodden and must therefore be aired to prevent any mould developing. We later learned that the rain had been widespread across the west of Queensland right up to Mt Isa.
The next night Neil and Les arrived in Yeppoon after their own adventures up north at Kurramine Beach near Innisfail, Townsville and Mackay....Neil had promised to do a little bit of electrical work for me prior to returning home to Brisbane. I later took them out to the Sailing Club for a couple of drinks prior to our barbecued lamb dinner.
Last drinks at Lamberton Street Yeppoon!
We will follow them south to Brisbane once we have completed a number of maintenance issues here in Yeppoon eg fertilizing the fruit trees, replacing the irrigation pump and electrical controller, re-oil the deck and place the campervan back on blocks get dinghy trailer welded up and sort out our real estate agent.
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