It’s the late 1980’s, and I live with my partner in the Manganese mining town of Alyangula, Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Northern Australia. He’s mad about fishing and it consumes our weekends. I hate fishing, but I am dutiful and try to like it. I don’t really understand the attraction although I like eating fish.
The reason I hate fishing is my love/hate relationship with the great outdoors. I love nature, space and the wilderness. I love the flora and fauna, not snakes so much or crocodiles, but they have their place. I do not like the tropical sun or the heat, despite having lived between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn for the best part of my life. My skin burns easily and mossies, sand flies and March flies seem to prefer the taste of my blood to any other.
My partner says, ‘they hone in on carbon dioxide.’ He laughs, ‘hot air, get it?’
‘Not funny,’ I say slathering thick smears of sun block, mixed with insect repellent, across every inch of my body.
It’s late afternoon by the time we reach the mangrove-fringed river mouth on the mainland, 60 kilometres from Alyangula across the Gulf seas. It’s taken us a few hours, battling strong winds that whip around the southern edge of the Island. The boat thrusts its bow to the sky as it climbs ocean hillocks, and thumps down the other side in spine jolting terror.
I am afraid of the sea, and have been ever since as a child, I read Noddy and Big Ears go to the Sea Side. Noddy is bitten on the toe by a crab. Obviously as an adult I am not afraid of crabs, but the sea is not my element. In Northern Australia, not only sharks and sea snakes inhabit its warm currents, but salt water crocodiles ply their way about the oceans.
Eventually we reach the sheltered mainland just on high tide, perfect for negotiating the narrow channel carved through the mud flats by an unnamed Arnhem Land river.
As soon as the danger of bottoming-out is passed, my partner hands me a fishing rod with a brightly attached lure and says, ‘see if you can catch a barra for dinner, while I take the boat in. I’ll tie up for the night over there,’ he says pointing at the mangroves.
I look at him askance. He’s joking isn’t he? ‘I don’t know how,’ I say.
‘It’s easy, look.’ He casts, and the lure jiggles in our wake. He hands me the rod, and turns back to steer in the boat.
I have hardly got a proper grip on the rod handle when the line whizzes through the reel, and I jump with surprise, almost loosing the rod overboard.
I try to hand the rod back to him but he says, ‘you do it. Just wind it in steadily, don’t jerk it, you don’t want the line to snap.’ He guides the boat to the mangroves and leans over, about to hook the painter around a study branch.
I am terrified of the line snapping, and more goes out than is reeled in, but eventually I see the fish surface. It shoots from the water, twisting to free itself and plunges back to the depth. I hop about with excitement. The boat rocks so I stop.
‘I can see it. Help me, what do I do now?’
‘Oh shit!’ He says dropping the painter back in the boat. ‘Here take the wheel.’ The boat drifts back out towards the channel as he takes the rod, his gaze fixed on the water twenty metres away.
‘What is it? I stare at the olive green ripples of the eddying water. Then I see it too, the shadowy length beneath the surface. It glides towards us with scarcely a flick of muscle, water rippling along its scaly back.
He has the rod and pulls it back vertically as he reels in the line fast and steady. I take the wheel as he shouts instructions about where to point the bow, and how much throttle to give. I do my best, but driving a boat is another first for me.
The boat seems to behave, and I risk a glance behind. There’s a silvery flash of fish beneath the surface. It’s almost at the boat and I swear it is swimming towards us to get away from the croc. But too late; we are all too late, and with a flick and swish the croc is gone, down to the depths with our dinner.
As my partner reels in the line, a sad and mangled Barramundi head rises from the river, dribbling pinkish water over the side of the boat.
‘Bad luck, but never mind, you can try again.’ He takes the fish head off the lure and chucks it into the river, then he hands me the rod, and takes the wheel to return to the mangrove mooring. ‘At least you kept the lure.’
I can’t believe a crocodile stole the very first fish I have ever caught with a rod. I once caught fish with a hand grenade, but that’s a story I am not proud of, and it was a long time ago. I blew a petrified tree from the waters of Lake Kyle. The only other time I had ever tried fishing was as a child at Kariba Dam.
We have an old cine movie of my Dad’s employee, Samson, taking us fishing off a pontoon in the lake. It must have been in the 1960s. The movie is grainy now, but you can see him handing each of us children a rod before we step onto the pontoon.
The largest rod is snapped-up by my middle brother, who I can see already has visions of the great Hemmingway-Marlin battle – even if we are on the largest inland manmade lake in the world at that time, rather than the sea.
There is no sound, but I can see Samson is disapproving of the younger boy taking the largest rod, and shakes his head. He looks at my eldest brother, who remains calm in his floppy fishing hat with its school band haphazardly attached. He is not perturbed by this breach of seniority. Sampson hands him the next biggest rod.
My eldest sister is next. She is head of the siblings and looks suitably bored as one approaching teenage years should. Fishing is not something to thrill a young woman, and I am sure she would rather be reading a Nancy Drew mystery. She takes the dainty rod Samson hands her, and steps to the rear of the pontoon, her back to the boys.
Finally, it is my turn. I am too little to step onto the pontoon myself, and stumble with its movement. Samson rights me, and hands me a rod, which I clutch proudly. I take it over to my brothers and sit down, dangling my line over the edge of the pontoon.
When recently, my partner and I watched that movie, he pointed out that the rod handed to me was just a long stick with a bit of line tied to the end. There was no hook on that line. No wonder I never caught a fish.
Now in the Arnhem Land river, my partner turns the boat around and heads back to the mangroves. I try casting the lure as he did. The reel whines and the lure plops into the water behind the boat. I feel very proud of myself and glance around, but he is busy nosing the boat towards the mangroves.
There is a tug and strike, I have another fish. The reel screams as the fish tries to escape. I can’t believe it and shout my triumph.
He glances back at me. ‘Bring it in before that bastard croc gets it.’
I reel frantically, praying it won’t snap the line. I really want this fish.
‘Careful, let the fish run a bit. Don’t make the line too tight.’ He’s leaning over, tying the painter to the branch, shouting instructions which I try to follow. Then I have the fish at the boat. I scan the water, praying no more hungry crocodiles arrive.
He finishes securing the boat and stands behind me. ‘Easy,’ he says as the boat rocks on the lapping waves. ‘Beginners luck, hooking two like that.’
‘Here you take it. I’m frightened I’ll lose it.’
‘No bring it in. It’s your fish.’ He lifts the net as I reel it in, and scoops the barramundi into the boat. ‘Wait til you taste fresh barra, straight from the sea into a frying pan with a bit of butter,’ he says. ‘There is nothing in the world quite like it.’
And he’s right.