Life at The Tip
Australia's Cape York is a rugged wilderness of unforgiving beauty, where men are men and fish are scared. Ian Young wets a line
IT IS THE MOST ludicrous bait I have ever committed to a fishing line - half a metre of dripping viscera comprising the front half of a queenfish skeleton and the tail of a mackerel. The dangling mess is attached to a game fishing rod and dropped straight off the edge of the jetty, in the manner of children jiggling for tiddlers.
The bite is tiny and I winch the bait to the surface expecting to see a crab hanging off the end. But out of the shadows emerges a garoupa the size of a refrigerator. It narrowly misses the bait with an ungainly swipe at the surface then turns on its tail. Our jaws are on the jetty. How much would such a beast weigh? A couple of hundred kilograms perhaps. Lowering the bait again, I am rewarded with a brief but vigorous tug of war which bears an air of inevitability. The rod springs straight and I wind in the twisted hook.
There are few places where the order of nature is so graphically presented as Cape York, in Australia's wild far north. Think you occupy the top of the food chain? Fall out of the boat and think again.
It is one of the great frustrations of the Cape that beaches so inviting remain out of bounds to those wishing to retain their limbs. Come on in, nature seems to be saying as you sit and swelter. But in the water lurk sharks in plague proportions, and crocodiles too. So you sit. And swelter.
For these reasons it is unlikely that Cape York will ever attract development such as that which blights Queensland's south coast. It remains the provenance of manly men doing manly things - hunters and fishermen and off-road enthusiasts making the pilgrimage to The Tip, mainland Australia's most northerly point.
Fans of television's Survivor II will be familiar with the inland countryside - red dust and sparse bush. A fringe of mangroves and occasional rainforest lines the region's two major river systems, the Jacky Jacky on the east coast and the mighty Jardine to the west.
The sense of isolation is real - from November to May, Cape York is cut off by wet season floodwaters, and can be reached only by plane or the weekly barge from Cairns.
During World War II, however, the area was teeming with American airmen and engineers. They constructed what was Australia's longest airfield at nearby Bamaga, from which B-29 bombers mounted raids against the Japanese in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The Americans didn't stay, but much of their machinery did. Rusting ordnance litters the bush. Local guide and historian Gary Wright shows us the wreckage of a DC-2 which crashed after its load of beef defrosted, loosening its tethers. When the plane banked, the meat slid and sent the plane careening into a huge gum tree. The wing still lies about 100 metres from the fuselage and carries a perfectly circular impression of the tree's trunk. The crew ended up indistinguishable from the cargo and the whole mess was buried in a giant grave.
The concrete jetty at Seisia, just south of the Cape, is the focus for local coastal communities. Most are made up not of indigenous mainland Aborigines but descendants of islanders evacuated from Torres Strait during the war. Squatting locals line the jetty, fishing with thick handlines baited with sardines speared or netted from a school which twitches nervously in the shadows. We watch as three huge sea turtles, still flapping, are unloaded from a dinghy on to the back of a pick-up truck. A protected species, the turtles are nonetheless fair game to local communities, who also remain partial to other delicacies such as dugong, or sea cow.
A lanky teenager wearing a school uniform and sullen expression is watching the action. He is armed with a glove gun - a metal tube with the finger of a rubber glove taped over the end, forming a high-powered slingshot. He is shooting pebbles at fish, crabs, seagulls, and pretty much anything else that comes within range. 'Much to do around here?' I ask. 'You can go fishin' '. We've just been, I reply. 'Well, there's huntin' pigs . . . or spearin' crayfish . . . 'n' stuff . . .' He appears to be running out of suggestions.
All these activities seem to involve killing of some sort, I point out. At this he brightens. 'Yeah - that's why it's great up here.' He lets loose another volley of gravel at a passing garfish.
The nearest cinema is in Cairns, 800km away. We are staying in the campground and have no television. The crackling radio plays, as they say, both types of music - country and western. Yesterday, the petrol station ran out of petrol. No one seemed too worried. A couple of years up here and I'd probably be carrying a glove gun too.
Wright has somehow lasted more than 20 years on the Cape. Astonishingly, he remains urbane and cultured, in full control of his faculties and possessed of infinite patience (this latter quality he displays when I hook him in the jaw with a lure which hangs from him like a piece of ill-chosen jewellery - he offers not a peep of complaint). His devoted clients have ranged from Kerry Packer's lawyer to members of the Idaho Slingshot Club, who came 12,000km to shoot feral cats out of trees with ball-bearings.
We fish with Wright for six days, catching enough to sink the boat, had the fish been killed (all bar a couple are released). We come across churning schools of baitfish being torn apart by predatory fish and sharks which roll through the schools with their mouths open and their backs out of the water.
Fishing so easy puts funny ideas in your head. I become convinced I can catch a tuna on fly-fishing gear. In the right hands, a fly rod is a thing of beauty as it whips out the line. A combination of grace and power. I do not have the right hands. My casting efforts are violent but ineffective.
My moment comes when someone hooks a tuna from the bow of Wright's boat. More in hope than expectation, I put out a magnificent cast that sends the fly out all of four metres. The school has apparently disappeared. Yet to my eternal amazement, a tuna rises out of nowhere and takes the fly.
The reel lets out a high-pitched squeal and so do I. Tuna have been clocked at nearly 50km/h and my fish seems keen to test that record, bending the rod into an impressive arc. The 30 metre-long fly line vanishes in an instant, then backing line begins melting from the spool. Eventually, Wright stops guffawing long enough to start the boat's engine and chase the fish. The rest of the fight is an anticlimax as the tuna comes placidly to the net.
Sometimes we cruise the gin-clear shallows looking for manta rays - not to catch, but because they are often followed by other fish. We have no luck with the fishing but are content just watching the giant rays, some the size of garage doors, as they flap along just below the surface, feeding on swarms of shrimp.
Crocodiles sun themselves on the sandbars, but none to match the 5.5-metre dinosaur which Wright found shot in the Jardine several years ago. There are a couple in the three-metre range - including one which swims past the campgrounds by the jetty as we drink our coffee one morning. Wright always carries a Magnum .357 while fishing, just in case. He has only had to use this hand cannon once in anger, on a crocodile which tried to take his head off as he leaned over the gunwale to land a fish. His clients that day were more than happy for Wright to dispatch the reptile - less so when he dragged the twitching corpse aboard. Crocodiles are a protected species, and such incidents, complete with evidence, must be reported to the authorities.
And so the days pass. Evenings are spent - you guessed it - fishing from the jetty. A bait of offal is hurled out into the darkness. It is invariably taken by a shark, and the chosen angler works up a sweat while the rest of us offer advice and drink beer. Several sharks consent to being drawn up next to the jetty - including one of 3.5 metres - before being cut free. We stagger to bed with stretched arms.
On the morning before our flight back to Cairns, we go down to the jetty one last time and encounter the big garoupa mentioned earlier. Apparently there is a whole family of such beasts lurking around the pylons - providing yet another reason not to go swimming.