Having been born on the Murray River, arguably the birth place of commercial inland houseboating in this country, I don’t find houseboating to be a strange or unusual pastime. But it took more than a little while for my ultimate houseboat trip to come together. It finally happened, though, when Ocean Blue Sportfishing Adventure’s Anthony Pisano rang me about a trip to Aurukun, on the inside edge of Cape York, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Well, this one was simply too good to pass up. A houseboat plying tropical waters that were home to all the fish I like to catch – it was right up my alley!
The flight from Brisbane to Cairns takes just over two hours, then a smaller plane whisks you off to Weipa, before a six-seater takes you from there and drops you into the small town of Aurukun. Aurukun is about 100km south of Weipa, which is a bauxite mining town with an airport large enough to take goodsized aircraft, such as Metroliners.
This hamlet, located on the banks of the Archer River, is home to an industrious Aboriginal population that runs its own arts centre, manufacturing artifacts that go on display and sale at galleries around the globe. There are other businesses underway as well, including one where they are buying their own heavy earthmoving machinery and leasing it back to mining companies. And then there is Pikkuw, a houseboat charter business. ‘Pikkuw’ is the local Aboriginal word for crocodile and the waters around Aurukun are home to plenty of examples of the real thing.
This houseboat has been purpose-built, with the hull being manufactured south and then barged up to the community. Here, local boat builders manufactured the topside and then finished the fit-out with the powerplants, plumbing and galley. The result is a credit to them, and having been on many houseboats over the years, I have to say they have got the layout right first time.
With our rods and bags out of the light aircraft and loaded into a utility, it was a short 200m ride to the waiting dinghies and out to Pikkuw, which was on a mooring line just upstream.
My initial impression on approach is that the craft was small, but once aboard it was evident that all the space available has been put to good use. The forward end on the bottom deck features two double bunks, with full curtained windows to the view outside. Aft of this are two cabins with a pair of single beds in each, and then there’s the dining room/galley, which features a pair of solid timber tables and a functional food preparation area with large fridge freezers.
A hot water shower is inside, while outside a composting head has its door opening onto the rear deck. A plumbed sink is at the aft end of the deck and a ladder leads to the viewing deck. Here a large BBQ is perfect for open air cooking, while two large tables with bench seats under a full canopy allow guests to enjoy the breeze during the day or night. The wheel house is also on the top deck and has a pair of bunks for the crew of two.
A pair of economical 50hp Yamaha fourstrokes push the boat, and did so quietly down toward the mouth of the Archer River, where we would anchor up for a couple of days.
The Archer makes up a large, shallow tidal system that stretches well inland, with its upper reaches being un-navigable. The coastline north and south of the Archer is pockmarked by other estuary systems, some of which are rarely fished due to their remoteness. The shallow coastal waters are fringed with reefs jutting out from bauxite-coated headlands, while the shallow sand flats – which have made the Weipa area famous in sport fishing circles – abound both to the north and south.
Despite our late arrival, we still had enough time to wet a lure before dusk. All aboard the tenders, we made our way to a shallow part of the estuary system that accessed the coastline just south of the Archer River.
A late afternoon chop coming in from a windswept Gulf poured surf over the shallow bar entrance to the tributary. While the wind blew 20 knots outside, we sat in relative calm, with the barramundi and queenfish lined up behind the sandbar feeding on the live bait coming in with the tide. As the sun buried itself in the horizon, it was time to wet our whistles ourselves, crossing the expansive shallows as we made our way back to our accommodation for the week.
Our host was Tim O’Reilly, who has had extensive experience in Aboriginal tourism over the years – his local knowledge is as good as it gets, unless you’re an indigenous local yourself. With a background in environmental science, he is perfectly placed to talk about the surroundings in great detail – and he’s no slouch when it comes to fishing, either.
I discovered this latter point throughout the course of the week. When I needed to hook a particular species to complete my photos, it was simply a matter of placing my order with Tim, hopping in the tender and getting the job done.
The scenery to and from these areas was truly amazing, and – while tidal – we were able to traverse the shallows at low tide via various gutters. It was while skimming some of these gutters that my attention became fixed on the ghostly shapes of some of the biggest milkfish I have ever seen, scurrying along over the flats in knee-deep water along with other fish; most likely members of the trevally and dart families.
The upper reaches of various branches of the Archer are sandy-bottomed and clear, providing for some great casting opportunities at submerged snags that hide all manner of fish, including mangrove jacks, cod (of which there were thousands), barramundi and queenfish.
With only the local boat traffic, we pretty-well had this system to ourselves. The only exceptions were the odd small river barge carrying supplies to outstations upstream. We came across another carrying a Landcruiser troop carrier that belonged to the Quarantine Department, but that was about it.
A COD A CAST
We put in some serious fishing time while on the Archer, with some of it being done beyond the river’s mouth and north along the coast towards Weipa. Welcome breaks for lunch were taken in the shade of the jungle-lined shore, while once we parked in a local’s outstation, utilising a wood BBQ to cook some freshly caught coral trout. Right at the front of this area we hunted some sizable golden trevally, which were greatly outnumbered by cod – sometimes it was a case of a cod a cast!
The shallow flats close to shore were a cruising field for more milkfish, but they kept well clear of our lures. This species has been the mainstay for a burgeoning saltwater fly fishery in the Weipa area for many years, and the careful management of the fishery by the guides up here is evident in the fact they still abound, even though they were cautious of our approaching hard-bodied lures. A team of anglers dedicated to fly would soon have these fish and their finicky ways sorted out, and to tap into the hard-to-catch milkfish resource would be heaven on a wand!
One of the fishiest systems we investigated was south of the Archer mouth, at a place called Love Creek. The shallow, sandy flats one side, in sharp contrast to the deeper snag-studded waters opposite, held all manner of fish. Water discoloured by an incoming tide sheltered a wide array of species, including barramundi and threadfin salmon, which readily took a range of lures.
With such a top spot behind us, I was hoping to get back there before the end of the week, but other yet-to-be-explored destinations got in the way. With even more remote systems further south, there is heaps to be done in this part of the continent, whether you fish with lure, bait or fly.
We later found ourselves high up in a deep part of the Archer River, surrounded by flats studded with termite mounds and eucalypts. On one evening the locals treated us to a traditional feast, cooking barramundi and mud crabs in the sand, in a similar style to a Maori ‘hangi’.
Comfortable bunks were hard to leave early each morning, but the piscatorial games being played off the back of the houseboat by the early risers was incentive enough for the rest to ditch their plans of a lie-in. With the banks often within casting distance of the aft corners of the mother ship, and plenty of rubble on the bottom, it was a case of ‘how many species before breakfast’. Among barra off the houseboat, queenfish and fingermark bream joined the lineup, along with trevally and the biggest tarpon I have ever seen caught in Australia – and all on lures.
It would be fun on its own chasing fish this big on fly in the calm upper reaches. And then there were other fish we didn’t get to see, devoured by the whaler sharks cruising in this almost freshwater part of the river.
This is a holiday with more than one slant. While catering for a relaxing week with good air-conditioned accommodation, there is a variety of fishing available to all comers, of a quality you only find in such remote locales. There are also eco tours conducted by the local Aborigines that provide an insight into their culture and homelands, while their arts and crafts are available from their gallery. Yep, this was another top houseboat fix!