Few people – non-indigenous ones at least – know the Torres Strait better than Bob Wallenburg. For over a decade, he has been criss-crossing its waters in a variety of boats, and in an average year he spends well over 200 days afloat.
His latest craft is a 27-ton, 60-foot Conquest – a retired cray boat he picked up in Fremantle last year and drove around the top of Australia to Thursday Island. Renamed the MV San Miguel (the jury is still out on whether or not this is a sly reference to the patron saint of beer, a not-unreasonable consecration in this torrid clime), it is equipped with a 1000hp V12 MAN diesel engine and can do 23 knots, with a cruising speed of 16-18 knots. It has an 800- to 1000-mile range and, when fully provisioned, can stay at sea for up to a month.
Bob puts in 100 days a year or so for the government, doing mapping and fishery surveys and immigration patrols, but fishing is his first love and his Northern Blue Charters operation is acclaimed by many as far and away the best in the Torres Strait. In fact, it’s pretty much the only major charter operation, which is amazing given the angling riches this region boasts.
Over six days in a variety of waters to the north and east of Thursday Island, our party of six eager young men used a range of tackle to catch literally hundreds of fish ranging up to 30kg. In fact, it was actually very difficult not to catch fish, and double, triple and quadruple hook-ups were not uncommon.
On our fourth day out, we collectively boated 21 different species: Spanish mackerel, spotted mackerel, black tip and bronze whaler shark, barracuda, grass sweetlip, sweetlip, mackerel tuna, golden trevally, giant trevally, bludger trevally, red throat, red emperor, large-mouth scarlet sea perch, small-mouth scarlet sea perch, coral trout, tomato cod, gold spot cod, stripey, fingermark and cobia. Only the superstars of game fishing – tuna, marlin and sailfish – were missing, but they are also frequently on the menu, depending on the season.
Such variety and numbers speak loudly of Bob’s expertise as a skipper – he has hundreds of secret spots marked on his GPS and he works the wind and the tide like someone who has been doing it all his life – which he pretty much has.
A likeable, knockabout fellow of 57 with a pioneering attitude, sharp wit and a clever entrepreneurial streak, he has had a go at many things and done well at most of them, it seems. He has only been in the charter business for nine years, but has owned four boats in that time.
IN THE BLOOD
“I grew up in a family that loved fishing. I guess that’s how it all started and how I ended up here,” he told me, with one hand on the wheel and both eyes on the sonar screen.
“My very first job was making lures for Halco in Fremantle. I was 15. When I turned 16, I went to work in Cottesloe as an apprentice chef, which I did until I was 20. I didn’t stick at that because I didn’t fancy spending all my time in a kitchen, but the cooking side of it kind of stayed with me.”
And as I can enthusiastically attest, Bob remains a real handyman with a spatula and a pair of barbecue tongs, and his cooking alone is one very good reason to book passage on the San Miguel.
Bob continues: “After doing this and that for a few years, I took off from Perth in 1980 on a fishing trip around Australia. We just sold-up and started travelling. I had an eight-year-old in the back seat yelling and screaming and a wife in the front seat doing the same.
“We made it to Darwin and ended up spending eight years there. The reason I went in the first place was to catch barra, which I did – but I ended up in the construction industry and bought a house. Eventually, we went to Cairns, where I worked on a dive and fishing charter boat. I went from earning $1000 a week to $40 a day – but at least I was fishing. I came to Thursday Island 16 years ago, did some building and then got into the fishing business – full circle, I guess you could say.”
Bob has done his homework well, and runs a tight, but amiable operation. He does everything from day cruises to long-range charters, and the San Miguel is perfectly set up for both. Up top is a large afterdeck, with a good-size tackle station and six rod holders, an enclosed saloon with dining area and in-built freezers and fridges, and two small double cabins and a head/shower. The wheelhouse/galley is equipped with all the latest navigation and underwater imaging gear and also contains a lounge area with DVD player. Below decks are two spacious four-berth cabins and overhead is a hard sundeck big enough to hold a couple of 15ft dinghies. The wheelhouse and cabins are all fully air-conditioned; a real bonus in this part of the world.
Bob reckons the Torres Strait is the last frontier, but not just for the fishing. “Yes, the fishing is exceptional, but that’s true in so many places. It’s about more than that here. The island life is something else – people need to know that. Every one of the islands has beautiful beaches, with safe swimming.”
Depending on where the information is coming from, the Torres Strait contains between 120 and 274 islands and sand cays, less than 20 of which are inhabited. On the eastern side of the Strait, the islands are volcanic in origin. In the centre, they are mostly coral cays, while the larger, rockier islands on the western edge – that reach up from the tip of Cape York and form the main spine of the Strait – are actually the tail end of the Great Dividing Range itself, which then dives underwater on its way north to Papua New Guinea. Eight thousand years ago, you could have walked between the two land masses, which are only 150km apart at the narrowest point, and much of the Strait is quite shallow, even today.
The few islands that are settled are quite sparsely populated – of a total Torres Strait Islander population of more than 40,000 Australia-wide, only about 8000 live in the Torres Strait itself, with nearly 3000 on Thursday Island. On the smaller islands, communities of only a few hundred people are common and, for the most part, islanders live a traditional lifestyle.
Though we did not call in at any of the inhabited islands, tourism is beginning to take hold and there are small resorts on a few of the islands. Of the uninhabited islands, most have safe anchorages and it is very easy to go ashore.
We touched down on Halfway and Aureed Islands, where we fly fished off the beach, snorkelled some pretty good coral with lots of little reef fish and lazed around drinking beer in the 27-degree water while watching a spectacular Turner-esque sunset. While at anchor that evening, a mother and baby dolphin came visiting and swam around the boat for an hour or so.
A perfect way to farewell one of this country’s last frontiers.