The Groote escape

Chris Beattie | VOLUME 24, ISSUE 4

Whether you’re into fishing, nature or local culture, a very special part of the Northern Territory is ready to welcome visitors keen to explore the natural wonders.

He stood there oozing menace, his eyes following our every move. The seething anger was palpable as he strutted heavily up to the river bank, clumps of dust erupting beneath his feet. The message was clear: ‘Come one step closer and it’ll be the last move you ever make’. I managed to click off a few photos before he turned contemptuously and strode off, turning to sneer at us one last time before he disappeared into the brush.

At the time it was early June and we were nudged into the banks of the Walker River on the western side of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Staring at us with a look of utter disdain was several hundred kilos of seriously unhappy water buffalo. We had not only trespassed on his domain; we were also positioned between him and his harem of two females. Not a good place to be, obviously. If it hadn’t been for the fact that we were on a boat, I have no doubt that our belligerent friend would have made his feelings much more apparent.

This was day three of a five-day adventure with Club Marine Magazine columnist and TV presenter, Andrew ‘ET’ Ettingshausen. Club Marine had accepted ET’s invitation to visit his Escape Sportfishing and Wilderness Lodge on the shores of Groote Eylandt, an hour-and-a-half’s flight east of Darwin in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The visit was timed to coincide with the launch of the lodge’s new 50ft liveaboard mothership, Escapade, but bad weather and other problems saw its delivery from Cairns delayed until after our departure. Nevertheless, our five days were filled with the sort of on-water adventures normally only experienced remotely via the Discovery and Nature channels. The focus was very much on fishing, but Groote and its surrounds also lend themselves to exploration, the diverse and exotic local habitats rich in wildlife and history.

HELP NEEDED

Now, successful sports fishing generally requires lots of commitment, expertise, natural ability, plenty of dedication, a wealth of local knowledge, good strategy, thorough planning and a capacity for rat cunning – none of which qualities I possess in any abundance. Fortunately, the abilities of our host and guides more than made up for my woeful sports fishing shortcomings. In fact, it seemed that I had only to dip a hook into the azure waters of the Gulf to discover a pelagic protagonist on the other end, ready, willing and eager to give a good account of itself.

‘Escape’ was a pervading theme of my trip north, beginning with my fleeing mid-winter Melbourne, flying via Adelaide and Darwin, where I boarded the Vincent Aviation flight for the final 630km leg into Groote. Lodge manager Jon Lambert met me at the local airstrip and briefed me on plans for the coming few days, as well as filling me in on some of the unique aspects of Groote Eylandt, including its culture and laws, in particular those related to the consumption and sale of alcohol (see Lodge living and Historically speaking).

A half-hour later, and having passed through the main township of Alyangula, myself and other guests were relaxing on the patio of the Lodge’s central entertainment lounge overlooking the Gulf, which was bathed in a magnificent tropical sunset. Descending into the western horizon, the sun closed its daily show with a spectacular crimson red display typical of the NT.

As darkness descended, our fishing guide for the next two days, Wayne Baldwin from Darwin, filled us in on our schedule. We would depart at daybreak and, given the likelihood of increasing south-easterly winds over the coming days, we would head to the south-western tip of the island in search of large fish. Speaking of which, just below the patio ET had installed a freshwater pool, in which swam a small flotilla of recently-captured barramundi. Nightly feeding sessions provided entertainment as they competed for chunks of juicy, freshly-caught fish. It would be a taste of things to come – both figuratively and literally.

The following morning, after a five-minute drive, we found ourselves at the local boat ramp for the first of five days on the water. Each day we would head off in a different direction, returning in time for another spectacular sunset at the Lodge.

The beauty of fishing the Gulf around Groote Eylandt is that there are any number of options, depending on what species is being targeted or what the weather is doing. In our case, a high pressure system just south of the Gulf was powering the south-easterlies that grew with each passing day, so for much of the time we had to plan our outings accordingly.

HISTORICALLY SPEAKING

Groote Eylandt was first sighted by Dutch explorer Willem van Coolsteerdt in 1623, but it wasn’t until 1644 that it was named by fellow Dutchman, Abel Tasman.

With a population of around 1500, it is the homeland of, and is owned by, the Anindilyakwa people, who still speak the unique Anindilyakwa language.

Groote Eylandt was converted to Aboriginal freehold title land following the passing of the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act of 1976.

On May 20, 2008, the Federal Government signed an agreement with local Aborigines to lease land to the Government for 40 years. In return, the Government will spend money in the community with the aim of improving housing.

The island measures approximately 50km from east to west and 60km north-south, with a total area of 2326km2. It is generally quite low-lying, with an average height above sea level of 15m.

Together with nearby Bickerton Island and a few smaller satellite islands, Groote Eylandt forms the Anindilyakwa Ward of East Arnhem Shire, with a number of indigenous communities spread throughout the area.

The main employer on Groote is GEMCO, a manganese mining operation that is a subsidiary of BHP Billiton. In operation since the early 1960s, the mine produces more than 3.8 million tonnes of manganese annually, which is about a quarter of the world’s total consumption.

The island has, until relatively recently, been open to the public only with the special permission of the local Aboriginal Land Council, but with the establishment of the Escape Sportfishing and Wilderness Lodge and nearby Dugong Beach Resort, it now welcomes tourists.

SIMPLY THE BEST

Nevertheless, the fishing was easily the best I’ve ever encountered, largely due to the knowledge and expertise of our guides. Wayne Baldwin, well known amongst fishing circles for the deadliness of his own hand-crafted Scurvy Dog lures, put us onto some great fish and locations for the first two days, while ET took us on a barra-hunting tour over to the Walker River on the mainland, west of Groote, on day three. Our guide for the remaining two days was Jason Swan, who, when he is not putting guests on to all manner of great sports fish, is a gun barramundi guide in Cairns (tel 0424 246 190).

Highlights from my own point of view included boating my first GT (giant trevally), getting up close and personal with a variety of intimidating wildlife and spending some time exploring the fascinating islands directly to the north of Groote known collectively as The Archipelago. There was also an eye-opening insight into the workings of the local food chain when a small barracuda I was attempting to wrestle to the boat became engaged in another battle as a giant and apparently very hungry cod closed in for an easy feed, only to be discouraged at the last minute by an even faster moving shark intent on adding cod to its daily menu. In the end, a slightly lighter barracuda emerged at the transom, while the cod decided it had more pressing engagements as the shark lunged and missed at the last minute.

Every day offered an opportunity to explore another aspect of the region and target even more species of fish. In the end, I ticked off a virtual who’s who list of spectacular game fish, including the aforementioned GTs, plus queenfish, barracuda, Spanish mackerel, cod of various varieties, coral trout, golden trevally, longtail tuna, jewfish, golden snapper and red emperor. It seemed every time a lure or jig hit the water, a reel would scream and we’d often have two or more rods on the go at once. Truly spectacular stuff.

BARRA BARREN

The only sports fish that failed to rise to the occasion for our visit was the iconic barramundi. While ET and other Lodge visitors managed to boat a few beauties, I was unsuccessful in my own quest for my first barra, despite perfecting my lure casting technique over several futile hours in and around the Walker River.

Our fishing platforms seemed about perfect for the locality, conditions and type of fishing. The Lodge has a total of five customised centre-console Haines Hunter 800 Prowlers at the disposal of guests. All feature the same walkaround configuration, which is ideal for battling fish with a tendency to cover a lot of ground and in a variety of directions. Power was courtesy of twin 225hp Evinrude E-TEC outboards, which had more than enough grunt to have us on the fishing grounds quickly every day.

But what impressed me most about our time on the water was the ability of our guides to adapt to fast-changing conditions and unfailingly put us onto fish of all shapes and sizes. Often this meant moving quickly and completely re-rigging lines in a matter of seconds to suit the situation. Fishing styles varied between bottom-bouncing, jigging and casting or trolling lures – sometimes all three within a matter of a couple of hours. If the bite suddenly died, it was simply a matter of moving off to another bommie, island or reef. Then, in a flash, a rod was in my hand, with a fish soon to follow. Given the ferocious nature of some of the local pelagic wildlife, the armoury took a bit of a hammering, with quite a few lures and a fair amount of tackle sacrificed to the battle each day.

Overwhelmingly, we returned our fish to the sea, although the occasional tasty coral trout or jewie did accompany us on our return journey to the Lodge each day. We were met on most evenings by the mouth-watering waft of a waiting BBQ on the Lodge deck, with managers Jon and Kath Lambert preparing tasty treats and cold ‘happy hour’ refreshments to round out our days. For more elaborate cuisine, the Dugong Beach Resort was a short stroll away and we enjoyed a couple of fine dining experiences there during our stay.

LODGE LIVING

The Escape Sportfishing and Wilderness Lodge overlooks the Gulf of Carpentaria and can accommodate up to 24 guests in twin-or double-share accommodation.

The compact, safari-style accommodation units are raised, ensuring minimal impact on the environment, and are fully air-conditioned with en suite facilities. Each room boasts a private deck area with water views.

All meals and light refreshments are included in the packages, while morning tea, lunch and light refreshments are supplied on the boat each day. A full buffet breakfast and a-la-carte dinner can be enjoyed in the restaurant at the adjacent Dugong Beach Resort.

As Groote Eylandt has strict laws on alcohol sales and consumption, including a ban of bringing private supplies to the island, alcoholic beverages must be purchased and consumed at either the Dugong Beach Resort Bar or the Lodge’s entertainment lounge.

Each day guests are transported to the nearby boat ramp at Alyangula for departure on one of the Lodge’s five Haines Hunter 800 Prowlers. Plans call for a new jetty and ramp to be constructed on the beach directly in front of the Lodge for added convenience. The 50ft live aboard mothership, Escapade also now offers extra fishing and package options for guests.

Packages vary from three to six days, with prices ranging from $3195 per angler for a three-day package, up to $5700 for six days (four anglers per boat). Prices vary depending on the number of anglers per boat and include the return flight to Darwin.

For more information, or to make a booking, tel 0400 596 699, 0400 866 905 or (08) 8987 6800. Web: www.escapesportfishing.com.

SIMPLE COMFORTS

The accommodation was simple, comfortable and functional, each air-conditioned cabin equipped with the basics, including a small fridge, a pair of single or double beds and an en suite bathroom. In reality, given our daily activities, I could have got by with a hammock as we tended to retire fairly early to be ready for another day’s adventure.

Aside from the prevailing south-easterlies, the weather was pretty much perfect for my stay. Skies remained largely cloudless, with temperatures hardly varying from around 26°C, with barely a hint of that normally relentless humidity. Despite the fact we seldom fished for more than a few minutes without something large and muscular bending our rods, from a fishing point of view, our timing wasn’t exactly ideal, according to ET. In this part of the world, the peak period for pelagics is deemed to be between August and December, with primary targets being black marlin and sailfish, while the build-up to the wet, and subsequent run-off, are ideal for barramundi.

Winds tend to be a lot more boat-friendly during this time, with ET reporting that, for the most part, the Gulf around Groote remains close to billiard-table flat in the hotter months.

Going back over my diary notes as I write this, I am still amazed by how much fishing, exploring and adventure was packed into each day. Groote Eylandt and its surrounds are a very special part of our great sunburnt land. From a wildlife point of view, the island and nearby mainland are microcosms of all that the tropical far north offers, with crocodiles leering lazily from the river banks, while water buffalo lurk menacingly and sea eagles soar majestically overhead. Everywhere nature claims dominance, leaving visitors to marvel at the beauty and majesty of this wild wonderland.

If you have always longed to feel the might and stamina of an angry giant trevally or barramundi on the end of your line, or want to experience the raw splendour of our pristine northern wilderness, it might be time to mount your own Groote escape …


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