With a strong sense of homecoming I took in the dusty sign and turned onto the narrow, rutted trail. I hadn’t been down to Camp Leichhardt for ten years, but I thought about it often – treasured the memory like a warm stone in my heart. This was the place I remembered when things were tough back in Katherine.
The track in from the highway showed the wear and tear of regular traffic – bulldust pits that had the 70 series Land Cruiser slipping and sliding, spewing up a reddish cloud from the Toyo M55s. The suspension rocked and squeaked, gears crunched, and the sun glared through that grit-streaked windscreen onto my hands and forearms. The trees were bigger near the river – woollybutt and ghost gum, scattered pandanus throwing off limp brown fronds. Stands of casuarina fringed the sand gullies, with nagura burr and hiptus in the clearings.
Over the second jump-up I had my first view of the Roper. Green and majestic in the channel she had, over millions of years, carved into the plain, fringed with spiral pandanus and mangroves with their shiny waxed leaves. The moist air met me through the open window and I sniffed at it like a drunk.
The track followed the first gully behind the river for a sandy kilometre or two, and I throttled back, just in time to miss a half-grown agile wallaby that burst out in front of me.
Finally, over one final hump and there was Camp Leichhardt. Last time I was here it consisted of an old timer in a tin shanty, a few tents and one van. Now the area back from the river bristled with caravans, three or four dozen, each with its own territory of two thousand square metres or so. I stopped the car, engine idling, and studied the scene.
Most of the vans had a Land Cruiser, Land Rover or Patrol parked alongside, with the odd F series Ford. At least half had a tinny, complete with shiny new outboard on the transom. Aussie flags waved from poles beside satellite dishes and UHF aerials. Smoke rose from fires here and there, but many of the sites were empty of people and boats, and I had to assume they were out on the river.
I would have preferred to find myself a secluded spot away from the Grey Nomads – but my Stessl side-console tinnie, on the trailer behind, was four and half metres in length and weighed five hundred kilos. Bank launching was out of the question and Camp Leichhardt had the only decent ramp for a hundred klicks in either direction, apart from Roper Bar with its store and unofficial campsites beside the crossing, but it was too close to the road – saw too much passing traffic. No place to unwind.
The decision made, I eased my foot off the brake and onto the accelerator. A few oldies wouldn’t be too bad. They would certainly mind their own business. As I drove in I got a closer look at the caravans. Mostly new – Caromal, Jayco, Galaxy, Paramount, Scenic, Viscount, Windsor, Bushtracker; even a Winnebago camper or two. Some had place-name bumper stickers plastered on the rear of the van. Towns conquered like a Spitfire pilot conquered Messerschmitts. Rockhampton: Beef Capital. Winton: Dinosaur Territory. I GOT STUNG AT AUGATHELLA. Every town and city has its claim to fame, and the Nomads are insatiably curious about what makes these places tick – armed with their gazetteers, iPads, and paperback guides.
Here at Camp Leichhardt most were set up for a long stay. Annexes with shade cloth floors, generators in sandbagged pits; even washing machines. People sweeping, cooking, watching tv. One Nomad sat on his arse beside his boat trailer, repacking the bearings, two of his mates watching on, beer stubbies in hand. I could smell the grease through the open window. They looked up and waved as I passed.
After a full circuit, picking out a couple of possible camping sites, an old bloke with knobby legs and shorts hitched too high on his waist limped from a shitty old van, waving in an effort to pull me over. I braked, idling while two arthritic hands, swollen knuckles and spots on the skin that looked like mould, gripped the door sill. He was a curious looking old fellow, all bone, face so gaunt you could see the outline of his skull. There was a scar across his forehead and one of his eyes was bung.
‘How’re things?’ I asked.
‘Good mate, good. But you was drivin’ a bit fast there mate. Dust. We gotta keep the dust down – do you mind slowin’ down a bit?’
‘Sorry about that.’ I was surprised. It seemed to me that I had crawled the whole way.
‘Where are you plannin’ to camp?’ he asked.
I pointed to the furthest point away from most of the vans. ‘Probably down there close to the river. I won’t get in the way.’
‘Oh, okay.’ He paused for a bit, staring in the direction I’d indicated, said, ‘You staying long?’
‘A week, maybe longer. Is that okay?’ I let a touch of humour creep into my voice. This was public land, yet he was carrying on as if he were about to charge me a fee.
‘Yeah, yeah, ‘course it’s okay.’ He raised one hand off the sill and we shook. ‘My name’s Davis.’ He raised an eyebrow, ‘I’m the unofficial mayor here. We’ve got a bit of a committee, make decisions and all that.’
‘Good to meet you, Davis. I’m Ben Mulligan.’
‘Yeah. Katherine. In the police force up there.’ I don’t know why I told him. Maybe just to get a reaction.
The good eye flew open. ‘Cop, eh?’
‘Yeah, but I’m on holidays. I’m not gonna start searching people’s vans or anything. All I want is a quiet spot and a fair go at the ramp.’
‘Yeah, ‘course, ‘course. We all come from somewhere – all got other lives. Look at me – from Ballarat, down in Victoria – seven months there, five months here. Used to be a real estate agent so I still pick up a bit of work when I go back down south.’ He tapped the roof of the ‘cruiser. ‘You need anything, just ask me.’ He pointed towards two tandem trailers, a pile of drums and a clapped out shipping container. ‘We ship fuel down from Katherine, and beer. Communal kinda thing. We even got mobile phone coverage. Telstra put a relocatable tower in for us, see?’
I was genuinely impressed. We shook again, and I eased the ‘cruiser into drive. Nice and slow.
I set up camp two hundred metres from the nearest of the Nomads, about the same distance from the riverbank with a stand of casuarinas for shade – I love the way they whistle in the afternoon breeze – and they don’t lose limbs like eucalypts. My tent was for storage rather than sleeping, a swag rolled out beside the fire is comfortable enough.
My old man, a surveyor working out of Darwin for thirty years, had taught me the finer points of camp craft. Any idiot can make himself uncomfortable in the bush, and others so load themselves down with luxuries that they spend most of their time unpacking and repacking. The secret is simplicity, quality gear and common sense. Within an hour I had the billy on, camp table up, and everything unpacked that needed to be unpacked, sitting on a folding chair beside the fire, tackle box open, tying a collar and capstan knot on one of my favourite barra lures, a scarred red and white Nilsmaster that might have been fifteen years old, snagged a hundred times and each time I had managed to dislodge it with an oar, or even stripped off and braved the crocs to get it back.
When it was done I unstrapped the Stessl, charged the carby up with the rubber bulb and drove slowly towards the ramp, mindful of old Davis and his warning about dust. The ramp here was a good one, as bush ramps go, but narrow – needed a bit of care to back down straight. The trailer helped. I had taken the time to set her up right, a full set of Teflon skids and fifteen inch wheels with Toyota bearings.
Pandanus fronds brushed the ally sides as I backed her down the ramp, trying to avoid the worst of the muddy ruts, submerging the trailer to just below the hubs in the river water. Leaving the engine running I stepped out of the door, slipped the hook out of the bow eye and pushed off, taking a firm grip on the rope as I did so, leading her away and making fast to a mangrove trunk. It was high tide, and I kept a look out for crocs as I did so. A cranky, lazy old bastard usually hangs around these bush ramps, living on fish frames. It didn’t pay to be careless.
Having secured the boat I slipped back into the Toyota and climbed the ramp, the combination of torque and tread making short work of the muddy ruts. At the top I parked in the shade, leaving both front windows open, then walked past the fish cleaning tables towards the ramp.
I was half way down when I heard an engine, and stopped to listen. Whoever it was appeared to be in a hurry, defying, it seemed, the local rules about speed and dust. A khaki FJ45 Troopcarrier pulled up at the top of the ramp. Two men got out, both big blokes, mid-thirties or so. One was heavier in the gut than the other, a brown beer bottle in a neoprene stubby holder gripped tight in one fist.
They seemed to be approaching me, so I stood my ground, letting them come within a few paces before they stopped. I realised then that they had to be brothers. The resemblance was strong. Dark hair, jowls, noses too small for the face. The drinker took a swig and tilted his chin high.
‘Yeah, g’day.’ I stuck out a hand. ‘Ben Mulligan.’
The two shared a glance, then, as if by agreement, ignored the hand. Feeling like an idiot with my paw in mid-air I took it back. Made as if to take a step.
‘Wait a minute, where you going?’ The drinker again. He was an ugly fucker, with wispy hair on his chin, and slitty little eyes.
‘Hey, you’re a cop, right?’
‘Yeah, so what?’ I stopped and turned. News obviously travelled fast.
‘Well, so, we wanna know what the fuck you’re doing here. We come here to get away from rules and regulations and all that shit.’ He looked at his brother.
‘Yeah.’ The single word was his only contribution at that point.
‘What’s your names?’ I asked.
‘Terry Yates, and this is Wallaby.’
I studied them both. ‘Thanks, I’ll look you both up when I get back to work.’
‘Smart arse.’ Wallaby was speaking now. This one had more of a double chin than jowls. ‘There’s three hundred miles of river for you to camp on. Why don’t you find somewhere else?’
‘I want to camp here.’
‘Yeah, but we don’t want you.’
My mood went from fragile to something else. Something I had travelled this far to get away from. I had Terry and Wallaby Yates pegged – petty criminals, probably done time. Hated cops.
Terry came out with, ‘Things can happen out here. Lotsa things.’
‘Are you threatening me?’
The bloke had the biggest smile on his face, as if admiring his own cleverness. He shrugged, as if to say, maybe I am and maybe I’m not.
As far as I could see there was no point continuing the conversation. I turned and walked away. Reaching the Stessl, I untied the rope and spun her around so I could pull start the motor before taking to the river. When I looked back they were still watching me from the top of the bank.
‘Go fuck yourselves,’ I said under my breath. The outboard running sweetly now, I pushed my boat out into the tide.
The Roper has a special beauty few other rivers can match. Fed by spring water from an underground river seeping five hundred kilometres from the Barkly Tableland, her waters are the deepest, clearest green, bursting with life. Man, I love it. Something in my soul connects with it, like an appliance plugged in to just the right current.
This is a river that resonates with culture and history. The Nile of Australia’s north, where for forty thousand years the traditional owners have lived, fished and traded. Where Makassars sailed upriver in their wooden praus, holds filled with dried trepang and trade goods. Of course, like all great rivers, the activities of humans along her banks are just window dressing. The Roper’s soul is her own, a fascinating interplay of geography and nutrient.
Like all good fishermen I have a better than average understanding of the ecosystem in which I hunt. Here in the Roper the food web begins with the fine green and red algae that coats rocks and hangs in slimy strings in shallows and lagoons, fringing the aquatic ferns, lilies, hydrilla and ribbonwort. Zooplankton, minute creatures that under our high school microscopes looked like dragons and snakes. Pudgy gluttonous monsters feed on the algae, and are eaten in turn by aquatic insects – mayflies, beetles, midges and boatmen.
All this activity attracts small fish – glassfish, bony bream and the grunters. Crustaceans also – cherabin with their long spindly claws, atyid shrimp and fiddler crabs. After that, we get to the big predators. Whiskered, fork-tail catfish. Barra. Salt and freshwater crocs. Herons. Bitterns. Pelicans. They all have their part to play in this marvellous, always-changing, magical channel that is so much more than just a river, winding down through an unchanged landscape that beats to a rhythm all its own.
As I gripped the tiller and throttled away upstream I felt the stress levels fading, deliberately not wasting time thinking about the Yates brothers. Being a cop I had long ago become used to institutionalised hatred and I had locked away enough men like them not to take their attitude personally.
By the time I rounded the second bend, past a rock bar studded with herons on the northern bank, I had relaxed again, dropping the revs and watching the sounder to avoid accidents with the prop. Two and a half metres depth, three metres, four metres – I accelerated again and reached a deep narrow channel, sunken trees on either side, almost six metres deep in places, but averaging four. I throttled back to trolling speed, tucked the tiller under my forearm and readied the first of two rods.
In this kind of country I like to troll two lures. One a deep diver, the other in mid water, cutting the motor to cast to the best of the structure. I rigged the diver on a Shimano Curado/T-curve combination and the other on an old Ambassadeur matched to a Loomis rod. With the rod butts settled into the stainless holders on each side and the tips twitching away with the pulse of the lures, I settled down to the business of trolling as close to structure as possible without snagging up, often lifting a rod out of the holder and guiding it around a half calcified trunk that rose out of the depths.
The other hazards were low, overhanging branches, capable of snapping a rod clean in half. I used an oar to fend these off, and twice I snagged up at depth. I’d invested in a clever little sliding device on Venetian blind cord to drag the lure up from the depths, and it worked a treat.
I saw the first of several crocs on that trolling run down the northern bank, a medium sized animal of about two and half metres length, his head and back visible just out from the bank up ahead, diving when he heard the outboard, disappearing below the surface, leaving a bow wave where he had been.
I caught one fork-tail catfish, a good sized specimen with a mouth you could put your fist into and three jagged spines standing erect like little chainsaws. I used the pliers to remove the lure and let him swim away. Catfish are tasty, if a little oily, but I wanted a barra, and if I couldn’t get a barra there was plenty of steak in the Engel fridge back at camp.
Luck, it seemed, was not on my side, and after an hour I abandoned the trolling and took advantage of the beginning of the ebb tide to slowly drift along the deeper bank, casting into every scrap of structure – drowned trees, eddies, rock bars – but the best I could do was a solid bump on a deep diver. I hammered the spot a dozen more times, drawing a blank.
Remembering a creek inlet a few kilometres downstream I motored off to find it, hammering eddies in the main channel. I caught just one more small catfish, his spines standing erect as I worked the treble out of his mouth.
Disappointed, sunset drawing close, I planed back to the ramp, where another boat had just come in, a late-model Quintrex Hornet. Two older blokes were busy winching her onto the trailer, then towing her up a few metres with the 4×4 before twisting out the bungs. By that stage I had tilted and cut the motor, slipped over the side, and was just tying up when one of the old blokes turned to me. He was a shortish man, sixty odd years – gingery, with thick parboiled arms covered in white hair and big hands.
‘You must be new here,’ he said. ‘Haven’t seen you around.’
‘Yeah, just got in today.’ I realised then that the other fisherman, around the far side of the boat, was not a man, but a woman.
‘You do any good?’
He raised a rust coloured eyebrow. ‘Have a look in the esky.’
I leaned over the Hornet’s gunwale and lifted the lid on a blue poly fish bin. Inside were two bright silver saltwater barra floating in icy water. The biggest would have gone eight or nine kilos, the other about half that size.
‘Well done,’ I said, subdued. Nothing hurts a fisherman more than being upstaged at the ramp. ‘Where did you get them?’
‘Aha, can’t give away any secrets, can we?’ He held out his hand. ‘My name’s Bill Fowler. Just about everyone calls me Chook.’
‘Nice to meet you, Chook.’
‘An’ this is my other half, Shirley.’
Shirley shook hands like a man, and I liked her straight off. Quiet and pleasant looking, fleshy in the face and body but not excessively so. She wore one of those shapeless, massive t-shirts that hang down over everything.
‘Don’t go swimming here,’ Chook warned me, ‘not even a quick dip. There’s a big salty hangs around. Crook temper. Be careful how far you go in when you launch.’
‘Yeah, I figured there’d be one around.’
There was silence for a bit while I waited for them to get organised and clear the ramp.
‘Maybe,’ Chook said when they were done, ‘you could come around to the van for tea. We’ll throw a couple of fillets on.’
I hesitated. My preference would have been to spend my first night alone, but something told me that having an ally might be a good thing. ‘Thanks, I’d like that. Which one’s your van?’
‘Twenty foot Regal, older one, with a yellow stripe. You’ll recognise the boat.’
‘No worries. When?’
‘About an hour. Sound okay?’
‘Yeah, great.’ I watched Chook and Shirley tow the Quintrex up the bank, then walked up and got the Toyota. My faith in human nature was somewhat restored. There were good people everywhere, and in most places they far outweighed the others.
This feeling, however, was temporary. Ten minutes later, when I parked the Stessl alongside my camp site, I found a collapsed tent, and the bungs out of all three twenty litre plastic water cans that I had stacked in the shade under the casuarinas.
I had little doubt that the Yates boys had paid me a visit. The time on the river, however, had done me so much good that I didn’t bother getting angry. I hammered the pegs back in, lifted the poles and cleaned up the boat. I had a fifty litre water tank in the ‘cruiser. Things would be tight, but I’d manage.
As luck would have it, Chook was my closest neighbour, just across the track from my camp, with a pleasant view down towards the river. He dug into a gas fridge, standing on milk crates in the annex, bringing out two VB stubbies. He passed one into my hand before I had a chance to say anything. I looked down at the bottle and passed it back.
‘Sorry, Chook, but I don’t drink.’
The man gave me a look as if I was a lunatic, which gave way to embarrassment. ‘No shit?’
I shook my head. ‘Gave it away two or three years ago. Never got around to taking it up again.’ I reached into the insulated lunch bag near my foot and pulled out a bottle of ginger beer. The Queensland town of Bundaberg is famous for more than just rum. ‘I brought my own.’
Chook had been looking increasingly perturbed, but then he smiled, as if he understood. ‘You religious or something?’
‘Nah, just got sick of hangovers.’ The truth was I had started to rely on the stuff to forget, and it really does work – just charge yourself up and you lose that finer part of you that really feels things. Blunts you down. Trouble is that getting smashed every night is a prick of a way to live. You start to lose things you don’t want to lose.
Chook said, ‘I was just talking to Davis. He tells me you’re a cop.’
I smiled, thinking that the poor bloke must be regretting asking me over for tea – a cop and a teetotaller. ‘It’s not a disease, you know.’
‘Course not. My second son, Brian, is a cop too, down in the Mallee, Victoria. Town called Horsham. Know it?’
I had only a vague knowledge of Southern geography. ‘Heard of it. Near Bendigo?’
‘Close. Brian’s a Leading Constable. Got an award last year, for bravery. There was a siege, see, and he went in and disarmed the bloke, rescued two kids and a woman.’ Chook’s eyes misted over. Pride. A bloke’s love for his son. I liked him a little more.
‘Sounds like you’re part of the family,’ I said. ‘But not everyone here thinks the same as you.’
‘No? You had some trouble?’
‘Only two brothers by the name of Yates. Basically told me they didn’t want me camping here.’
‘Pair of arseholes – troublemakers.’
I related how they had pulled my tent down and opened the bungs on my water casks.
‘Tell Davis, he’s supposed to deal with that kind of thing.’
‘Yeah, maybe.’ I don’t know what I thought, exactly, back then. Maybe that if I ignored them they’d leave me alone.
‘Just be careful – they’re bad news and capable of just about anything. In fact,’ he lowered his voice, ‘there’s something really strange going on in this place.’
‘Dunno, can’t quite put my finger on it. Just lots of little things that don’t add up. The Yates brothers are just part of it.’
Even then I had decided pretty much the same thing myself.
Shirley came down the steps of the van with a pair of skinned and boned barra fillets on a tray. ‘Put these on, will you, Chook darlin’. The veggies won’t be long.’
‘No problem, love.’ Chook went up to take the tray, then paused, addressing his wife, nodding his head back at me. ‘Our mate here’s a bundle of surprises. He’s a cop, and he don’t drink.’
Shirley cocked her head and looked at me strangely. ‘Really?’
Chook found it hard to cope with me not wanting a beer. Every time he went to the big Waeco for a stubby, which was often, he stopped at the last moment, hitched up his draw-string trousers and stared at me. ‘Now, you just tell me if you change your mind. Plenty here.’
‘I’ll let you know.’
‘You don’t mind me, er, imbibin’ in front of you?’
‘Of course not. If I wanted a drink I would, but I don’t, okay?’
‘Yeah, yeah, I just don’t wanna seem rude.’
‘You’re not. Honestly.’
Shirley took me under her wing, giving me the lowdown on everything from trying to keep dust and dew off camp furniture to personal hygiene. ‘When you go to the dunnies, love, make sure you take your own roll of dunny paper. No one leaves any there, and you don’t want to go without.’
‘That would be, er, shitty,’ I said. Chook and Shirley cackled their heads off.
‘If you want to do some washing, just bring it over here, Chook and me have got a little twin tub. Just bring your own water, it uses a full bucket for a wash. Got any washing powder?’
I shook my head. ‘Nah, thanks, but I’ll be right. A quick rinse down the river will do me.’
Shirley’s forehead took on the texture of a sandstone cliff face. ‘Salt isn’t good for clothes. Rots the threads.’
Chook nodded gravely. ‘Shirl’s right. The salt buggers them up. They fall apart in no time.’
I shrugged. ‘Maybe I will then.’
Shirley beamed back at me, ‘Chook even made a clothes line that folds out from the side of the van. Didn’t you love?’
‘That’s right. Everything you see here I done meself,’ Chook told me, ‘all the welding, anything like that. We haven’t got the kind of money some of these bastards have got. Look at bloody Henderson over there. Hard to believe, isn’t it?’
I followed his gaze to a massive caravan and tow vehicle combination some two or three hundred metres away, light shining through from beneath what must have been a hydraulically operated awning. This behemoth could only be towed by what is known in the towing fraternity as a fifth wheel. When caravans get really big, they often exceed the de facto tow limit of 3500kg, the maximum allowed by Landcruiser/Patrol type 4×4 tow vehicles. Only the gutsy Ford F250 and imported behemoths like the big Chevies can tow heavier loads, up to 4500 kg.
Beyond this weight the van has to be hitched onto a special towball on the vehicle tray, effectively moving the hitch point forward and therefore distributing the weight more evenly. I whistled. ‘How much would a van like that be worth?’
‘Just ask the wanker. He loves to skite about it. Two hundred and eighty grand, he reckons. The F250 is worth a hundred and twenty on its own. Just look at it, and you can guarantee he’s never done a hard day’s work in his life. He’s not a day under sixty-five, and his bloody wife would be lucky to be thirty. Filipino. Mail order bride.’
At another time I might have taken issue with the racism underlying this comment, but I let it go. This was just good old fashioned jealousy. Chook meant no harm. ‘Nice bloke, though?’
‘Nah, a blowhard.’ Chook giggled to himself. ‘Hates snakes. Had a python in the annexe one night and screamed like a sheila. Everyone thought there’d been a murder. Apparently the girl caught it by the tail and dragged it out while he jumped up and down on the bed, shitting himself.’
While the fish sizzled away I got Chook’s honest appraisal of the dozen or so vans within view. In Chook’s opinion they were, in the main, overpriced, manned by people with too much money for their own good. Bosses. Exploiters of honest workers.
‘Half them bastards can’t even back their van up properly. You should see them – having to get other blokes to do it for them. In my book a man’s got to do things for himself. Where’s the satisfaction in getting another bloke to drive your car? It’s like getting him to service the missus for you.’ He glared at me until I nodded my head in agreement.
A little dog scampered down the ladder steps, a fat silky terrier. He headed straight to a water bowl, took a few licks, then settled down on a folded blanket, resting his head on one paw, eyeing me warily the whole time. I wasn’t a fan of small dogs, but at least this one didn’t bark all the time or try to hump my leg.
‘When we go back down south,’ Chook told me while he levered the barra fillets off the plate, voice just starting to slur, ‘I’m gonna make a new boat. Bigger than any of them buggers have got. Just wait and see.’
On my way back to my camp that night I heard two men arguing in the distance, raised angry voices crackling across the still night. My senses went into overdrive, and my fists curled. I knew I had to ignore it. It was just hard, that’s all.
I’d come here to heal. Getting involved in other people’s fights was a bad idea.
I heard a cry of pain, then a shout. I stopped dead on the track, twitching like a rabbit. I stood there for perhaps five minutes. I didn’t hear another sound from them. Finally, my shoulders dropping with relief, I turned back towards my swag.
I woke in the night only once, when a night breeze whistled through the casuarina needles, restless and arousing all at the same time, touching from soul to soul across the wild spaces of the north.
The ache inside me swelled and contracted like the tides, but it was the wind that soothed me. The firm ground and the silence. Here, where the dry leaves scuttled, and cane toads made a soft thud with each landing, there was a chance to heal. To fight the suspicion that there’s no one else left. To lose this extreme kind of self-reliance where you trust no one except on the most basic level.
It’s not the passage through the house of despair that does it to you, but the side rooms; the thick carpeted bedrooms – cold kitchens – dark closets. The people who loom out of the shadows on the way. The march of your feet in time with the clock on the lounge room wall. The things you have done, leaving memories like knives in the darkness, that visit you when your defences are lowest.
For an hour I lay with my chin on the base of my palm, prickled by the stubble on my cheek, until finally the feeling left me, and I was able to sleep, leaving the door of the house not closed, but banging lightly in the breeze.
Davis and another man left with one of the two tandem trailers at dawn. I’d been awake for a while, warming my hands on a tin mug of coffee, savouring the aroma, watching the embers spit and flicker and listening to the birds waking over the river. I’ve always loved how the bush comes alive; not that it ever really sleeps.
First you hear the little stuff – wrens and finches darting around in the treetops, then a curlew settling down for the day. Nightshift over. Dayshift just beginning. A flight of magpie geese over the water. All this was soothing my heart when I heard the engine.
I stood up, stretching, slipping elastic sided boots on without socks. I walked closer in my track suit pants and sloppy joe, watching Davis back his GQ Patrol up to one of the trailers, a covered twin-axle unit the size of a small pantech truck, streaked with red dust from drawbar to rear doors.
With Davis’s offsider, none other than Wallaby Yates, winding the jockey wheel, the trailer settled down onto the ball. I heard the clink of the safety chain as they secured it with the shackle. The two men drove away, slowly, keeping to the recommended speed. A supply run, I guessed, but it beat the hell out of me that the so-called mayor of Camp Leichhardt couldn’t find himself better company for the drive.
Soon after sunrise I had the Stessl kicking up a clean wake as I motored upstream. Years earlier I had fished a series of deep pools up there – sunken logs creating abundant structure that attracted quality fish. The area was protected by a couple of shallow runs that tended to keep the regular fishermen out. Hauling boats up rocks and fast water was too much like hard work for most.
To pass the time I set up a route on the chartplotter – marking a deepwater path upriver. It was low tide, and any navigable channel now would be safe at any state of the tide. The morning sun was bright on the water and it was only my polarised sunnies that allowed me to pick out the swirl of a snag lurking under the current, or the edged pattern over the rim of a sandbar.
The water temperature was surprisingly low, even for July, sitting just below twenty-one Celsius. Borderline for barra. From my experience they’ll still take a lure, but only if you get it right past their nose, often more than once – annoy them into it. That means a lot of casting, trusting your gut, keeping on until your arm aches and self-doubt wears you down.
At the first of the cascades I motored right to left, looking for a channel, avoiding the white water. Small fish flitted away, dark shadows under the surface as I nosed upstream. Close to the southern bank I found the most consistent channel, still scarcely a metre deep, but enough for me to penetrate almost half way through before the deeper water ended in a shelf of rock, slick with benthic algae, reeking of earth and of those age-old places rivers visit on their way to the sea.
You know the ones I mean – dark undercut banks, channels between drooping melaleucas and underwater sinkholes. Places where you understand how the original inhabitants dreamed up giant snakes and monsters, painting them on the sandstone ledges so they could share some of that power.
Here in the shallows, however, I had no choice but to cut and tilt the motor, throwing one foot over the gunnel, my neoprene boots secure on the gravel bottom. Taking the bow rope securely in one hand, I began to drag her up, hull scraping across the stones.
Heaving the boat up through the rapids was a hard slog. Now and again the keel would catch on a protruding rock and need a good shove. Most of the time I trudged through knee-deep current, rope over my shoulder, sweating like a teamster.
My reward at the top was a clear, reflective pool and the tap-tap wingbeat of rainbow bee eaters dusting the surface, and a crowd of flying foxes squabbling in the trees. I have seen these strange mammals so thick that the limbs drop with their weight, the crocs down below cleaning up the unfortunates as they tumble into the water, struggling for the bank in full knowledge of what their fate might be if they linger.
I’ve watched how the crocs swivel their heads sideways to make the capture, then tilt up to swallow the still-living, struggling flying fox whole, two or three gulps, white teeth standing out in needle rows as the morsel goes down.
There was another set of rapids before I reached my spot, and this second was the longer and harder; four hundred metres of white water and side channels, truck sized boulders standing out in the stream, stained with the marks of ten thousand floods and white streaks from the cormorants and herons that hunted there or merely stood on the stone, drying their wings like sails.
Finally, sweating, but enjoying the work, I pushed the Stessl out into calm water and swung aboard. The waterhole beyond was pretty much how I remembered it, with short green grass between twisted old melaleuca trees, thick spongy roots holding the riverbank together.
Rather than starting the Honda, I connected the Minn Kota electric up to the battery with the alligator clips. Twisting the throttle, I heard the faint whirr of the motor as the prop spun. The hull responded and I motored deeper into the pool, pleased to see structure on the sounder screen; sunken gums, deep below the surface. As the depth dropped down past six metres, the screen showed a red and yellow marked bait school and even, once or twice, recognisable fish arches in the depths.
I motored to within casting range of a protruding snag, almost in the middle of the pool, before stopping again. This was, as far as barra are concerned, prime real estate.
Standing, I sent my first cast out towards the stub of old timber. This was just a preliminary move. Braided line casts better wet, and the first few throws are designed just to get things lubricated. By the third I was getting more distance, droplets of water flicking off the line in the sun as it arced out past the spot, the lure coming in slowly, rod tip low, close to the water surface.
The first few times I retrieved at a constant rate, then tried a few tricks – a dead stop here, a twitch there, even a genuine stutter that had worked wonders for me in the past. Still I persisted, sending twenty, thirty, or more casts into the area before I stopped, clipped on a deep diving lure and tried again.
The angle of retrieve changed now, the big bladed Reidy’s Taipan working deep with a dull, pulsing action that I felt through my arms and into my chest. There was a sudden change as it nudged up against an underwater log, and I stopped winding, letting its own buoyancy lift it away and prevent a snag.
I tried another dozen times but got no response. There was plenty more structure to try. Still hopeful, I laid down the rod and brought the Minn Kota back to life, motoring slowly to the next likely haunt.
Over three pleasant hours I poked upstream, hooking up once for a few exhilarating seconds. Seventy or eighty centimetres of bright silver erupted through the water surface, gill covers flared to display the red flukes inside; a lure-rattling dance that ended with the deep-diving lure flying back towards me through the air and the barra swimming free, back to the depths from where he had come.
I sat, hunched over in the boat, smiling like an idiot, knowing that in fishing, as in life, bad luck can easily dog a man, persisting until, somehow, he turns it around. On good days fish like that stick, and on bad days they don’t. Not much point pondering or sitting around feeling blue. I gave myself a minute, then just got back on with it.
At around ten-thirty I nosed into the bank for a cuppa from the thermos and a doze. I didn’t hurry, getting back on the water an hour or so later, heading further upstream and negotiating yet another cascade, shorter and steeper than the last.
Rounding a bend, I was startled to see two Roper River locals on the bank, bare-chested, skin black as indigo in the morning light. At first I thought they were fishing, but instead of a friendly wave one shouted something to the other and retreated back from the riverbank, his mate close behind him.
Strange. I expected them to hang around for a chat, maybe give me a tip on where the bait schools were, where the big fish were feeding. Instead, within a few moments they had disappeared, as if I had imagined the whole thing.
Intent on confirming that I wasn’t dreaming, I motored across, hopped out onto the bank and pulled the Stessl up behind me. There, in the muddy patches between the paperbark roots I saw fresh footprints. My mind hadn’t been playing tricks on me, they had been here.
I saw something else, too, a smooth, long indentation in the mud where something had been on the bank – similar to the slide mark of a small croc, but too smooth, too regular. I bent to my knees, wondering what the hell I was looking at, then turned and stared at the scrub into which the men had disappeared.
No point in giving chase. If they didn’t want to be found then I’d be unlikely to get near them. Shrugging the incident away I stepped back into the boat and pushed off. I must have startled them, I decided. Maybe they were just teenagers and I gave them a shock.
Still, as I began the long drift downstream, casting as I went, the incident sucked the pleasure from the day in the same way as a niggling toothache. In fact, the fishing no longer seemed as urgent and important as it had that morning.
Mayor Davis and Wallaby Yates returned before dusk. I couldn’t resist checking out what they had brought back in the trailer, so I walked down the track until I had a better view, standing with my hands clenched in the pockets of my moleskins. They parked next to one of three shipping containers and threw open the doors. Terry Yates, the other brother, appeared from a rundown old van nearby and began the unloading.
Beer. Carton after green carton of Victoria Bitter cans stacked on pallets. Having nothing better to do I wandered closer and counted, losing my way at a hundred and fifty cases. I was so engrossed that I didn’t notice Chook Fowler come up until he was right beside me.
‘How ya going?’ he asked.
‘Yeah, good, and you?’
‘Good, mate, good.’
‘That’s a shitload of beer,’ I observed.
‘Yeah. And they’ll be back for more in a few weeks.’
‘You lot don’t drink that much, surely?’
Chook shrugged, and just glanced at me nervously. ‘You get fish today?’ he asked.
‘Two catfish. One hook-up on a nice barra but he spat the lure back at me. You do any good?’
‘Didn’t put the boat in the water. Had an RDO.’ He laughed at his own joke. I had a feeling he’d used it before.
While we talked, the trailer unloading ceased and the container doors slammed shut. The trailer was backed into its place and unhitched. Now the Nissan headed around the track directly for us. Chook stepped nervously off the path but I stood my ground, watching them come. The two Yates boys occupied the front seats. Both were drinking. Stopping in front of me Wallaby wound down the window, forearm resting on the sill, beer stubby held towards me so I could see white foam on the interior of the brown bottle, and the faded print on the stubby holder. ‘Hey, cop,’ he said, lip twisting unpleasantly, ‘what are you staring at?’
‘Oh, nothing, just having a chat to my friend Chook, here.’
‘Fowler, you better choose your friends a little more wisely, or me and you are gonna have a chat. Got it?’
Chook said nothing, but I could see from his expression that they scared him. That annoyed me. Nomads like Chook came here to fish and relax, not to get bullied by amateur standover men.
I advanced to the car window, and Wallaby Yates took a long swig of his beer, a portion of which dribbled down along the fuzz on either side of his lips. He scowled at me. ‘I thought we told you to piss off.’
‘Yes, you did.’
‘So nothing. Leave me alone, and,’ I jabbed a finger at Chook Fowler, still standing uncertainly a few paces away, ‘leave him alone.’
I said nothing, just turned back to catch Chook’s eye. I know that he wanted me to keep pushing, but I had gone as far as I could. This was not what I needed, not now, and yet to show weakness was to let the bastards win.
Terry Yates turned to his brother and they laughed. ‘Yellow, are you? You better be packed up and gone by morning, or you are gonna regret it. Okay?’
‘I’m terrified,’ I said, voice dripping with sarcasm. It was the best I could do and in any case, the short conversation seemed to have exhausted Yates’s stock of empty phrases and emptier threats, because he shouted a single expletive and hit the pedal, stirring up such a quantity of dust that I’m sure his friend Davis would have disapproved.
I fished downstream the next morning, tucking myself into a creek entrance and working the snags repetitively. Anyone who thinks barra fishing is easy needs to see just how frustrating it can be when the bloody things won’t cooperate. Even here in some of the richest water in the world it can be a struggle.
Of course, there are times when it is easy. When the creeks are running turbid brown after the wet, mangrove and reed lined channels between the flood plains thick with bait, it’s possible to score fish after fish, woofing up lures or live baits like there’s no tomorrow.
Now, however, frustration started to build. Perhaps it was a throwback to primitive times, when a hunter was judged on his ability to bring home a feed, but non-anglers have no idea just how much of an angler’s self-esteem is tied up in his ability to catch fish.
I did my best to stay positive – watching the water for signs of underwater action through my sunnies – placing the lure deep into structure. I kept it free of weed and swimming right, changing brands and types as conditions permitted. Even a long session with soft plastics failed to produce the goods.
I was working a likely looking snag in the middle morning – a newly fallen tree with branches that covered two hundred square metres of water area. I’d noticed several distinct fish arches showing on the sounder, and was braced for a strike when I heard the growl of a two stroke outboard motor approaching from around the bend.
I turned to look, annoyed. Ever since I switched over to four strokes, silent and sweet, the racket of old technology motors gets on my nerves. This one was travelling fast. I braced myself for the bow wave and noise, trying not to feel pissed off at what the passing vessel might do to my prospects.
Finally, long after I first heard it, the boat came around the bend, a big old punt like the pros use, wide in the beam and with unusually high freeboard. Two things held my attention. One was Wallaby Yates, perched up high in the bows, staring straight ahead. Terry, in the stern, had his pink left hand on the tiller arm of an old blue band Mercury outboard, from which a cloud of smoke emanated, hanging in the air until long after they had passed.
What really caught my attention, however, was the lack of fishing rods. Instead, a canvas-wrapped bundle dominated the centreline, almost as tall as a man and obviously heavy, for the hull sat low in the water. As I watched, the motor faltered and the boat started towards me.
Even as I prepared myself for whatever confrontation was to come I was surprised to hear raised voices, then the engine blaring again and the boat turning away from me, continuing downstream. For some reason they had changed their minds about coming over to have a go at me.
I stared after the craft and its mysterious cargo as it faded into the distance, trailed by a blue plume of smoke. Only once the waves it left behind had ceased smashing in the bank did I cast again, my mind busy – troubled by what I had just seen.
Two hours later I had moved downstream about a mile, taking considerable care stalking my way up to a patch of snags, motoring in with the electric. Now that the sun was high I switched to a deep diver, working it maybe three metres down, with every trick in the book – twitches, stops and pulses.
I had just settled into the rhythm when I heard the unholy roar of that punt as it blared back upstream. Now the canvas-covered load was gone, and I could see the Yates boys clearly, grinning when they saw me, the hull deviating my way.
The Mercury roared, and I stopped mid retrieve as it struck me that they were now moving very fast, and directly towards me. Fifty metres. Thirty. White water licked around the bow as the punt gained more speed.
I dropped the rod and settled into the seat, reaching for the key. The pricks, it seemed, were going to ram me.
‘You bloody idiots!’ I shouted, but still the punt bored on. It was heavier and more solid that my Stessl. I had no doubts as to who would come off worse if they struck.
I turned the key, knowing it was already too late. They were almost on me. I hit the throttle with the base of my hand even as the Honda purred into life.
Now, the punt within reach of my boat, Terry Yates heaved the tiller across, and the punt turned sharply away. By then I was also moving, but both courses of action were too late to prevent some contact. The blunt bow of the punt scraped the paint from a hand’s breadth of my bow, rocking my hull.
I heard their maniacal laughter, then tasted a blast of two-stroke smoke as they accelerated again.
‘Idiots,’ I called again, slamming my control lever back into neutral before I hit a snag. But the combined wake was rocking my tinnie madly and I was forced to hold on or be thrown overboard. By the time it had stabilised they’d rounded the bend back towards Camp Leichhardt.
By the time I got back to camp I was in an evil mood. I ate alone, thick droughtmaster t-bone, topped with tinned mushrooms. I ate at the camp table, gas lamp burning, listening to the distant but subdued sounds of camp life from the vans – televisions, music and people talking on their mobile phones.
Dishes done, I checked the fire, moving a few burning logs away from the edges. Satisfied, I stood up and strode from the camp. I had known ever since I reached the boat ramp that I couldn’t let the events of the day ride. It was time to pay the brothers a visit.
I walked down the track towards the Yates boys and their crappy old Regal van. I’d seen their Nissan parked there, not far from the shipping containers. I strode past Mayor Davis who sat alone in his camp chair, warming his hands over a tidy campfire.
The Yates boys, when I reached their van, were also outside, with a declining blaze putting out more smoke than heat. They each sat in a cheap BCF folding chair, with empty stubbies scattered around.
Wallaby Yates looked up at me and giggled insanely. ‘What do you want?’
Terry tried to stand up, but he fell sideways, knocking the chair over. After a comedy routine that ended with him crawling over to the Nissan and using the bull bar to pull himself up, he spat in my direction.
‘It’s the fucking cop. What are you gonna do, arrest us for breathing?’
They were drunk, off their stupid faces. It was like talking to zombies. I turned away, striding back to camp. Davis called out to me as I passed but I ignored him.
I felt like I was no longer on holidays, but back in Katherine. Picking up third generation alcoholics. Handcuffing twenty-year-old men who try to fight like warriors yet live the lives of sick, alcohol-dependent old men.
I know what the grog can do. Because it did it to me too.
I unrolled my swag and went to sleep with a heavy heart. Still angry. Still hurting.
If Davis was the unofficial mayor of Camp Leichhardt – Ian Henderson in the giant Wildcat caravan was the rich magnate. As if to prove his interest in the little people, he sent out an invitation for me to visit the next afternoon. I was tying a bimini twist, a complex knot at which I’m no expert, using a tree as an assistant and utilising one foot as well as my hands. My plan was maybe to run down to the river mouth the following day and have a crack at pelagic fish out to sea. Mixing things up sometimes helps, and the weather forecast was for five to ten knot sou’easters and seas under a metre.
The voice that startled me was soft and polite. Looking up I was surprised to see a young woman standing in my camp. She was drop-dead gorgeous, so much so that I completely lost my composure and tripped over myself, losing my grip on the knot in the process. This accident forced me to swear in a way I would not normally have done in the presence of someone I didn’t know. I expected a rebuke, but when I looked up she was laughing at me, and I couldn’t help but smile back.
‘Hi,’ she said, ‘My name is Malea.’
‘Hi. I’m Ben.’ It was about that time that I realised who she must be: Hendo’s young wife, the woman that Chook had dismissed as a mail order bride. I was stunned, I hadn’t expected her to be quite so glamorous. She was Eurasian in appearance, with dark hair to the small of her back, almond eyes and slender limbs.
‘I have an invitation for you,’ she said, ‘from my husband, Ian. He would like you to come over for a drink this evening.’
‘Yeah, well, thank you. Only I don’t drink.’
‘Oh, Ian knows that, he will be happy to offer you something soft. I don’t drink either. Well, only champagne.’
I laughed. ‘That’s kind of not drinking, isn’t it? Do you mind if I ask you what brought this on – why your husband wants me to come over?’
Malea shrugged those finely shaped shoulders. ‘Ian has heard about you from some of the others. He wants to meet you.’
‘Fair enough. What time do you want me?’
‘Around four o’clock. Is that suitable?’
‘Of course. I’ll see you then.’
With a toss of her head sending ripples of light across that glossy black hair, she sauntered back towards the Wildcat, leaving me a little amused, a touch more curious, and dealing with a very real and instant attraction.
The Wildcat was a beast of a caravan, though I got no further than the annex, floored with polythene sheet and decked out like a covered courtyard in a rich family home. Extra rooms popped up and out from the main body of the van, increasing the overall size to that of a good-sized cottage. A bar fridge sat on a pallet, and beside it a selection of those stacking tray modules full of clothes and practical bits and pieces like pegs, rope, barbecue tools and a dolphin torch.
Hendo was a shortish man, with parboiled skin and driving confidence. His grip was firm and dry when I shook his hands, and his gaze direct. There were few wrinkles on his face, tucked away in the corners of eyes and forehead. Chook had estimated the man’s age as around sixty-five, though he looked younger, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if a botox-wielding plastic surgeon had touched him up at some stage. His eyes were a little too direct, set in a permanent stare.
‘Pleased to meet you,’ he said. ‘I’ve heard a great deal about you.’
Yeah, I thought to myself, a cop who doesn’t drink, can’t catch fish … all the juicy stuff that becomes gossip-worthy in a closed community such as this. I looked around. ‘This is one hell of a caravan.’
‘Oh yeah, it’d want to be good for the dollars I paid for it. Took me months to make my mind up – there’s a lot of choice out there, even in this price bracket.’ He chuckled. ‘Had the dealers falling all over themselves. Shoulda seen the poor bastards when I got my cheque book out – had them shaking like schoolgirls.’
Malea came through the doorway with a plate in one hand, closed the screen door behind her and sat the plate delicately on the table in front of us – rice crackers and cheese. As she came close her fragrance hit me like a sledgehammer, and my eyes were drawn to her. I couldn’t keep them away as she brought me a can of lemon squash.
‘Would you like a glass for that?’ she asked.
‘No thanks, I’ll take it as it comes.’
With a nod and a smile, she took a champagne flute from a shelf beside the fridge, and carried a bottle to Hendo to open, a task he accomplished without fuss. This achieved, Malea lifted her glass, took a delicate little sip, and then perched on the chair, one perfect leg drawn up, bare foot on the seat.
‘So how’s the fishing going?’ Hendo asked.
‘Not too good, so far. But I enjoy it anyway. Always do. What about you?’
I’d noticed a knock-out fibreglass boat out beside the van, a Haines sportfisher with a ridiculous amount of horsepower on the transom. The gel coat was glaring white with dark blue pinstripes, and the interior decked out with plush pedestal chairs, a casting platform and grey marine carpet. A sounder/chartplotter combo the size of a small LCD television sat atop the console. I wondered if they actually caught fish in the rig. Looked too damn nice to put in the water.
‘I personally haven’t been out for a week or two,’ Ian told me, placing one arm possessively around Malea’s shoulder. ‘The little wife is the gun fisherwoman. Loves it.’
Opening the can of squash, I took a sip and smiled at her, partly to share my discomfort at Henderson calling her ‘the little wife,’ partly because among my other faults I have a weakness for fishing females. ‘Really?’
A glimpse of small, white teeth. ‘I’ve always enjoyed fishing. Since I was a little girl. My father used to take me.’
‘Good on you. Maybe you could teach me a thing or two.’
‘I’m sure I couldn’t teach you anything …’
Again she changed position, crossing her legs, one foot on her knee, showing off neatly manicured toenails and a gold chain around one ankle. I wondered how the hell she kept those feet so clean in this dustbowl of a camp. I had to consciously stop my eyes from roving further, snapping them back to the much less interesting Hendo.
‘I hear you’re a cop,’ he said.
I almost yawned. This was getting tiresome. ‘Yeah, up in Katherine.’
‘But you’re here on holiday, right?’
‘Yep. Just fishing … having a rest.’
‘Nice change, hey?’
Hendo planted his hands on his knees in the manner of a man about to deliver a lecture. ‘The problem is that magistrates and judges let crooks off scot-free. Slap ‘em on the wrist and send ‘em away to do the same again. Jails are like bloody holiday camps. The law needs balls, like it used to have, years ago.’ He held his hands out, palms up, as if cupping a pair of imaginary testicles.
I had heard these sentiments a thousand times before. I could have told him what Berrimah Prison was really like, what Sixty Minutes style documentaries don’t show about life inside – how soul destroying being locked in a room could be. Yet what was the point? The man was opinionated and unlikely to welcome contradiction. Instead I took a long swig of lemon squash and avoided staring at Malea.
‘How long are you planning on staying?’ Hendo asked.
‘A week, maybe more. Until I get some fish.’
He appeared to consider this, leaning back in the seat and giving his stubby some attention. He intrigued me. He didn’t appear to be into fishing, and why else would a man spend three or four months in a place like this? The money for the van and F250 came from somewhere. I wanted to know where, and had nothing to lose by asking. ‘You’ve obviously made some money,’ I said. ‘What line of work were you in?’
‘I’m what the newspapers call an entrepreneur,’ he smiled. ‘I’ve been in just about everything. Beef, timber, textiles. Made a killing. Got in and out of the stockmarket at the right time too.’
‘Lucky you.’ If the sarcasm in my voice was obvious I wasn’t too bothered. Okay, I had asked for it, but I found rich men’s stories of how they got rich pretty damn tedious, and this one was no exception.
He must have caught on, for something changed in his face. To say that the mask slipped summed it up. All the light went out of his expression, revealing only the mean, hard core underneath. Even his body language changed, folding his arms. ‘There’s plenty of other rivers – why don’t you go down the Gulf a bit. I heard the Limmen’s fishing well at the moment.’
This was a polite version of the Yates boys’, ‘Why don’t you get the fuck out of here’ speech. I aped his body language, folding my own arms. ‘You don’t like cops either, I take it.’
‘That’s not true. It’s just that – people are here to relax – you’re making everyone nervous.’
I looked at the smarmy, arrogant little prick and realised that he was making me twice as angry as the Yates boys had. They had the excuse of being stupid. This bloke was just an arsehole.
‘Why?’ I asked. ‘You got something to hide?’
‘No. But I don’t want you here.’
I decided that next time I went camping I’d tell everyone that I was a plumber, or a dentist. For the first time since I had arrived I considered doing exactly what he had just suggested, pulling up stumps and pissing off somewhere away from the Nomads and their satellite dishes, their baby dogs and suspicions.
Looking up I met Malea’s eyes and it was as if she read my mind. There was something knowing in that look and I realised that there was more to her than met the eye, a lot more than the ‘mail order bride’ Chook Fowler had dismissed her as.
‘I’m not going anywhere,’ I told Hendo. ‘This is a public place, and I don’t really give a shit if you like me being here or not. You or your mates.’
Hendo squared his shoulders as if trying to show me that he had brawn as well as brain. ‘Suit yourself. This is a free country. Sort of.’
I stood up, drained my can and crushed it in one hand, before placing it ever so gently on the table. It was a show-off thing to do, and a bit pathetic, but I had to do something. I turned to Malea. ‘Thank you for your hospitality.’
The apology was in her eyes, shame at what her man was like. I looked back down at Hendo. ‘See you later.’ I would have liked to add the word dickhead, but there was no point in a declaration of war.
If I had to take these blokes head-on, the less they knew about my intentions the better.
Back at my camp I settled down to a quiet meal of snags and spuds, finished off with a giant slice of apple pie Shirley sent over for me. I was determined to be on the river early the next morning. The less time I spent in this insane camp, I decided, the better off I would be.
On the river before six, the sun was still a deep glow below the horizon. Dawn on a Top End river is one of the side benefits that few people apart from anglers ever know. The smell is complex and intoxicating, a mix of flying fox urine, heady blossoms, and the river water itself, deep and inviting. I inhaled this mixture like a drug and idled downstream, unwilling to open the throttle right up and break the spell.
There was always something to see – a diving cormorant surfacing with his catch beside a snag, a croc having a peek at me before slinking back below the surface and away. A sea eagle or brahminy kite swooping low over the water or picking his prey to bits in the high branches of a dead tree. Once or twice, seeing a school of pop-eye mullet breaking the surface, I cut the motor and peppered the area with casts, but whatever had been chasing them was not to be tempted.
I motored about six miles downstream, stopping finally at a snag-filled reach of river that looked promising. I cut the motor and drifted with the ebb, working over every bit of structure I could find. Fine mist was still ghosting off the surface and I felt confident. It looked so good. Something had to happen.
Even so, I was prepared to be patient. Sometimes you have to be like that. After an hour without a touch I changed lures, then every ten minutes after that. An old scarred red Nilsmaster, gold bomber, barra classic; finally, a Halco deep diver in Qantas colours.
Persistence. There lay the key, surely. The fish were quiet, inactive, but all I had to do was run one past the nose of a fish and he’d strike. Sooner or later it would happen.
Around nine I heard an outboard, yet quiet and subdued. A four stroke. A boat appeared upriver and powered towards me. The Haines Signature sportfisher. That gorgeous fibreglass hull.
I don’t know which I recognised first, the beautiful boat or the beautiful woman at the tiller, but by then she had seen me too, and slowed up. It was Malea, dressed in khaki shorts and shirt, polarised sunglasses a stripe across her face.
‘Good morning,’ she called.
‘I wondered if I would see you down here.’
‘No, not a touch so far.’ I so wished I had something to show off, preferably bright silver and a metre long.
‘Do you want to tag along with me? I know a spot that’s fishing well at the moment.’
I shrugged. ‘I can’t do any worse.’
Malea turned those sunglasses-covered eyes right on me, looking like an advertisement for everything from lipstick to King Gee shirts. Her black hair was tied back into a ponytail, and if anything it accentuated the fine structure of her face. ‘I’m glad I saw you, Ben, I wanted to apologise for my husband. He was rude to you.’
‘It’s okay. I don’t mind.’
‘No. He was being an asshole.’
I noticed that she said asshole, the American way, instead of arsehole, and to me that made it a little less of an insult, more of a joke. Searching her face, I couldn’t tell if she said it with feeling or not.
‘Come on then,’ she urged. ‘I want to fish.’
I stowed my rods into the upright holders and pulled the starter so the Honda bubbled away in idle. ‘Ready when you are.’
Malea took off at speed. The Haines was fast, and the GPS showed twenty knots when I settled back a hundred metres behind her, tracking in the calm in the middle of her wake.
I had mixed feelings, I had to admit. The fishing had been frustrating, sure, but deep in some old-fashioned core of me I resented having this young, gorgeous woman showing me where to fish. After all, I had grown up here in the north and spent much of my childhood and youth on the Roper, the Vic, the Adelaide, the Daly. I’d caught at least a dozen fish over the old fifty pound benchmark, and one that approached eighty. I knew my campcraft, could navigate by the stars and feed myself on billy goat plum and water lily tubers if I had to. A bushman by any measure. This young thing was presuming to show me a thing or two, and it rankled.
There was another source of unease. Malea was one hell of a nice chick. I liked her a lot. Could easily like her too much. I had come here to relieve some stress, but heading off into the wilds with another man’s wife was not the most relaxing pastime. I wondered if it might lead to the kind of trouble I had come here to escape.
Malea led me downstream for ten or so minutes before a mangrove island loomed ahead. There she cut the motor and waited for me. ‘It’s very shallow around here,’ she called, ‘you’ll have to tilt the motor up to get through.’
I said nothing, but merely did as she suggested, using the power trim to get the prop up out of the mud as we approached the shallow side of the island. From what I could see the area did not seem suitable for fishing. I could see mangrove stubs on the bottom, big mullet leaving ripples and a turbid cloud as they pulsed away across the flats. Even, once, a mud crab the size of a dinner plate, scooting sideways, spooked at our approach.
At this stage Malea stopped, took her rods out of the holders and laid them flat along the deck. I followed suit, still confused as to where she was intending to take me. This water just didn’t seem to go anywhere.
Then we were into the mangroves themselves, well behind the island, and a channel not much wider than the boat. The outboard skeg, tilted as it was, struck mud constantly, leaving a churned up trail of dirty water behind us. The channel went on and on.
Miraculously, it opened out, gradually at first, and then reverse-funnelled into a genuine lagoon, studded with water lilies and sunken timber, maybe five or six hectares in extent. The prop ran free, and I tilted the motor down so it could bite better in this deeper water. Malea pulled up, obviously enjoying the stunned surprise on my face. ‘The depth in here is just a few metres and the water temperature is warmer than the main river. I’ve done quite well here, lately.’
‘How the hell did you find it?’
‘Google Earth. Ian has the pro version and sometimes I have a play with it.’
‘Would you like to tie your boat up and join me? It’ll be more fun to fish together.’
‘Yeah, if you want me to.’
‘Fishing is so much better when you’ve got someone to watch, don’t you think?’
I wasn’t sure. Under most circumstances I’m probably happier alone, but then I’d never had someone who looked like her to fish with. ‘Just give me a minute to get organised.’ Motoring over to a substantial snag, I made the bow rope fast. When Malea came alongside I passed over my rods, tackle box, and a small cooler that contained sandwiches, biscuits and drinks. This done, I stepped from hull to hull, both being so remarkably stable that they shifted only a little as I did so.
Settling into the bow seat, I smiled at her. Up close, she was simply stunning, her legs brown and athletic, skin with a lustre I don’t think I’d ever quite seen before. By climbing onto that boat I was aware that I was already doing something dangerous, but Malea did not appear to think so, and besides, no one would ever see us here.
With an expert hand on the tiller, Malea motored further into the lagoon, the Yamaha scarcely ticking over. A grey heron gave us an irate honk and broke into an ungainly run, beating his wings as he went, finally getting airborne at the water’s edge. One or two ducks paddled away. A mozzie landed on my forearm and I slapped at it, leaving a smear of blood on my skin.
Finally, without saying a word, Malea switched off the ignition, and pointed at the Minn Kota, by which I understood that she wanted it in the water. I leaned over, released the clip, and lowered the skeg. Then, standing, I lifted one of my rods and unclipped the hooks from a runner. Malea was doing the same. I noted her gear. Loomis rods and Chronarch reels. Nothing but the best. A lot of southerners and youngsters use eggbeater reels these days, but I am a purist. Baitcasters are, to me, the mark of someone who knows how to fish. I had to put Malea in this category.
My first cast was a loosener, but even so I felt the change here. The water was charged as if with an electric current. Insect life everywhere. Archer fish chopping at the surface. Swirls. Spider webs intricately spun, billowing between tree trunks like silk parachutes.
Malea fished in silence, and I gave thanks for that. I hate chattering anglers. Silence is part of the attraction, part of this world, and the noisy often miss clues and nuances that reward the listener, the observer.
The lure, a shallow runner, black and green, wiggled its way back to me, just shy of the surface. Having almost reached the boat a silver flash appeared from nowhere, not touching the lure, but visible nonetheless, leaving a disturbed surge on the surface. I dragged the rod tip sideways, trying to entice a second strike, but no result. I turned to Malea, intent on her own cast, and mouthed, ‘I had a follow. First cast.’ She smiled encouragingly, and I went back to work, picking out a floating pandanus frond half draped on a protruding snag, sending the lure a few metres past it, cranking quickly for a few turns before dropping back the pace, twitching a few times…
Hook-up. Shit. Second cast in this strange, magical place. This was no small fish, not bothering with the usual leap, but instead a headlong dive for cover that saw it tearing line against serious drag.
‘Hey, well done,’ Malea encouraged from behind me, but I was more intent on thumbing the spool and trying to get some control over the fish. I heard the electric outboard whirr as she motored us gently sideways, giving me some angle to work with. I felt the stretched tension as the Stren braid touched sunken timber and I swore under my breath. I could still feel the fish, but there was a rubbing sensation between us, indicating that somewhere down there she had wrapped me tight around structure.
Freespooling the reel is an old trick that sometimes works, letting the fish think she is free and encouraging her to swim back out of her underwater maze. I kept a thumb on the spool, ready to apply pressure if needed, but let the line go completely limp. Thirty seconds, a minute passed. Hoping. This was only my second hook-up of the trip. I needed this one.
Finally, instinct telling me it was time, I began to wind, taking up the slack line until the pressure came on again. This was make or break time. I lifted the rod tip and gave it every ounce of pressure I could exert without pulling hooks or mangling split rings. To my relief and pleasure the fish came with me, no trace of the previous extraneous pressure.
‘We’re in the clear,’ I grunted, and this time I gave the fish no chance to re-enter its hideaway. I used my thumb like a vice, grudging every metre of run. Up close to the boat I couldn’t stop another ten metre surge, but managed to put on the brakes just shy of the timber.
Tiring now, the fish let me lead her towards the boat. Coming up beside the gunwale she was just magnificent. A metre from nose to tail, silver in her scaled suit of armour, eyes shining orange back up at me. Truly the queen of Australian sport fish. All the mystery and beauty of the North in one ancient, perfectly adapted package.
Malea netted her for me, and together we lifted the fish onto the carpeted deck. While my companion took a dozen snaps with a tiny Panasonic camera I worked the barbless trebles out with my thumb and forefinger, while the broad tail padded hard against the carpeted deck.
‘What a beauty,’ Malea said.
One hand under her belly and the other behind the anal fin, I lifted her over the side and pushed her nose first back into the water. At first nothing happened, but then with a pulse of that tail she drove down and away, almost lazily.
I looked back up at Malea, grinning like a mad bastard.
‘You let her go,’ she said.
‘The first one,’ I explained, ‘I always let the first one go. Family tradition.’ People who don’t fish will never understand this – the relationship between hunter and prey. The purist will never weaken the species for the sake of his sport. His love is pure, but for him to eat, one must die, perhaps more than one, but he knows his place in the food web more than most – that his fate is linked with the species he chooses to pursue.
Within ten minutes of probing, Malea hooked up also, landing a feisty eighty centimetre beauty that she kept for the table. I followed up with one of my own, just a few centimetres over legal size that would give up delicious, pan-sized fillets later.
Close to noon, we tied the boat up on a grassy bank and ate our lunches, picnicking like old friends, full of a sense of privilege at the spirit of this place and being fortunate to hunt and partake of the creatures that inhabited it. I am no dab hand at sandwiches, but I ate hungrily. I dusted the crumbs from my legs and swigged enough water to drown a cat.
‘How did you meet Hendo?’ I asked finally. Malea was sitting on a towel, legs drawn half up, hair tied back loosely. The question was begging to be asked. Why would someone like you be with someone like him?
Her smile never faltered, but for the first time since we met her eyes took on a defensive, if not to say protective, glimmer. ‘That,’ she said softly, ‘is none of your business.’
I could have slapped myself for being a fool. God, I hardly knew her, had no right to ask a question like that. ‘Of course not,’ I said, ‘sorry. Shouldn’t have asked.’ Once a cop, always a cop. Can’t help the curiosity, the questions. To hide my discomfort I stood, stiff from the boat and sitting. ‘Might stretch the legs for a minute.’
‘Of course.’ She stood, smiled as if to reassure me that there were no hard feelings – that we were still good with each other, then shook off the towel and crushed it under her arm. ‘And then I will finish showing you how to catch fish. Okay?’
I grinned back. ‘Looking forward to it.’
We ambled along the bank of the lagoon, trying to recapture the camaraderie I had sensed before I asked my dumb question. I think we were both trying hard, but there was a new awkwardness between us. As if to kill the silence I pointed out tracks on the damp ground at the lagoon’s edge, and the animals they belonged to. Wallaby. Dingo. Ibis. Up ahead a good sized croc ambled into the water with a splash, holding station a few metres out, watching us through those armour plated mounds that sheltered his eyes.
I watched respectfully as we walked past, and had scarcely travelled on another twenty metres when I stopped dead at the strange sight on the lagoon bank up ahead. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to cut two logs, and set them into the bank, leaning at an angle out from the bank. These were, in turn, fixed to uprights with expert ‘Cobb and Co’ fencing wire ties. The structure was not designed for longevity, but to facilitate the rapid loading and unloading of something from a small boat.
‘What the hell’s that for?’ I wondered aloud. Malea shrugged, but kept pace with me as I strode quickly to the spot.
The structure was no more than what it seemed, yet the galvanised wire had not yet rusted. It was a recent construction.
‘Maybe someone camped here,’ Malea said, ‘wanted an easy way of keeping their boat in the water.’
That explanation had occurred to me; it seemed like the most reasonable possibility. But why would someone do that much work for a mere campsite?
I was about to start walking back towards the boat when I spotted something unusual in the grass. Something small and black. I squatted down and picked it up between thumb and forefinger. It was a black plastic tool with a spike on one side and a hex head grip on the other, no thicker than a pencil, and shorter than my little finger.
‘Now what the hell is that?’
Malea stepped closer, craning her neck to look. ‘No idea.’ I put the thing in my pocket and she looked at me strangely. ‘Aren’t you supposed to be on holidays?’
I knew what she was really saying: Why the hell don’t you stop worrying about everything and everybody and enjoy yourself?
It was a bloody good question. I wish I knew the answer.
The Barrage Store was a fifty minute drive up the track. After recovering from shock at the price of diesel, I filled the tanks, then bought supplies inside, waiting behind half a dozen Roper women lined up with basket loads of groceries, the kids running amok between the corridors and outside, snot nosed and smiling, dark skin glowing. One little girl half hid between her mother’s legs, peeping out at me, smiling, hamming it up with a natural theatrical instinct.
The Engel fridge brimming with fresh milk, butter and fruit, I drove another half hour on dirt road through Mara, and finally *Gajiyuma, an Aboriginal township of around a thousand people. This was a dry community, with signs at the borders proclaiming a liquor free area. The area immediately before the restricted zone was littered with thousands of discarded alcohol containers. Acres of them. Wine casks, bladders, bottles and cans. Plastic bags, old drums. Enough rubbish to keep a recycling depot busy for a year.
The settlement occupied the slopes and summit of a hill, falling away to the river some distance away. It was typical of larger indigenous communities. Housing ranged from older, often abandoned or burned out prefabricated dwellings the size of Wahroonga or Toorak bathrooms. Amongst them were newer, elevated homes, some well-kept. Abandoned cars lay everywhere, along with camp dogs, so coated with cattle ticks that they shone in the sunlight.
You cannot, however, judge an Indigenous community with Southern eyes, because you are looking through the filter of comparative privilege into what was and remains another culture. You are looking at a culture caught in the jaws of change. Yes, they have no tradition of picking up rubbish. It simply does not occur to them. Why would it? For fifty thousand years you dropped that mussel shell or bone when you have finished with it and soon enough a dog, or a bird, or ants, will take care of the rest. Now, however, the rubbish dropped is not bone and shell, but plastic and foil. The communities have grown into towns, and cannot cope with the numbers of people. Their waste. The rubbish.
White nurses teach mothers to use disposable nappies on their babies rather than holding them up over a bush when they are ready to go. You see the result – soiled nappies blown up against the low chain mesh fences that surround the buildings.
You see that there is no running water to a house. The women have carried water as their mothers did before them and it does not faze them. Extended family groups still go out bush and get tucker. There is food at the store and since the intervention some of the money comes in the form of goods.
You see the starving camp dogs and you wonder why no one looks after them. You don’t understand that you are seeing not a master-servant scenario like in North Ryde, Logan or Glenside, but a complex, symbiotic relationship that goes back at least ten thousand years. These people will rarely pull ticks off the dogs, nor take them to the non-existent vet, nor do more than throw the odd bone for them to fight over. You think this is cold. But this is not your world. It is theirs.
People change, over time. Expectations change. But so many times I have seen white noses wrinkle in distaste at what are so often termed primitive conditions. Third world conditions. Strip away the houses, the grog, and the crowded dwellings, and you have a well-adapted people trying to do what they have always done, only they can’t, because Uncle who showed the boys how to hunt is drunk in Katherine with a five-year life expectancy. Auntie who once dug for mussels in the mud is with him; singing for him when he fights, crying over him when he falls. Bearing children she does not have the focus to raise, so that they become the responsibility of the group, or often, an overwhelmed Department of Health and Community Services.
Washing machines? Why? Clothes are a white man’s requirement in any case. Wash dishes? There is no tradition of hygiene. It wasn’t necessary. Toilet paper? Would a man carry a roll everywhere he walks? Of course not.
White society has brought many things these people did not need or want. Worst of all they brought grog. Cask wine. Beer. Banned from the community itself, but it is there on the fringes. A toxic tide lapping at an island.
I stopped outside the cop station, built like a brick shithouse, with bars over the windows and a door that would stop a battering ram. I knew the sergeant here – Chris Reilly. He’d been out here for nearly five years – well and truly a full tour of duty in this part of the world.
Stepping into the entry, I closed the door, and the roar of the generator faded to a hum. I fronted the counter with its blast of frigid air from the air conditioner. I rang the bell and Chris appeared, a naked baby in his arms. It took him a few seconds to recognise me, but then I hadn’t shaved for a couple of days, and we hadn’t met up for a while.
He knew me though. They all did. I was famous in a way. I was famous for one thing, and it wasn’t something I liked to remember.
‘Ben, isn’t it? Ben Mulligan?’ He patted the baby’s back gently.
He smiled. ‘Man, it’s nice to have one of the boys down here.’ Still without letting go of the kid he unclipped a waist-high gate in the counter and let me through. ‘Come in and have a cuppa. What the hell are you doing here?’
‘Holiday. A bit of fishing down at Camp Leichhardt.’
‘Yeah, with all the wrinklies, huh?’
We went out the back door of the station and across to one of two police residences, still inside the same compound. This building was constructed no less strongly than the station itself, also barred on the windows and with solid security doors. Communities like Gajiyuma could, and occasionally did, erupt.
In spite of the blockhouse façade, however, someone had made an attempt with the garden: a bougainvillea in full flower the highlight, climbing over and around an archway made of two-inch poly pipe over steel pickets.
Chris led me through the front door and into the living room of the house, strewn with the paraphernalia of a young family – cardboard nappy boxes, a change table, a bouncer. The TV was on and a young woman looked up as I came in. She was about twenty-five and pretty, but with lank, sweat-stained hair and a nervous little smile. She stood up and we shook hands. Her face was pale, as if she never went outside into the sun.
‘How do you have it, love?’
‘No sugar and a good bit of milk, please.’
Settling onto the lounge I waited for Chris to do the same. ‘No offsider?’
‘Yeah, young Indignenous bloke by the name of Eric Swanson. A good kid. He’s in court in Katherine. Took a paddy wagon full with him.’
That was normal. These bush stations generally had to clear the cells out and take the prisoners in for court. There was little or no hope of them attending on their own.
‘You’re down at Camp Leichhardt, you said?’ Chris asked.
‘Yeah, they’re quite a bunch. Cross between a retirement village and the Wild West.’
Chris had a bit of a chuckle at that. ‘They don’t cause me any grief, that’s the main thing. From what I’ve heard they’ve even got their own laws – think they’re a friggin’ town or something.’
‘They’re full of ideas, that’s for sure. How are things around here?’
‘I’ve never seen the community so bad. People wandering around pissed out of their minds. Lots of domestic violence. Coupla deaths even. Well, more than usual. Had the coroner out two days ago.’
I said nothing, just nodded. There’s nothing to say. Just waited until he was ready to go on.
‘So, what brings you in here? You should be out on the river.’
‘Had to get a few things at the Barrage. Thought I’d come out and say g’day. Besides, I wondered if you might be able to help me with something.’
‘Yeah? What with?’
I dug in my pocket and pulled out the black plastic object I had found near the makeshift dock on the lagoon bank. ‘You got any idea what this is?’
Chris took it in his hand and turned it over, studying it minutely. ‘Where’d you find it?’
‘Down the Roper.’
‘Yeah, looks like some kind of fishing reel tool. Some of them come supplied for changing spools and that. Must have got dropped.’
‘Okay, that makes sense.’ Strangely, I was a little disappointed. I took the thing back and returned it to my pocket.
Chris cocked an eye at me. ‘Can I enquire why you want to know?’
I shrugged. The whole thing seemed so trivial now. Suggesting that I had misgivings about goings-on at Camp Leichhardt seemed quite ridiculous now. A few thugs and one rich old bastard who didn’t like me being there, and they might be up to something. Big deal. What was it? What the hell could you get up to out there? ‘Nothing really,’ I said. ‘I’m not exactly Mr Popularity in the camp. One or two of the residents seem like they’ve got something to hide. I wondered if you’d mind me running a check on them. See if they’ve got form.’
Chris handed the baby to his wife, who placed a hand under each shoulder and lifted. I stared at the five-month old face, pink toothless mouth cracked into a wide grin, and felt a twinge of … well, something. That maybe I should be living in some outpost in an official police residence full of nappies and infant formula.
‘Come on,’ Chris said, ‘come through and we’ll sort this out for you.’
Sitting in front of the computer, coffee in hand, Chris offered me a few dirty jokes that had already down the rounds in Katherine. Had probably started there. I laughed as if I’d never heard each corny punchline before and watched the screen evolve into the program known generically as LEAP, the Law Enforcement Assistance Program. This was a criminal history and crime reporting database.
‘Give us a name,’ Chris asked.
‘Yates, Terry. Probably Terrence. Heard of him?’
Chris shook his head, lips together so a bristled dimple formed in his chin. ‘Nah. Not that I can recall, anyway.’ He stopped talking and rattled away with his fingers before clicking the find button and waiting while the satellite dish on the roof did its thing and pulsed the request across a thousand kilometres of wilderness.
The mug shot came up, along with an arrest history. We were both quiet, reading through the list, starting with the most recent: using an offensive weapon with intent to intimidate, and going back through DUI, assault, motor vehicle theft. He had done hard time in Berrimah, and there was an alert to some Queensland offences.
‘Nice bloke,’ Chris said.
‘Looks like it. Can you print that off for me?’
‘Sure. Just got to plug her in.’ I stared at Terry Yates’s mug shot while I waited. Pinched lips. At war with the world. God, I hated people like that. The printer whirred to life and started gobbling paper.
‘I’d like to check his brother now. Everyone calls him Wallaby but that won’t be his real name. Quieter type. Probably not quite so much trouble.’
Chris jabbed at the screen. ‘Here, it says that Terry has a brother called John. That must be him. Let’s run the name and see what we get.’
I was right about that. John, aka Wallaby Yates had a history, but without the assaults. Robbery with menaces. Nothing for two years. Without me asking, Chris hit the print button and out rolled the paper again.
‘Okay, now how about a bloke called Ian Henderson.’
Chris typed away, then hit enter. I craned forward. This was the one I really wanted, and I felt a guilty heat in my face at the reason why. I wanted him to have form a mile long, I wanted it to be even easier to hate the bastard. Maybe even get rid of him. Lock him up.
I studied the search result. Both the hits were men too young to be him. ‘Nah, unlikely to have done anything here. Try national.’
This was a separate database, and necessitated waiting while the machine ground its way through the connection. We drank coffee and chatted while we waited.
The computer found eleven matches, and my friend from the camp was the third we looked at. The mug shot was not recent, but it was him. The file was extensive for a man who had never been inside, despite several arrests and ‘suspected complicity’ in a number of cases ranging from bribery of police officials to extortion. The word murder jumped off the screen at me. In 1987 he had been questioned in connection with a killing funded by notorious Melbourne gangland figure Carl Williams.
‘Straight off Underbelly,’ Chris joked, but we were both absorbed.
In 1999 he was arrested for the possession of four hundred thousand dollars in cash. His lawyer had successfully argued that Hendo had found this windfall on his morning walk. He’d lost the cash, but walked without seeing a gaol cell.
I stopped reading while Chris again printed up the dossier, leaning back and draining my coffee to the dregs.
‘You’ve got some interesting company down there,’ he said.
‘Seems that way.’
‘Are you in danger? You haven’t been threatened, have you?’
I shrugged. ‘Kind of. There’s a lot of hot air floating around. Don’t know that I’m too worried yet. More curious as to what the hell’s going on.’
‘Don’t take any risks. Call me straight away if anything happens. Anything. Got it?’
His concern was touching. ‘Yeah, I got it. And thanks.’
There was a clang from out towards the road and we both looked up to see a young woman of eighteen or nineteen, baby in her arms, closing the gate and walking up the path towards the station. Her skin was that shiny ebony of the Roper people, the handsome bone structure, high cheekbones, dressed in a pink flowery dress that might have been fashionable in nineteen-twenties Melbourne. Community stores buy such things by the pallet, along with frozen white bread and tins of braised steak and onions.
Chris grunted, ‘Ellen. She’s a good stick. Often comes to tell me when something’s happening.’
She came through the door, shooing the dogs and flies that followed her back through the screen before closing it behind her. Coming up to the counter she looked directly at neither of us, keeping her eyes averted at twenty or thirty degrees.
I could smell the woodsmoke and sweat smell of her, not unpleasant when you are used to it. Just different.
The baby lay back, arching his spine and crying out. Ellen gentled him with a hand on the back of his head.
The lingua franca at Gajiyuma, along with most Top End communities, is Kriol, a broken English spattered with original language from six or more local dialects. Often, English words are pronounced in a way that suits Indigenous consonants, and spelled accordingly.
Old man is marluga. Animal becomes enimul. Numbers start off with: wan, tu, dri. Feller becomes bala. Clever becomes kleba. The Kriol bible, a translation that has been in print for as long as I can remember, calls the three wise men, dri bala klebabala. To have a swim is to bogey. To fight is to fait or have an agyumen. The act of sexual intercourse is, fittingly, called ruding, among other things.
In print, Kriol can sound patronising, but that is a problem for the cross-cultural reader, not the speaker. Kriol is a multifaceted, dynamic language that serves as a bridge between vastly different tongues.
‘Big Billy an’ Long Joe fait long taim down ribber bank. Joe bleed sleepin’ long taim.’ Ellen fired the sentence out at speed, making me work to understand the meaning.
‘He’s hurt bad?’
‘Horse Creek, you know, dat junction d’ere?’
‘Yeah. I know it.’
Chris lifted his gun belt from the counter and buckled it on, before picking up the phone and dialling a number. This, it transpired, was the local health clinic. He wanted someone to meet us down there. ‘You want to tag along?’ he asked me. ‘Big Billy can be hard to handle when he’s full of grog.’
It would be churlish of me not to help now that I was there. ‘Of course I will.’
The older I get the more I value the truth, and the less I tolerate bullshit. Pretending things don’t happen will not make them stop.
The cop 4WD – a Hilux with blue checkered police paint job and a cage, was out in the yard. As Chris and I drove off, I watched Ellen walking away, her face inscrutable.
The community scrolled past me as Chris did his best to climb through the gears despite obstacles such as dogs, kids on bikes, more dogs and rubbish that may or may not be hazardous to a vehicle tyre. A couple of Community Association utes were out and about, collecting bins, delivering firewood. People scarcely looked up from their card games as we passed – big circles under the shade trees, the endless games of cunce and five-card, cash and promises changing hands.
Most of the players were locals but there were also travelling card ‘sharps’ who moved between communities fleecing the less skilled inhabitants – a little less commonly since the Intervention reduced the amount of cash in circulation. Even so, the pros could afford the price of air taxi prices to land in the right places at the right times – coinciding with welfare and mining royalty payments.
The main part of the community ended, and we drove a maze of tracks down from the bottom of the hill towards the river. The scattered rubbish thinned as we moved further away, but even so, the amount was extraordinary. Burned out cars, discarded nappies, food tins and increasingly, alcohol containers despite us still being within the prohibited area.
The river neared. I could smell it, and then we were above the bank, looking down into a wide flood zone, dense with paperbarks. This was the same waterway, the same Roper River as I had fished for the last few days, but upstream. Still tidal at this point, full freshwater took over at the Barrage, where I had done my shopping earlier. Chris committed the Hilux to a steep decline, shifting into low gear and letting the engine do the braking, then on the flat, wrangling the wheel to the left and following a track between grey-barked casuarinas, slowing as the first people came into view.
We got out, hearing the shouts, striding fast along the sand until we saw the man who must surely be Big Billy, shirt off, showing a chest raked with ritual scars. He was tall; heavily built, ranting and raving. At his feet lay the prone body of a man. I felt the old anger, yet a sickly resignation. This was the shit I had come out bush to escape.
A drunken woman stood at a safe distance, haranguing, swinging her arms and shaking her head so curly long hair half covered her face. ‘You fucking arsehole. You gwei. Leave him alone. Fuck you…’ The rant went on and on; a melodious chant in a sing song voice.
Billy, turning to see us walking towards him, ignored her. Instead, he curled one fist into a ball and shook it at us. Even from that distance I saw the bloodshot eyes, the shaking tremens of his limbs. I had seen it before. Oh yeah, I knew all about grog. You get that glow in your head and nothing else matters. Only the glow, the chemical glow. No one can stop you. No one can tell you anything.
This man, however, was long past the glow, and into the sick downhill slide, when grog turns on its host organism and does its best to destroy it. When a human being drinks alcohol for two or three days and nights without stopping –no sleep, no food, just grog – things change. Irrationality, violent mood swings, feelings of persecution or, sometimes, invincibility take hold. Billy was deep in that state, protecting the fallen body of the man he had injured like some kind of predator. Chris stopped, and I stopped with him, watching.
‘The one on the ground is still alive,’ I said. ‘I just saw him move, but looks like a nasty head wound.’
I understood Chris’s hesitation at moving any closer. People in Billy’s state took some stopping. They often hardly felt pain in the conventional sense. ‘Is he a local man?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, but I haven’t seen him around for six or eight weeks. Normally a mild kinda bloke, until he gets a gutful of grog. Worked for the Community Association on and off for a couple of years.’
‘How do you want to do this?’
‘I’ll try and talk to him first, but it’s like reasoning with a zombie when they’re like this. Stay back a bit if you don’t mind. Come in if I need help.’
I did as I was told, remaining still while Chris walked another few paces through the trees. Billy half crouched, watching his approach with slitted eyes.
‘Hey, Billy,’ Chris called, ‘what you done to old Joe there?’
Billy stood tall again and stamped like a bull. ‘I hurt him fucking good, you know. Hit him good with a stick.’
‘How about you come back to camp with us now? Have some tucker. I’ll cook you up some meat and spuds. Okay?’
While Chris was talking another vehicle pulled up. A white troop carrier with the local health clinic’s logo on the side. An Indigenous male and European female got out and walked up. The woman was about twenty-three or four, freckled, with bloodless lips. Her mate hung back, watching.
‘Hi, I’m Shona, the community nurse here. Where is the victim?’
I pointed. ‘Still out there, unfortunately. You’ll have to wait a minute.’ I turned my attention back to Chris, who was advancing on Billy.
‘I haven’t seen you here before,’ the nurse said.
‘No, I’m a cop up in Katherine, here on holidays.’
A note of disbelief crept into her voice. ‘You come here? For holidays? You’ve got to be kidding.’
‘No, not here, downriver.’ I turned away. She was starting to annoy me.
Chris took another step and Billy reacted at last. Screaming with rage he brought one foot down hard on the prone man’s chest. Ribs broke with an audible crackle. Again the foot came down. Chris had no choice but to go in and I went after him.
Like most good cops in this kind of situation, he didn’t draw his firearm, instead using speed and footwork to step through flailing limbs and knock the drunk man flying with open palms. I arrived in time to grab one arm and twist it up behind his back, a restraining hold that gave Chris time to get cuffs on his wrists.
Billy’s victim, I saw, was bleeding from a cut just below the hairline. The nurse and her assistant were already beside him, opening a medic’s kit the size of a suitcase.
Even as we dragged Billy to his feet he was still trying to fight, and it took both of us to get him back to the Hilux and into the cage. Even after we closed the doors he hammered on them like a caged buffalo.
‘What are you gonna charge him with?’ I asked.
‘I’ll tell you in a second.’ Chris walked back to the nurse. ‘How bad is Joe?’
‘Pretty bad. Probably a skull fracture, maybe a punctured lung.’
Chris turned back to me. ‘Attempted murder, wouldn’t you think?’
‘Yeah, fair enough.’
Yet, there was a gravity in that word murder. And I was thinking, not for the first time, what a prick of a world it was when a man would get pissed off his brain and wake up, sober, in a prison cell, with the word murder on the charge sheet.
I half expected to get back to Camp Leichhardt to find my tent burned down and the boat holed, but nothing had been touched. I unloaded my newly filled water containers, courtesy of a tap at the Gajiyuma Police Station, and made a cup of tea. Chook came over to have a look at my barra fillets.
He stood there in his thongs, blue singlet, and ancient cotton shorts. ‘You bastard. Where’d you find ‘em?’
I smiled. ‘Can’t give away all my secrets, can I?’
‘Bastard,’ he repeated. ‘Want to come over and use the barbie?’
‘Might just have a quiet one, if you don’t mind. I got a pan there.’ I ran a hand over my forehead. All the shit, everything I had been trying to get away from, had built up inside me again. I needed silence, just the birds and the crackling fire, and a good morning on the river.
‘No worries, but if you feel like company after tea just wander over.’
It was almost a relief when he had gone, and I set about the mechanical business of cooking. Skinning the fillet and dropping it into a hot pan, dusting it with butter, salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon. That’s all a fresh fillet needs. I can vouch for it, having tried fish a thousand other ways. The important thing is to bring it out moist – just cooked, the meat breaking into natural sections and turning translucent, pearly white.
I had just finished eating and was into the cleaning up, washing my few dishes in a plastic tub, when I heard a vehicle, driving at a sedate speed across the track. It was the Yates’s old Nissan, one of the front wheels out of alignment, wobbling like a drunk. I placed the last item face down on the table, before drying my hand on a tea towel.
Stuff them. Their timing was, from their point of view, perfect. Sick to the stomach at what I had seen, confrontation was the last thing I needed. Vehicle doors slammed, and three men entered the fringes of light cast by my hissing gas lantern.
Terry and Wallaby Yates. Ian Henderson. All my fans in one visit, swaggering like the film stars they imagined themselves to be. I waited, arms crossed in front of my chest, trying to figure out some kind of tactic. Once upon a time it would have been easy – fight them. Years ago I had liked fighting, and was good at it. Yeah, even three of them. Taking out Hendo would be a good first move, then concentrate on the other two.
That was the old me. Now the best I could come up with was to let one of them hit me and charge him with assault. Take the punch. Drive him out to Gajiyuma and chuck him in the cells. Even this was fantasy. The other two wouldn’t let me get away with that.
They came closer, just a metre or two away. I was braced for a king hit when Hendo stuck his hand out. ‘I just came over to say sorry. Wanted to tell you that I was wrong to say what I said to you, and rude.’
It was my turn to ignore an offered hand. I don’t shake hands with verified criminals. Don’t believe a word they say either. I switched my gaze to Terry Yates. ‘I suppose you’re sorry too?’
His smile never faltered. ‘Yeah, real sorry. We shoulda made you feel welcome. Not threatened you and all that shit.’ Wallaby Yates was nodding along with his brother.
‘We all just like the quiet life,’ Hendo said. ‘Didn’t want someone diggin’ into everyone’s business. I can see now that you’re not like that.’
There didn’t seem much point prolonging the pain. I picked up a tea towel and started drying dishes, talking as I worked. ‘Well boys, I’d invite you to sit around for a drink, but as you know, I don’t have any beer. You can have a coffee if you like?’ I saw Terry glance at Hendo, then the shake of the head. I was relieved. I didn’t trust any of the three any more than I could kick them. Socialising as if we were mates would be too much effort.
‘Nah, we’ll get going,’ Hendo said. ‘No hard feelings?’
‘No feelings either way,’ I said, which was not quite true.
They walked back to the vehicle, climbed in and slammed the doors. Waving as they took off. God only knew why they had to drive the four hundred metres down here when any normal human being would have walked.
When they were gone, my pulse stopped racing and I put the billy on, deep in my thoughts, most of them of a suspicious nature.
Note: Gajiyama is a fictitious township, and is not intended to depict any particular community.
God how I loved that river, the channels and eddies, the sand bars, the limp pandanus clusters, the bony bream flashing in the sun as they fed in the shallows amongst the rock bars. Even the big dirty crocs catching the sun. Modern day dinosaurs. Cold-hearted bastards that have my deep respect.
I loved the Roper’s tides, even now, on the neaps, with three solid metres racing in and out over a hundred river kilometres, a wall of water that churned and sped, bringing food and pelagic baitfish, cleaning out the system. Bringing life.
I loved running down into the mouth, wind in my hair and the tide moving faster the closer I got, navigating the channels – dangerous stuff, with hidden rocks ready to rip the skeg off the motor. Whirlpools. Bigger, older, and crankier crocs.
The Stessl sat low in the water, with a twenty litre jerrican of petrol for back-up. In the rod holders were two heavier outfits, black stubby Shimano TLD reels packed with monofilament. One blue line, one pink, so I could tell the difference when they got tangled — always on the cards when trolling.
I timed the tide right, marking a good low water route on the plotter that would get me back through anything. A south easterly wind was blowing and I hit the first chop as I ran through the mouth, navigating between mud banks and giant dead trees carried down in the last flood and deposited in the shallows.
There were two sizable islands offshore from the river mouth. The closest of these was Maria Island, ten miles to the south. I motored towards it at full throttle, bow thumping lightly. I enjoyed the salt air, the occasional fillip of spray that touched my lips. The best part of a mile shy of the island I saw coral pinnacles on the sounder, rising out of twenty metres to just five or six below the surface. I cut the motor back to neutral and pulled down the closest of the two rods, spooled with eight kilo mono.
I had rigged a metre of forty-four-pound single-strand wire at the business end, terminating with a clip. Delving in my tackle box I took out a brand new Halco Laser Pro and fixed it on. Within a minute the lure was fluttering behind the boat while I prepared the other line.
Gulf waters don’t get the large, rolling swells of the western and eastern seaboards, but can be challenging. Thousands of square miles of relative shallows mean that the wind has a rapid and disturbing effect on the sea surface, building up a chop that can exceed three metres in height, more in cyclonic conditions.
At the moment, the wind chop was a user friendly half metre or so, and since I was running beam-to it was relatively comfortable. Both rod tips were soon twitching with the action of the lures. I checked them constantly, along with depth readings from the sounder, making sure I was in no danger of snagging up.
Fishing is a great time to think, and many things passed through my mind as I trolled towards the island. Malea was one of them. Her beauty. The strange marriage to Hendo – a man more than twice her age. A man she did not seem to like or respect.
My reaction to women, over the years, has always been one of instant attraction. If it’s going to happen it hits me pretty soon, and this one had struck me like a pick handle to the family jewels. I had almost been married once, to the hard-raised, suntanned daughter of a buffalo catcher from Pine Creek. She had a muscular, lithe body, and wallaby-in-the-headlights green eyes, but she met someone else on a boozy Saturday night in Darwin’s Vic Hotel just as I was plucking up the guts to offer her my world. Leanne was her name. I still saw her sometimes, and she always greeted me like a long-lost friend, with her horsewoman’s stride and tight blue jeans.
Malea, it seemed to me, was a woman I could stand toe to toe with and be equalled in all ways. Her physical competency both surprised and delighted me. Her intellect was at least as sharp as mine. There were hidden depths and undercurrents I sensed and wanted to explore. I did not want to put a name to what I felt for her but I am old enough to know that sometimes you can’t help who you fall in love with.
Her husband was a greater mystery still. Why was he here? What was he doing? I sensed that my only chance at Malea was to unlock the mystery, and I made the decision, at that moment, to make Ian Henderson’s business my business. Whether he liked it or not, I would unravel a few threads.
The starboard reel screamed like a banshee, breaking my train of thought. I turned so fast the boat rocked. When a Spanish mackerel runs, he runs at a speed only a wahoo or sailfish can match. Mind-blowing. In this case, however, scarcely had I got the rod out of the holder before the run stopped, and the line went slack. I reeled in, disappointed, but pleased that I could still feel the lure on the end of the line; that it hadn’t been bitten off above the wire as is sometimes the case.
The brand new lure, once I reeled it in all the way, sported a series of deep gouges along the paintwork, the calling card of scomberomorus commerson, the narrow barred Spanish mackerel. Somewhat flat, yet happy that my chosen technique had drawn some interest, I dropped the lure back out, set the lever drag and replaced the rod in the holder. Having done so I rummaged in my gear bag and pulled out the sandwiches I had made in the dark that morning, from tinned meat and thawed white bread purchased at the Barrage Store.
Despite the plain fare, I ate hungrily, staring back at where my lines sliced through the water, then to the sounder and the sea surface ahead, watching through my polarised sunnies for shallow water over rock or coral. The island loomed closer now, and I studied it with interest. Apart from an offshore outcrop, towering several metres out of the water, it was flat and low, with shelves of brown rock and the odd sandy cove.
I was thinking that it would be a nice place to spend some time with Malea, if our circumstances were somehow a lot different – a bit of swimming, some snorkelling perhaps, lazing around on the beach, driftwood bonfire, night on the sand …
I heard the other boat long before I saw it, powering south from the river mouth at speed. I have a good ear for outboards, and recognised the roar of the Yates brothers’ old Merc. Before long I could see their broad old punt – almost big enough to classify as a small barge – on a heading seaward of Maria Island. Soon it would pass not far from my current position.
Certain that they hadn’t yet seen me I lifted first one rod and then the other from the holders, reeling in the lures, hooking the treble hooks back on the ferrules and slipping them butt-first into the holders.
Starting the Honda, I was away in a surge of smooth power, heading towards the only protection I could see, that small offshore bommie. Terry and Wallaby Yates had not struck me as fishermen, and I could see another tarp-covered load in the boat. If they were up to something I wanted to know just what.
Moving slowly, keeping my head low, I was confident that they had not yet seen me. I headed behind the protective shard of rock and out of sight, skimming over water only two or three metres deep, and clear enough that I could see kelp beds and jagged coral down below.
A bait school broke the surface, splashing silver and white in the sunlight. I would have laid a bet that the kind of predators I was chasing were nearby – slashing, hacking at the baitfish, balling them up until their only avenue of escape was the surface, and that only temporary. As I watched, a Spanish mackerel, rushing up from the deep, jaws slashing, leapt clear of the water, sleek as a bullet.
Those other predators, the men in the boat I had seen, however, were more pressing, and now, half hidden, I waited for them to appear on the other side of the rocks. I didn’t have long to wait. Those old Mercs might be noisy, and suck fuel like there’s no tomorrow, but they go like the clappers of hell.
For a minute or two I kept my head down and watched. The boat maintained its original heading past the island. If I followed there was a good chance they would see me.
Torn, I looked at where the bait schools still skittered across the ocean surface. Damn it, I decided. I was a cop, even if I was on holiday. Besides, my Stessl was low to the water, and the Yates brothers had not struck me as the most observant of men.
I reached back, shifted the Honda into gear and accelerated after the punt, but not too fast. Prudence dictated that I remained at a distance of around two nautical miles, pretty much the limit of visibility between two small boats on the ocean.
Following the punt became irrelevant, in any case. As soon as I rounded the island the mast and hull of a large cruising catamaran came into view, and I did not have to be a genius to guess that was where the Yates boys were headed.
I decided that it was too risky to get any closer to the catamaran. Even now, a watchful person on the deck of the cat might have me in view. People doing illegal things were usually interested enough to have a good look around.
A breaking reef a couple of hundred metres to the south gave me the opportunity to loiter without looking suspicious. Changing direction, I motored across, and soon had both lures in the water. Anyone with a pair of binoculars on the cat would see me trolling. Enough of a cover, I hoped, to keep them going about their business.
The thought of binoculars had me delving into the front storage locker, where I kept a pair of Zeiss 3 x 28s, handy for spotting bait schools at a distance, checking out other boats and even picking channels through unfriendly river entrances. Taking off the lens caps I sat the instrument on the seat while I finished trailing my lines out. Then, after checking that I was not likely to run aground on that heading, I lifted the binoculars and scanned out to the Yates brothers’ boat, now just reaching the cat, a vessel that was even bigger than it had seemed at first glance, pushing fifty feet at the waterline, and at least half that across the beam.
The Yates boys were standing now, their punt tied up to the big cat’s stern. I saw the tarp-wrapped cargo clearly, and a man in the rear of the cat, sunglasses on. Wallaby Yates was busy with his fingers, working at a knot, lifting off the tarp and stowing it on the floor of the craft.
My curiosity reached fever pitch. Whatever was in that boat was valuable, but bulky; worth a lot of time, effort and subterfuge.
The starboard reel, the TLD20, suddenly screamed, line peeling out as if it were tied to a passing ski boat.
‘Jesus Christ,’ I shouted, almost dropping the binoculars. The cop part of me told me to leave the rod, lose the fish, find out what was under that tarp. The fisherman part of me was already reaching for the rod, scarcely able to lift it from the holder such was the power of that run.
The hallmark of a big mackerel is usually, but not always, the length of that first run. Two hundred metres is common, and a really big one will take upwards of three hundred metres of line from a spool, against a drag pressure that might exceed four kilograms.
From the amount of line remaining in the spool when I first started to pump and wind, this one had taken upwards of two hundred and fifty when he finally turned. I worked him hard, casting anxious glances across at the cat and the small boat scarcely discernible by eye, bobbing around at the stern.
With a hundred metres back on the spool, I was beginning to think that he was not so big after all, and that in a few minutes I would be able to sink the gaff into him and get back to studying the cat. At that point, however, he took off again, just to show me who was boss, taking away most of my gains.
Sweat pouring from my face, I worked like a mad bastard, wishing I was wearing my gimbal belt to get some of the pressure off my kidneys, wishing I had twenty kilo line so I could exert some authority, and wishing I could call a truce with the fish for a moment, pick up the binoculars and see what the hell was going on with the Yates brothers.
Fish, however, don’t work like that, and he had other ideas, this time a change in direction, now pointing his nose directly towards me and running at thirty or forty miles an hour, leaving me turning the reel like a chef beating cream, trying to collect the slack line and get some pressure back on the hooks that he was trying desperately to throw.
Finally, with the fish now fifty metres past me, the line came taut again, and I was relieved to find that I was still hooked up. Trophy sized Spanish don’t come along every day, and this one was a horse. His headlong run towards me had actually done me a favour – put a heap of line back on the spool without the real backbreaking labour of hauling him in.
A few minutes later I got to see him for the first time, a metre and a half of silver javelin, lit up like only big pelagic fish can be, twenty metres out from the boat. I guess this, too, was his first chance to see what was happening, and he didn’t like it one bit. Again he ran, but he was tired now, managing a mere thirty metres before I pumped him back.
One final run near the boat and I was pretty sure he was mine. The lure looked solid in the side of his jaw, and I wasn’t giving him a chance to get those teeth near the line up above the wire trace. Freeing my crank hand for a second I pulled the gaff from its clips and hung it ready on the gunnel.
Now I really gave it to him, skulldragging him beside the boat where he rolled, and I made no mistake with the gaff, jabbing the point deep into his shoulder, half standing so I had the leverage to drag him on board, twenty-five kilos or more of prime eating fish.
For just a few seconds I admired him, filled with privilege and pride, and just that slight twinge of sadness at plucking such a creature from the sea and taking him home in a box of ice. To me, however, catching and kill the food that you eat is much more honest than paying others to do the dirty work for you.
This was primeval – clean. Me against the natural world in all its savagery and beauty. Part and parcel of this was a responsibility to keep his flesh in the best possible condition. I bled him carefully in the splashwell, holding the tail, then slid him into the long insulated box, already prepared with a slurry of ice and seawater for just such a catch.
I washed my hands over the side, and dried them on a towel. Still shaking with strain and excitement I lifted the binoculars and scanned back towards the cat.
‘Shit,’ I spat. The cargo, whatever it was, had gone. Terry Yates was in the process of untying the punt, and Wallaby already had the motor going. As I watched, the man in sunglasses waved goodbye and they picked up speed, heading back north towards the river mouth.
One of them must have seen me. The big punt almost stopped, then turned, heading across towards me, stopping at a distance of ten metres, much too close for my liking.
‘What are you doing here?’ Terry asked. The fake buddy-buddy crap from the previous night was gone, replaced by the old suspicious sneer.
‘Fishing,’ I said. ‘What are you doing? I didn’t even see you.’ I opened the esky and half-lifted the mackerel. ‘What a beauty, eh?’
Terry Yates’s guard dropped. ‘Yeah, good one. We’ve been fishing too. Haven’t we, Wallaby?’
‘Do any good?’ I asked.
‘Nah. Not a fuckin’ thing.’
Yates brightened. ‘See ya then.’
Even though the engine would have been hot, he had to pull start the Merc half a dozen times before it fired. I shook my head at their stupidity. If I was doing something illegal, I would at least make sure I owned a reliable outboard. As they turned tail and ran towards the river I was in contempt of their arrogance. They must have thought I was stupid. As far as I could see there wasn’t a fishing rod on the boat.
It was nice to have enough mackerel fillets to share. In the eating stakes, Spanish is about as good as it gets. In certain areas, ciguatera, toxins that move up the food chain in fish, can be a risk with the big specimens, but I’d never heard of it in this part of the Gulf.
I worked on the tables above the ramp, taking off the first clean fillet, halving it along the lateral line, cutting out the rib bones, and finally flipping it over and skinning each quarter, using a thumb sized slit in the skin to hold each as I worked the knife blade through.
Some of the Nomads, returning from the days fishing, loitered for a look. Some carried tubs of their own fish – a couple of mangrove jack, a barra or two. Forktail catfish for the desperate. A pair of old timers called Roy and Christo produced a Nally tub with half a dozen big brown mud crabs in the bottom, trussed up professionally so the claws didn’t take the fingers and toes of their captors.
‘Bloody good day,’ the older of the two, stump legged old Christo, told me. There was something of southern Europe in his voice. Greece, perhaps. ‘These crab,’ he said, ‘they come out of the mangrove at low tide. We use fresh bait; catfish heads. They come into our trap, and we bring them home for supper. I love this place.’
I gave away a chunk of mackerel to anyone who wanted it, and when Chook and his missus appeared, I invited them over for tea, not being sure they’d accept, but in my book, when someone has you over, you have them back, even if your camp is a damn sight more basic than theirs. They too, it turned out, had trapped a couple of mud crabs, and offered them up for an entrée. I wasn’t going to say no.
The crowd thinned, and I was just about done when Malea turned up, strolling down to the ramp as people do in places like this, checking out the catch, trying to get a handle on where the fish were biting.
I took my eyes off the job when I saw her, and in the process almost managed to give myself an accidental nick with my filleting knife. It had been a few days and the memory had started to dim. Now it came back in full force. She was wearing a cotton work shirt and tan shorts. Her hair was again tied loosely into a ponytail. She walked with hands in her pockets, smiling as she wandered up.
‘Ooh, a big Spanish. You lucky thing. Where did you get it?’
I smiled back. ‘Offshore, ten miles south or so, along a coral bommie.’
‘Do you want some?’
‘Really? Have you kept enough for yourself?’
‘Are you kidding?’ I waved airily at the pile of fillets. ‘Look what’s left, for Christ’s sake. I won’t eat that lot in a week.’ I lived alone; taking home an Engel full of fillets back to town had no appeal for me.
‘Okay then. Yes please.’
I trimmed the blood line off a section and sliced it into two sections, I popped one of these into a freezer bag and handed it to her.
‘Thank you very much.’
Taking my time now I gave my knife another touch-up on the steel and trimmed the rest of the fillet, packing it also into bags. Then it was time to clean up. The frame I would grill as soon as I got back to camp, throw it on the fire for a few minutes each side, then pick off the meat – it was the best of the lot, so this I laid in the esky over the bags of fillets. The skin, head, knives and waste meat I bundled up on my chopping board. I took a step towards the river, before pausing and smiling at Malea. ‘I’m just gonna chuck this down the ramp into the water.’
‘I’ll come with you.’
As we walked down we talked about nothing and everything. ‘You go out fishing today?’ I asked.
‘No. I had a lot to do around the camp. Maybe tomorrow or the next day.’
At the bottom of the ramp I walked with care. The tide was dropping, and there was a reasonable expanse of mud to cross before I could chuck the scraps in. I stopped before I did so, scanning out in the water. I knew that Malea, beside me, was doing the same thing.
‘There he is,’ she said, pointing out at the hump of armoured head just above the water, a dark silhouette against the reflected light of sunset. We watched the croc’s head slip beneath the water, united in our appreciation of how lucky we were to be able to stand on the banks of a primordial river, and watch a primordial animal do his thing.
I threw the lumps of skin and bloodline underhand, watching as they splashed into the current. Finally I pitched the fish’s head, and there was an immediate swirl. Whether it was our ramp croc or a black tip shark I couldn’t be sure, but I liked to think it was the former.
‘I love this place,’ I said on the way up. Dunno why, but I was just, all of a sudden, wildly happy. You know when, unexpectedly, against the odds, there’s a point in your life when all the shit just doesn’t matter anymore, it’s all in the past, and there’s just a blinding joy. I knew it wouldn’t last, it never does, but that’s how I felt at that precise moment.
By the time we reached the cleaning table it was getting dark. We chatted like kids, and I should have been rushing back to camp and getting ready for Chook and Shirley coming over but I just wanted to stand there and talk to this woman forever.
Finally, however, it was she who touched my arm and said, ‘I’d better be getting back. Ian doesn’t like me to get home after dark.’
‘Hop in,’ I said stupidly. ‘I’ll drive you.’
‘That,’ she said, ‘would be a bad idea.’
I watched her walk back down the darkened track toward the camp and it was a full minute before I got in the Toyota and started the engine.
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© 2016 GJ Barron