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Try Munupi fishing, Tiwi Islands NT style and...

April 06, 2006
Try Munupi fishing, Tiwi Islands NT style and...

Hook up and listen to the line scream!

By Garth Morrison, Editor

The Spanish mackerel hits the lure with massive force and line screams off the reel.

The powerful rod tip bows and dips like a branch in a hurricane.

You will know when a big one hooks up, you will hear the line, our Munupi Lodge, Melville Island guide, David Taat, said as he expertly set up our blue water trolling rigs earlier.

Blue water  battler the Spanish Mackerel I can hear it alright and there is no doubt about the fighting power of the magnificent creature hooked up on my line as it hurls itself through the deep tropic blue of the Timor Sea.

We brawl, the fish and I and the odds about landing it are about even. It runs and the line howls and whines. Then the pre-set drag on the straining reel slows the mackerel's rush for freedom.

It is a chance to gain ground. Crank in line. The big fish heads for the seabed 30m below. The line howls and peels out. The fish slows. Crank in line. It runs again.

Now hold him under the tummy 82cm barraWe are tethered together the beautiful fighting fish and my tortured civilized muscles in an exhilarating contest.

It is hot NT Australia November, 39 deg., the tropic afternoon sun hammers down and the brooding ochre stained headlands of distant Melville Island and Cape Van Diemen shimmer in the haze.

Great dark clouds tower over neighbouring Bathurst Island and herald an early Wet Season storm.

Soft ride stable and dry hull designThe gentle swell and light, hot breeze of the Timor Sea breathe with the surge of the incoming tide. White water foams on the northern entrance to treacherous Apsley Strait. This northern point of Australia's Northern Territory is a magnificent, humbling, elemental place.

Sweat cascades into my eyes and the big fish charges again. It is weary wind and pull again, but slowly the mackerel gives ground. David grabs the big landing net and dances attendance.

GT hookedThe silver, shimmering fish fights to the last. He dives under our boat, left, right and sideways. David and I prance to prevent a fouled line losing the prize. I crank the reel, the fish runs, but it is tired. So am I. Slowly it surfaces.

David has the leader to the lure in his nimble work hardened hands, and the flash of the lure shows alluring green against the mackerel's silver jaws and jagged teeth. The wild-eyed prize is alongside and then mostly in the net. There is more mackerel than net, but David manages anyway.

David decides this catch will provide dinner and quickly kills and bleeds the fish.

Michael enjoys his workThe quick end is kind and protection for us from the mackerel's jagged teeth.

The bleeding process is essential to preserve the quality of the fine flesh which later provides a feast of thick steaks on our Melville Island evening menu. Our guide makes fishing a complete art form and also turns part of the catch into sashimi, a fine entre served with wasabi sauce.

We earned the dining pleasure. The mackerel came after extended trolling by me and my fishing partner.

It is hot work in Australia's NT sun with twin lures trailing behind an open Quintrex, Top Ender aluminium boat as we circle over the mass of black fish images revealed on the all-seeing screen of our fish finder as it pulse contacts from the blue depths below.

Great shirt JamesWe hook up twice before we ring our dinner bell. Big fish are hard to hold and razor sharp teeth can snip-off a lure in a trice. So smiles all round.

We move inshore riding the crash and thump of the jarring, lightweight fishing hull and change to bottom fishing rigs, twin hooks and heavy sinkers.

Baited with generous pieces of mackerel we bounce the sinker off the bottom in about 10m of translucent blue-green seawater.

We catch and release a variety of fish. Giant Trevally, (GT) the largest species of trevally in Australian waters. They can grow to 1.7m in length, Chevron barracuda, catfish, seabream, and two black tip sharks which grab the hooks on my fishing partner's line together.

He battles and lands the pair, despite a load which pulls like a runaway NT road train.

David Taat is a Pirlangimpi localThe GT takes off with a run similar to the mackerel. But this is a real street fighter and it batters my back and shoulders all the way into the landing net.

In the end the fish win. We are too tired to continue and with strangely rubbery forearms and shoulders we call it a day.

Two days later on another catch and release bottom fishing sortie the run of fish reached that wonderful point of too many fish, not enough lines.

We fish offshore until there is enough water driven by the rushing flood tide in the tight channels that lead into surging Apsley Strait to allow us to thread the sandbars and head home to our fishing camp at comfortable Munupi Wilderness Lodge. We weave and duck as we race the boat through a crazy maze of channels with the blast of wind from our flying progress a welcome relief as it fans and flaps through our shirts.

Heading home for lunchMunupi Wilderness Lodge is on the north eastern corner of the Apsley Strait, the awesome stretch of water that separates Bathurst and Melville Islands.

Only 80km north of Darwin, across Dundas Strait, in Australia's Northern Territory, Munupi Wilderness Lodge is owned by the aboriginal Tiwi People and has re-opened under the new management of locals Michael Benton and David Taat.

Michael was born and bred in the Territory, and has spent most of his life at Pirlangimpi. His wife Kerri-Anne is the CEO of the Pirlangimpi Progress Association. They have three children who attend the local school, and they are deeply involved in the community at grass roots level.

And away you goDavid also has a long association with Pirlangimpi and the Tiwi people. He was born in Broome, a son of a Malay pearl diver who worked the pearl-rich waters off the Kimberley Coast.

He is married to a local girl and has spent most of his life on the island. From an early age he has hunted and gathered for food and for fun all over the twin islands of Bathurst and Melville. Few know the area better.

He, Michael and James are good friends to have guiding you. Apsley Strait is no place for novice boaties. Even locals misread the mighty tides and sometimes find themselves stuck on sand or mud. This brings good-natured ribbing and the title of Mud Skipper until the joke wears thin. But the high and dry experience is not fun and should be avoided.

James knocks on the  doorThe mud banks stink, you sink to your thighs if you try and walk on them and as local Tiwi guide James counsels, I don't want you washing your hands in the water beside the boat, We have them snappin' handbags around here.

Yes the Apsley Strait saltwater crocs are cheeky fellas. And friends, in Tiwi Island territory around Bathurst and Melville Islands you are part of the food chain.

The crocodile is a great student of Charles Darwin and a master at survival of the species. Crocs have been keeping on for millions of years. They are mighty hunters and must be treated with the greatest respect.

How to handle a mud crabJust to illustrate the point. A local tells a story of walking on a beach near Pirlangimpi, Melville Island. She said she and her partner were strolling the beach. Three local dogs were frolicking not far away. She walked a little more and looked back to see only two dogs. There was no sound. Just Doggone!

A big croc likes to cruise past the Munupi Wilderness Lodge jetty in the evening. He is about 5m long a serious saltie. The croc has taken over the territory of an even bigger example of the breed that died of old age when his teeth failed him. Pirlangimpi locals say they think the deceased was more than 70 years old.

Apsley Strait from the southThere is a broad, deeply marked croc slide on a scarred salt water creek bank not far from Pirlangimpi which will impress the hell out of any prudent person. Fortunately we did not meet the mighty reptile who uses it to launch hunting trips.

We did, however, get a nice feed of mud crab, from a hole in the nearby creek bank with the help of our guides. This makes us cheeky fellas too and underlines the value of the local knowledge of our guides in managing respectful co-existence with crocs in the Tiwi Islands environment.

James hooked the mighty muddy out of his saltwater creek hole with a handy length of fencing wire with a hook bent into the end. It is a definite skill aided by us ramming the bow of our boat high onto the creek bank into the thick black mud below the crab's home.

Nice catch Graham a Giant Trevally GTOnce we stuck with a soggy slurp James went over the top, padding barefoot over mangrove roots to position himself above the crab's dark home. In goes the wire, push and twist to get behind the mud crab shell and a good pull lands a welcome addition to the Munupi bush tucker bag in our net.

Handling big mud crabs is a skill too. The front end has two serious snippers and the way the crab waves its claws about shows it knows how to use them. The trick is to keep your fingers. Grab from behind, grasp the legs and back of the shell and the job is done.

Melville Island is Australia's second biggest after Tasmania. It has a land area of 8320 square kilometres. Neighbouring Bathurst Island is 2,200 square kilometres in land area. The Apsley Strait which separates them averages 1.5 kilometres in width.

Yes  its about 17ftTiwi is the main language spoken on Melville and Bathurst Islands. English is taught at schools as a second language, the Tiwi communicate principally in their own language.

Since contact with the western world the Tiwi language has changed and younger Tiwi now have difficulty understanding the older version.

In the Wet season from October to March mighty storm clouds build in the afternoon, the lightning displays are awesome and the thunder crashes in an elemental concert. The humidity goes through the roof but at first there is no rainfall.

A BIG croc slideTjamutakari (rainy season) starts around Christmas when the storms break.

At the peak of the Wet, 2500mm of rain crashes down, setting off lush tropical growth throughout the islands.

As the heavy rain saturates the bush, Tiwi artists collect bark from the stringy bark tree to make tunga (bark baskets) and cut pieces for bark paintings.

The Dry season from April to August is a huge contrast. The vegetation dries and is deliberately lit, creating the period of Kumunupinari (season of the smoke).

By burning the undergrowth the Tiwi clear the way for hunting and the fire assists in the regeneration of the bush. With dry roads and access to the bush, Tiwi artists collect iron wood for carvings and ochres for painting.

Hope you didnt need the boatTraditional food
Each community has a store selling essential foods but hunting for traditional food is still an important part of Tiwi life.

On the land, hunters target wallaby, lizards, possums, carpet snakes, pig, buffalo, flying foxes and bandicoot, bush apples, plums and yams, sugar bag wild honey, mangoes, cashews, pawpaw and coconuts.

They seek turtle tracks on sweeping beaches, hunt dugong and catch an amazing variety of fish.

Tiwis collect cockles, oysters, the twisted conical longbums, the strange yuwuli worms, which are said to taste like oysters, mud mussels from the mangroves and crabs.

Tuna sea fighterThe social aspects of hunting are important to the Tiwis as collecting and cooking food is a shared activity.

Footie rules
Australian Rules football is fused into Tiwi society. The game got a foothold in the 1930's when a bag of rags was given to some Tiwi on Bathurst Island.

By 1945 Bathurst Island, Milikapiti and Purlangimpi met for organised games. The Tiwi Island Football League was formed in the 1990's and there are now seven Tiwi teams.

James catches bait fish for The AnglersThey compete against each other during the Wet season from October to March.

In March the Tiwi Grand Final at Nguiu attracts and enthusiastic Tiwi crowd from all communities.

Tiwi culture
Ceremonies play an important role in Tiwi culture. As the Tiwi culture is oral, difficulties arise when trying to write definitely. Each Tiwi ceremony has its own form, and can vary depending upon the circumstances of the time.

Editor's Note also see:

There are two main ceremonial events performed, an annual one, the Kulama ceremony and the mortuary or Pukumani ceremony.

Where: Munupi Wilderness Lodge is about 80km north of Darwin, on Melville Island in Australia's Northern Territory.

When: The Dry season is most popular.

How: The Lodge is about 30 minutes flying time north from the NT Capital.

What: The Lodge is a complex of 13 air conditioned double rooms, a spacious and comfortable living area, bar and dining area, strategically situated on a cliff top overlooking the Apsley Strait sunset.

The comfortable Lodge has a shaded spa, and awesome views of a wilderness that relatively few outsiders have experienced.

The Fish: The lightly populated area is almost untouched, which means fishing heaven with over 40 species of fish.

The tropical sport fishing draws many dedicated anglers. The Barramundi takes pride of place, but equally there are many other fine fighting fish to target.

The Culture: A variety of packages include Cultural and Eco. This provides an introduction to the people steeped in an ancient culture who live in a true wilderness.

Munupi Lodge Wilderness Resort can be contacted on:

Phone: 08 8978 3780
Fax: 08 8978 3783


Editor's note:

  • The GoSeeAustralia team stayed at Munupi Lodge, now known as Clearwater Island Lodge,as paying guests.