UNDER THE SUN
by Fergus Blakiston
You’re in by Karumba,
Where the fishing boats come in;
I can’t believe this feeling,
But I wish that I was there,
Every passing day…
– Goanna, Every Passing Day
Fifteen nautical miles north-west of Karumba the oppressive air pressed down on us with an almost tactile force. Thunderheads massed on the horizon told of a cooling storm to come, but for now the four of us aboard the Kathryn M2 were at the mercy of the monsoonal heat. The boat’s hull cleaved the water of the Gulf of Carpentaria with a sibilant hiss; the diesel engine thrummed beneath the deck plates. We were making eighteen knots, heading back to port with our day’s catch: three decent barracuda, a black kingfish and half a dozen Spanish mackerel. Standing on the bridge, with a cold beer in my hand, I watched the green smudge of the Australian coast drawing slowly nearer. Behind us, the boat’s wake unfolded across the sea which lay like a sheet of obsidian beneath the luminous immensity of the sky.
Karumba is situated in the south-east corner of the Gulf of Carpentaria: the southernmost extremity of the Arafura Sea. Nearby, where the sluggish Norman River falls into the Gulf, a delta of tidal creeks and wetlands extend inland in a series of meandering saltwater estuaries. This mangrove-choked landscape is the habitat of estuarine crocodiles (the bad ol’ boys of the crocodile world) and a vast array of bird species. The Gulf is located on the migratory path known as the East Asian Flyway and hundreds of thousands of birds use the region as a jumping-off point for their flights into Asia and beyond. Flocks of eastern bar-tailed godwits, fresh from their summer on the Avon-Heathcote Estuary, stop off to rest here en route back to their breeding grounds in Alaska.
The Port of Karumba was originally a refuelling and repair stop for the Empire Flying Boats, which connected Sydney to Great Britain. The aircraft landed on the stretch of the river in front of the town and during WW2 were the only aerial connection Australia had with the rest of the world. Karumba was also a Catalina Flying Boat base for the Royal Australian Air Force and the ramp onto which these amphibians taxied now forms one of the town‘s streets.
I first heard of Karumba in the mid-eighties in a song called Every Passing Day by Australian band Goanna. At the time I was working on a High Country sheep station, deep in the Southern Alps. It was a world of sheep dogs and horses, hobnail boots and musterer’s huts, harsh winters and late snows. For me, Karumba was out on the edge of the world, about as far removed from the High Country as it was possible to get. Lying on my bed in the shepherd’s quarters, listening to that song while the nor’ wester shrieked around the eaves, I imagined steaming mangrove swamps, crocodiles and tidal mud, fishing boats coming home in the sunset and endless, punishing heat. Karumba seemed like the sort of beyond the pale place I would never visit. And yet, in one of those strange twists that life can take, here I was, sailing home to Karumba after a day’s fishing on the Gulf, with the first flickers of lightning exploding across the sky and the air heavy with the scent of rain.
By the time we reached shore it was raining: a heavy, blattering downpour which pock-marked the opaque water of the river and ran in deluges from the scuppers. We adjourned to the Sunset Tavern (one of the few places in Eastern Australia where you can watch the sun set over the ocean) to re-live the day’s escapades. Outside, sixty millimetres of rain fell in less than an hour. By nightfall the storm had moved on and a watery sliver of moon hung in the sky.
Karumba is the southernmost port of the Arafura Sea, surely the most evocatively-named sea in the world. The name is redolent of pirates and pearling luggers, of spice islands and hidden mangrove coastlines. It’s the sort of sea that a character in a Joseph Conrad novel would set sail across, “blue and profound, without a stir, without a ripple, without a wrinkle, viscous, stagnant, dead.”
Prior to the European discovery of Australia, the Arafura Sea was the haunt of Macassan fleets from the Celebes Islands . The Macassans harvested beche-de-mer – a type of sea cucumber resembling a black, tumescent penis – which they cured on site and sold to the Chinese as an aphrodisiac. Later came pearl divers then shrimp fisherman, and today Karumba is home base for Australia’s largest shrimping fleet.
The day after my fishing trip was a Saturday. Nothing much was happening in Karumba. A few fishing boats came and went at the pier; the tide rose and fell among the mangroves and mooring ropes along the Norman River; mirages shimmered on the asphalt road leading out of town and into the Outback; ceiling fans stirred the tepid air in the Animal Bar of the Karumba Lodge Pub; next door, the Suave Bar was empty. I sat in the shade of a spreading fig tree outside the Post Office drinking chilled orange juice. Ants were nesting in a crack in the concrete sidewalk. A girl came and emptied the mail from box 71 of the 233 red mail boxes set into the wall. Magpie larks played desultorily on the blue and orange phone boxes.
All day thunderheads grumbled out on the plains. The sun was incandescent in the pewter dome of the sky. As afternoon wore on the heat grew more and more oppressive. Mosquitoes fed on my exposed skin and flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos flew screeching from tree to tree. It was as if the natural world knew something was about to happen and was restive.
As the sun began its descent into the sea, the horizon was shrouded by roiling clouds. Bolts of lightning jumped earthward from the black belly of the storm. The atmosphere seemed full of electricity and moisture. This was the real deal, the full spectacle of heat, convection, air masses, water vapour, static electricity and raw energy. The sun had gone out. All that remained was a pale, flat, eerie glow which cast no shadows. Huge knives of lightning sliced the sky, thunder detonated overhead with ear-splitting force and the air turned the colour of soot. As the storm raged all around I took off my shirt and let the rain beat on my bare skin like a benediction.
Karumba is the sort of place which epitomises the adage “the journey is the destination”. You need to make a real effort to get there by driving west from Cairns through 800 kilometres of empty Outback. And, let‘s face it, there’s not a lot to see once you‘ve arrived. Sure, people come from all over the world for the excellent fishing. Campers spend months at the Sunset Point Caravan Park just doing nothing. And there is a zinc smelter to visit if you’re really stuck for entertainment.
But the real attraction of visiting a place like Karumba is being on the edge of the world. Tropical towns by the sea have a different feel to inland places. They look outwards, towards the emptiness of the ocean, away from the security and certainties of the land. For me the pleasure of being in Karumba lay in simply watching the sun set over the sea while the Sunset Tavern regulars, oblivious of the solar spectacle outside, gambled on television horses racing in other parts of Australia. It lay in the thrill of watching the violent arrival of a tropical storm after the ennui of a 45 degree day. And, best of all, it lay in the pure, unexpected delight of being in a place I’d dreamed of for so long.
In Karumba I could smell the warm breath of Asia. Across the narrow waters of the Arafura Sea lay the jungle islands of Irian Jaya, the coral atolls of the Mollucas and the teeming shores of Indonesia. Yet even this close to Asia I was rooted firmly in white Australia. Satellite dishes beamed the latest news of the world into town; every meal came with chips and beetroot; men in grubby shorts and tee-shirts drank copious quantities of Victoria Bitter beer from ice-cold glasses; and, on the edge of town, Aboriginal people moved like ghosts in their own land.
On my last evening in Karumba I drifted down to the Sunset Tavern to watch my final Arafura sunset. Day ends suddenly in the tropics. Sunsets are always brief but spectacular. I sat on a rocky outcrop, still warm from the day’s heat, as the sun sank inexorably into the sea and the sky turned the colour of spilled blood. Distant thunderclouds piled on the horizon were lit from within by strobes of lightning. As the sun disappeared the colour bled from the sky, the sea faded from pink to indigo, and night came down like a theatrical curtain.
I sat for a while in the gloaming listening to the pulse of the ocean. The incoming tide roared on the shoreline with a noise like a distant cheering crowd. Karumba had once been a place which existed only as a collection of images conjured in my imagination by the words of a song. But now that I had seen it Karumba was real. It had been burned into my memory during the time I had spent out there, under the sun on the edge of the world. The ocean glittered in the starlight and I knew that, for the rest of my life, I would go to Karumba in my mind, once or twice every passing day.