We've reached the Gulf of Carpentaria

Trip Start May 01, 2010
Trip End Oct 03, 2010

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Where I stayed
Karumba Point Sunset Caravan Park

Flag of Australia  , Queensland,
Tuesday, June 8, 2010

As the sun rose over the hill behind the Cloncurry caravan park, we prepared for the day’s trip and left at 8am along the Matilda Highway. The landscape was mainly flat with brown grass, trees scattered around again in typical savannah fashion and the occasional granite rocky outcrop. Hence the name Granite Creek which we crossed and various other creeks with interesting names, one being Malakoff Creek and another Boney Creek. Most of them were dry except for one river we crossed,  Dugald River which had water in it. It was fun to take note of the creek and river names, as over the 430kms to Normanton, we only twice saw a building - one in the town of Quamby for which we had to reduce our speed to 60kph and there was just one building, a pub which had a grand horse mural!  We later learnt that originally it had been a Cobb and Co staging post to change horses for the next long drive. The other was about another 100kms further on, the Burke and Wills Roadhouse.

As we passed another road train with fuel we talked about how much fuel was needed in all these outback roadhouses for the passing traffic. They themselves also need 500 litres diesel a day just to run their generators as they are of course not connected to electricity being so isolated, and they are situated all over central and northern Australia. Another bit of excitement along the way was when we saw a helicopter hover really low over the bush so we imagined they were looking for cattle to muster.

Every now and then we came across big herds and twice we had to stop to let some of them amble across the road. The road was sealed but we were surprised to see that every so often it changed from 22 foot to nine foot tar road for about 20kms at a time. Just as well not too much traffic from the other direction but when there was, invariably it was when we had just got back on the narrow road so had to pull off with two wheels, well four counting the left caravan ones!

This area is often flooded in the summer as it is so low lying and it is in the cyclone area, so probably wasn’t worth them having a good road to have to fix up every year with so many other more important roads in the state. The only people who use this road are the ranchers spread over thousands of kilometres and recreational fishermen going to the Gulf. For a few kilometres, there were so many little termite houses again and some quite elaborate like little castles.
Besides being entertained by such things, we have been pleased during these longs stretches in the outback, to have our ipod working well with the little transmitter to our car radio and it sure helps having no wires or buildings causing interference, for hundreds of kms at a time. The elevation of the land dropped quickly and the temperature rose just as fast, as we drove north. We realised we were getting close to the gulf when we drove passed vast swampy areas with tall Brolga birds wading around in search of a feed.

Then we reached Normanton - a sleepy outback town which has almost forgotten it‘s colourful period in history from when it began as a small port town that serviced the nearby Croydon Goldfields during the gold rush. Krys the life size replica of the biggest salt water crocodile ever recorded in the world (8.64m and estimated 2000kg weight), holds pride of place in the main street. Krys was named after the lady hunter Krystina Pawloski who despatched him in 1957 or 1958 depending on which write up you read and apparently appears in the Guiness Book of Records. There are a few buildings, The Purple Hotel and a couple of butcher shops, all painted psychedelic colours! The street are  narrow with no pavements to speak of. We looked for a garage to refuel while we passed two lots of disused fuel pumps on the roadside and then we were out of town! A big U turn and after asking at the bottle shop, the man looked so surprised and said we had driven passed the BP garage coming into town! After retracing our route we came across some fuel pumps between a heap of old tyres and wrecked cars pretending to be a BP service station at which we filled our tank.

We were surprised they had a visa card terminal as the place looked like it was still in the last century! Roadhouses in the middle of nowhere are a lot more civilized than the garage in the centre of Normanton!

Just as well we had been advised to go the extra 70kms and book at a caravan park at Karumba. As we drove out of town we were pleasantly surprised to see the beautiful wide Norman River full of blooming water lilies and surrounded by elegant tall birds which we were later told must have been Brolgas. The next 70kms to Karumba right on the Gulf of Carpentaria had very little large vegetation, but every now and then we saw a shimmering billabong full of bird life.

We were also surprised to see cattle scattered across the vast open plain.
We booked into the Karumba Point Sunset Caravan Park advertised as “Where the Outback meets the Sea”.

 It is a pleasant caravan park set amongst tall coconut palms and after talking to our neighbours as we sat down for tea, we figured this was as good a place as any to extend our stay for the coming long weekend. It would be unlikely that we would find a similar caravan park along the road. Just as well we did, as come Friday all the sites were filled and we always like to be in one place for the weekend and not travelling on the road. This is certainly the warmest place we have stayed in since the start of this trip with the day temperature around 30C and at night it cooled sufficiently to be comfortable, with every window and the screen door open to have the breeze come through. This place is a mecca for fisherman who come up from all the eastern states and stay for the whole winter.

The caravan park is unusual in that each site is divided by palm trees and wide enough for the fisherman to have their boats next to their caravan and their four wheel drive vehicles in front of the caravan. The first night at 10pm, walking to the ablutions we noticed it was like walking along a dark four wheel drive alley with a beautiful starry sky above. By the next morning early they were all off with their boats and by about 3pm, the fish cleaning area was full of fishermen. The smell of fish was quite pleasant and attracted us to go and investigate what they had caught - Grunters (Javelin fish which grunt when caught) Black Jew Fish, Bream, Snapper but the first prize went to the Barramundi caught by a few of the fishermen.

There were some people fishing from the beach but it seems that a boat is needed to go down the river for the good catch. They advertise fishing boats for hire, but a boat driving license is needed in this country so how overseas visitors manage we don‘t know. The first evening we walked down to Ash’s store advertised as having “the world’s best barra and chips”. It certainly did make a good meal. Back at the caravan park, Mike had a hot shower with two little green tree frogs sitting on the breeze blocks enjoying the warm spray.
After a sleep in the next morning, we put up the annexe to give us a second room for our stay here on the gulf. Also out came our picture frame with a continuous show of photos from a computer stick and a little loudspeaker to listen to our ipod stored with the 1330 tunes and our books to read. In the afternoon we had a refreshing swim in the park pool - it is not wise to swim in the gulf with all the crocs swimming up river. The camp kitchen is just behind us, really nice and close for Mike to put our peri peri chicken and jacket potatoes on the BBQ. We couldn’t believe how quickly the day went but couldn’t imagine us staying here for months at a time as some of the people here are doing. Every evening we walked in different directions along the beach to watch the sunset. The second evening we were at the boat ramp as the sun went over the horizon but the men trying to get their boat onto the trailer wouldn’t have even noticed the sun set.

The outgoing tide current was so strong that the guy trying to pull the boat onto the trailer was suddenly pulled into the water. We were surprised, as he was, at how deep it was just below the ramp. By the third evening, it was the beginning of the long weekend and we couldn’t believe how many people were standing in the hotel beer garden taking photos of the sun setting over the Gulf of Carpentaria. It is unusual for the eastern states to have a sun setting over the ocean and in the brochure it is recommended to “watch the spectacular sunset from Karumba Point Beach, a breathtaking experience you’ll never forget”.

 Sorry to say, we didn’t think they were as impressive as the WA sunsets at Coral Bay or Eighty Mile Beach! We were pleased though to get back to the caravan and be able to enjoy someone in another caravan playing popular tunes on his accordion for a short while.
We also read that prawning is the major industry for Karumba, so we went to the recommended prawn outlet and enjoyed a kilo of prawns between us the one evening….and they were big, fleshy, and delicious prawns. The Gulf is tidal and every evening we went to see the sunset, the water was far out. The beach consists of sandstone rock embedded with little shells , little bit of very white soft sand in between and closer to the water, mangroves growing in black mud. At low tide we thought it was firm sand but soon realized it was thick gooey mud squelching between our toes which sunk every now and then. Margarets description was “like walking in cowpats”, don’t know how she knows that! Coming up from the boat ramp towards the caravan park entrance in the evenings we always saw a group of tiny wallabies just sitting in the surrounding scrub until we went closer and then they quickly disappeared. Interesting how here by the gulf in the mornings it is windy and then by afternoon it is warm and still - opposite to Perth which is usually calm in the morning until the Fremantle Doctor comes in to cool us down in the afternoon.

This place was originally known as Norman Mouth, the township was then called Kimberley, before finally adopting the Aboriginal name of Karumba. In 1872 a telegraph line was established from Karumba Point to Cardwell and during World War ll it served as a radio communications base for the RAAF. In the 1930s it was also a stopover for the flying boats of the Empire Mail Service. The discovery of prawns in the Gulf in the 1960s brought Karumba alive, and today cattle exporting, prawning, barramundi fishing and increasingly, recreational fishermen and Grey Nomads keep the town humming.

One evening over the weekend there was a bit of excitement at the beach at sunset. A big Ford F250 was bogged up to the axles in the sand whilst trying to pull his fishing tinny out of the water next to the ramp. While they were trying to dig it out, people were coming from everywhere to offer advice, make a video of the rescue or just stand around and watch! They tried pulling the F250 out with a Landcruiser and a Jeep together but as much as they tried, the big Ford was stuck fast! We left the beach when the mozzies began attacking us, and the owners went back to digging. We later heard a front loader was called in to pull it out. Something else notable about Karumba Point is that though by the sea (where the Arafura Sea and Coral Sea meet in the Gulf) there are no seagulls, but instead kites and wedge tail eagles soar over the caravan park and beach.

“We’re fisher people here for the season” an elderly lady with a stick with whom I was walking to the Sunday markets told me. They spend time here every year from March to October but she said some fisher people already arrive in January. This year, though, with all the flooding in Queensland, they had to wait in Cloncurry for two weeks before they could get through the roads to the Gulf. We were in a steady stream of people wandering down to the Sunday Markets on the lawn next to the tavern. There were a surprising amount of stalls with the ‘almost’ locals from the caravan parks selling their woodwork, knitting, sewing and papercraft. There were bookstalls, toys and a few household items also. It seems some of the fisher folk take the Sunday off to either support the markets, sell their wares or enjoy a Sunday breakfast at the tavern.

Each day seemed to get hotter, so on the Sunday afternoon after the annexe was folded away, the last swim in the pool under the palms was particularly refreshing. Every place is so different. I wasn’t comfortable sharing the shower with little white frogs sitting on the breeze block, but the local pink grapefruit the lady in the shop gave me when I picked up our bread was delicious. Even though still very much in the outback, we feel we are in Queensland with not only cheap Q’land bananas, but we’ve also been enjoying Ginger wine, presumably from Buderim.

During one of our daily sunset beach walks I mistook a patch of black clay mud for a rock and went sliding down on my behind, Base over Apex is the correct expression according to Mike. On our last evening we joined the people on the tavern forecourt lawn to enjoy a beer, a plate of potato wedges and watch the sunset in style. That evening the sky was covered in bits of cloud which resulted in the best sunset since our arrival. The young couple who joined us at our tables were staying in Normanton and said the Rodeo there that weekend was a bit of a fizzle, so it was just as well we didn’t bother to do the 140kms round trip to see it. We were told that Rodeos are not as frequent or as good as they used to be because of the high insurance premiums they have to pay in case of public litigation.

After a lazy weekend reading and relaxing, it was time to move on - many more places to see in this huge state. We have limited time unlike most of the people here in Karumba who are either here for the whole winter or are travelling around Australia indefinitely. We met a couple from Hervey Bay who had recently retired after a hectic working life in the sugar mills which entailed extensive business trips abroad. A couple of years ago he had had a long stint on a new sugar plantation in Mozambique and more recently a shorter trip to Durban. Whereas we had extended our time in Karumba Point from three nights to six nights, they had extended theirs from three weeks to six weeks!

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