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The Barra's View


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The barra's view

Alex Brown

September 7, 2007

The fish are waiting for Alex Brown as he drops into remote billabongs by chopper during a week of luxury and adventure.

A helicopter descends. A city dweller alights. A metallic rod is produced. A tiny, helpless fish swims near the surface. No, wait, a lure! A net. A camp fire. A set of tongs. God.

That was the barramundi's view of it (assuming he was granted a final audience with Poseidon). From a vantage point a few rungs higher up the food chain, however, my heli-fishing trip to the Northern Territory had a more peaceful, less foreboding feel.

Perched atop a rocky outcrop on the Mount Borradaile estate, the only tourist facility of its kind in Arnhem Land, the serenity of the early morning is interrupted by the distant whirring of the helicopter's rotors. I check the running sheet one more time. Heli-fishing. I still can't visualise it. Is it some new-age hybrid sport, like kite-surfing or chess-boxing? I will find out soon enough, because there is the chopper, climbing over the horizon, lowering itself onto the sun-baked ground before us.

Lift-off. For those who haven't flown in a chopper, it's quite a rush. Sweeping low over the green canopy at first, then ascending to reveal a broader view of Arnhem Land's vast and vibrant wetlands, it is the closest thing to avian flight most of us will ever experience. The outlook over the cappuccino-tinged East Alligator River, with its plentiful birdlife and numerous crocodiles, will live long in the memory. Thoughts of the grey, frigid city I left behind just days ago are swept away in the warm Territory breeze.

Max Davidson operates Davidson's Arnhemland Safaris from a camp at Mount Borradaile with the permission of the traditional owners. He peers out the chopper's window and spies a waterfall he fancies might attract barramundi. Within minutes we have landed, prepared the lures and cast our lines into the crystal waters. This truly is fishing for the PlayStation generation: fast-paced angling without the Ritalin.

A hit. Within 30 seconds of my lure touching the water, I've hooked a barramundi. And again a minute later. And again three minutes after that. The barra, it seems, cannot resist the charms of my gold- and red-flecked lure, often swallowing the entire faux-fish in one greedy gulp, rendering useless all subsequent attempts to writhe for freedom. The credit for this barra barrage lies not with my fishing nous - which starts and ends with a cork reel dangled into the Lane Cove River - but with Davidson's choice of fishing hole. The man clearly knows his stuff.

It is at this point my mind turns to an old quotation I'd once heard about fishing, which, according to Google, was penned by Washington Irving, the American author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle: "There is certainly something in angling," Irving wrote, "that tends to produce a serenity of the mind."

Irving clearly never went heli-fishing. With my forearms and shoulders already burning after a few minutes' angling, and adrenaline coursing through my veins with each bite, this is anything but serene. Given the absence of visitors to the waterhole, the fish have apparently developed little in the way of stream-smarts. As soothing as the sounds of the waterfall are, they are all but drowned out by the grunting, reeling and whooping of this small troupe of fishermen.

Twenty minutes later, lunch arrives in the form of the barramundi mentioned in the first paragraph. He was a big bugger: the size of an adolescent boy, he was, with eyes the size of china plates and teeth that could chew through a car door. Sorry, that's the fisherman in me talking. He was about the 70-75cm mark (good, I'm told, if not great), presented an earnest challenge and was reeled in only with the assistance of Davidson's offsider. But it was my rod, dammit.

After a quick photo call, the barramundi is whisked to a waiting fireplace where the last rites are read and the salad prepared. Thirty minutes later, his higher purpose is revealed: lunch. Food chain superiority seldom tasted so good.

Thoughts of a quick post-meal swim are stalled by the sighting of a crocodile, whose appetite is probably nowhere near as sated as mine. No matter. A chopper flight to another waterhole, this one even more remote, places us safely out of his reach. And an already idyllic day continues uninterrupted.

Of the many and varied experiences on my five-day visit to the Top End, the heli-fishing wins, but only just. The quieter, more traditional barramundi fishing trip around the billabongs of Cooinda (in Kakadu National Park), the Aboriginal rock art excursions, the twilight champagne cruises and the deep-sea angling exercise off the Cobourg Peninsula will make the photo album in some guise. But the unlikely rush that came with the fusion of aviation and fishing will not easily be forgotten.

BEFORE this trip, my only experience of combining fishing with culture was when beer-battered whiting came wrapped in the previous day's arts section. Imagine the surprise, then, when a day of heli-fishing is followed by a tour of perhaps the most diverse and thought-provoking collection of Aboriginal art permitted to be viewed by non-indigenous eyes.

There are images that date back 50,000 years; a 51/2-metre rainbow serpent that has attracted viewers from across the globe; traditional hand paintings - drawings of prau, or sailing ships, of the Makassan traders who visited these parts long before European settlers. Millennia of history playing out before my eyes, in the shadows of the imperious Mount Borradaile.

As it turns out, the fishing-culture misconception was not to be my last. Take, for instance, my long-held notion that touring the Territory necessitates "roughing it", in keeping with the harsh, arid landscape. Wrong. The top end of the Top End is as well-heeled as a pair of Jimmy Choos, but with none of the pretension.

Exhibit A: a night at Peppers Seven Spirit Bay, set in the Garig Gunak Barlu National Park and overlooking the Arafura Sea on the Cobourg Peninsula. Beautifully appointed and ideally situated Balinese-style bungalows are each adjoined by an outdoor, though private, bathroom. (Traveller's tip: keep the doors closed overnight or expect to be ogled by a kangaroo as you disrobe the following morning.) A short stroll down the "Yellow Brick Road" leads you to an equally plush dining area with views over the pool and out to sea. And dinner consists of a five-course menu so delicious you wish there was a sixth course. And perhaps a seventh.

Activities range from the energetic to the tranquil. In the former category, a day deep-sea fishing in the Arafura is every bit as fast-paced as the heli-fishing, particularly when bronze whaler sharks are making none-too-subtle attempts to pick off your trevally, queenfish, jewfish and mackerel as you reel them in. One unlucky trevally, which our guide dangled off the side of the boat with an executioner's delight, found itself the subject of intense interest from no less than six sharks, all of which charged and tore with such ferocity that the sound of teeth-on-flesh was clearly audible. Swimming is strictly reserved for the pool.

Not all is angling and Darwinism, though. Peter Doone was once charged with keeping the peace in New Zealand as the country's long-serving, and occasionally controversial, police commissioner. Now managing Seven Spirit Bay with his wife, Robyn, Doone has only to share the peace with visitors. A welcome change of pace, I'd imagine.

At the Doones' recommendation, I am driven 30 minutes through the slowly stirring bush to a balcony-del-mar. The sun is well advanced in its descent over the Arafura and, as my eyes follow the cerises and tangerines of the far-away horizon and along the pristine beach, I feel a sense of calm that seemed an impossibility several days ago, stuck in an office on the east coast. The scene is perfect, I think. Then I hear the popping of a champagne cork. OK, now the scene is perfect.

The Cooinda Lodge in Kakadu, a short charter flight from Seven Spirit Bay, might just be the perfect inland complement to the coastal delights of Seven Spirit Bay. With the Warradjan Cultural Centre and the barramundi-stacked Yellow Water Billabong, which feeds off the South Alligator River, within a short drive of Cooinda's comfortable lodges, it ranks among the country's better weekend escapes.

A typical day-long Cooinda itinerary reads something like this: cooked breakfast, a tour of Warradjan (with explanations of Namarrgon, the "Lightning Man" who features in several rock paintings), a dip in the pool, lunch, a fishing expedition with Dean Jackson (regarded as the grim reaper among the local barramundi community) and an evening cruise that takes in the many ornithological delights of the area (jabirus, brolgas, kingfishers, honeyeaters and more) and a few not-so-quaint reptilian inhabitants. Top that off with a few beers back at the lodge, a barra on the barbecue and a bit of banter with the locals and you might just have cracked the formula for heaven.

And that got me thinking. Why has it taken me so long to view the Northern Territory as an appealing winter destination? For years my credit card has been stretched to the limit, and occasionally beyond, as I have sought various overseas destinations as sanctuary from the east-coast frost.

Warmth, culture and some of the most amazing flora and fauna on the planet are all on my doorstep and at a fraction of the cost of a trip abroad. Somehow, I get the feeling a return visit is not far off. Barra beware.


Getting there

Qantas flies non-stop from Sydney to Darwin; Melburnians have one stop in Adelaide, Alice Springs or Sydney. Fares from $287 (Sydney) and $347 (Melbourne). Jetstar flies non-stop from Melbourne to Darwin, fares from $159; there are no direct flights from Sydney so you will have to fly to another port and change aircraft. Virgin Blue flies daily to Darwin from Sydney (from $199) and Melbourne (from $179), change in Brisbane. Tiger Airways flies from Melbourne non-stop to Darwin, from $160. (All fares one-way, taxes included.) We flew with JayRow helicopters (www.jayrow.com.au), which can be hired for about $1000 an hour, and charter flights with Direct Air (www.directairtours.com.au).

Where to stay

Gagudju Lodge, Cooinda (www.gagudjulodgecooinda.com.au), can handle small- and big-budget tourists. Max Davidson's safari camp at Mount Borradaile (www.arnhemland-safaris.com) starts at $500 a person a night; that includes all meals, accommodation and guided activities. Peppers Seven Spirit Bay (www.peppers.com.au/Seven-Spirit-Bay) has two-night stays and safari packages from $1385 a person.

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