Catching the Burketown Barra

Catching the Burketown Barra
Experience the thrill of 4WDing on the incredible saltpans in pursuit of barramundi and blue salmon

Searching for sunnier skies after the wet and cold outback of the Diamantina, we decided to head to Burketown, also known as the barramundi capital of Australia. Burketown is situated on the Albert River, 25km from the Gulf of Carpentaria, dividing the wetlands to the north and the savannah grasslands to the south.

On earlier trips, we had explored some of the Gulf from the west via Ropers Bar, Borroloola and King Ash Bay, as well as Karumba and Normanton from the east via the Burke Development Road. However, we had missed Burketown and were keen to remedy this missing link in our Gulf explorations.

On our way north from Charleville, we stopped at caravan parks in Longreach and Cunnamulla, and at the free bush camp on the Leichhardt River, 80km north-west of Burke & Wills Roadhouse. Entering the bush camping area is via the gate on the right before crossing the bridge. At the time we visited it wasn't marked, but a white rag was tied to the gate, so we followed the short track to the campsites.

Burketown is remote, and our first impression was of a very small settlement with not much to do, but we couldn't have been more wrong. We did a quick survey of the few streets checking out the pub, general store, service station, mechanic, and small information hut where we first picked up a few clues about the surrounding areas and the many exciting possibilities on our doorstep.

We really didn't know our way around, and decided to set up camp in the Burketown Caravan Park and meet the locals before venturing out on our own. By evening, we had made friends with Bill, Betty and Geoff, who have been making the trek to Burketown from the southern states every winter for over 20 years to fish and enjoy the warm weather. Not only were they happy to share their special knowledge about places to explore and where to fish around Burketown, but that same evening we were tucking into juicy barramundi fillets, courtesy of Bill.

In the morning, we woke up lopsided to the small nuisance of a flat tyre on the camper trailer. We have no idea how it happened, but something must have spiked it, and we were lucky that it lost the air in town and not on the road somewhere. A quick jack up of the trailer and a roll with the wheel down to the garage saw it fixed in no time.

Next on the agenda was checking out the local fishing spots and a few historic sites. We headed for New Wharf, veering off to check out Colonial Flat with its relics from an expedition to find Burke & Wills (Landsborough Tree) and remnants of the original Boiling down Works from the time when hopes were high for Burketown to become a major northern outpost. Established in 1865 as the oldest town of the Gulf, the settlement was devastated by Gulf Fever (typhoid) in 1866 and everyone was evacuated to Sweers Island. The town was not resettled until 1882, and it never did become 'the Plains of Promise' as visualized by early explorers.

We promptly became lost along all the small tracks in and around the river taking us through beautiful bush camps. At New Wharf, die-hard fishermen were camping and putting up with strong winds and still our fishing luck didn't change. On the way back, it's worth a visit to the cemetery where the old graves are testament to the gulf fever and the toughness of early pioneer life.

Back through town heading for the Old Bridge (Normanton Rd), we stopped at the Artesian Bore, sunk in 1896 and still gushing boiling water. The minerals form a colourful base and billabong that is a haven for birds and wildlife. The Old Bridge provided another good fishing spot and great camping along the banks.

The following day we drove to the Nicholson River causeway. It's just 5km out on the Gregory Downs Rd, then take the right turn at the sign and continue 10km to the causeway. The water is fresh above the causeway, salty below and large saltwater crocs are known to patrol the area. We didn't come back empty handed this time, after three bream, all too small to keep, we finally caught a lost lure.

It was time to shift camp, and in the early morning we drove out to the Old Bridge to leave the camper at our favourite bush camp. By now we were ready for some serious exploring, and armed with Bill's mud map, we ventured onto the saltpans (tracks begin from Cemetery Rd). A word of warning: it is absolutely paramount to stick to the track, as in some areas the tide will rise and you can be seriously bogged. People have been stuck overnight, so take care.

It's easy to become lost as the horizons promise lakes and vegetation that don't exist. The tracks are confusing (we ended up in various dead ends) and we only found two markers on the whole stretch of 35km, which was just a stick with a plastic bag and another with an empty Solo can. Some of the dead ends petered out into crusty, salty ruts, but most tracks end up at a river if you can get through.

Prepared for the day with food, drink and fishing gear, we were aiming for Grassy Bank and the Bream Hole on the Nicholson River, and after a few wrong turns we did eventually find it. It's a beautiful spot of undisturbed wilderness, the river curbing around islands of mangroves, white-bellied sea eagles above, and a great heron fishing along the bank. How could we not catch big fish here? Well, still unlucky, we renamed it Catfish Hole after the many small catfish we caught, but still had a great day.

The following day we found the area called the Washing Machine and discovered where Betty and Geoff were catching all the blue salmon. Blue salmon is a great fighting fish and lovely to eat.

There are numerous places to explore on the saltpans, but we were advised not to drive out to the Ballast Grounds on the Albert River as the tracks were dangerous, so on our last day here we had to head back early.

We had also been warned not to go on the saltpans in windy conditions, as low, sweeping wind would lift the dust and obliterate the tracks, and that is exactly what happened. The wind picked up mid morning and we had great trouble seeing the track. It was with a sigh of relief that we spotted the Telstra tower, coming in on a totally different track to what we had aimed for. The saltpans are amazing, and an eerie landscape that can make you feel uneasy.

We loved the Albert River bush camp. Half a day was spent tracking the movements of the resident salty, which is 16ft long. He patrolled about 400m of the opposite bank, coming out to sunbake on his favourite banks and was quite wary, sinking into the shallow water when disturbed. But he knew we were there, and at one time popped up more than halfway across the river, just proving how careful we had to be.

Every afternoon we would sit on the high bank with a cold one to watch the drama unfold on the opposite bank. Agile wallabies coming down to drink, taking forever to inch their way towards the water's edge. They knew that the big croc could be lurking, and we held our breath while mum with heavy joey in the pouch took her turn. The afternoon that we spotted the croc close by, the wallabies did not come down. Instead, they were racing back and forth barking out warnings at the top of the bank. Flocks of trumpeting brolgas marked the end of 'happy hour', flying over the river to roost.

Burketown was a great place, but we still hadn't caught the big barra. The locals offered a couple of reasons (or good excuses) for the poor fishing, and we were glad to hear them. Apparently, instead of the usual two tides a day in the Gulf, we experienced a couple of 'four -tide days' where there was hardly any difference between high and low, and the temperature was in the high 30s. Someone mentioned that there was barra being caught on the Norman River south of Normanton, and that was enough incentive to move on and give it one more go.

We stopped at Leichhardt Falls and spent a very hot afternoon exploring this remarkable landscape of rock formations and waterholes. During the night, the winds became so strong that we packed up the camper at five in the morning after a sleepless night of straining canvas & poles. Numerous little creatures had taken refuge in folds and under tyres, from geckos to some rather large spiders and a scorpion.

The drive from Leichhardt Falls to Normanton must be one of the most beautiful of the Savannah Way with golden Mitchell grass and dense formations of termite nests. We passed several flocks of bustards, a rare sight nowadays of these large birds (up to 1.5m) and huge flocks of galahs, grey blankets changing to pink as they rose from the ground.

After stocking up in Normanton, we spent three nights at Leichhardt Lagoon Camping Park (25km south of Normanton), a beautiful spot on the edge of a water-lily filled lagoon on Old Glenore Station only 400m from the Norman River. And what luck to arrive on a Saturday and be able to enjoy the three course dinner put on every week by John and Midge Beard, owners of the station. The dinner was a steal at only $3 per person (bring extra money for the Flying Doctor raffles) and was a great occasion to meet fellow travellers and swap yarns.

It was soon obvious that barras were being caught, and we spent the next couple of days trying our luck. The Norman River was shrinking in the heat and the barra being stopped by the weir, but it still took two days before we finally caught one, and let me tell you, it certainly was a thrill.

The birdlife was so varied and the beautiful water lilies in bloom, but the lagoon was also shrinking and the camping season coming to an end in another two weeks. It was time to start the return trip to Brisbane after having spent a wonderful time in the sun and the warmth of the Gulf region.

WHERE:

Burketown sits 25km inland from the Gulf of Carpentaria and 425km north of Mt Isa

CAMPING:

Burketown Caravan Park

Phone: (07) 4745 5118

Leichhardt Lagoon Camping Park

Phone: (07) 4745 1330

$7 per person per night. Good amenities block and fish cleaning area.

Free camping is available along the Leichhardt River, Albert River (Burketown) and Leichhardt Falls. The only facilities available are a decent port-a-loo and sink at the Old Bridge/Gumbummunda Bridge (Albert River).

SUPPLIES AND FACILITIES:

Burketown has a pub, library (internet), post office, police, hospital, fuel, repairs and general store. Take fish scraps to special dump points (wire cages w/deep dugouts/ Old Bridge, Cemetery Road and New Wharf).

TRIP STANDARD:

Trips are rated A through to E, with A meaning least suitable for a camper trailer and E meaning perfectly suited for all types of camper trailers.

General driving rated D – red dirt tracks and usually well graded, but this area is still very isolated with Mt Isa (the closest town) 425km away.

On the saltpans rated B – can become seriously boggy.

BUDGET ATTRACTIONS:

4WDing, exploring remote areas, bush camping, fishing, birdwatching, wildlife and history.

MAPS & GUIDES:

HEMA and local mud maps.

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANNELISE & RICHARD HOWES

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