Archive for December, 2011

Tropical paradise

One of the best known holiday destinations in Queensland has to be the Whitsundays. Palm fringed, pristine beaches, countless, unspoiled islands and reefs, surrounded by clear, warm water in all shades of blue, creating a unique tropical paradise. And, best of all, Lake Proserpine –another great Barra dam – is only a short drive away.

It is an easy 500 km trip from Gladstone to the Whitsundays along the Bruce Highway. Just after Gladstone, we pass a huge coal train and count exactly 100 coal carriages and 3 huge diesel engines. On the way north, we have to pick up our mail in Rockhampton, sent to us Poste Restante as usual and waiting for us. Earlier this year, Rockhampton was severely affected by the floods of the Fitzroy River for several weeks and large parts of the city went under water.

While travelling through Mackay, this time just acting as a short stopover to stretch our legs, we remember our last trip 10 years ago, when we spent memorable time here and further west, up in Eungella National Park. Eungella is a great little place in the mountains about 600m above sea level and features stunning rainforests; platypus are common in its relatively cool mountain streams and there are numerous walking tracks to explore the area. And yes, there is another dam up there of course, home to enormous Sooty Grunter.

From Mackay it is just a little more than another 100km and we are in Proserpine. We decide to stay in Proserpine rather than in the Whitsundays, because Prosy is situated just about half way between Lake Proserpine and the Whitsundays. One of the first things we do is paying the local tackle shop, Proserpine Bait & Tackle, a visit and asking for the latest fishing news. Lindsay Dobe – owner, fishing guide and Barra expert par excellence – tells us that the water temperature is still a bit on the cool side with 20 to 22°C, but with warmer weather moving in, the fishing is expected to improve. He points out some of the current hotspots on the lake and with his sound advice we tackle the task. We manage to get some nice fish, but some days, nothing seems to work and we even try a bit of Harry Potter magic, but not even our ‘Fishy, fishy, don’t be shy, grab our lure or we might cry!’ spell makes a difference.

We have the great pleasure to spend time on the lake with Lindsay and love every minute of it. He is not only an amazing guide indeed, but also excellent company and we learn a lot new tricks (fish the sexy looking trees….) once again and laugh together till our tummy muscles hurt. Lindsay’s Nitro bass boat is a purpose built fishing machine and our own boat seems small and flimsy in comparison. Flying over the water with more than a hundred kilometres an hour is a thrilling experience and we squeal like kids.

Lake Proserpine has heaps of dead, standing timber and it sometimes feels like fishing in a forest. Orchids and other epiphytes grow in some of the trees and eagles use them as nesting sites. At some stage we even see a White-breasted Sea-Eagle with a freshly caught and half eaten duck in its claws.

Ten days after our arrival in Proserpine, we have to look for a new place to stay, because Proserpine Tourist Park is booked out. Seabreeze Caravan Park in Cannonvale, in the heart of the Whitsundays, becomes our base for the next couple of weeks. Just after 4am early one morning, on the way to the lake, a wallaby appears out of the dark and jumps right into our path. We manage to reduce our speed a little, but avoiding a collision is impossible and we hit the animal hard and with a loud bang. The impact is massive and the car veers to the right. Luckily there is no oncoming traffic and we pull up on the side of the road. We are prepared for the worst and – with trembling knees – inspect the front of the car with a torch. Miraculously, we can’t see any damage at all. The bull bar did exactly what it is supposed to do and took all of the impact. The poor wallaby wasn’t that lucky though and lies dead in the middle of the road. It is a strange and sad feeling to pull the lifeless body off the tarmac; it is still warm and the fur feels very soft. After a couple of minutes sitting in the dark and gathering ourselves, we continue our drive. Having driven many thousands of kilometres on Australia’s roads on several trips, this is the first time we’ve hit a kangaroo or a wallaby. To stick to our policy not to drive at night whenever possible, seems to make more sense than ever.

Two days later, again early in the morning, and despite the swerving to avoid a collision, we roll over a Bandicoot. The little creatures are all over the road and many of the guinea pig sized marsupials get killed every night.

During our outings on the lake with Lindsay and on our own, we manage to catch some nice fish, two of them reaching the magic meter mark, the others being smaller. And we also meet Karen and Peter, two very friendly Aussie travellers from New South Wales and experienced and keen fishos. We are impressed by the perfect set up of their boat, where everything has its place and is within easy reach when needed.

Geordie, Lindsay’s employee and right hand, tells us about some of his fishing spots and we have a ball catching Tarpon in a little creek meandering through the Proserpine golf course. Quite the opposite of our experience back home, the players are exceptionally friendly and don’t mind us being on their turf.

While in Cannonvale, we fall in love with one of the beaches nearby. Dingo beach and the small settlement along its shoreline are almost too good to be true. Fine, white sand, palms, shallow sand flats and a pub with cold drinks 50m from the beach; life doesn’t get much better than that. Wading and fishing soft plastics yields a range of species from flathead to small Giant Trevally, cod and Barracuda. One morning, the sight of a school of permit tailing in the shallow water gets us excited and with trembling hands we flick our lures into the fish’s path. The permit are extremely spooky though and even a small soft plastic making a little splash sees them going off like greased lightning and heading into deeper water. After only a couple of minutes the show is over and the fish disappear.

Another day a dog shows up out of nowhere and sits next to us in the water, watching every single move of ours and following us around for several hours until it eventually disappears again.

A little closer to Cannonvale is Coral Beach, a gem as well and one of the finest beaches for swimming, consisting entirely of pebbles and pieces of coral and framed by rocky headlands at both ends. We fish from the rocks with slightly heavier gear and catch a range of smaller coral species and lose a couple of bigger fish to the sharp rocks. Fishing poppers and walk the dog type lures is great fun and we manage to land some nice Queenfish, just reaching the meter mark. There are good sized Giant Trevally around as well, but they prove to be too powerful for our 8 – 10 kg outfits and we get busted big time every time we hook one of these brutes.

It’s a half an hour walk from the car park to Coral Beach, leading through dry eucalypt forest most of the time. While walking, we usually see brush turkeys foraging on the ground for a yummy morsel. These birds build large mounds out of leaf litter. The heat generated by the decomposing organic matter incubates the eggs buried in the mound by the female. The brush turkey controls the temperature and adds or removes material to maintain optimal conditions for the development of its offspring. Some of the mounds we come across are more than 2m high and 6m in diameter and have been used for many years.

Along the beaches in the Whitsundays, we see the yellow signs warning of saltwater crocodiles again. The Australian saltwater crocodile is the largest crocodile in the world and has been sighted on the East coast as far south as Fraser Island. Crocodiles have been fully protected for many years now and their numbers have increased dramatically. The Proserpine River has become serious croc country in recent years and one can go for a croc spotting tour with a local operator. We have not come across a croc on this trip yet and are still looking forward to a reunion.




In search of Barra

On previous trips, we fell in love with one of North Australia’s fishy icons, the elusive Barramundi (Lates calcarifer). Barramundi are closely related to the Nile perch and are not only great table fare, but grow up to 100lb and are renowned for their strength and aerial displays. They can live in fresh and in saltwater, but need the sea for their reproduction. And the males change sex when they are around 4 to 5 years old and turn into females. So whenever one catches a big, strong and clever Barra, it’s a she. Barramundi can be readily caught on lures and on fly; the fish in the dams being most active when the water temperature reaches the high twenties.

Many dams in Queensland have been stocked with Barramundi. Thanks to an abundance of food they thrive in many of these manmade lakes and grow fast and big. The entire East coast of Queensland is dotted with dams, many of them being well known for the sheer size and number of fish caught every year. One of the standouts is Lake Awoonga, home not only to one of the piscatorial icons of Australia, but also to one of its great fishing legends, Rod ‘Harro’ Harrison. We had been looking forward to meeting him in person one day, so it was no question: our next stop had to be Lake Awoonga and nearby Gladstone.

Finding a little cabin on a camp ground near Gladstone proved to be a very difficult task indeed. When the first people we ask told us, that they are fully booked for the next two years, we thought they were pulling our legs. But then they explained to us, that the area is busy with thousands of contract workers from all over Australia, working for the mining and gas industries. In the next 10 years, an estimated 30’000 new jobs will be created in Queensland.

So every camp ground and caravan park was full with workers and it took us ages to finally find a cabin. We got lucky though and found a great place just minutes from the lake. Lake Awoonga Gateway Lodge was our home from home for several weeks and we were even treated to 2 days of fishing with our very friendly and knowledgeable host Marc. The weather was still on the cooler side for Barra fishing and the water temperature just scratching 20°C. The fish did not what we wanted them to do and our lures couldn’t tempt a single Barra.

Meeting Harro was a pleasure and spending an afternoon on the lake with him was a great experience and we learned a lot. But even his knowledge and skills couldn’t change the conditions and we did not get a Barramundi. To have a bit of action, we started fishing for catfish with shrimps and got one fish after the other until we ran out of bait. The slow fishing left plenty of room for talking and a humble Rod Harrison told us many funny and fantastic stories out of his very colorful life. We hope to see him again and spend some more time together. Harro is also a master fly caster and teacher and we would love to throw a line with him.

There is more to Gladstone than Lake Awoonga and we spent many days exploring the area. Construction work is going on everywhere and not everyone is happy about it. The installation of mining and gas exploiting sites and the necessary infrastructure like roads, railway tracks and port facilities have a great impact on the environment. Many people we came across and some of the political parties are concerned. Labour and the Greens want to investigate the issue properly, while the National party – without knowing what’s going on either- assures everyone, that it is save any way and that none of these activities have any negative impact what so ever. Once more their policy is to look the other way and not to ask any questions regarding environmental issues, whenever money is to be made and votes can be won.

In Gladstone harbour, dredging on a big scale is already going on. Recent sightings of unusually high numbers of dead dugongs and turtles have raised questions about the cause of these deaths and the role the dredging may play. We can only hope, that despite the fact that jobs and a thriving economy are vital for Queensland and Australia, sustainability and the need for a healthy environment are not just meaningless words.

Gladstone, nearby Curtis Island and several rivers are part of a very diverse mosaic of waterways, mudflats and mangrove rich estuaries, providing habitats for an amazing number of mammals, birds, fish and other marine life. We spent hours walking the beaches and fishing from the shore and from a pontoon on Boyne Island. And we had the pleasure to see dozens of pretty-faced wallabies, and, in the water, the odd dugong and many turtles.

One of the world largest alumina refineries, Queensland Alumina Ltd (QAL), is based in Gladstone and is a major employer, providing work for more than 1’000 people. The plant itself covers an area of 80 hectares and started working in 1967, currently producing more than 4 million tonnes of alumina per year. Alumina, a fine aluminium oxide powder, is produced by refining bauxite; the process being very energy and water intensive and requiring the use of 800’000 tonnes of caustic soda annually as well. The bauxite for QAL is mined in Weipa on Cape York and shipped 2’000km around the Cape to Gladstone. Alumina is delivered to smelters in Australia and overseas and smelted into aluminium. 4 tonnes of bauxite produce 2 tonnes of alumina which result in 1 tonne of aluminium.

QAL runs free visitor tours and the tour by bus through a maze of pipes, buildings and conveyors was very impressive indeed.