I am embarking on a spiritual journey. In two days I will be out on the open water at Shady Camp, on the Mary River, barramundi fishing. This for me is something approaching a religious act, a ritual that takes me directly to my childhood in Kakadu, sharing a boat with my dad or standing ankle-deep in crocodile infested waters lobbing the lure across waters capped with mist, waiting for the thump and flash of gold from a strike.
Barramundi are a sacred creature, to be respected, eaten, but also preserved and allowed to flourish. I have three bark paintings of barra by indigenous countrymen from the Territory, all looking down at me from the top of the bookshelf. In Kakadu the Gagadju and Bunidj would fish barra during the dry season, particularly late when the waters are low and the rivers have turned to pools crawling with hungry barra, catfish, and crocodiles. In the wet, when everything floods high, they would retreat to the escarpment country and live in the honeycomb caves that run along the edge of the flatlands and which they shared with bats, scorpions and very edible pythons.
It is now late in the wet, but it is a good time for fishing with the help of a modern addition to the barra fishing armoury; the dingy. Small, agile boats that can negotiate the narrow cuttings and broad tidal rivers to access a prize called, unglamorously, the run-off. In indigenous seasons we're approaching the knock-em-downs, a short stretch around April where powerful random winds blast across the country, but here's hoping for nothing worse that warm tropical rain that can be scooped out of the boat with one hand while both eyes stay on the water.
The run-off is prized because it is the best chance anyone gets to catch the elusive barra. At the start of the wet, around November, all breeding age barra head for the sea, it is a massive movement akin to the salmon's journey. Barra live everywhere crocodiles do; from the estuaries right up to the freshwater pools at the base of the escarpment, so for many it's a journey of up to several hundred K's. Fishing is rightly banned in many places during the next couple of months so that they may breed in peace. This policy, together with buybacks of commercial fishing licences (the reason your barra is so expensive on the plate in southern cities), has resulted in a massive re-stocking of a once extremely depleted population.
It is one of Australia's great, unheralded environmental success stories, a good example of ostensibly opposite groups, greens and fishos, working together towards common and productive goals.
Later in the wet the barra move up onto the floodplains which fan out from the submerged banks of most of the Territory's great rivers. There is an abundance of food; frogs, insects, other fish, and they gorge themselves. Then, as the plains start to drop, by early March, the run-off commences. Big females - all big barra are females because barra change sex midlife - take up positions at the places where the water from the floodplains is draining into the rivers. They hunt aggressively, they kill whatever comes within range when they are really fired up.
And at times, the hunter becomes the hunted.
The barra sees a loping, wounded small mullet working through the water. She strikes by gliding up to the victim with a casual flick of her tail then, in one fraction-of-a-second movement, slamming open her mouth, throat and gills. Litres of water are sucked through and pumped out the other end, yanking the stunned fish into her smooth, hard, virtually-toothless mouth which crushes down hard, breaking the victim's back and allowing her to take it in fully with the next mouthful.
The unique attack mechanism of the barra means that the strike is unlike anything else an angler has experienced. There is a thump, and it does somehow hit you in the chest. Within moments she can be out of the water, shaking her head several times per second while walking on her tail. More often than not it ends right there, as the unwelcome, spikey baitfish that didn't taste so good goes flying through the air. But if that fails, then she runs hard and deep, seeking out fallen logs or mud banks to hide in and in the process stress, and often break, the fishing line.
Occasionally all efforts fail, and she is beaten and brought to the boat.
If it's me on the other end then she's still got a chance, because I find it so hard to do what every meat-eater should be able to do- look my food in the eye, thank nature for providing for me, and engage the "priest" - the short, blunt piece of iron used for dispensing with last rites.
But if this moment is passed, and she ends up grilled, fresh from the water, with just a dash of lemon and pepper to bring out her mouth-watering flavour that beats anything I've ever eaten in a restaurant, then I think of her and give thanks, as humans have done for tens of thousands of years, on completion of this most intuitive, spiritual and grounding process.
It has been a gruelling couple of weeks, I apologise for the lack of posts.
Tonight beloved and I fly to the Territory for a few days with the parents; they deserve some visits after being so good during my wedding. The cats went in the 'hotel' this morning; she was ok, but he hissed and went a little psycho. It always makes me a bit sad when that happens, hopefully he'll calm down and enjoy playing with the friendly girls.
Paul's Iced Coffee, the elixir of the North, awaits...
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