Karumba, Gulf Country
The only town in view of the Southern Gulf, Karumba serves up everything the Top End is renowned. In a country that can be explored year-round, we really are uniquely spoilt for touring choice here in Australia and, like the migratory wildebeest, we follow the routes laid down by those that have gone before us, with seasonal synchronicity.
The cooler months down south mean many of us to seek the warmer north, while the reverse is true during summer. But as always, some of the best experiences are often found slightly off the main route. The journey across the top end, via Queensland's Savannah Way, is a popular one and near the south-eastern corner of the Gulf of Carpentaria, there is a great side trip that incorporates Karumba, a well-known fishing destination that is well worth a visit.
Karumba is the only town on the Gulf's southern coastline that is in view of the Gulf, as the low-lying tidal marshes have limited hinterland settlement, with many other towns established up to 50km inland.
Originally called Norman Mouth, due to its location at the entrance of the Norman River to the Gulf of Carpentaria, the town was returned to the indigenous name of Karumba in the late 1870s.
The region to the south of the Gulf owes its European existence to the gold rush of the 1860s and the town was established shortly after, when in the 1870s, Karumba became the site of a telegraph station that connected the region to the east coast via Mt Surprise and Gilbert River.
The development of the town might have been entirely different; Karumba very nearly became the site for the overland telegraph line that connected Australia with Europe. It was Darwin that eventually became the location of the cable from Europe that continued south through the red centre and on to Adelaide.
While Karumba did miss out on becoming an integral part of the communication network with Europe via the inland telegraph, it did become fundamental to another connection with England. Qantas and BOAC (British Overseas Airways, which became British Airways in the 1970s) ran a flying boat service between Australia and England, and Karumba became a fuelling base for the Short-Sutherland aircraft in 1937. The flying boat service cut the England-Australia journey to just 10 days, less than a third of the time by ship.
Karumba as a travel destination didn't start until the 1950s with the establishment of Karumba Lodge, a hunting facility created by Melbourne identity Rene Henri who, amongst other things, was president of the Australian Crocodile Shooters and Big Game Club, in addition to being the co-author of the book Toby presents Ali, Oigle and Toitle: A Tale of the Northern Territory. This little-known book features some strong references to both the Gulf and to crocodile hunting in general.
It was during this period that Karumba was becoming renowned as a fishing adventure destination and, by the 1960s, Karumba became the centre of the Gulf fishing industry. Nowadays, the area earns over $150 million primarily through barramundi and prawn fishing.
Karumba is also the transport hub for the Century Zinc Mine located near Lawn Hill over 250km to the southwest. Interestingly, the material is not transported by road or rail but is pumped via a pipeline.
Karumba and the Gulf of Carpentaria experience a unique phenomenon that only a few other places in the world do – a single high and low tide per day (the norm is two – known as a semi-diurnal tide). According to the experts, the reason for the single tide is that the Gulf is not only bordered on three sides by land, but the top (the Arafura Sea) is also partially blocked from open tides by New Guinea's landmass. This impacts normal tidal activity, which is neutralised by the returning bounce off New Guinea; the action is similar to the wave motion of a bath when a ripple meets another ripple travelling in the opposite direction. Other places that exhibit similar tidal characteristics are the Gulf of Thailand, the Persian Gulf, the South China Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. These places are also renowned for their fishing...
The town, while small, offers the traveller all that is needed, with good cafes and restaurants, and great accommodation ranging from camping, caravan parks, cabins and motels.
With a permanent population of around 600, the town has a cosmopolitan feel, helped by the estimated 100,000-plus visitors per year.
While the area is well known for its fishing including mud crabs, the Norman River also provides excellent opportunities to experience the amazing birdlife, as well as some close encounters with saltwater crocodiles.
One Normanton tour operator, aptly named Croc and Crab Tours, is run by Mark and Julianne Grunske, two locals who are passionate about the region, the town, crocs and 'muddies' (not to mention an infectious desire to share it with others)
Their day tour is an absolute must and covers a cruise up the river to check and reset their crab pots, along the way encountering exquisite birdlife including whistling kites, red-tailed black cockatoos, wedge-tailed eagles and sea eagles.
Then the real fun begins as our hosts start to holler "Gladstone, Gladstone, Gladstone...", which turns out to be the name they have given to a large saltwater crocodile. Incredibly, Gladstone eventually appears downstream after a few minutes and makes his way to the boat; gliding through the water like silent quicksilver. With some croc food thrown on the bank just in front of where we are moored, Gladstone makes his way to his treat which puts him within about three metres of these slightly perturbed passengers; it's an awesome and humbling experience to see these ancient creatures up close from the safety of the boat and with our experienced guides.
Travelling back toward the coast, it's time to learn about the 'muddies' that were collected earlier in the trip. With a few decades experience with mud crabs, Julianne and Mark's interactive discussions on these delicacies enthral all. The tour concludes, perfectly, with us moored in the middle of the river feasting on mud crabs and prawns while sharing travel anecdotes with each other.
With the adventure-based experiences done, the one experience remaining is to complete the day by watching the sunset across the Gulf while picnicking at the Point.
Karumba Point (just in front of the hotel) is the best place to see a Gulf sunset, which many believe is one of the most beautiful in Australia, as it sets over the Arnhem Land but it is viewed across the water of the Gulf. According to the locals, nature almost always obliges visitors with a spectacular show.
Due to its location, Karumba may seem to be only for those doing the 'big lap', but it is not so isolated that a trip from the coast is out of the question, as there is so much to explore along the Savannah Way. Likewise for those venturing through outback Queensland.
Family-friendly Karumba is a place of unique experiences, located in a genuinely unique part of Australia. It really appears to be the place where the outback meets the sea.