The plan was for four Victorians (aka Mexicans) to drive in two vehicles with boats in tow, taking four days to drive 3,650km to Jabiru. Once there, we would stay in a small unit at one of the local caravan parks and fish the East and South Alligator rivers at the peak time during the fabled run-off. Vern, my driving companion, assured me everything would go smoothly as he had done this trip before, and Brian and Mick, in the other vehicle, were on their 12th trip. We would sleep in swags in wayside stops on the way up, driving approximately 1,000km per day, with a leisurely last day to pick up supplies at Katherine.
It sounded like a solid plan; what could possibly go wrong? I was already visualising barra lining up to smash our flies. However, I was told to pack a bait-caster as we might be casting lures into some tighter areas where fly casting wasn’t possible.
The trip started promisingly, with an uneventful first day’s drive and camp. Day two saw us pulling up at the Finke River, just south of Alice Springs. Here I discovered that you actually need midge fly screen on your swag to keep out the thousands of tiny ants that pour through standard fly screen mesh. Needless to say, not much sleep occurred that night.
Camp 3 saw us 3,000km into the trip, rolling out the swags not far from the side off the road. It was incredibly hot and humid. Combined with the thunder of road trains which literally felt like they were running straight through our camp, there was once again not much sleep!
Fortunately, we arrived at Jabiru to find our accommodation was excellent and air-conditioned. I was a happy man.
However, I started to get an uneasy feeling that evening as we were preparing the boats for fishing the next day. I noticed Vern putting six rigged-up bait-casting outfits into the boat and was told, ‘You won’t need your fly rod, bring your bait-caster instead.’ Things got even more concerning the next morning when we arrived at the South Alligator River for our first day’s fishing, to find not a single other boat at the ramp, and the water literally liquid mud. Usually, the boat ramp is packed at this time of the year.
Apparently, Kakadu had experienced one of its driest wet seasons on record and there was basically no runoff. As a result, the fishing had been very poor, and the conditions were stacked against flyfishing.
Heading upriver I asked Vern how he knew where he was going, as visibility into the water was zero. It turned out he had the route marked on his GPS from the previous year. Excellent news, except that didn’t prevent us running into a sandbar, catapulting me into a river thick with crocodiles and damaging my C3 disk in the process. Thank goodness for Codeine – modern medicine kept me fishing.
The remainder of the trip continued to be equally eventful with other near misses, including having a crocodile attack the bow of one of the boats, and then stalk us for the next hour. Apparently, we were fishing in his spot! Or having both boat trailers damaged on boat ramps, props smashed and skegs broken.
However, despite all of this, we were managing to catch some good fish, admittedly not all on fly. This was largely due to Brian and Mick’s excellent knowledge of the area. We would have been totally lost without their help.
We were forced to travel very long distances to find fish. On many occasions, we motored more than 200 nautical km per day to access smaller rivers which flowed directly into the Arafura Sea, where the fishing was driven more by tides than the non-existent run off. This did produce some good fishing. However, the journey was brutal on the body, especially when crossing large expanses of open water in 4.5m boats, with the wind blowing in the opposite direction to a 7.5-metre tide.
When some really difficult tides were forecast, I was able to convince Vern to fish a billabong called Yellow Waterholes, which is in the headwaters of the South Alligator River. So, we started early as I had been told the best fishing was before the sun hit the water. When we arrived at the boat ramp, we found the gate closed and locked. On making enquiries we were told it was closed due to high water levels. However, if we wanted to pay $89 each, we could take the tourist cruise. I found it difficult to understand how the paid tourist cruise was not affected by high water levels, whilst Kakadu had experienced one of its driest wet seasons on record. But what would I know? I was only a Mexican.
Fortunately, we were able to access another beautiful billabong at the top of the East Alligator, where we enjoyed some delightful flyfishing for smaller barra, saratoga, and tarpon. I enjoyed this fishing more than catching big barra in dirty water on lures.
Finally, after 30 days of fishing it was time to return home. On reflection, Kakadu is a remarkable place. The natural environment is stunning, and the memories of the scenery and wildlife will last with forever. I can still see the sea eagle plucking a mullet out of the water and the crocodile hunting the Magpie geese goslings which were trying to cross the East Alligator River. Initially there were six… in the end, none. Chilling!
Kakadu is still a wild and dangerous place. It is hard on anglers and their gear. In a perverse way, I think that is one of the things that adds to its attraction and mystique.
While we were a little unlucky to strike exceptional conditions at Kakadu (of the wrong kind), the trip was memorable to say the least, and it will be worth at least half a chapter in my memoir! It’s pretty incredible that you can jump in a car with your fishing rods in the cool climate and urban setting of Ballarat, and then drive to this vast tropical wilderness – all without leaving Australia.