In the first of a three-part special, John Dunn recalls his return to the Cobourg Peninsula
When Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” ‑ or thereabouts ‑ he nailed a reality to the floor. The sympathetic epigram ‘anything that can go wrong will go wrong’ is widely known as Murphy’s Law and in more recent times Forrest Gump reduced the concept to a concise, two-word equivalent sometimes aired on T-shirts. They all mean the same and over the past few years everyone has experienced their consequences.
We began planning our return to the Cobourg Peninsula in 2019, postponed it in 2020 and again the following year as COVID ruled and for a while I thought it may not happen at all. Even so, I kept in touch with Rob Tritten from R&R Outfitters who was making noises about some new country to hunt. He reckoned big bantengs and buffaloes were distinct possibilities so we made some tentative arrangements for 2022 and waited.
On a cold winter morning in late August I was finally on my way. As I walked into Wagga Airport, Murphy snickered in the background as I learned at the Qantas check-in my booking had been changed and instead of flying direct to Darwin from Sydney I’d be dog-legging via Adelaide. That it messed with my end-of-the-line charter flight arrangements was unfortunate as when I finally arrived in Darwin and walked into the Air Frontier office, I was two-and-a-half hours late. My charter flight had gone. On it was my hunting mate Graeme Fifield, his daughter Larissa and her son Noah. The plane needed time to fly out and return to Darwin before dark and they’d had to leave me behind.
There wasn’t another flight until 10 o’clock the following morning, so a member of the Air Frontier crew found me some overnight accommodation then dropped me off on the way home, a positive ending to what had otherwise been a very ordinary day. Everything was smothering under the smoky pall of dry season fires when we left Darwin. Visibility was so poor we were only five minutes from landing before I could pick out the narrow slash of the Murganella airstrip stark against the drab bush. Thankfully, Gorgia Tritten was there to meet me with her two youngest children, Dylan and Zahara, so we transferred my gear to the troop carrier, watched the plane leave then headed for camp along a dusty road.
The new camp was set on a rise overlooking a narrow strip of beach edging the Arafura Sea, the centrepiece being a weather-worn, two-roomed galvanised hut known as Tiger’s Camp, named for its original Aboriginal occupant. The hut was a combined storeroom, pantry and living quarters for the Tritten family during hunting season, the wide eaves around it always offering shade somewhere during the day while a breezeway at the southern end doubled as a washing-up and barbecue area.
Other facilities included a shower and laundry tub, a long-drop toilet and airy, insect-proof tents to sleep in. A quiet generator ran 24/7 providing power for lights and refrigeration while water came from a bore-fed overhead tank that needed topping up every day or so. As rustic as it seemed to be it was a comfortable camp and when I left a little over a week later, I was sad to go.
Under a shade cloth awning beside a shipping container the Fifield clan was watching Rob and Caleb Tritten skin out the head and salt the cape of a beautiful banteng bull Larissa had shot. Although a veteran deer hunter, the bull was her first big game trophy and, not surprisingly, she was more than a little pleased with herself. There were hugs and handshakes all round, followed by some not too subtle mutual chiacking about my late arrival and hunting companions who’d started without me.
We headed off about 4 o’clock, travelling through a mosaic of scorched and unburnt woodland towards flood plain country while out in the open, troops of brolgas wandered the edges of a saltwater creek that snaked back towards the timber. Flocks of corellas lifted and settled again as groups of Timor ponies raced away from the vehicle, their hooves stirring up clouds of fine ash and dust which hung in the air long after they’d galloped out of sight.
On the verges of the plain the time-worn mounds of ancient shell middens dotted the landscape, some of them old enough to have grown large trees, all of them testament to the presence of generations of Aboriginal people who’d fossicked and fed themselves over aeons of time in an environment obviously much richer than it appeared to be, even if only on a seasonal basis.
Caleb has an eye for game any hawk would envy and he was first to spot a banteng bull among the timber, a dark beast with horns which demanded a second look. The bull watched as we pulled up, then trotted away, clearly unimpressed. Further on was another bull, the truck rolled to a standstill and with little more than a cursory glance Rob told Graeme to grab his rifle – the job was on.
In single file they melted into the trees with Rob leading the line, Graeme in the middle and Caleb bringing up the rear with a Blazer straight-pull back-up rifle in .416 Rigby. Perhaps 15 minutes later Graeme collected the bull with his .416 Remington – a jet black animal with wonderful horns that would score well when measured at camp. We made our way back in the dark, only missing the track a couple of times with wheel marks hard to see despite a layer of ash on the sun-baked soil.
On the beach
Blue-winged kookaburras woke me before daylight as somewhere down the bay a chorus of wild dogs was making a maudlin racket. Thwarted mosquitoes hummed and bounced against the mesh screens of the tent. An early crow cawed. Pink sunlight painted the flat sea as low waves slopped on the sand and drew back, all of it low-key and soothing as befitted this place and the hour of the morning.
In need of exercise I went for a walk along the beach, keeping well back from the edge where a big crocodile had been cruising up and down the previous week. Two wild dogs had walked along the tide line, their marks overlaying those of a feral cat who’d obviously arrived before them. A line of three-toed tracks made by a heron meandering in and out the water, undoubtedly left by the bird striding ahead of me, its head regularly turning back to warily check my progress. In a channel a few metres offshore a spray of panicked bait fish scattered as a small shark cruised among them, its dorsal fin clear of the water. Further out, a shoal of larger fish tail-walked and flapped away as something big swirled on the surface then disappeared with an audible splash.
The debris of past storms and tides lay well above the tide line of the present, salt-encrusted driftwood, dried husks of coconut shells, ragged lines of sticks and feathers and sea grasses, drifts of shells, sponges of all shapes and sizes. The dried leathery body of a starfish lay belly-up beside the white carapace and claws of a long dead crab amid a scattering of sea urchins, cuttlefish bones and the shrivelled feet of a sea bird sticking out the sand.
Not surprisingly there was also plenty of human refuse ‑ lumps of polystyrene, fishing net floats and tangles of line, knots of polyester rope encrusted with small shells, a tooth-scarred plastic lure, a child’s sandal, rubber thongs of various sizes, the insole from a woman’s shoe, even a pink toothbrush with its bristles remarkably intact.
Plastic bottles and boxes with tops and lids of all shapes and sizes predominated, their abundance at odds with the minor successes of faraway, well-meaning urban recycling programs which do little more than scratch the surface of a global problem. As I walked back to camp it struck me that what most Australians would consider a remote and pristine wilderness is anything but. Sadly, it never will be again.