Sunday, March 18, 2007
COD WRANGLING AT THE OYSTER FARM
The most crucial cargo for any boat trip in the North West is, without a doubt, beer. No skipper worth his salt would even consider venturing out onto these wild and remote waterways without an esky full of beer. Screw the lifejackets, where's the beer. As Mickey T and i make our way down to Town Beach, i shoulder a carton of Corona from the Troppy. We aim to meet Louie and The Austrians at the beach, then catch a boat out to Oyster Creek, to investigate these legendary ponds that have been abandoned to the man-eating cod. This failed research project turned bizarre demersal nightmare. These giant, mythical cod.
I have come straight from work. Not dressed for the beach or the boat, let alone cod wrangling at the oyster farm. I've just filed, five minutes before, the front-page for the Pilbara newspaper. In addition to my regular paper. The two hacks who work at Hedland have quit, leaving in their wake a 36-page paper and no journalist. An interesting prospect. I file a story on the Port Hedland Immigration Detention Centre: federal politicians, boat people, mothballs, scandals, iron ore and cyclones. It is pithy and eloquent. After three years of the centre sitting empty, mothballed, the Federal government have finally relinquished their hold over it, to alleviate the housing crisis in Hedland. But only after a Federal minister and the local member were caught staying there last week, in the wake of Cyclone George. The fools.
At town beach we run into concreting Chris laying a new section of path along the Fascine in front of the Gassy. I suddenly realise the Coronas are not twist-tops. And we have no bottle opener. Fortunately, all concreters are alcoholics, and Chris is no exception. "Use the shovel," says Chris, pointing to where it lays in the grass. A tad brutal, i think. Opening a fine Mexican boutique beer with a shovel. Why not just smack the neck off on a pole and have done with it? Too long in the North West, i think. Too much sun. He is become a barbarian. Then i realise Chris has a carefully cut notch in the edge of the mouth of his shovel, for precisely this eventuality. I pick up the giant bottle-opener, and gratefully prise open what is to be the first in a long line of alcoholic beverages. The beginning of a long day's journey into night, a night filled with chaos, with unbridled, liver-destroying binge drinking and aquatic mayhem, a night of wanton, inebriated cod wrangling. Thus shall i mark out my 45th birthday.
When Louie and the Austrians turn up, they are carrying a ridiculously large XXXX esky, filled to the brim with ice, and beer. Louie has lemons for the Corona. When Richard the Oyster Farmer runs up onto Town Beach in his runabout, we load the esky and Austrians into the boat and push off. But, of course, nobody has thought to bring a knife for the lemon, let alone a bottle opener for the Corona.
We head across the Fascine to collect Doctor Case from his waterfront apartment at Pelican Point. We open a round of beer using that giant marine bottle-opener on a string: the anchor. Dr Case has brought a knife. This is why he is a doctor, and we are not. We slice some lemon and raise our beverages to the good doctor. Then Richard points the vessel out into open water, where are instantly and thoroughly drenched with spray. The low skyline of Carnarvon slips away past the port bow. Another wave crashes over the bow. We laugh, the taste of salt and lemon on our lips. Salt, lemon and beer. This is the life.
Before taking up oyster farming, Richard ran tours of the Kimberley coast from his catamaran Sundancer. He certainly knows how to entertain a boatload of beer-drinkers. He runs the boat through the mangroves at high speed, cornering so the upturned side of the boat brushes furiously past the glossy leaves. I feel the boat bottom out slightly on one of Richard's madcap changes of course, then he abruptly cuts the throttle and the planing dinghy drops to its gunwales. We drift amongst the mangroves in the quiet upper reaches of Oyster Creek. I am wringing wet. I don't care. I open some more beer.
Richard grows oysters in a hatchery. He takes grown up oysters and stimulates them to spawn, to make babies. And just how does he stimulate them to spawn?
"Usually I put on 'You Sexy Thing' by Hot Chocolate," says Richard.
And if that doesn't work?
He feeds them algae and sunlight, then ships them off by the millions to Exmouth and the Montebello Islands. Here they use them to grow pearls, by placing between their jaws small spheres cut from the shell of the Mississippi Pig Toe Clam. We drink some more. Richard shows us around the rabbit-warren of dongas, sheds and tanks that is the Oyster Farm.
But he is casting pearls before swine. We all know we are not here to look at baby oyster clams. We have bigger fish to fry. Louie knows it, Mickey T knows it, Dr Case knows it, i know it, and even the Austrians are beginning to pick up on this growing sense of trepidation, this feeling of an impending violent confrontation between man and beast. Because there is something else lurking out there, something unnatural and deadly lying in wait in those ponds beyond the research station, down by the mangroves. Finally, Mickey T wipes the beer foam from his lips, and asks about the mutant cod. His eyes take on a strange shine. Richard nods slowly, and looks about nervously. "Yes, the cod," he says, wiping the sudden beads of sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. "First, let me show you the laboratory..."
What is really going on out here in the wilds of Oyster Creek? Why are they growing pearls out at the Montebellos? Is it because of the background radiation? That's where they tested atomic bombs back in the fifties ... and what is in these curious flasks, with their constant bubbling, in this sterile, climate-controlled environment? Have the mutant cod of Oyster Creek been exposed to radiation? Are they survivors of the British nuclear tests, cross-bred with piranha? From the chill confines of the laboratory, Richard takes us out to the huge tanks, standing quiet and empty, where the cod experiments were conducted. "The cod were just left here, abandoned, when the scientists suddenly fled," he says. "We transferred them, carefully, one by one, into those ponds by the mangroves. Now they are like ... our, our ... our little pets." He smiles grimly, rubbing his hands together.
Richard guides us out to the ponds in the eerie calm of dusk. The water is muddy; impenetrable. Nothing looks much out of the ordinary. "Don't slip in," he warns. "I've seen a dog picked clean to the bone out here within minutes." He takes a small fish, a herring, and tosses it into the pond. Immediately, the surface of the water explodes. Spray and mud is flung skyward, and the water becomes a seething, broiling mass. We watch in horror as a huge, brown-spiked dorsal fin cuts briefly through its surface, then all is quiet once more. Richard smiles. "Let's wrangle us some fish. And drink some beer!"
The rules of engagement are simple. You tie a little fish to a piece of rope and throw it in the water. When the killer cod go for the fish, you haul them quickly out of the water. These cod are so ferocious, so hungry, and so downright mental that they fall for the old fish-on-a-rope trick every time. If you are quick, you can haul them straight out of the pond. Then, unless you are crazy, you let them go straight back in again. You don't mess with them, or their razor-sharp fins, and you need to watch your footing. They can pull you straight into the pond if you don't look out. And, when a killer cod suddenly lets go, you can overbalance and fall into the pond on the other side, fall straight in amongst all these radioactive, hungry, mutant piranha-cod hybrids ...
Cod-wrangling. Not a sport for the faint-hearted. We drink more beer, and wrangle us some fish.
ART DIRECTOR SAYS: BINGE-DRINK RESPONSIBLY
Posted by Mark Roy