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Beers and blues

The Australian’s best drinkers visit three famous outback pubs where fortunes have been won and drunk, where a fight is just around the corner and where history and life collide.

It’s a tough and lonely life being a professional barramundi fisherman or prawn trawlerman in the treacherous crocodile and shark-infested tropical waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

They endure months at sea, or in the mangrove-lined rivers and creeks, harvesting prized seafood for our finest restaurants or feeding the lucrative export market.

For decades the tiny gulf port of Karumba, population 500, has provided the necessary support for these workers - processing the catch and replenishing food, equipment and fuel supplies.

The town’s fame, or infamy, is built on the hard-working, hard-living people who battle the elements in an area where vicious and destructive cyclones are the norm.

And "the wet" which extends from November to March, often means Karumba and surrounding areas are cut off by land from the rest of the country for months.

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Magnetic north
Karumba locals Rod Lucas, Gater Cavanough and Rank Coldham at the Animal Bar

Any serious trip to the north includes a visit to Karumba’s Animal Bar. Operating since 1974 adjacent to the main boat ramp, the Animal Bar is the "public" drinking hole at the Karumba Lodge hotel/motel, a neat and pleasant building that has witnessed generations of wild drinking and obligatory fighting.

The lounge, which offers a less risky drinking haven, is known as the Suave Bar. A sign that used to adorn the door stating "Gentlemen Must Wear Singlets" has gone.

The Animal Bar is a ceramic-tiled area open to the west. It has three pool tables, two televisions set above head height, and little else. Publican Adam Child and his family bought the business, which includes a 30-room motel, 18 months ago. Coming from the peace and quiet of Byron Bay on NSW’s north coast has been a big change.

"It’s been a great business," Child says with a laconic grin. "We hadn’t seen it before we bought it, but it really is a top place. Friday nights get wild and I suppose the fights are a bit more intense than you see in the city, but the next day those involved are laughing and drinking together.

"These blokes work hard. They are at sea for months and they let off a bit of steam when they come in. The pub had a reputation back in the days when lots of trawlers were operating out of here all year round and there was no police station. Pretty lawless, I understand."

Child says there is "a more civilised element" in Karumba these days. He suspects the trawler deckhands aren’t recruited from the ranks of the recently released criminal element any longer but are more likely to be university students earning their HECS fees.

"I recognise a lot of them as surfies and knockabouts from Byron Bay, as a matter of fact," he says. "I have had a few problems since I have been here, but usually the locals help you out. When the prawn season is in full swing we get a couple of hundred people in the Animal Bar on a good night. Tourists love to join in as well, I suppose just to say they’ve had a drink here and survived the experience.

"The holidaymakers and travellers in their four-wheel-drives lift the population of Karumba by three or four times at the height of the season, I would estimate.

"The local professional fishermen are just like family men and women anywhere - they do a difficult job and have a home in the town. They are not the wild ones. But the Animal Bar has a reputation earned back a few years. It’s not quite like that now, although there are a few wild men who turn it on occasionally."

Regular Ron (Rank) Colahan, 32, who has fished professionally for barramundi for the past few years, is tanned and fit, with tattoos on his strongly muscled arms.

"All of us in this game spend several months away and when we get back here we do play up a bit," he says. "When we have to get supplies or deliver product, we do so to a mother ship that operates in the gulf. It is no good coming back here because we just get trapped in this pub for a week."

Colahan says the life is lonely and, yes, he would like the company of a young woman, "but sometimes they are just more trouble".

"There’s plenty to keep you busy - checking the nets every couple of hours, because you can’t leave fish in the nets in this hot water or they go off," he says. "It’s a good life and you can make a quid if the season is right and the fish are about. This has been an ordinary season because there was no rain to flush out the rivers and creeks."

A local with a rather quaint approach to public relations arrives and announces he’s a representative of the local professional fishermen’s organisation and demands to know what The Australian is doing.

"If you want to know anything about the industry here you can talk to the president of the association," he says.

"We are sick of media coming in and doing stories on drunken fishermen and making us all out to be like that. We have enormous amounts of money tied up in boats and equipment, and although some of the deckies and fishermen might come into the Animal Bar here and write themselves off, that is not the way for everybody. That bloke you are talking to has not been in town for months, hasn’t had a shave for eight months, so of course he’s going to get drunk. I’ll be reading what goes in the paper and if you do us in, you’ll be hearing from me."

Only a select group know the 20-year-old story of the Animal Bar and how a canny politician helped get a permanent water supply for Karumba.

In 1984, former National Party leader Ian Sinclair and his wife were travelling through north Queensland. When they got to Karumba, Sinclair’s travelling party naturally wanted to have a beer in the famous bar. Because prime minister Malcolm Fraser was overseas, Sinclair was acting in the top job. While having a drink in the Animal Bar he was informed the area contributed some $20million to the national economy through the prawning industry, yet there was no permanent water supply. Worse, the drinking water came from tanks which were replenished from a creek only if it rained.

Local health officials said the water was poor quality, so Sinclair agreed to help. A sterilised bottle was obtained and the acting prime minister went along to the state school and stood in line behind several primary students to fill his bottle from the school tap. When the bottle was sent to the University of Queensland for testing, the finding was that the water was "unfit for consumption by animals".

The uproar resulted in the federal government immediately agreeing to provide $5 million to install a pump and pipe water 80km from nearby Normanton.

Other ministers were amazed at the force of the argument put in cabinet by Sinclair - but he never let on his involvement in embarrassing his own government into action. Little do drinkers in the Animal Bar know that when they have a splash of water in their rum it comes from a source installed by a clever old politician who knew how to cut corners.

Tony Koch

If only the walls talked

It’s the kind of place where you can spend hours staring at the walls, wondering about the people who stopped for a beer.

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Proud owner: Lindsay Carmichael

You can trace them all: the German backpacker who used to work behind the bar, the young Japanese couple who stayed overnight, the pretty British girl who left her photo. At the Northern Territory’s famous Daly Waters Pub, everyone leaves their mark on the walls. "They leave photos, library cards, hats, underwear," says owner Lindsay Carmichael. "It’s what people come to look at."

The 53-year-old bought the pub five years ago. It’s more profitable than some of the Northern Territory’s other classic outback pubs, thanks in part to a mention in a Lonely Planet travel guide and the efforts taken to retain its charm. "I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for the old girl," Carmichael says.

There’s not much else at Daly Waters, just off the Stuart Highway about 600km south of Darwin. The town was once home to a telegraph station, the nation’s first international airport and a military base during the war. Only a handful of people live in Daly Waters, so it’s the steady stream of tourists that keeps the place alive.

Carmichael takes great pride in keeping the character of the pub intact. There’s a set of traffic lights (permanently red) out the front urging visitors to stop for a beer and a bed for the night, and in the peak tourist season mid-year, a beef and barramundi barbecue.

But the pub’s biggest attraction is the personal memorabilia on the walls. Some, like members of the Coffin Cheaters bikie gang, just sign their names. "We had a ball when they were here," laughs Carmichael’s partner, Robyn Webster.

Four years ago, armed police investigating the disappearance of British backpacker Peter Falconio descended on Daly Waters in a search for clues among the hundreds of ID cards on the wall.

They left empty-handed.

Ashleigh Wilson

Miners do Lion’s share of drinking in the Den

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Institution: Bar legend Tom Veer and tin miner Adam Hardaker at The Lions Den

Tom Veer is an institution at The Lions Den, one of north Queensland’s most famous drinking holes in one of Australia’s most spectacular settings.

The Hungarian-born 68-year-old lives in a caravan behind the hotel and, since giving up his job at the tin mine 20 years ago, has occupied the same stool at the bar.

"Before my father died he said to me, ’When you find a good waterhole, stick to it’," Veer explains in the early evening before the miners swamp the main bar. "Where you can hang your hat, it’s your country, and I hang my hat here. That’s it."

Pub owner Chris Baker says he "inherited" Veer from the previous owners.

"He has a leaf-blower and each morning he blows away the leaves from the veranda and outside area," Baker says. "He also operates the sprinkler, and for that gets to drink XXXX Gold cans all day. At night he also drinks shots of Captain Morgan rum, but he pays for those."

The Lions Den is located in tropical lowland forest along the Bloomfield Track, a four-wheel-drive-only dirt road that links Cape Tribulation with Cooktown, the last town on the eastern seaboard before the remote wilderness of Cape York begins.

Surrounded by green fields and a ring of mango trees laden with fruit, The Lions Den is just a short drive north of the World Heritage-listed Daintree rainforest along a track open for only eight months of the year because of its treacherous creek crossings.

Despite its remote location, it is a hive of activity and draws a regular crowd of thirsty tin miners, backpackers and eccentric locals.

Miners are famous for working hard and playing even harder, and the men pulling tin from an underground mine to the rear of the hotel are no different. Beer and cans of rum and cola are consumed at an alarming pace.

A bottle of black sambuca is poured into shot-glasses that line the length of the bar, and set on fire. The crowd roars with delight as a handful of miners try to drain them while the murky black liquid is still burning. Minutes later another miner buys a carton of beer and a bottle of white sambuca - and a can of bourbon and cola so he doesn’t have to go without a drink on the 200m walk from the bar to his mates. Most of the miners have to be up before dawn to work a 12-hour shift the following day.

Backpackers do three-month working stints at The Lions Den, staying in safari tents behind the hotel, near a stunning freshwater creek that runs along one side of the property. The safari tents are raised from the ground, can sleep six and include spacious decks with a sink and gas barbecue. They’re perfect accommodation for those who fail to keep up with miners and need a place within stumbling distance to crash.

Tin mine maintenance worker Charlie Farrugia, with his giant bushman’s hat and broad grin, wanders off into the dark shortly before midnight.

"I’ve fallen asleep in the paddock on the way home a few times," he says as he disappears. "Not tonight, though."

For those who collapse on the premises, this message is scrawled in black marker on the ceiling above the bar: "Live each day as if it was your last."

Ian Gerard

The Australian - 6 January 2006
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