1963 – Karumba
To the first Europeans who set eyes on it, the 300,000 sq. km dent in northern Australia known as the Gulf of Carpentaria was a truly desolate and inhospitable place.
Dutch merchants who entered it in the early 1600s in search of new trade were greatly discouraged. In 1623 Jan Carstensz, commanding the yachts Pera and Arnhem, reached the mouth of the Norman River and, disgusted by what he saw, reported later “We have not seen one fruit bearing tree or anything that man could make use of.”
Although there can be no argument about the unpleasantness of conditions in the Gulf at certain times of the year, particularly in the Wet, Carstensz was most certainly premature in his assessment of the Gulf’s economic potential. The shimmering green and often muddy waters, bordered by mangroves, marshes and saltpans, might have seemed a source of vile pestilence to him, but they were also fertile breeding grounds for a resource whose significance only came to be fully appreciated more than 300 years later.
The settlement of Karumba, originally called Norman Mouth and then Kimberley, became the site of a telegraph station in 1872 and a post office in 1889. Although smaller craft were able to sail up the river to deliver their goods to Normanton, larger vessels had to anchor off Karumba and unload their cargoes into lighters for ferrying ashore. Then it was left to bullock and horse teams to heave the loads of food, clothing, railway line and sleepers, coal, salt, tallow, bone dust and timber inland. Several meatworks came and went, the first opening in 1892.
Between the two world wars, Karumba became a stopover point for the flying boat s of the Empire Mail Service, and during World War II Royal Australian Air Force Catalinas were stationed there. After the war, Karumba, like many other places on the Cape York Peninsula, went into decline. In the 1950s, the Karumba meatworks, owned by the A.W Anderson group, burnt down during a bushfire.
Since the early days, stories had been rife around the Gulf that its waters were teeming with prawns. Some trawlers fished for prawns there in the 1950s, but although there were some good catches, fishermen generally felt the odds were against them and rarely came back. This was to change in September 1962 when RL hosted a lunch at The Chalet restaurant in Sydney. During the meal the conversation turned to finding alternatives for whaling, and one of the guests, the CSIRO’s assistant chief, Dr Geoff Kesteven, said he believed the Gulf of Carpentaria had vast potential as a prawning ground.
RL told the guests that his company had sent two trawlers (in the hands of brothers Bob and Ron “Paddles” Taylor, who ran a prawn trawling and processing operation in Bundaberg) to the Gulf that year, and although results had not been encouraging, he was convinced the area held promise.
Within a month, Queensland’s Treasurer, Mr Tom Hiley, suggested to the Commonwealth Government that it finance a survey to ascertain the Gulf’s prawning potential. In November RL wrote to both the Commonwealth and Queensland Governments saying CM planned to start prawning and processing after the coming wet season using Karumba as an operations base. “In our opinion it would be appropriate to conduct a survey of fishing potential and investigation of other pertinent factors by CSIRO in conjunction with fishing operations,” he wrote. The upshot was that in May 1963, CM, the Commonwealth Department of Primary Industry, the Queensland Department of Harbours and Marine and the CSIRO agreed to go ahead with a joint survey.
In the meantime CM had been moving ahead with its own plans for Karumba. In February Bob Taylor and Bob Mostyn had gone up to have a look around the settlement. Apart from an establishment known as The Lodge – run by Ansett Hotels to cater for the few tourists who visited the area- two government houses, about 20 residents and hordes of sandflies and mosquitoes, there wasn’t much in Karumba in those days. However, the two men did find something of interest – the burnt-out Anderson meatworks beside the Norman River, together with a fuel tank, a water tank and the remains of walls, some of which might be useful later. CM went ahead and leased the land from the Queensland Government.
In May, two CM men, Harold “Nibs” Newlyn and Neville Green, left Head Office in Sydney in a brand-new Land Rover. They were towing a trailer loaded with tools and corrugated iron and, on arriving in Karumba on 3 June, they set up camp and began to build facilities, including the beginnings of a wharf in readiness for the arrival of CM’s freezer vessel, the Laakanuki.
Built in 1944 and powered by two diesel engines capable of giving 10 knots, the 272-ton Laakanuki (“Laaka” for short) was 35m in length and had accommodation for 11 crew. During the war she had ferried fruit and vegetables to Australian warships; later she was bought by Western Trawlers and, with financial help from CM, converted into a factory ship for processing rock lobsters. When Bob Saunier, the majority shareholder in Western Trawlers, died in an air crash, CM bought the company out, thus acquiring the vessel. Alert reported mysteriously that her name “was pure, dinki-di Australian but the translation is somewhat obscure”.
Carrying an ice-maker and compressor (among other machinery and equipment) for a cool room, the Laakanuki sailed under the CM flag from Fremantle on 21 July 1963 with Captain Bob Mallett in command. On 3 August she reached Darwin, where Bob Mostyn came aboard for the remainder of the voyage, replacing Captain Norman McMillan who had been on board since Fremantle as Chief Officer. She docked at Karumba 18 days after setting out from Fremantle.
Already at Karumba by then was a party of scientists, led by the CSIRO’s Ian Munro, together with the chartered survey vessel Rama (a 14.6 m Bundaberg trawler), skippered by Hilton Maclaren, five CM-sponsored trawlers and an independent vessel ( the Kestrel) that had sailed from Queensland ‘s east coast.
The stage was set for the first systematic prawning in the Gulf to begin.
Overall responsibility for CM’s Karumba operation was to be in the hands of Bob Mostyn. He would be based in Sydney, but because of the poor communications between Karumba and the outside world (a telegram might make it out of there with luck, but even this was probably more reliable than the single-wire party line), he would leave the day-to-day running of the plant to on-the-spot manager Bob Taylor, though he would visit regularly.
At about this time, Roger Clapin, a 21-year-old working on documents at Head Off ice in Sydney was hearing about the goingson at Karumba with great interest. The embryonic prawning operation seemed to him an adventure tailor-made for a young man wanting to go places, while Karumba’s distance from Sydney was enough to render the place as exotic as Tahiti in his eyes. Now it just happened that Bob Taylor was looking for someone to help him out with the account s and other paperwork up there …
Clapin stepped out into the fetid heat of Karumba after a plane journey that had been an adventure in itself. Later he would recall:
I thought Karumba was the end of the earth. I’d had visions of beaches and palm trees, and there I was in a spot that was mainly mangroves and mud. There was the Laakanuki at a rather odd-looking wharf, a bit of a shed with a power plant in it near the wharf, and a little freezer for making ice. They’d built this establishment on the remnants of the burnt-out meatworks. There were bits of old machinery and wheels and concrete lying about, and that was the Craig Mostyn establishment. And then there was The Lodge 200 yards up the road.
The wharf was indeed odd. It was built by mooring the Laakanuki firmly to piles at high tide and using her weight to drive them into the mud as she dropped with the outgoing tide. Even though allowance was made for the highest possible tide, water once reportedly rose 60 cm above the decking during the Wet. To prevent the wharf from being swept away by the strong outgoing tide in those circumstances, the Laakanuki’s engines were run at half ahead as she lay moored to the structure.
The Rama began her two-year survey in July 1963. For the CSIRO scientists, conditions aboard were as uncomfortable as they were ashore at Karumba. The vessel was built for day-trips and not for prolonged surveys in the tropics. Her fish holds were not refrigerated, and accommodation was poky and badly ventilated, with no toilet or washing facilities. The awning provided only limited cover from the blazing tropical sun. Her only navigation aids were a steering compass and a primitive echo-sounder. Nevertheless, she was out for six days at a time, traversing back and forth, collecting information for a detailed map of the seabed.
When the Wet started in December 1963, the Rama ran into eight weeks of trouble. She had to seek shelter from two cyclones, was damaged by fire, and when her engine broke down she had to be towed 160 km. Lightning damaged her radio and magnetised many metal parts, rendering her compass useless.
Despite this and some disappointing initial catches, there were early clues to the riches waiting to be found. Samples began to reveal 17 prawn varieties, including banana and tiger prawns. Scanning the gently sloping sand and silt of the seabed, the survey vessel found gutters running many kilometres out to sea from the river mouths. In one such gutter, some unusual shadows showed up on the echo-sounder 32 km offshore during a night in May 1964. It was a school of banana prawns, which was surprising because the experience on the east coast was that this species was more likely to be caught close to river mouths. The Rama swung through the school twice and picked up 340 kg of prawns. They were caught in a massed ball rising from the sea floor in a huge “boil” of mud. This really opened people’s eyes to the Gulf’s potential.
The scientists found that adult banana prawns school in the gutters but spawn further out to sea. Spawning takes place around March and again around September. After spawning, larvae drift to shore and settle in mangrove-lined estuaries, where they spend 2-4 months growing large enough to migrate to sea again as adolescents. The migration of adolescent prawns is triggered by a drop in salinity brought on by rainfall. Variation in rainfall produces a corresponding variation in the size of the migration.
In March 1965 the Rama, which by then had been bought by Bob Taylor and was skippered by Noel Sykes, and the Toowoon Bay, owned by CM and under the command of “Paddles” Taylor, began following adolescent prawns migrating from the river estuaries out to sea in the hope of locating balled schools. They succeeded, malting three catches of up to 850 kg. They also found a relationship between schooling behaviour and periods of minimal tide flow. During these periods, banana prawns gather into particularly dense schools.
Excitement ran high; two commercial trawlers, the Avis and Lottani, joined the Rama and the Toowoon Bay (the only two of the original trawlers left in the area) and between them they lifted more than 5 tonnes of banana prawns, using the scientists’ predictions of time and place. Other good catches of tiger prawns as well as banana prawns soon followed. By now the Rama had nearly completed her mission.
On 29 July 1965, two days before the survey was due to end, the weather turned foul. The Rama, on her 122nd cruise and her 2,234th trawl, broke down. This was too much for the crew and scientists; the survey was brought to a close there and then.
During the survey; CM had processed the catches in its very basic plant at Karumba. Not that there was a great deal to process most of the time, particularly at the beginning, when the fishermen were operating with very limited knowledge, going to the wrong places at the wrong time and not venturing far out into the Gulf. CM had to pay trawlermen a retainer to keep them there. After about six months most of them left, and for a while the only boats operating in the area were the Rama, the Toowoon Bay and later the CM-sponsored Audrey June. Apart from a voyage to investigate the lobster potential around Thursday Island, the Laakanuki spent most of her time moored to the wharf at Karumba, providing much needed accommodation and playing a role in the prawn processing operation by virtue of the brine freezer on her deck.
Bob Taylor soon became disillusioned with the lack of early activity and resigned after less than a year, leaving Roger Clapin in charge as a caretaker-manager. For a while he and “Paddles” Taylor were the only CM staffers on the spot. But things began to improve as the survey progressed and catches increased. CM decided that the catches of tiger prawns alone justified further investment and the company gradually upgraded its plant. At first it consisted of a lean to and a freezer and not much else. But by late 1966 there was a shed (the processing room), an ice room, a shop for staff, a freezer, tanks, a generator shed and staff quarters consisting of a building for single men, a caravan for single women and a three-bedroom cottage for Clapin, who earlier that year had married Betty Woodcock, a waitress at The Lodge. The remaining staff were housed in nearby caravans supplied with power from the company’s generator.
In that year the operation was registered by the Department of Primary Industry. Permanent staff then numbered 12-15, including engineers, carpenters, engine drivers, labourers, a cook and some rousabouts. Some casuals were taken on when things got busy. These included female staff of The Lodge, who headed prawns in their off-duty hours. When a trawler arrived with its catch, the prawns would be lifted out in baskets and carted up to the plant in a trailer towed by a Land Rover.
Processed product was transported out of Karumba in refrigerated trucks when road conditions allowed. In 1964 a single truckload went out; in 1965 there were two; in 1966 there were four.
Karumba was not the most comfortable place at the best of times, but during the build-up to the Wet it turned decidedly unpleasant. Clouds would grow promisingly but for a time no rain would fall to provide relief from the heat. When the rain did come, it would be followed by plagues of mosquitoes, and the blacksoil plains between the settlement and Normanton would turn into a vast, slushy bog that prevented vehicles from getting through for weeks.
Not surprisingly, persuading people to come to such a place to work was a challenge, particularly as accommodation was scarce and very basic. Clapin once described it as “a bit like a mining camp”. One way CM attracted staff was to ensure that, even in the off-season, they could always work overtime, improving facilities, putting up buildings, maintaining equipment, installing electricity and water and so on, so that there was the incentive of larger than usual pay-packets.
After the big banana prawn catches of 1965 and further successes in 1966, the word got out. The press began talking of a “prawn rush” and of a huge bonanza for the taking, even though CM was already warning that a shortage of fresh water could seriously hamper development.
By 1967 the Gulf fleet had grown to 12, and with the CSIRO predicting a possible eventual yield of 5,000 tons in the region, more were preparing to come. That was the year in which Karumba, quite literally, went bananas. It was also the year in which CM found itself facing serious competition for a resource it had studied and pioneered. Markwell Fisheries and subsequently a number of others rushed to the scene, obtained leases and in due course established depots (but not processing facilities; CM was the only company ever to process there). In addition, foreign trawlers were starting to take an interest in the Gulf’s riches.
Undoubtedly one of the biggest factors contributing to increased catches was a bright idea by “Paddles” Taylor. So-called because of his large feet, “Paddles” was a tall, rangy man who had gained a good deal of prawning experience on the east coast. He never wore shoes and, as a result, the soles of his feet were as thick as tractor-tyre rubber and impervious to bindi-eyes. Roger Clapin described him thus:
He was a damn good friend, a great guy to have a laugh and beer with. He could always tell a joke and sing a song. He was in his 40s then and was a man who loved life. There aren’t many in the world like him. A fascinating, beaut guy. And he was a fisherman who knew his business.
Despite his professional skills, he was highly superstitious and went to great lengths to avoid having to sail on a Friday, either departing one minute before midnight on the Thursday before or finding something that would keep the boat in port till Saturday. Once, on an Airlines of New South Wales flight from Karumba, he went to shake hands with one of the air hostesses. Her delight at the greeting turned to horror when she felt a damp and very wriggly baby crocodile in her hand.
While on the east coast, “Paddles” had once been flying from Brisbane to Bundaberg in a commercial aircraft when he spotted a prawn boil from a window. On landing, he boarded his trawler and made for the site of the boil as fast as he could. Sure enough, he lifted a good catch. If tuna fishermen could use spotter planes, he reasoned, why not prawners too? Anything had to be more efficient than putting a crewman at the top of a trawler’s mast, as was the case at the time.
In 1967 CM chartered a Piper Cherokee from the North Queensland Aero Club, and “Paddles” began to make regular early morning patrols in search of boils. (Later, aircraft were chartered from Bush Pilots Airways.) On spotting a boil, “Paddles” would grab the mike of the HF radio and direct the trawlers to it. The tactic worked brilliantly. Too brilliantly, in fact – the CM plant suddenly found itself overwhelmed by prawns. Clapin recalled later:
In 1967 our small plant could probably accommodate 6,000lb of prawns a day. We had to unload, head and pack, and if they ‘were good quality you could probably handle more. After boats started catching (they always started catching in the double-tide period, the neaps, once a fortnight} it would be a race to be the first boat in so they could unload and get back out for more. A bit later and the factory would hold them up. We’d be bogged down. The boats would come in and wait their turn to unload while we worked our hearts out, running down the wharf with the Land Rover and trailer, putting prawns in baskets and weighing them, bringing them back up to the factory, where we had 12-18 people trying to process them.
There was another disadvantage with aerial spotting. In the plane, “Paddles” would talk to the trawlers on the normal fishermen’s frequency, and at times he and the other Gulf skippers could be heard by fishermen up and down the east coast. The excited shouting and the talk of vast catches reaching the easterners over the airwaves served to whet their appetites even more than the news they’d been hearing in the media. Eventually this problem was overcome by switching frequencies and scrambling messages.
Since arriving on the scene, CM had been prudently buying up freehold blocks in Karumba with an eye to future expansion. It bought 10 of the town’s 20 blocks initially but by August 1964 it owned all of them, including the one on which The Lodge complex stood. The Lodge had accommodation for 50 guests, a swimming pool and bar that provided liquid sustenance for all of Karumba and of course any tourists who flew in or came by road. Tourists would continue to be encouraged, of course, but there would be a change in emphasis: the weekly busload of tourists who arrived every Friday would no longer be welcome. As Bob Mostyn was to say later:
It was the old story: they had £5 and a clean shirt and they wouldn’t change either. They’d been in a dusty bus all day and they might buy one soft drink. Rarely would you sell more than three or four cans of beer to 20 or so people. You couldn’t have anyone booked in for the time they were there. So all you’d get was 20 people once a week. We stopped that pretty quickly. We had accountants and other people staying there after that, as well as tourists.
The purchase of The Lodge was the brainchild of RL, now in his 70s, who had begun visiting Karumba and had plans to turn the establishment into a tourist paradise. It was one of several projects with which he was becoming involved at about this time and which led a number of people to believe he was moving away from some of his long-held business ideas. Although The Lodge might be able to offer temporary refuge from the Karumban elements, paradise it was not. For most of the year the area was bone dry, and then for a few months it had more rain that it could cope with. Throw in appalling heat and hordes of insects and you have conditions that only the most determined tourist will suffer for long. Yes, the fishing was good, but that was about all.
After the successful 1967 season, CM decided to expand its plant for the following year.
RL said to Clapin: “Roger, we’ve got to build a plant that can handle 40,000 lb a day.”
Clapin replied: “That sounds absolutely staggering to me. It’s impossible!”
But, as Clapin was to say later, it wasn’t. He was just unused to talking big numbers.
In November 1967 Bob Mostyn, “Paddles” Taylor and Captain Dick Davies, a master mariner, travelled to the United States to see for themselves how prawns were caught and processed in the Gulf of Mexico. They returned with plenty of ideas and a device that revolutionised the unloading of prawns from the Gulf of Carpentaria’s trawlers. It was a powerful suction machine that could draw prawns out of a trawler’s hold and dump them directly onto a conveyor belt leading into the processing room. No longer would prawns have to be loaded laboriously into baskets and lugged from boat to factory. What was more; the conveyor enabled the fishermen to remove unwanted bycatch by hand.
The result of CM’s expansion effort was a mechanised, two storey factory that was technologically a quantum leap ahead of the plant it replaced. Apart from the suction machine and conveyor, it was equipped with automatic grading machines, plate freezers and a heading table that carried prawns on conveyors. The plant doubled CM’s investment in Karumba to more than $1 million. The new factory was opened in July 1968 by Doug Anthony, Federal Minister for Primary Industry. In his speech, the Minister cautioned the fishermen not to take individual action that might cause embarrassment to the Federal Government.
This admonition would have raised few eyebrows among the 175 or so people gathered in front of the new factory. It was a reference to events that had been unfolding in the Gulf during the previous 12 months. For some time there had been concern that foreign vessels might invade the prawning grounds, to the detriment of the long-term welfare of both the local fishermen and the resource itself. In October 1967 a Bill was introduced in Federal Parliament banning foreign vessels from fishing within 12 miles of the Australian coast. This was aimed mainly at Japanese vessels, which were said to be making “huge hauls” and “plundering” the Gulf, but there were also claims that the Chinese, the Taiwanese and the Russians were preparing to move in. These concerns tended to overshadow the fact that the Gulf was also attracting ever more Australian fishing interests eager to cash in on the developing prawn boom.
Matters came to a head when, to hysterical outbursts in the media, the 6,500-ton Russian vessel Van Gogh, commanded by Commodore Alexei Solyanik, entered the Gulf in mid-1968. The vessel was variously described as a “mother ship”, a “factory ship ” and a “giant” reportedly equipped with a huge vacuum- cleaner device that sucked prawns up from the ocean and able to catch and process 70 tonnes in 24 hours. Australian fishermen reacted by calling for a ban on all foreign vessels in the Gulf. They warned of open slather in the area if ships such as this were allowed to enter.
“You’re lucky our defence policy is a bit vague at the moment!”
Even though the vacuum cleaner story turned out to be false, reports of the Soviet ship fishing within the 12-mile territorial limit and intimidating some of the 65 Australian prawning vessels working the Gulf seemed to be pointing to a full-scale international incident. In July RL sent a telegram to Prime Minister John Gorton saying the Van Gogh had steamed towards Australian boats blowing its siren to indicate that they should keep clear. In no uncertain terms the telegram called on the Prime Minister to step up diplomatic pressure on those powers poaching Australia’s resources:
Without apologies, Mr Prime Minister, we expect you to take immediate action unless our government is content to be classified completely gutless.
Gorton at once asked the Soviet Ambassador, Mr N.Y. Takanov, for an explanation. At the same time RAN and RAAF patrols were stepped up in the Gulf to prevent a full-scale fish war and police were sent to Karumba to investigate reports that fishermen were taking matters into their own hands. This followed claims by Commodore Solyanik that shots had been fired at the Van Gogh from an unidentified Australian boat.
By September the Van Gogh incident had blown over. The Russian vessel steamed mysteriously away from Australian waters amid speculation that she had come for more than just prawns. One claim was that she was a spy ship packed with sophisticated electronic surveillance gear with which to monitor radio and radar signals. Later it emerged that she had been carrying out a scientific study of the seabed.
Whatever the vessel’s intentions, the incident highlighted the strong local feelings not only about access to the Gulf’s prawns but also about the sustainability of the fishery. As with lobsters in Western Australia, CM was concerned that too much exploitation would kill the resource for everyone. With the 1969 season approaching, RL was warning of a possible “war of attrition” in the Gulf if no restrictions were introduced. The Financial Review of 5 February 1969 quoted him as saying: “From what we know at the moment, the prawn beds in the Gulf could be fished out in a few years. The Government does not seem to care. Both the Commonwealth and the Queensland State Governments should co-operate to establish orderly fishing in the Gulf.”
RL’s warning appeared borne out by the poor 1969 catch, which was about half the previous year’s. In May 1969 the Karumba plant was operating with skeleton staff, processing a mere 2,200 kg a day when it would normally be expecting to handle 10,000. Of the more than 30 trawlers operating in the Gulf that year, many quit early in the season.
Among the vessels in the Gulf fleet that year were the Karumba Gulf and Karumba Norman, two new steel trawlers of which CM had taken delivery during the previous year. The $100,000 Gulf designed and built in Rockport, in the United States (the first fishing vessel built in the US for an Australian company), arrived in Sydney in July 1968 and was fitted with refrigeration and other gear before proceeding to the Gulf. Capable of carrying 22,680 kg of prawns, the 22 m vessel was said to be the most modern trawler in Australian waters. The Norman was built in Bundaberg and was skippered by “Paddles” Taylor.
CM’s investment in fishing boats was to be increased substantially with the purchase in 1971 of the 123-tonne, 23 m Karumba Flinders, reportedly possessing the largest refrigeration capacity of any vessel of that size in the world, and in 1973 of the Karumba Islander, a Bass Strait ferry bought at RL’s instigation to replace the Laakanuki (long since sold) and converted into a carrier ship at great expense. The vessels were at the vanguard of a new generation of trawlers, representing a transition from small, wooden “wet boats” that could stay out at sea only for short periods to well-equipped, steel freezer-trawlers capable of cruising for extended periods far from processing factories.
From 1968 onwards, CM employed a series of general managers (George Holmes, Jim Farrell, Roley Jones) to oversee the Karumba operation, while Roger Clapin ran the processing plant as production manager. The poor 1969 season turned out, in retrospect, to be part of a boom-and-bust cycle connected with rainfall patterns. Catches rose and fell from then on, though there was a general upward trend, reflected in growing staff numbers at the Karumba works. Although the total Karumba catch was 711 tonnes in 1970, it was up to 1766 tonnes in 1971, by which time the company was consistently employing more than 200 people at the processing plant. In 1972 the catch was down to 640 tonnes, rising slightly to 883 tonnes in 1973 before the record year of 1974.
During the banana prawn season, which usually went from March through to July, staff worked 12-14 hours a day; seven days a week. In the off-season there was always enough work to give staff overtime, either processing prawns stored in the freezers or improving the plant. Roger Clapin recalled:
Every year we had a huge budget for improvements. The company went the whole hog and decided to build a township. And running a township wasn’t easy. We had all the residents to look after; we had caravan parks to administer the post office and store to manage – it was a full -time job in itself. So even in the off-season we worked six days a week.
RL’s push to increase CM’s boat ownership did not go down well with others in the company. It was viewed as yet more evidence of his increasing eccentricity. As Bob Mostyn was to say on looking back: “We went there to process and produce, not to fish. It was never our intention to buy trawlers, but Dad insisted on it. He made a lot of decisions that were not popular, and that was one of them.” By this time RL was a regular visitor to Karumba, spending much of his time at The Lodge. There he became close to Kath Alexander who, with her husband Les, had managed the establishment for Ansett before CM had come on the scene and who was now running it on her own. She and RL, whose wife Jean had died in 1963, got on extremely well and it was only with great difficulty that the Old Man, as he was referred to, could be persuaded to attend to CM matters.
But instead of channeling his energies into the company he had founded, the Old Man turned to indulging his long-held agricultural inclinations. He bought two Queensland cattle properties – Lotus Vale, consisting of 32,000 hectares on the Smithbume River about 70 km north-east of Karumba, and Lotus Glen, outside Mareeba – and poured a great deal of the company’s money into them, much to the consternation of his family, colleagues and the company’s bankers. Having built up a successful business empire, he now seemed to be running it down, though probably not deliberately.
CM’s best year in Karumba – in terms of tonnage of prawns processed – was 1974. But it was also a year of natural catastrophe that imposed a huge financial burden on the township and the companies and people based there. In January Cyclone Wanda brought torrential rain that swelled the Gilbert, Norman and Flinders Rivers. Floodwaters spread across the flat country, enveloped Normanton and then flowed towards Karumba. On Wednesday 23 January RL, who was at The Lodge and scheduled to fly out that day sent a telegraphic message that gave a graphic picture of the situation:
Flood waters expected to reach new peak tonight affecting Norman, Smithburne and others stop Already several stations evacuated and Lotus Vale standing by but hopeful avoid stop Norman running 8 knots and increasing stop Yesterday Flinders lines parted and she breached . . . but recovered apparently undamaged rain and wind eased here but Brewarrin a [a 460-tonne vessel chartered to bring in supplies and ship product out} at bar waiting tide stop Concrete ramp at farm damaged stop …
The telegram ended with the short and rather superfluous statement: “View foregoing will not leave tonight.”
By Thursday 24 January conditions had worsened. Asked by police how many of Karumba’s residents he could evacuate, the Brewarrina’s skipper replied: “The lot.” On Saturday 26 the vessel sailed with half the settlement’s population, mainly women and children, and many others were evacuated by trawlers. Roger Clapin was among those who stayed behind, though he was to question the wisdom of this decision, since he was quite convinced the entire township was going to be washed away. He had seen floods before, but what surprised him about this one was that it came from inland and not from seaward.
The water flooded across the plains into Karumba and actually flowed through the town into the river [Clapin said later].
We had these shell gritty streets and ground; we were trying to keep the water away from the river, but some bright spark decided that to get it out of the town you had to cut a channel to let it run into the river. That was the most destructive element that happened in the township because the water just started rushing once the bank was breached and began eroding all the roads, and the whole township became a mass of fast -flowing channels that ate away the shell grit and sandy banks. The roads became rivers, because they were slightly below the surrounding countryside. I thought we’d lost the place. All you could do was watch.
Bob Harrison and Bob Mostyn hurried up to the area as soon as they could to assess damage. They found utter chaos. Being on slightly higher ground, the CM factory at one end of the township and The Lodge at the other survived virtually unscathed, but everything in between was flooded and a raging river, up to 6 m deep in places, along Yappar Street and Massey Drive made access between the two extremities impossible other than by boat and later by flying fox. The supermarket building was almost demolished; some of the living quarters were left suspended over huge washaways; the police station subsided; CM’s new fuel shed was almost destroyed and parts of it were washed away; movable plant and equipment was swept away; one wharf disappeared and CM’s was damaged; the generating plant was flooded but was quickly pumped dry and some units started up.
Fortunately, with The Lodge being undamaged, CM staff had a safe haven in which to sit and take liquid sustenance while discussing the situation.
The flood of 1974, the biggest since records began in 1863, had a major impact on the subsequent prawning season. Although there were predictions in some media that it would destroy the prawning grounds and kill the stock, quite the opposite happened: the high rainfall resulted in a catch of 3905 tonnes, the highest yield ever in the Karumba region. CM’s plant was unable to cope with the vast quantities of prawns that the trawlers brought in. Some had to be trucked out to South Australia and others shipped to Singapore to be processed. Roger Clapin recalled the situation:
The whole thing was a shambles. I t was probably the biggest year for prawns we ever had and we were supposed to be handling all these prawns but we couldn’t; we weren’t equipped to handle that quantity. Nothing went right. It was a disaster. We were still fixing freezers up to the time the season opened. It was one of the worst years I’ve ever had in my life as far as work was concerned.
The type of people we were employing were deteriorating; there were drugs in the town; people were smoking dope; you could never rely on anyone that year. The demand for labour was so great but you had all these useless people and no accommodation for them. Some were living in 44-gallon drums or under bits of canvas. We had to employ these people. It was the hippie era. Trying to get them to work was impossible. Staff turnover was incredible. We struggled through, of course.
It came as no surprise that at the end of the year Clapin asked to be transferred out of Karumba. The company offered him a Sydney posting, which he accepted, but his family did not take to big-city life and soon returned to Queensland. Clapin resigned and followed them.
CM, too, pulled out of Karumba after that fateful year. Behind the decision to do so lay the realisation that though the operation had contributed substantially to gross revenue, to stay in the prawning business the company would have to invest in more trawlers. But trawlers were becoming ever bigger and more expensive and the investment needed to stay competitive was huge. The company’s total investment in the Karumba operation already stood at $4 million. It had created the township almost from scratch. Apart from its prawn processing facility, it had built houses, roads and sewerage; it supplied power even to its rivals’ buildings; it ran the post office and the supermarket, and it had its own golf links. Little wonder that the place was called Mostyntown and that RL was looked upon as the de facto mayor.
In 1975 the company leased its Karumba operation to Markwell Fisheries, which was owned by Amatil at the time, and subsequently sold it to Raptis. The Lodge was sold separately, after which the property was subdivided and The Lodge itself badly damaged by fire. Lotus Vale was sold at about the same time.
So ended one of the most eventful, exciting and, some might say, extraordinary eras in Craig Mostyn’s history.