The outback is a challenging place at the best of times with its heat, drought and isolation. Unfortunately those who have lived out west on the land, know from experience the true meaning of hardship when something like a natural disaster hits, but now they have experienced a new type of blow in the form of a global pandemic.
As the term isolation translates from just a physical locality to personal separation, those in the outback are now faced with the hurdle of border closures and loss of a tourist-backed economy despite hotel restrictions easing. For towns like Karumba, where agriculture such as cattle grazing and fishing are primary industries, small businesses such as the Sunset Tavern, thrive for several months of the year thanks to the tourists who visit the area for an outback-by-the-sea experience.
Located in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Karumba is about six hours north of Mount Isa and eight hours west of Cairns. With a township of about 600 permanent residents, Karumba is known for its recreational fishing, attracting Australian travellers, families, backpackers, international visitors and grey nomads. During tourist season, it is conservatively estimated that up to 100,000 visitors a year make their way to Karumba. However, with the region’s best interests in mind, Karumba’s Carpentaria Shire shut its borders during the height of the pandemic.
“Our tourist season runs from about Mother's Day to Father's Day (May to September), and we usually start to gear up in March ready for Easter which is normally a very busy time of year for us, but just as we were getting ready for the tourist season, it just got taken away,” Sunset Tavern director, Ben Malady said.
“We were preparing for Easter and we had actually put on six staff and were looking for another couple, when unfortunately in March we had to close [due to government-enforced restrictions]. Five or six of our staff had to be let go as we just had no work for them, so they went to places where they could support themselves,” Ben added.
GALLERY: IMAGES FROM SUNSET TAVERN
“We were down to two staff, our Manager, Hamish and Head Chef, Guru and those guys have just been unbelievable through this, they have adapted to the changing environment and done everything possible to support the Tavern. Because we were getting ready for Easter, we were heavy in alcohol stock, heavy in food stock and it just wasn't going to keep frozen or be good in six month’s time. So it was really just a matter of trying to turn our stock back into money so we could have enough cash and resources to get through this,” Ben explained.
“And this is a small town, there's not that many options. Pubs in rural communities are quite central to everything going on, so it was just locals here in Karumba as the Carpentaria Shire closed its borders. People needed police permission to come in and that can only be for work or essential reasons. So there were no travellers whatsoever,” Ben said.
Like many other hotels across the country, Sunset Tavern was able to continue its business in a limited capacity through takeaway meals and bottleshop service; and although takeaway numbers were low, a fair bit of gardening and painting was done to keep the staff employed.
“Our tavern is on the beach and our car park and driveway is at the back. So we just opened up the roller door and set up a drive through and did take away meals and liquor at the back door.
“Our manager, head chef and Dusty, a lady who's been with us for quite a while, have also been madly painting and gardening at the moment. They’ve gone from chefs, managers and bar staff to painters, gardeners and decorators.”
Thankfully it was tools down for the staff when restrictions eased on May 16, 2020 and Sunset Tavern was able to reopen. The hotel was booked out for lunch and dinner and had two sittings to accommodate the demand. Known for its succulent seafood and stunning outlook over the water at Karumba Point, the Sunset Tavern is one of the few places in Queensland where you can watch the sunset over the water.
“We try to feature local seafood as much as we can, such as locally-sourced barramundi, mud crab, king salmon and prawns. We also have all the staples on our menu like steaks, pizzas and pasta, but people want to come here and eat the fresh local seafood.
“Sometimes a patron will ask ‘is this local salmon?’ and I reply with ‘it is”, and quite often I can say “see that guy over there in the red shirt, he is a local pro fisherman and he caught it last night’.”
Ben said people visited Karumba for the seafood and fishing on offer as well as for the outback experience, and one of the main attractions was the sunset over the water.
“People come to Karumba for the view and the sunset. The hotel opens up onto a verandah that opens and flows out to the beer garden in the west overlooking the water and beach, so people sit in the beer garden, they have a drink and watch the sun go down because the sunsets are spectacular.
“We look out to sea, facing west; I think it's one of the few places in Queensland you can see the sun set over the water. I often tell people to make sure they pay attention to the sunset because the next one over the water is 4,000km away when you hit Broome,” Ben said.
As winter approaches, the hotel would normally expect patronage from caravaners, grey nomads and families travelling over the school holidays, and with the State Government’s Stage Two of easing restrictions, Sunset Tavern is hoping many of the people from around the outback will want to get back to the beach once they can travel again.
“We will be open and back to business in some form in the next few weeks. We want to welcome people back and just do what we can,” Ben said.
Karumba is easily accessed via bitumen road the whole distance.
“There are towns every 150km, so it's not like doing 600km stretches on dirt roads with no towns, and there are plenty of good things to see, especially coming from the south. You can go through Winton, Richmond, Longreach and through the dinosaur trail. There are so many good things to see along the way.”
Sunset Tavern has partnered with two accommodation houses and a fishing charter to attract people to the area with an all-inclusive three-night, stay, feed and fish package called “Experience Karumba Point” Phone 07 4745 9183 for more information.