In the 1870s a telegraph station was built on the site of the present town of Karumba – this was during the gold mining boom in the Gulf. The overland telegraph line ran to the Gilbert River, Mt Surprise and on to the more populated centres on the East Coast. Initially the settlement was known simply as Norman Mouth being at the entrance of the Norman River into the Gulf waters.
The Queensland Government at one time considered the undersea cable, eventually laid to Darwin, might come ashore at Karumba. In fact the contractors building the famous overland telegraph from Darwin to Adelaide sailed to Karumba to transmit messages requesting materials and assistance during their contract.
Some ships were able to navigate the river to Normanton – a valuable transport system providing for the growing number of pioneers and residents to the region.
The name changed to Kimberley in 1876 for a short time, however the confusion with the Kimberley region in Western Australia brought about another change – Karumba – the name used by local indigenous people.
A meat-works was established where Raptis & Sons are located today by a firm called Shanns and later Andersons. Land allocations and the first moves into a pastoral industry in the Gulf region provided the catalyst for what is today a multi million $ industry. Beef was prepared in Karumba and frozen to be taken south by ship.
In 1937 the Flying Boat service operated by Qantas and BOAC established a base in Karumba to accommodate and refuel the Short Sunderland aircraft on their routes to London. The port then served as an RAAF Catalina base during WWII – the Catalinas operated from Karumba into the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), New Guinea and Timor.
After the war the base was taken over by a Melbourne identity – Rene Henri – who established the first fishing and hunting business which he named ‘Karumba Lodge’. The next owner was Ansett Airlines who used the Lodge as a base for their ‘Station Run’, delivering mail and goods to cattle stations and flying barramundi to the booming centre of Mt Isa. Float planes still used the river until 1976.
By the 1950s Karumba was fast becoming a popular spot for people eager for a fishing adventure in the Gulf of Carpentaria. There were also the crocodile hunters who pursued these prehistoric reptiles for their valuable skins.
When large quantities of shrimp were discovered in the Gulf of Mexico, an Australian – Craig Mostyn reasoned that similar species should be found in the Gulf of Carpentaria. It took about two years to establish there were in fact commercial quantities to be found here as well – and from then on it was like a second gold rush.
In spite of opposition from the then Queensland treasurer, Craig Mostyn took over Karumba Lodge and went about building a packing factory on the burnt out site of the old meat-works. Modern housing soon followed to accommodate the burgeoning prawn industry skippers and factory workers. At the same time came the infrastructure like wharves, water storage, power and other supporting services, businesses and industries.
By the 1960s and 1970s Karumba had become the centre for the Gulf fishing industry. Today the prawn fishing and barramundi industry earn over $130 million each year.
In 1974 the biggest flood in living memory occurred and caused major damage – the marine wetland waterways and major river systems were inundated and escaped their natural courses to join forces and spread across the Gulf inland. Vast stretches of water were dotted with the odd small, raised area of land – the stock losses, erosion and damage took a heavy toll on the region with the water taking many days to subside.
In the early days road access was as you would expect – primitive – a punt ferry was established to cross the Norman River at Normanton and then it would take several hours to make your way across the bush track/cattle pad to Karumba. After the river was bridged, then came the formed road and eventually some sealed formation was achieved in 1978.
Air travelers had been using a large saltpan area near what is now Karumba Point – however after the 1974 flood this area became unusable. Eventually there was the development of an airstrip along the shore dune line where it is located today.
Sea transport in the early days was the most essential and reliable way to travel – then as roads improved and trucks began to provide faster services the scene changed. Cattle were initially moved on droving runs to the railhead at Julia Creek and this too eventually changed to truck transport. Marine contractors started live cattle transport by sea to the meatworks in Cairns – this was by barge initially. Today purpose built ships can lift in excess of 1000 head at a time.
Courtesy of Karumba Queensland History