Diary of a flying trip

November 2004

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Australia.  Itís huge. Itís far away.  Itís a bit of everything and a lot of nothing.  Itís been described as being the most infertile and climatically hostile of all inhabited continents.  It has sharks, crocodiles and poisonous snakes, lethal jellyfish and even seashells that can kill.  This is the land of vegemite* and Crocodile Dundee.  How can one not be fascinated? 

* If youíre not familiar with Ďvegemiteí, itís a uniquely Australian treat that I was told I would have to develop a taste for.  The jar describes it as concentrated yeast extract.  I guess thatís what it tastes like.  I decide that Iím on vacation and if Iím going to work at anything Ė Iíd rather work on a nice Australian Shiraz from the Barossa Valley. 

 Weíve signed up for a 16 day flying safari with Air Safaris International. We are part of a group of 3 planes.  My husband, Rob, a private pilot, will be piloting a Cessna 172 R.  A professional pilot will fly another couple, and Clare (our tour director) will fly in the lead plane with another professional pilot. 
 

 Day 1 to Day 2 Brisbane

 We meet our group in Brisbane. After over 25 hours in the air and, including layovers, almost 40 hours of travel, Brisbane is a welcome relief.  Itís a pretty city, and for those of us coming from the north in the dismal month of November, itís a taste of summer, graced by flowers in bloom, touched by sunshine, and dotted with open air restaurants and patios.  Itís a city like all cities, with a morning rush hour and traffic jams and the hum of business and life. We stay at the Rydges Southbank, just steps away from the river that runs through the city, the walking paths that run along it, and a public Ďbeachí swimming pool. For those wanting to test their luck, the Casino is just on the other side of the river, accessible by a nearby bridge, and just beyond that, downtown Brisbane.

 Already we sense a difference.  A slower pace perhaps?  A life less hurried?  The entire city (and weíve been told the entire country) shuts down for an afternoon as the Melbourne Cup is run.  The Melbourne Cup is a horse race, and itís over in whatÖ a minute?  Two?  Yet it becomes an afternoon event with betting rampant and people dressed in their summer finery convening at clubs and bars to watch.  Later in the day as the revelers find their way home, getting a cab is virtually impossible.

We spend two days in Brisbane, as the pilots get acquainted with their planes and the rules and regulations for flying in Australia.  We passengers attend a safety briefing one morning, and have the rest of the time free to explore Brisbane. A city is just a city though, and as lovely as it is, itís just a part of the bigger picture that is Australia.  Iím eager to move on.

Day 3 Brisbane to Charleville

We leave from the Royal Queensland Aero Club.  At first, what we see below us is little different from home.  Agricultural fields which seem like a cross between Arizona and the Canadian prairies.  Roads.  Houses.  Slowly though, the landscape changes and by the time we reach our first overnight stop, Charleville, we are beginning to see the terra cotta colours and red soil that will become so familiar.
Charleville, our first taste of the outback, is a town of 3,600 where pet kangaroos lounge on front lawns.  Here we get our first real appreciation for how desperately dry the outback can be.  In 1902 the town, suffering from an extended drought, purchased a number of ďvortex cannonsĒ to fire explosives into the clouds and, the theory was, cause it to rain. They failed. Rumor has it that the inventor was run out of town.  You have to need rain very, very badly to come up with a plan like this.

 Of course, that was years ago.  As we arrive, so does the rain.  It pours in the evening and all sorts of living things are scampering, hopping and crawling about. Insects beat against the windows, huge green frogs lounge by our door, and even a pale lizard appears to have moved into our room.   We awake to more rain. Clare (the tour organizer) is aging before our eyes.   We canít fly in the rain and with a tightly booked schedule, he sees his well made plans going down the drain (so to speak).  I canít help but find some humour in it.  Rain seems to follow Rob and I on our vacations, why should we expect anything different from the outback?  The rain stops after breakfast though, and soon the clouds begin to break.  We are on our way again! 


Day 4 Charleville to Birdsville

From the air, we can see the landscape becoming more desolate.  The snaking lines of trees mark the river beds where the water runs when it rains.  Itís all dry now, as if the rain of last night never happened, and the tree lines run like veins across the otherwise empty land.  We occasionally see a road, not a lot of traffic, but sometimes a Ďroad trainí (a transport truck with numerous trailers in tow) stirring up clouds of red dust. 

Our next stop is Birdsville, the dead heart of Australia, the most remote town in Queensland.  It marks the northern end of the 541 km Birdsville track, one of Australiaís best-known driving adventures.  To bring into perspective just how remote, desolate and unforgiving this land is,  about 100 km down the Birdsville Track is a simple memorial to the Page family who in 1963, after their car had broken down, tried to walk to safety.  All five members of the family died. Just prior to our visit, a tourist on a motorcycle was stranded. He consumed all of his emergency water on the first day.  There is not a lot of traffic out here.  When another vehicle found him two days later, he was barely alive.

 

We go for a walk around town and find that there is nothing here.  Well, almost nothing.  There is a hotel, a gas station, a general store, and (supposedly) a post office and police station,  though neither one of us remembers seeing the post office or police station.  The sun beats down on us and except for the other couple from our safari, we see no one else walking.  There is a museum/visitor information centre, staffed by a couple of young women who try to look too busy to say Ďhií.  Perhaps we woke them from a lazy afternoon nap.   Perhaps a tour bus has just passed through and they are recovering from seeing more than one tourist a day.  Or maybe, if you live in the most remote town in Queensland, youíve earned the right to treat tourists with some disdain. Who knows?

Our walk brings us to the edge of town where steaming water comes out of the earth.  The Great Artesian Basin lies under about one fifth of Australia, including Birdsville.  Itís one of the largest areas of artesian water in the world.  In Birdsville the water is almost boiling (itís certainly steaming) when it comes out of the ground and it has to be cooled before distribution. Turned on full, the cold-water tap provides luke warm water.   The hot water is also used to generate electricity, providing power for the entire town.

The town is so bleak that itís appealing. The hotel is also the bar, and the restaurant, and tomorrow itís going to be the church.  Itís being decorated for a Christening, after which the parents of the child have decided to get married.  An exciting day is coming up for Birdsville. 
 

 Itís Friday night and the bar is busy.  The street outside is lined with 4x4ís (OK, I count  7, but in this town that seems like a lot).   You can tell that most of the patrons are regulars, as they fall into easy conversation.  Dozens of hats adorn one wall of the bar.  If you stay in the town for one whole year without leaving, you get the honour of hanging your hat on the wall.  The other wall has fewer hats.  If you die in the town, and your hat is on the first wall, itís then moved to the second wall.   

 Every September, the population of this quiet town increases from 100 to 5,000 as people converge for the famous Birdsville horse races.   Itís difficult to imagine where they stay and how the facilities of the town support them, but the races occur annually so itís clear that it can be done. 

The hotel room is basic, but it does have air conditioning (thank goodness) and itís perfect for this town.  We are happy to see that we have a room lizard again.
 

Day 5 Birdsville to Coober Pedy

We set out the next day, flying across the vast Simpson Desert National Park.  I called Birdsville desolate.  Itís hard to find an appropriate word for the desert.   We could be on another planet.  The desert stretches as far as the eye can see and our vision starts to play tricks with us as we stare at the horizon.  This day of flying takes us past Lake Eyre, famous for being the saltiest lake in Australia (some say itís the saltiest lake in the world). It has only been full six times since the Europeans found it.  We donít see any water, just miles and miles of white salt. 



Coober Pedy golf course

Our next stop is Coober Pedy, the opal capital of Australia.  Australia continues to amaze me.  Just when I thought Iíd seen enough that was desolate and bleak we arrive in Coober Pedy.  From the air, the stark dry landscape is dotted by what could be giant anthills.  Not so.  What we see are the tailings of hundreds (thousands?) of mineshafts that have been drilled straight into the ground.  

The climate is brutal here.  In summer, the temperature can rise to 50 degrees C (that's about 122 F).  When the makers of Mad Max III were looking for a hostile environment for the film, they chose Coober Pedy. 


How do you live in a place like this?
The inhabitants of Coober Pedy have found a solution.  Theyíve moved underground.  About 60% of the 4000 people living in and around the town live in dwellings carved into hillsides.  Even the church is underground.  Our hotel, the Desert Cave has underground rooms that are surprising cozy, well lit, and not at all claustrophobic.   The streets are lined with opal shops and the deals are amazing.  Rob and I try our luck at fossicing (looking for opals in huge piles of tailings accessible to the public) but fail rather dismally.  Fortunes are made and lost in this town, but our fortune will have to be made elsewhere.

 

 

 



Underground hotel room

Day 6 Coober Pedy to Ayers Rock (Uluru) &  Day 7 Ayers Rock

The next day has us flying again.  We fall easily into the daily rhythm of getting up early, flying for 4 or 5 hours, landing, booking into the hotel and then taking a tour of the town.  The planning is all done for us, the hotel shuttles show up out of nowhere, the hotels are always ready, the tours arranged.  Itís a very comfortable and relaxing way to travel. 

The landscape that we fly over is familiar to us now.  Outstations (the equivalent to our ranches) are few and far between.  There is so little out here that almost every outstation earns a place name on our map.   Amazingly straight fence lines and small dirt roads stretch out towards the horizon.  They seem to connect nothing to nothing.

Our next stop is the most famous of our destinations Ė Uluru (Ayers Rock).  Itís a clear day for flying and we can see worldís largest monolith from 100 miles away.  The airport is modern and prepared to accommodate thousands of tourists. Our hotel, Sails in the Desert is by far the most luxurious place weíve stayed so far.  The green manicured lawns and inviting pool are a stark contrast the arid red landscape just beyond the resort.  Our first evening has us dining in the desert under the stars, sipping wine and listening to a presentation about the night sky.   Itís a truly lovely evening and a very polished event.  Practice makes perfect. They know how to please tourists at Uluru. 
The next morning Rob and I are up at 4:00 and catching a 4:45 bus to see dawn at Uluru.  The quiet dawnÖ usÖ and dozens of tour buses.  Dawn at Uluru is a major tourist event.  But the hundreds of people canít detract from the experience as the ever changing hues of sunrise paint the rock red.  A long thin line of tourists snakes up the side of Uluru.  Hundreds still climb to the top of this spiritual site every day, against the wishes of the native Aborigines. 
We spend the morning on a walking tour of the park led by an Aborigine guide, learning a little about a way of life thatís long passed.  Then, in the heat of the mid day sun we walk 9.4km around the Rock.  Itís worth the walk, but itís perhaps best done earlier or later in the day, when the sun is less intense.  Iím reminded of the quote  ďmad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noon day sunĒ.  Well, in this case itís ďmad dogs and CanadiansĒ.  Later in the day, our plan to view the sunset over Uluru is cancelled as thunder clouds roll in.  We console ourselves Ė thousands have seen the sunset at Uluru, not nearly as many have experienced an outback thunderstorm. 

 
Day 8 Ayers Rock to Alice Springs & Day 9 Alice Springs

 Leaving the next day, we fly around Uluru and the neighboring Olgas before setting out for our next destination Ė Alice Springs.  In Alice Springs we learn more about two very interesting and unique services available in Australia, both the result of the vastness of the country.  The Royal Flying Doctors service ensures that residents in all of Australia, no matter how remote, have emergency medical aid available.  If you are injured or ill, and canít get to a doctor, the doctor will come to you. 
The School of the Air, provides education to children growing up in the outback, enabling them to stay with their families and conduct their studies via radio (and now the internet) instead of going to boarding school. 

We enjoy an evening at an Aboriginal Cultural Centre listening to the eerie sounds of the didgeridoo and watching Aboriginal dances.  Kangaroos and wallabies move in the shadows just beyond the light of the fire.  

Pervasive everywhere is the heat, the sun and the lack of water.  Next day our aboriginal guide here shows us how to find water in a dry riverbed, introduces us to Ďbush tuckerí, Australiaís version of edible wilds, and gives us a chance to throw a boomerang. That night, after a glorious sunset, we dine under the stars again, eating steak cooked over the fire at a remote outstation.  

 
Day 10 Alice Springs to Mt. Isa

Next stop Ė Mt. Isa.  Enroute we refuel at a remote gravel airstrip where the first plane has to chase a wild horse off the runway.  Fuel is hand pumped from the barrels that have been dropped off for us here.  When we land in Mount Isa, the temperature on the runway hovers around 43C (that's about 110 F). We passengers hide under the plane wings for shade as the pilots close up the planes.  Other than a tour of the huge lead, silver and copper mine, Mount Isa has little to offer, but itís a part of the mosaic that is Australia and as such, worth the stop.  
 

 

Day 11 Mt. Isa to Longreach & Day 12 Long Reach

 The next day, we fly through haze and dust to Longreach, the home of Quantas.  On the way, we make a refueling stop at Winton, a tiny airport.  As we stand by the runway and look around, the land stretches flat and desolate for as far as the eye can see. We joke about what we would do if we were stranded here.   Dry.  Dry.  Dry.  Have I mentioned that the outback is dry?  While running water into the sink in the small airport bathroom, I notice that a family of frogs (4 as far as I could tell), desperate for water, have moved into the sink drain.

 

Longreach has the Quantas Museum and the Stockmans Hall of Fame.  The most fascinating of the two is the Stockmanís Hall of Fame.  It shows the history of settlement in Australia and provides short video clips of the various hardships faced by Australians.  The rabbit plague video shows schoolchildren chasing thousands of rabbits with baseball bats.  Thousands.  Really!  Iíve heard about Australiaís experience with rabbits, but until I see the video I really have no idea of the scale of the problem.  Rabbits are just one of the Ďliving plaguesí that have afflicted Australia,  others are swarms of locusts and masses of mice. Other clips show a sand/dust storm moving in.  Amazing.  Truly amazing.  I leave with a newfound respect for Australiaís early settlers, and for those who still live out there in an isolation that Iím only beginning to imagine.  

Another interesting tour in Longreach is the Oakley Station Tour.  Our small bus takes us out to a Ďstationí, the Australian equivalent of a ranch.  The bus slowly rambles around the station, while the owner of the station shares a little of its past and present. We have the opportunity to see emus, camels, iguanas and lots and lots of kangaroos in the wild, as well as an assortment of farm animals.  This time the huge green frog that lives in the guest bathroom sink drain less surprises me.   


Day 13 Longreach to Hamilton Island & Day 14 and 15 Hamilton Island
 

Australia is not all outback though, and itís time to see the coast.  We fly over a coastal range of mountains, and magically a picture postcard blue ocean appears before us. The coastline is green, with pristine, almost white sand beaches. We are heading up to Hamilton Island, one of the Whitsunday group.  At the airport, we are greeted like dignitaries and our luggage is hustled away.  This is another world.  A world of luxury hotels and golf carts (few cars) that hum quietly as they whisk the tourists from town, to restaurant, to beach, to hotel.  For dinner an all wheel drive vehicle takes us some rough roads to the other side of the island to a deserted cove for a beachside dinner and an evening of entertainment. We eat the freshest raw oysters weíve ever had as we hack them off the rocks.  

Weíve been in the air, and weíve travelled across the land, now itís time to get out onto the water. We board the Banjo Paterson sailboat for a day trip to snorkel on a reef and walk on the squeaky white sands of Whitehaven Beach.  After days in the outback and we all enjoy the proximity of the water as we relax in the sun.  Yet another great day. 


Day 16 Hamilton Island to Brisbane 

Our last day of flying takes us down the coast and back to Brisbane.  We fly over endless miles of (almost) deserted beaches, dodging thunderstorms and showers along the way.  Brisbane, the biggest city weíve seen in 14 days, is so busy that itís a bit of a shock.  Itís with some sadness that I realize our circle tour is complete.  Our air safari is over.  Over yes, but weíre not done with Australia yet.  Australia is more than outback and the Whitsundays.  How can we go home with out diving the Great Barrier reef?  Without seeing the Blue Mountains or exploring the wineries of southern Australia?  One part of our trip has ended, but another begins. 


Summary 

Whatís not to love about Australia?  Itís a land of extremes.  Itís not just hot Ė but hot enough to drive the people underground. Itís not just dry Ė but dry enough for people to fire explosives into the sky to make rain and for frogs to move into sink drains.   Elsewhere there are rainforests and snow topped mountains on which people ski.  I was looking for something different.  Australia did not disappoint.  This was a wonderful trip and a wonderful way to see this fascinating country.    

Sky Bicevskis