An outback adventure organised by Air Adventure Australia and Aviation Tours NZ
We boarded the “Outback Jet” (Cessna Conquest 2) and left a cool and moody 13 degree Melbourne for our hour and a half flight to Broken Hill. Once past the clouds we could see vast turquoise salt lakes against the barren landscape. The airstrip appeared in the distance and shortly after, we touched down for our tour of the Royal Flying Doctor Service base. We had a short film highlighting the amazing work they do. A bit too much birthing and do it yourself dentistry for my liking but it was very emotional and certainly showed how essential they are to the Outback. This station covers a staggering 640,000 square kms. The hangar housed their current active aircraft and a couple of restoration projects including the Nomad which will be restored, painted red and returned to the stands outside the hangar.
After morning tea we headed on to the airstrip at the former mining town of Leigh Creek, a 40 minute flight over the Flinders Rangers. We were met by the lovely Ross and Jane Fargher with a delicious lunch and Fargher Lager refreshment, after which we set off in the All-Terrain Warrior to their Nilpena station which is the size of New York. We stopped at the wool sheds for a bit of late 1800s history, and continued off road to the fossil fields in the Ediacaran Hills. Ediacaran is geological period only recently (2004) given its status and named after these hills. Up on the gentle slopes of Mt Michael, fossils are found on the underside of slabs and go back 650 million years to when this area was under water. Imagine the sea bed with its early signs of life, a major storm comes through and buries them under a layer of sediment. This happens over and over again and when the ranges are formed with the sea bed being pushed up, the layers are exposed and over the next millions of years in certain areas the softer layers are eroded. Here in the Ediacara Hills, geologists have been stripping the layers, flipping the pieces over and laying them out in jigsaw-like beds revealing many different fossils types underneath. You can see why David Attenborough was so taken with this area and was filmed laying on one of these beds for his tv show. Thankfully Ross and Jane are committed to preserving this incredible history and working with the Government to make it a World Heritage Site.
Our day ended with sunset drinks and dinner at the famous Prairie Hotel. With choices including kangaroo, goat and emu our wonderful hosts have given us a real taste of outback hospitality.
After a leisurely breakfast, we headed off into the spectacular Flinders Ranges, originally charted in great detail by Matthew Flinders in 1802, and running North South from Adelaide. Our chosen entry point was the Brachina Gorge, a geologist trail described as a corridor through time. The area is bone dry with very little rainfall for years and we stopped in a few dry creek beds to admire huge gums and look out for kangaroos and emus, both of which appeared. A little further on we stopped at the Bunyeroo Formation, an area where erosion has exposed layers of rock deposited by an ancient meteorite hit. Here the landscape has been made famous by painter Hans Heysen.Our next stop, and about the only time we bumped into other people, was at point where the Yellow Footed Rock Wallabies spend their day people watching. Fortunately that meant we could watch them too and a little patience was rewarded with a few of the little chaps coming out into the open, their distinctive striped tails easy to spot.
We continued climbing the track up to Ross’ brothers station Angorichina, on a plateau about 2000 ft up, and stopped at Blinman strip, the first of the two station airstrips. Once a month the Royal Flying Doctors have a clinic here in a tiny cabin. It is also a gathering point for horse racing and gymkhanas, with the race track encircling the airstrip. There is a small monument to the first aviator to land here in the early 1920s, Hugh Grosvenor. It’s a fairly good strip by outback standards with the main challenges being fog and kangaroos, and often the pilots need to beat up the strip to clear 100s of Roos before landing. Ian’s Cessna 206 is here with a guest Maule. We drove past 2 lazy gate guardian Roos and our next stop was the homestead. The woodshed here was built in the 1860s and has stood the test of time, still being used today. Some of the stock are being kept on site and fed at huge cost as the bone dry station has little to offer. Having been fed for a year and a half now, unless the rains come soon, their future is not looking good. After lunch we took a drive up the homestead airstrip, a lot more challenging than the main strip with an incline, a few humps, a bit of a dog leg and powerlines at the end. Tucked away in the shed was Ian’s Cessna 172. These days the aircraft are used for pleasure flights as well as mustering. On the home run we stopped at the old mining town of Blinman, population 18 permanent residents, before descending the 2000 feet in 12 kms through Parachilna Gorge. The track crossed the same winding creek many times, and each time we could only imagine what it must be like with gushing water. We didn’t see a drop. It was thirsty work and the pre-dinner drinks were welcome while we discussed our day before dinner, another fine feast.
With a reluctant farewell to Ross, Jane and the team at The Prairie Hotel who have made us feel like family, this morning we headed to William Creek, one of the smallest towns in Australia with a population of 10, situated on the worlds largest working cattle station at 24,000 square kms or 1,000,000 acres, slightly smaller than Israel. We were met by Trevor Wright from Wright’s Air and heard about his aviation operation here and had a tour of the site. Trevor only intended to be here 3 months, 30 years ago. He likened his time here to a game of Monopoly where he just kept buying up the properties. Wrightsair operate 24 aircraft including Cessna 172,182,206,207, Caravans, Piper Aerostar and Airvans, operating out of William Creek and a few other places.
We then boarded our 2 Airvans for the half hour flight out to the Painted Hills. This unique area has only recently been opened up to visitors an apparently we are the first Nzers to come. It was an absolute privilege to witness this incredible landscape both from the air and ground. In the middle of this very flat desert landscape, suddenly rises a rocky outcrop roughly 20 kms square. The changing colours of the hills, reds, purples, yellows, browns, are the result of oxidisation and 50 million years of climate change. We walked through the hills examining the colourful terrain at close quarters, knowing that it has been untouched for millions of years.
In the afternoon we rejoined the “Outback Jet” and continued towards Birdsville, our route taking us across Lake Eyre. Here again we are witness to something special. It is quite rare for the lake to have water in it. A minor 5ft flood occurs every three years or so, a 13 ft flood every decade and a fill only a few times a century. We are witnessing a once in a decade flood event with waters from the recent Queensland floods working their way down to Lake Eyre. The waters leave behind a welcome green trail of new growth in an area that has been in drought for 7 years. Quite stunning viewing from the air. We landed in Birdsville on the edge of the Simpson Desert, right opposite our heritage listed hotel The Birdsville. At the moment with the floods surrounding the town and many roads in blocked, flying is one of the best ways in. The town of only 70 residents was quiet with few visitors. We were picked up late afternoon for our tour to Big Red, the name given to the symbolic end to the desert, a dune almost 40 metres high and one of 1100 parallel dunes stretching north south. We had an exciting 4wd off road tour on the way avoiding the waters and enjoyed drinks and nibbles on top of Big Red. Our day ended with dinner at the Birdsville.
Our 80 minute flight to Longreach this morning took us further east over the area where the floods have receded and the new greenery was very clear. We landed right next to the Qantas Founders Museum and a short walk round to the other side of the hangars had us at the entrance. Our Platinum Tour included guided visits into the airlines first jet, a Boeing 707-138B and the 747-200 aircraft with the wing walk. The 707, known as the “City of Canberra” was as restored in Southend in 2006 and returned to Australia with help from a 1 million dollar grant from the government. The wing walk looked pretty good from where I was standing (safely on the ground) and the photo packs were included. After lunch there was time to explore the museum itself and the old hangar. The museum has a Catalina PBY-6A, a replica Avro 504k, a replica DH50 and DH 61, and a former Qantas DC3. A more recent addition is the Lockheed C-121 Constellation, a former navy aircraft that had been impounded at Manila for 25 years. Future plans at the museum include a huge cover over the whole outside display which will be quite something.
Longreach has a high street, there are after all around 3000 people here, so we had an afternoon stroll and enjoyed dinner at Harry’s Restaurant helping John celebrate his Birthday. We are a little worried that the carefully planned weight for our Outback Jet may need recalculating to accommodate the excess baggage around our middles.
The railway station looked pretty as we left this morning for a five minute drive to the Stockman’s Hall of Fame. Having been to some vast and remote properties that go back many generations, our visit here gave us a good history of the stockmen and women of Australia, their lives and their animals. There is also a great RFDS exhibition elaborating on the story we started at Broken Hill.
We flew on to our next destination Rolleston, had a leisurely lunch and headed up to the hangars with Ross Smith for a relaxed afternoon, seated under his Lockheed Electra Junior. Ross talked to us like old friends, telling us about his passion for aviation which began very early and the many aircraft he has restored, his first project was a Tiger Moth in 1986. We climbed into the Lockie and sat in the seat where the Prime Minister had sat way back in the early 1940’s as he was transported around the country, an important role that deemed the aircraft too important to be included in active service during the war. This was the first all metal aeroplane to fly into Australia and one of only 10 still flying today. Ross, a self-proclaimed perfectionist when it comes to restoration, also had his 1947 Tiger Moth and 1941 Boeing Stearman Kaydet in the hangar. A very broken helicopter was sat at the side, it had been a 220 ft drop that nearly ended his flying career.
At the end of the afternoon we had a nose around the other shed housing some of Ross’ earthmoving equipment, a business that keeps him away from his passion too often, and drove the few minutes back to the hotel past huge heifers and a gathering of Roos. The locals provided us with some stories over pre dinner drinks, including an insight into the goings on at the nearby mine shared with us by Ross’ daughter and friend Melody who drives the big trucks.
Ross waved us off this morning and we set off towards Pays Warbird Restorations on the longest leg of our tour, two hours from Rolleston to Scone. We dropped down into Roma for fuel, then landed just outside Pays hangars. The core of the business here is actually firefighting and they have five Air Tractors, two on floats. We were met by Paul Johnson who showed us around the two hangars. He is here with his father Gregg who restored John Deere’s Spitfire PV270 and is now working on one of the two Mk 9 projects here at Pays.
We were quite excited to get into the main hangar and see the two Spitfires. At the front was a Harvard in for maintenance. This is their pleasure flight aircraft. Behind it, MH603 owned by Ross Pay, and MH415 is owned by a local syndicate, both are at wiring stage and hoping to get airborne within the year. Their engines are away in the USA for specialist overhaul while dummy engines sit in the aircraft. Bit of a race on it seems but the syndicate’s MH415 is expected to be completed first. his aircraft was one of the Spitfires that participated in the Battle of Britain film and was given to the actor in lieu of payment as the film didn’t do very well. Scone is the horse capital of Australia and this week the annual horse festival is on so it was fitting to have lunch at the beautifully decorated Thoroughbred cafe/restaurant, before heading to our accommodation. It was our first bit of rain, not a problem for us and still very welcome by the locals, the greenery in this area is known as a false green as it may not last long.
Airshow day! After a short flight we came in to land for the Wings over Illawarra Airshow at HARS, the Historic Aviation Restoration Service. It was great to fly in and see the participating aircraft and static displays from the air, and then park up right near the entrance. We were lucky with the weather, sun in the morning, clouding over late afternoon but not a drop of rain. The dark clouds made photography a challenge but the flying program was very diverse and entertaining. There were a few quite stunning aerobatic displays, the Warbirds, formation flying, the heavy lifters and a good selection of unusual individual displays. There were also a pair of Learjets - not something we have ever seen at an Airshow before. It’s very family orientated with a fairground on the far side, we had prime viewing from the Gold Pass grandstand. The show came to a close with the Aussie favourite, the wall of fire. We headed back to our Cessna Conquest 2 and were first off the mark for our flight to Temora, with Bill in the jump seat this time. This later flight than usual gave us wonderful sunset red clouds and a twilight landing at Temora for our overnight stay at Skylodge, right opposite the museum.
Our final day had a leisurely start with breakfast in the sun on the veranda. Once the museum opened we headed in for a quick guided tour and some free time. The president and founder of Temora Aviation Museum is David Lowy, aerobatic champion, businessman and rock star. His band The Dead Daisies is a musical collective created by a rotating line up featuring many famous rock musicians including ZZ Top, Def Leppard, Bad Company and more. Obviously a busy man and he has been recognized for his contribution to Australian aviation. The museum has some of the best presented information we have seen anywhere on our travels, great info boards and films alongside each exhibit and beautiful lighting! One thing we all agreed on was that the Spitfire with sharks teeth on was just not right but apparently they were painted up to scare the Japanese just like everything else. In the workshop we saw the current projects including the Canberra. They are regular hosts of flying days here and their Warbirds Downunder airshow is definitely one on our radar.
After lunch at the Terminus Hotel we popped round to the Temora Railway Museum a five minute walk away. It would have been rude not to! We were met by Max who showed us what they have achieved here in the three years since the council decided that the derelict station would be useful for its toilets. The team of volunteers have restored the station to its former glory and have a youth programme running in one of the buildings called Platform Y. They now have vintage trains coming here regularly and it is great to see the old place brought back to life. The story of the station dog Boofhead is documented in a small pamphlet written by Max, with a statue in his memory on the platform. This spirited canine roamed the tracks & trains during the 50s & 60s.
We returned to the airfield for our last flight back to Melbourne where we had our final dinner, sharing our memories of this amazing adventure.