A 12-day air adventure for four VFR crews across southern Australia delivers some useful lessons and confidence along with the incredible scenic flying. By Shelley Ross
It wasn’t really the fact that my head was deep inside the jaws of a great white shark, it was more that no one was paying the slightest bit of attention. But that’s the way it is in South Oz. They breed ‘em tough down there, and whatever the wild Southern Ocean dishes up, you deal with it or reconsider stopping.
The coastal town of Streaky Bay at the western gateway of the Eyre Peninsula is usually a sleepy little postcard destination. But as we make our way towards the hotel reception on arrival, we see that the locals are decidedly not so sleepy today.
While you’re on safari, it’s easy to sometimes forget the date. Who cares anyway? It’s Tuesday, that’ll do. But this particular Tuesday is the first one in November and that makes a big difference, as we all know, particularly when the winning jockey holding the Cup high on every TV screen around Australia is a local lad whose watering hole is the one you’re now standing in. So Streaky Bay’s going off today – champagne, feathers, fascinators and six deep at the bar. “Yep, his mum’s over there right now, talking to Channel Nine!” shouts a well doused local. “We all know Kerrin, he’s me best mate you know. What a legend eh?”
Dislodging my head later that afternoon from the deserted museum’s star attraction, I’m now officially excited about our safari. Yes, it’s all about the flying and the view out the windshield, but today reminds me it’s so much more than that, and this next two weeks was about to throw us into the company of some weird and wonderful characters.
Got some spare leave?
I have big plans for us all in the flying department for 2017 so it’s time to start marking off that diary. As I’ve done for the past 18 years, I consider it my solemn duty to keep your spirits a lot higher than your bank balance, by throwing out endless tempters to get you into the cockpit of an aeroplane, and point the nose towards the coolest fly-in destinations Australia has to offer.
To start the ideas rolling, I’m bringing you the highlights of a recent 12-day safari from Sydney to the west coast and back. Always on the lookout for new places to try out, I’m happy to say that, of the 23 airfields we visited, 12 of them were new to me. And there was not a dud amongst them.
We were a group of 11 on this trip, gathered from the pilots and friends of Curtis Aviation at Camden and WardAir at Bathurst. Our fleet comprised a C182 and three C172s. An almost even number of males and females, the mix was everything from low-hour private pilots to experienced CPLs, two instructors, and one non-pilot just along for the ride. Interesting point here: four of the pilots couldn’t get a leave pass for the whole two weeks, so we organised it so that they could each do half the trip. Two flew over to the west coast with us, then left us in Perth and flew back home commercially. Another two flew commercially to Perth, and took the places of the two that had left us. This arrangement worked really well and served to happily rejuvenate the mix of people for the second week.
You’ll see from our map that we covered a lot of miles in the 12 days. In the planning stages, WardAir’s Catherine Fitzsimons and I tried to keep the daily distances comfortable, and there were only two legs that were longer than three hours’ flying. We’d break up a potential long day’s flying into two or even three hops, choosing landing strips where we could stretch our legs, buy food for lunch, or share a packed picnic.
We bid goodbye to the east coast and gave ourselves a manageable first day’s flight by overnighting in Swan Hill, giving us a close-up view of a dramatically flooding Murray River. Port Pirie for lunch and a fuel stop the next day (Steve wins Australia’s friendliest refueller prize) and it was westward-ho from there.
Crossing the country from coast to coast, there are only two options for getting across the Nullarbor. You either follow the railway line, or follow the coast. To mix up the viewing, we did half of each on our forward and return legs, making a kind of figure eight.
When working out an itinerary, being November, we knew we’d need to keep well south to avoid the heat, so we stayed below the 30th parallel, and that worked a treat. Heading west along the southern coast will usually put you in the path of headwinds but if you let that worry you, you’d never get anywhere, and there were lots of hands going up in our group wanting a few nights in that celebrated south-west corner of WA.
Anyway, I’m pretty sure you’d rather stick pins in your eyes than read a day by day account of our trip, so let’s skip straight to the good bits. Speaking of highlights, we could go straight to the bottom of a glass of Margaret River’s finest vintage, but I guess we should talk aviation first. No, stuff it, let’s do the tourist thing first. The whole place got rave reviews.
We figured making it over to the west coast deserved a lay day on the itinerary, so we opted for two nights in Margaret River. The effort to get here was so worth it; this famous region lived up to all its accolades.
We hired two cars as well as having a local friend to show us around, and we filled our "rest day" with discovering the magnificent beaches, caves, markets and vineyards, all within an easy drive of town. You can only imagine our dismay when departure day threw up the only bad weather we saw all trip – a very decent coastal front – and there was no way we could fly. An unexpected third night here was perhaps our most memorable, with us all sharing a big house out at Prevelly Beach and finding fantastic bush walks along the coast.
The big sealed strip of Margaret River provides a handy welcome mat for pilots, and is a short drive from town. There’s no fuel here, but we’d called in to Kalgoorlie then Bunbury for a top-up on the way and so didn’t need fuel again til Albany. I’d highly recommend a couple of days here and if you’re wanting any local flying advice, give the aero clubs at Bunbury and Busselton a call – they’re a super friendly and helpful mob.
Meeting the Indian Ocean
The scenic viewing on offer along this whole stretch of coast is worth the miles to get here. From Bunbury, past Busselton, around Cape Naturaliste, overhead the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park and around the corner at Cape Leeuwin where two oceans meet, there are inlets, bays, whales!, boat harbours and endless beaches. The clouds from the previous day had not completely disappeared but the ceiling of 3000 feet gave us plenty of room for low level flying above the surf.
Predictably, staying at The Lily Dutch Windmill the following night ended up on everyone’s highlight list. About 50 nm north of Albany, in a wide valley at the foothills of the Stirling Ranges, it’s a golden fly-in destination I’ve written about before, so let’s hear it from C172 pilot Christine: “The south-western coastline of WA and the coloured seams of the cliffs of the Bight were very, very pretty. So much wow factor! But my favourite, for its uniqueness and aviation appeal, would have to be The Lily. I loved sleeping in the beautifully renovated DC-3, and meeting the accomplished hosts, Pleun and Hennie. Gourmet food, the windmill tour, the walks and Pleun’s car collection – fantastic!”
Get your fuel sorted
This is definitely one route where care needs to be taken with fuel stops. We tried where possible to avoid topping up at the most expensive bowsers, so lots of pre-trip phone calls to refuellers gave us the heads-up on what to expect.
With plenty of fuel onboard from Ceduna, we could easily make it to Forrest so we didn’t need fuel at Nullarbor Roadhouse near the Head of the Bight. But calling in here for a lunch stop was entertaining, taxiing off the big dirt strip up to the back of the roadhouse, meeting the resident Big Whale, and watching the endless stream of massive road trains and 4WDs pulling off the Eyre Highway into the servo out the front. We were a bit late for whale season, but from mid-May to October each year, up to 100 southern right whales routinely gather along a 15-km stretch of this coastline.
To mix it up on the way home, we called into the even more remote Caiguna roadhouse. Refuelling at Caiguna won’t do your bank balance any favours but sometimes there’s no avoiding it. I have to say though, meeting Pete the refueller almost made up for the drain on the wallet. See flyingtheoutback.com.au/blog if you want the story.
A surprise inclusion on our itinerary was a brief stop at Israelite Bay, east of Esperance on the WA south coast. An isolated bush strip surrounded by salt lakes and clay pans, the heavily-vegetated sand strip lies 200 m from the substantial ruins of the National Trust classified Overland Telegraph relay station. Dating back to 1876, the telegraph station was part of the Intercolonial Telegraph Line, a vital piece of national infrastructure running from South Australia to WA. This made for a fascinating morning, and everyone in the left-hand seat felt more than accomplished after their good landings and take-offs on a challenging surface.
These are the types of places that touring pilots just don’t hear about unless locals share their secrets. The previous night, we’d been privy to many a local secret, as guests of the Esperance Aero Club. About 30 members had gathered to welcome us with a hangar dinner at their clubhouse at the Myrup Fly-in Estate, and graciously accommodated us overnight in two of their private homes. Without the boundless hospitality and assistance of local Noel Willing, I wouldn’t have even known about Myrup. They’re very happy to welcome touring pilots, so look them up if you’re wanting a pilot-friendly alternative to the main aerodrome at Esperance. See myrupflyinestate.com.
It was over breakfast the next morning that we heard about Israelite Bay. One of our hosts, Esperance Aero Academy Flying Instructor David Ford, suggested we should try and call in there as we headed east. He and another local pilot who’d flown in the previous week assured us the strip was in serviceable and safe condition. We were shown clear photos and given all the strip info we needed. They also told us to make sure we flew out to see the amazing pink lake on Middle Island. Without this recommendation, we may have missed the incredible flight around the outer islands of the Archipelago of the Recherche.
Dress circle cruising
In the realm of bucket list flying, nothing quite prepares you for the spectacle of low level flying along the cliffs of the Great Australian Bight. From Richard, one of our C182 pilots: “It’s difficult to put the majesty of the scenery along the Bight into words, especially from Streaky Bay around the Head of the Bight to Border Village. I’ll never forget that continuous cliff line with the limestone beneath - same but different every minute – with rockslides, dramatic erosion and the pounding sea.”
For Judy, flying a C172, it was all an adventure: “Watching pods of whales breaching off WA’s Cape Naturaliste in glorious sunshine at 500 feet was as much a highlight as landing at the Nullarbor’s historical Forrest airport. Landing at Israelite Bay got the heart racing, and the same goes for The Lily. All such good experience, and I never felt unsafe.”
“Like any of these fly-aways, the places we see and people we meet are unique ,” says Judy, "but the personal learning experience is equally unique. In doing so many hours as PIC, I learned that I had more stamina than I thought, and of course the daily highlights or 'roasts' kept me focussed. Flying in a fleet is great, especially with Catherine and Shelley keeping us organised and on track. We flew further than I would have solo, and stayed at delightful places. The chatter about flying, current and past, with fears and problems being solved, gave depth to my understanding, and highlights the huge benefits of flying in a group. Can't wait for another one!”
With the greatest of luck, we scored nice tailwinds on the way east from Ceduna, which meant we could make up that lost day and fly Eucla-Ceduna-Broken Hill-Wilcannia easily in one day. Our final overnight stop at Warrawong Station on the Darling, near Wilcannia, put us firmly back into the red dust of the outback. I’d never stayed here before, and I’d certainly recommend a night here. Comfortable cabins sit right on the banks of a billabong of the Darling, at that time almost overflowing after recent rains. The congenial managers fed us well and happily gave us airport transfers. See warrawongonthedarling.com.au
See more of Shelley Ross' adventures at www.flyingtheoutback.com.au