• Gorgeous Port Douglas in the tropic far north. (Darren Friend)
    Gorgeous Port Douglas in the tropic far north. (Darren Friend)

In this second and final chapter of a special two-part Destinations feature focusing on flying the Queensland coast, Darren Friend leaves the Sunshine Coast behind and works his way northward, stretching from the Whitsundays right up to the most northerly point of mainland Australia.

After passing the Sunshine Coast there are a number of worthy options for stopovers, but this time we’ll head directly to the glorious Whitsunday Islands instead. Given the distance, we needed several refuelling and pit stops along the way, so our planned ports of call were Hervey Bay and Bundaberg airports.

As well as these, there are numerous other CTAF options for refuelling and/or stopover purposes scattered along the southern coast of Queensland, while if you’d prefer airspace with tighter restrictions you can get your Class D fix at either Rockhampton or Mackay airports.

To work out airspace requirements and restricted zones and ensure you stay out of the poop with ATC once past the Sunshine Coast, make sure you have all your VTCs, WACs and ERCs with you.

One pilot I know planned his own Queensland air safari and figured that once he was away from the VTC coverage all airspace requirements ceased as the WACs didn’t show any CTA steps or the like. He thought this “flight planning businees” was going to be a piece of cake; it was only when someone else pointed out that you need to read the relevant ERCs in conjunction with the WACs to get the whole picture that it suddenly dawned on him that there was a whole lot more to it than meets the eye. That pilot may or may not have been me, but if I told you then we’d both have to die.

Shute Harbour and Hamilton Island airports are probably two of the most popular destinations for pilots visiting the Whitsundays. Shute Harbour is on the mainland right near the laidback, backpacker-heavy township of Airlie Beach. Its airport has one main sealed runway (14/32) at a length of 1400m and has some of the most interesting operational requirements I’ve ever seen. Both runways require a right-hand circuit due to local hilly terrain and gusty winds that cause severe turbulence at times, and both have a curved final leg approach due to hills that obstruct a straight-in approach.

There are also numerous fly neighbourly procedures along with parachute operation requirements. Probably the most restrictive requirement for low hour pilots is the requirement for pilots operating into Shute Harbour to have a minimum of 100 hours pilot-in-command time. For a complete list of procedures at Shute Harbour visit www.whitsundayairport.com/aviation.php and download the airport’s complete pilot guide.

Only 12nm to the southeast is Hamilton Island. The airport on Hamilton also has one main sealed runway (14/32) at a length of 1764m, with a right-hand circuit required for Runway 14, again due to hilly terrain. Hamilton Island handles regular RPT jet traffic as well, which is when its Class D airspace becomes active. However, from my experience this is never a problem as both controllers and RPT pilots are very accommodating and helpful in facilitating us lighties in approaching and departing the airport. You will, however, need to call the aerodrome operator to gain approval for overnight parking, as there are very limited spaces available.

Whitsunday Aviation Refuelling is the Fixed-Base Operator (FBO) at Hamilton Island and can look after all your aviation needs including assistance with parking, refuelling, paying landing fees, and even a transfer to your accommodation if required. They’re a uniquely hospitable bunch, and you’ll find plenty more like them throughout the Sunshine State.
A unique operating procedure at Hamilton Island is worth mentioning here.

Due to the airport being on a relatively small island, the approach and departure paths are over water, which is shared with numerous boats and yachts. There is a warning that transient yacht masts may infringe your approach clearance during landing – something you clearly don’t get to see at your every day GA airport!

During your stay at the Whitsundays you’ll have plenty of land and water-based activities to keep you occupied while you’re not in the air. Some of my favourites include making a bee-line straight for the poolside bar for a drink and a relaxing float. And I mean ‘poolside’ literally. Could you possibly dream up a more awesome idea than having a bar, chock-a-block with ice-cold bevvies, literally on the edge of a swimming pool with the bartender serving you right then and there as you float? Me neither. And I would have said swim, but even that sounded like too much effort after a big day of flying.

Follow this with a casual walk down the main street to check out all the mega-rich yachts moored at the marina (the same ones you dodged on final), dinner at an outdoor table at the Marina Tavern, and dessert from the nearby ice creamery and, like me, you won’t want to leave this tropical haven.

If you decide to extend your stay, there are a number of surrounding islands to explore and just relax on, such as Brampton, Lindeman, Hayman, and Daydream. And do yourself a favour and spend a fair swag of time soaking up the beauty of Whitehaven Beach, consistently voted one of the best beaches in the world.

Alas, eventually you’ll have to tear yourself away from this island haven and continue north.

Cairns – the beating heart of Far North Queensland
A slightly shorter hop this time is the flight north to Cairns. If you previously refuelled at the Whitsundays, many GA aircraft should most likely make it to Cairns without needing to refuel along the way. However, it obviously makes sense not to leave yourself short of fuel, especially if there are any INTERs or TEMPOs forecast that may require you to hold and wait out any bad weather.

This makes Townsville a suitable stopover as it’s situated about half way between the Whitsundays and Cairns. At first glance, both the Townsville and Cairns VTC maps look like the Airservices fairy has thrown up all over them with every colour known to mankind. There’s a mess of mountain ranges, danger zones, restricted zones, controlled airspace, and a multitude of VFR lanes just waiting to catch out the unprepared VFR pilot. And that’s exactly my point.

A smart pilot is a prepared pilot; or as my Dad would say: follow the six Ps. For those uninitiated in old school phrases, the six Ps are: Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. Time spent planning your route through these congested Class C airspaces is definitely time well spent, and you’ll kick yourself if you try and skip over such planning.

Surrounding terrain and jet traffic means Cairns airspace requires a little pre-planning, just so you’re familiar with local routes in and out. An excellent tool for this on CASA’s website is the OnTrack program for Cairns, which you’ll find at www.casa.gov.au/ontrack. This software package lays out in simple language all the inbound and outbound routes, using video, voice-over, actual pilot-view photos and detailed explanations.

If you’re planning on approaching from the south and are tracking along the coast, just after passing Cape Grafton you’ll typically be asked if you can accept over-water vectors. If you can, then expect to be positioned over Trinity Bay, several nautical miles offshore, while Cairns ATC work out how best to sequence you in between the arriving jet traffic.

Departing Cairns to the north, your route will almost certainly be via the Western VFR Corridor, providing clearance from straight-in jet traffic using Runway 15. Take care when following the procedures for this VFR lane, as a large portion of it must be flown west of the main highway and east of the Macalister Range. This gives you very little wiggle room to play with and at times you feel so close to the mountain range that you’re almost expecting a random mountain goat to be knocked off his perch by your wingtip.

Always remember, ATC is more than happy to help you and if you lose sight of the highway or are unable to remain within the corridor due weather, seek their guidance immediately.
Apart from these idiosyncrasies, Cairns Airport offers an excellent, long sealed runway (15/33) with ample GA parking, refuelling options, and the typical miniature GA terminal with barely a toilet, water bubbler and electric fan valiantly attempting to keep at bay the heat and humidity.

Cairns has a population of about 150,000 and is one of the fastest growing regions in Queensland. It makes for a perfect base to explore tropical Far North Queensland, including Mareeba, the Tablelands and Port Douglas. It’s no secret that Cairns is always abuzz with tourism, and for good reason. There’s a plethora of exciting things to check out in and around Cairns, from white water rafting and bungee jumping to snorkelling bushwalking, and a quick chat with one of the locals will give you plenty of local knowledge tips.

The greater region also includes Cape Tribulation, where good ol’ Captain Cook had some troubles some 200 plus years ago, and where the rainforest meets the reef. This is the only place in the world where two world heritage listed areas actually meet at one point. These are the Daintree National Park – some of the world’s oldest rainforest – and the Great Barrier Reef, the largest reef in the world stretching some 2000km.

When in town and looking for a feed, you’ll be overwhelmed by choices. My biggest problem was picking a place quick enough before the hunger pains got too intense. Afterwards you simply have to check out the Night Markets in the heart of the city – it’s 130 stalls open every night and amass with people from around the globe. You’re bound to pick up a bargain here, regardless of whether your taste is for pearl earrings, a Chinese foot massage in what appears to be a cold bowl of iced tea, an Akubra, or a money purse made out of a slow Cane Toad. Like I said, something for everyone.

If you’re still in Cairns on a longer layover, don’t pass up a swim in the beautiful Esplanade Lagoon. This is a 4800m2 salt water pool right in the middle of the CDB area adjacent to the waterfront, which itself is actually a whole lot less inviting – you’ll see what I mean when you get there. The Esplanade Lagoon is definitely the place to see and be seen at, veeeery cool!

If, however, you want a more sedate experience compared to the tourist hustle and bustle of Cairns, try the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. From its base on the northern side of the city in Redlynch, you can jump in one of 114 gondolas and travel on the Skyrail along 7.5km of cable hovering just metres above the rainforest canopy all the way to Kuranda. Described as the ‘village in the Rainforest’, Kuranda is a sleepy little town with markets every day and an extremely laidback charm. It also boasts a milder climate due to its elevation and rainforest environment. Since it opened in 1995 the Skyrail has won numerous national tourism awards and is definitely worth a visit.

The tip!
After you’ve ticked off the box for Cairns and its surrounding areas it’s time to head further north one last time, into wilds of the most northerly tip of mainland Australia. So far the Queensland coast hasn’t been too daunting – there’s always been a large city with an airport not too far away and plenty of chatter on the area frequencies with someone to contact for assistance if needed. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Once departing Cairns and heading north, it gets just a little bit more remote and airstrips are few and far between. If you plan to fly the coastline fairly closely and do a little sight-seeing along the way, it’s unlikely most GA aircraft will make it all the way to Horn Island – one of the main islands in the Torres Strait between Queensland and Papua New Guinea – without a refuelling stop. This is true even taking into consideration suitable alternates and fuel reserves in case you arrive at Horn Island and can’t land due to bad weather.

Travelling this far north also has  a higher chance of nasty weather spoiling your day, especially the closer to the wet season you travel.

Whilst the whole coast from Cairns to Horn Island can be flown at 500ft AGL, remember that you still have the Great Dividing Range with peaks up to several thousand feet elevation just on your left side, which will be unpassable in low level cloud.

Finding yourself stuck below a 500ft overcast cloud base with deteriorating weather is definitely not the place you want to be. It might therefore be a good idea to set your personal minimums to at least 1000ft AGL, which will give you a little room to move in case the weather starts to worsen and you need to find your way back to a safe alternate.

For refuelling purposes there are two CTAF aerodromes along the coastal route that suited us perfectly – Cooktown and Lockhardt River. Both are right on the coast, offering long sealed runways with no high mountains to cross to get to them. Travelling this far north can sometimes present limited choices when looking for fuel. A courtesy call ahead of time is always recommended as fuel supplies can sometimes be limited due to wet weather preventing access for the resupply trucks.

Secondly, the most widely requested method of payment up here is typically cash or cheque, which may require some time to pre-arrange and approve, or if you’re lucky credit cards will be accepted. If unsure, always check your ERSA and confirm with an actual phone call.

Eventually you’ll make it all the way to the tip of the Cape York Peninsula and the most northerly point of mainland Australia. This is reason enough I feel to let out a massive “woohoo!” as you’re now part of a special group of private pilots who’ve made it to the top of Australia. Your excitement may not go down too well with your passengers, but hey, that’s their problem. Now you’ve only got a further 15nm to reach the final destination on this Queensland coastal safari.

Horn Island is the major aviation centre for the Torres Strait region, with RPT and charter operations in full swing. There are two sealed cross runways (14/32) at 1235m and (08/26) at 1389m, but due to high terrain, take-offs on Runway 14 or landings on Runway 32 are out of the question. This limits your choice in certain wind conditions, so plan for this well ahead of time by getting the ATIS as soon as you can. Add to this the migratory bird hazard and a nearby quarry conducting blasting activities and you have several things to take into account when planning a safe approach. This one will test your skills, so make sure you’re prepared.

Now that we’re finally here, what is there to do? Well, firstly you’ll have the choice of which island to stay on. If you choose Horn Island your main choice of accommodation will most likely be The Gateway Torres Strait Resort, which will be your source of all activities while on the island.

You can take a swim in the saltwater pool, visit the Torres Strait Heritage Museum, or go on the island’s only WWII tour, the Horn Island Forgotten Isle Tour. Afterwards, take a short walk to the wharf area to check out any supply ship deliveries, or just relax in your well appointed hotel room, which may include free of charge your own complimentary gecko, if you’re lucky!

Choosing to stay on the nearby Thursday Island will require a short mini-bus and ferry ride to get there. It is also the administrative and commercial centre of the Torres Strait Islands, which explains why it’s got 15 times more people but is a fifth the size of Horn Island. You’ll also have more accommodation choices here and can still do WWII-related tours. Other activities include learning about the Japanese pearling history of the island, and all the many land and water-based sports. Or you could just lay back and relax from your whirlwind tour of the Queensland coastline and guzzle 20-odd cold cans of XXXX!

Departures back to the mainland will still need to take all the above into consideration, but now an additional requirement that most private pilots wouldn’t have had to worry about previously comes into play – quarantine. This is where reading a little known section (for most pilots) in the ERSA becomes of paramount importance. It’s the ‘Special Procedures part 3: Torres Strait Quarantine Requirements’ section, and it does require some studying.

The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) includes such requirements as the disinfection of departing aircraft from the Thursday Island group back to the mainland, 30 minute notification of departures back to the mainland, and the restriction of certain goods being moved from the Thursday Island group back to the mainland. You’ll also receive a special notification number from AQIS that you should keep for future auditing purposes if the need arises.

End of the road
We’ve travelled a grand total of around 3800nm on this Queensland coastal safari. We’ve covered four major commercial and economic regions of the Queensland coast, and have only just scratched the surface of what this state has to offer both on the coast and inland. There are many, many more locations to choose from for stopovers along this vast and diverse coastline; I’ve only provided you with a starting point.

For the more experienced and adventurous, I’m sure you’ll find many short and unprepared strips to land at and little out of the way villages to stay in. Use the above four areas as a kickstart to planning your own Queensland sampler air safari, and maybe I’ll see you out there.

Local knowledge
A word from Cairns born and bred Australian Flying Editor Justin Grey.

With Queensland taking a horrendous natural disaster beating over the last few months, I’d like to think most of us would jump at the chance to visit the area and do our little bit to help rejuvenate the local tourism industry that the state is so very dependant on. As Darren has rightly pointed out over this two-part Destinations feature, there’s a panoply of great sites, activities and adventures to be enjoyed throughout Queensland. And having personally driven the Bruce Highway between Cairns and Brisbane on way too many occasions, I for one would recommend taking the air route.

Coming from the other side of the tracks – ie, a Far North Queenslander living south of the border in Sydney – I’m acutely aware that some people living outside of the Sunshine State, be it in NSW, Victoria or elsewhere, often tend to have a slight misunderstanding of Queensland. While I can endure the endless stream of jibes from Sydneysiders about all Queenslanders being behind-the-times country bumpkins from the sticks that worship Pauline Hanson, I do feel the need to extend some local knowledge when asked if the Sunshine Coast is a part of North Queensland of Far North Queensland! That person wasn’t an AF reader, I should proudly add.

So if you’re planning a Queensland trip and wish to go beyond the minds at Google and get some local knowledge on either Cairns or Brisbane and their surrounding areas please feel free to drop me an email at justingrey@yaffa.com.au and I’ll see what I can do.

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