Most VFR pilots, in the eyes of our non-flying friends, would fit the description of adventurous, courageous, and possibly even delusional. If as a pilot you also fit into the Recreational Aircraft category and talk of a 2,275 nautical mile trip in six days to what appears to be the ‘centre of the earth’, funeral arrangements are made.
It’s winter circa mid-June of this year and Lake Eyre is about half full. There is an aircraft sitting in the hangar at Warwick in Queensland, and a mate calls to say, “let’s go”. I mean, what else would you be doing, right?
Flying is the easy bit; preparation, however, takes time and effort. Being my first long haul tour, I probably over-prepared. Perhaps it is not a bad thing if excitement and anticipation were tempered periodically with mild nervous tension when you’re going to be flying a two seat Jabiru J160-C at 100 knots over much of Australia’s most inhospitable deserts, over a large inland lake, landing on all forms of airstrips and tackling numerous weather systems over six days.
The first consideration was that my flying buddy, Peter Frith, a fellow member of the Queensland Recreational Aircraft Association, had undertaken a number of outback trips and was very knowledgeable on what to expect and how to prepare. Peter’s ‘Lightwing Speed’ is probably the most ‘specked up’ rig in the sky - ideal for longhaul, outback flights. Peter was a fountain of knowledge and mentor during my planning and flight phases. Many a bottle of red was consumed while planning this trip.
My aircraft only had the basic instruments and equipment so I was going to have to decide on what upgrades I personally would like to make. Where does one stop and start! My first purchase was a Garman 296 GPS and associated software. I also ordered the fittings that would allow the device to sit on the instrument panel facing me during flight. The only downside to this investment is that weather updates are not included as it is in the US and European versions of the software. It took me a day to install and test the GPS.
My next investment was a Flight Planning software program that would be compatible with the GPS unit. There are lots of great programs to choose from so I sought advice from other, more experienced pilots on what they use and focused my questions on ease of use. I ended up settling on AirNav VFR. I am very happy with my choice, and planning the trip and uploading the flight plan and hundreds of additional waypoints, just in case, was a breeze. Having all the latest charts available with my flight plan overlayed so I can print out A4 sized sectional charts to clip onto my kneeboard proved very convenient. Having airstrip layouts, downloadable weather and ERSA details included in the text side of the plan was also invaluable.
My next investment cost a grand total of $4.00 but is probably the most used item in my aircraft today. ‘Pkt Weather’ is an iPhone App that allows you to have any of the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) weather and wind radars onscreen live while you fly. These radars also have wind direction, temperature and rain information on the same screen. I made a mount on my dashboard for my iPhone and I can plug it into a power source. I also have at least eight other very useful aviation related Apps that I use regularly. The iPhone is a great pilots’ resource!
My next investment was an EPIRB. All my fellow club members advised that it is an essential item if touring outback Australia. The hardest task was finding a suitable location to mount it in my aircraft. I have attached it using strong velcro.
My only gripe, if you can call it that, of my much loved Jabiru is the compass. Actually, I’m the problem, not my aircraft. My 51-year-old eyes are not what they used to be, and being an essential and much looked-at piece of equipment I had been threatening to find a suitable solution for some time. I found and installed in my instrument panel a large digital readout compass. The readout numbers are 20mm tall. I know it’s included in the GPS, but on the screen I use the heading is too small to see.
Then there was the extra inner tube, engine oil, a few spare nuts and bolts, screws etc, updated and additional charts, the latest ERSA and AOPA National Airfield Directory, water and a selection of snacks for along the way. I also purchased two tiny space blankets that fold out to cover an average person in the event of an emergency. A few extra tools have also been included in my toolbox.
While we were solving global aviation problems over a glass of red late one afternoon, Peter happened to drop the clanger: “Do you think your bladder will last the three and a half hour flight from William Creek in South Australia to Broken Hill?”. I skolled the glass and contemplated the possibility of a rather large puddle in my left hand seat. I remember the mad dash to the toilet when a mate and I flew for three and a half hours from Warwick to Narromine earlier in the year and thought better to be safe than sorry.
I decided to see once again what other pilots do, and discovered there were a few options. The one litre holding capacity dippers received a one second thought, then I quickly moved to the idea of a catheter. Keep this one to yourself - you have to download a sizing mechanism and cut it out, see which size fits and pass that information onto a sales person. As luck would have it, when I called the provider a young woman answered the phone. My catheter set arrived three sizes too big but what the heck - a man’s pride is at stake here!
I also had to make sure that I had the appropriate fuel cards. I have never encountered a bigger dog’s breakfast than the Australian aviation fuel payment system. Every town or city airport has a different system - nothing is uniform. Roughly half of all airports insist on a company fuel card. Different companies operate at each airport so you must carry all company fuel cards. Some operators only take Visa or Mastercard and you must have a PIN number, or sorry no fuel. Other outback airports we discovered only take cash!
I hear you say, ‘get a life, we have all had to go through the process’. So I embarked on the journey of trying to find who the major dealers were so I could apply. You think that would be easy; you’d think wrong. I got transferred more times than I do when I ring Telstra. Long story short, I now have my three essential cards – BP, Mobil and Shell – and have PIN numbers on my credit cards. And with fuel at $2.50 at some outback airports, I installed a new safe in the Jabiru to hold the cash.
A few days before take off I contacted my local LAME and organised a full service of my aircraft. We both took a good look at everything and anything that needed to be looked at and then I looked again. We were comfortable that all was in good order.
A few days out from the start of the trip I started to closely monitor weather patterns. Fine weather was predicted, but strong headwinds were to be expected. Fuel calculations and locations where Peter and I would refuel were reconsidered.
I rang all the airports to ensure that what the ERSA advised, fuel-wise, was correct, and it was. I also inquired about the condition of the strips where there was red sand or gravel specified and all seemed okay.
Now that Peter and I had settled on our route, flight levels and refuelling points, we could finalise the mark-up of our onboard charts. Bearings, flight levels, more radio frequencies than you can imagine, CTAF and airstrip details were all carefully plotted on the kneeboard charts. My AirNav software program was checked again and printed material copied. A final version of the flight plan was reloaded onto the GPS and checked. Two sleeps to go.
One day out Peter and I decided to recheck instruments and have a fly to ensure all was okay. We also loaded up our gear, checked the oil for the 10th time and filled the fuel tanks. Peter and I agreed that we would get away around 0700 to try to beat the strong westerly winds that had been around for a few days.
That night over dinner my wife raised a good point - wouldn’t it have been cheaper to charter a 737 for a few hours for us both to see Lake Eyre? Perhaps she was right.
As we took off from Warwick for Bourke we finally had time to contemplate why we, like many other pilots and grey nomads, felt Lake Eyre must be explored, despite the remoteness and distances involved. Adventure, the fact that water of any significance being in the lake is rare and our love of flying certainly sums it up.
Our research had uncovered that the Lake Eyre drainage basin covers one-sixth of all Australia. It was first sighted by Edward Eyre in 1894. With an area of 1,130,000 square kilometres, it is one of the largest internal drainage systems in the world. The basin covers much of Queensland, South Australia, the Northern Territory and approximately 20 per cent of New South Wales.
The volume of water required to fill Lake Eyre is almost beyond comprehension, which is why it has been only full six times since 1885 (1886, 1889, 1916, 1950, 1955 and 1974). Lake Eyre when full is six metres deep. Most floods have achieved three to four metres of depth. This year the average depth has been approximately 1.5 metres.
During planning we had decided that a trip to Lake Eyre by air must include the exploration of as many as possible of the creeks and rivers that flow into the basin from Queensland.
Our first night was spent at Comeroo Camel Station, a 90,000 acre cattle, camel and sheep station 45 minutes by air north west of Bourke. Comeroo is a strategic part of what used to be Tinnenburra Station, a 2,653,000 acre component of a major agricultural empire owned by James Tyson in the 1880s. Bruce and Chris Sharpe have a B&B there for aviators and other outback adventurers. The natural hot artesian spa, food, old cattle yards from Tyson’s days, wildlife and environment were enjoyed immensely.
Travelling north west to Thargomindah for fuel, we navigated over very remote country with very few places to land if needed. The occasional remote station airstrip provided some comfort. We took off and flew 40 minutes to the west and that afternoon we set down at Noccundra Hotel, located literally in the middle of nowhere. A hotel and an airstrip situated in a desert is all that exists, so seeing the sights was over in two or three minutes, yet it was probably one of the most exhilarating places to visit. The atmosphere was very nostalgic, the desert surrounding the hotel desolate and the hospitality and food exceptional.
Later that afternoon we joined up with Graham Boatman and Val Kennedy from Stawell Aviation Services in Victoria to undertake the Lake Eyre basin component of our tour with their guidance.
Early the next morning we set out for Durham Downs Station located on the western side of Cooper Creek and once we had the homestead in sight we then headed north to Windorah for fuel. Cooper Creek was spectacular. On average most ‘creeks’ that flow south in that area are many kilometres wide - some up to 50km - and are a mass of lagoons, channels and swamps, which is why it is known as the Channel Country. The wildlife, birds and colour variations were in abundance.
After lunch in Windorah we headed west to explore the Diamantina River region and, once intersected, we tracked south to Birdsville. I taxied and parked next to a Cessna that had lost its wheel when it collided with a pelican during the flight to Birdsville. Whilst flying low in this area can add to the appeal, the possibility of a bird strike is very real and we learnt later that it happens quite regularly. Birdsville was a lot smaller than I had imagined. We spent the night at the famous Birdsville Hotel. The hotel was full of aviators telling stories and making plans for the next day. Avgas in Birdsville was $2.50 per litre, but what the heck!
As we took off from Birdsville I could not help but notice the red, barren and imposing sand dunes lining the runway more than eight metres high. A taste of things to come!
We tracked due west to ‘Big Red’ - a small mountain of a sand dune that’s supposedly the ultimate quest of all 4WD hoons in Australia. We then turned south down Eyre Creek until we intersected with the Diamantina River again at Goyder Lagoon. The river at that point becomes the Warburton and flows downhill, very slowly, to Lake Eyre.
The environment from Birdsville was virtually all sand dunes, no trees, no notable wildlife or cattle and the odd plume of steam from natural hot water vents along the creeks. It was absolutely stunning and surprisingly not intimidating despite the fact there were very few places to land safely in the event of an emergency.
As we came to the Warburton Grove at the top of Lake Eyre, the expanse of the Lake and the water flowing into it hits you with all its magnitude and sense of reality. Green to blue water and white salt and red sand for as far as the eye can see. We headed for Brooks Island situated just north of Jackboot Bay, famous for its wildlife, only to find that the birdlife had dissipated due to the ever increasing salinity of the water.
The number of aircraft in and around the Lake Eyre and Marree Man areas - all calling locations and altitudes changes on 126.7 - was mind-boggling, but all very professional.
After 45 minutes exploring the area we turned due west for William Creek. William Creek consists of a nostalgic and very busy hotel, an airstrip, a caravan park and two houses.
Oh, and five billion flies that someone forgot to advise us about. And given it was winter, you guessed it, we all forgot the Aerogard. Over the years I have encountered ‘hard water’ in outback Australia but I can assure you, you will never experience water that feels, smells and irritates you as much as this drop. Soap lather is just not possible.
The next morning, due to the cold air, my aircraft decided it was just too cold to start. The battery became dead flat and I soon discovered that jumper leads were non-existent at William Creek. A few old cables found behind a nearby house, a borrowed motor vehicle eventually got me going and we set out for Broken Hill.
30 minutes out from William Creek we flew over the Marree Man, a geoglyph discovered by a passing pilot on June 26 1998. It depicts an indigenous man with a throwing stick and lies on a plateau at Finnis Springs 58km west of Marree in South Australia. The Marree Man is 4km tall with a circumference of 28km and is the largest known geoglyph in the world. 3,500AMSL is the best height to take it all in.
As we proceeded to Broken Hill we passed over the Birdsville and Strzelecki Tracks and a landscape resembling what one would imagine Mars would look like. Curved and jagged red rock, no roads, trees and not a dam, lake, river or pond in sight. Desolate, inhospitable and remarkably beautiful. We pushed on for the Flinders Ranges.
The Flinders Ranges is the largest mountain range in South Australia, stretching for over 430km from Port Pirie to Lake Callabonna. The landform and flora varied dramatically and mountain peaks dominated the skyline.
We flew over the northern ranges with the Arkaroola wilderness sanctuary and the Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park in full view. Real tiger country!
Broken Hill eventually came into view, and from the air did not seem to have changed very much from when I lived there for in 1981. We fuelled up and set the compass for Hillston, where we stayed for the night.
On our final day we refuelled at Narromine and with wet weather forecast and moving in fast we decided to make a dash for Warwick. After flying around a number of small rain showers, guided by the BOM live radar on my iPhone, and detouring around possible rotors at the Warrumbungles due to the squally winds from the south east, we eventually made it home, tired but feeling a great sense of achievement. Phone calls to Peter that night had us planning future flights to Longreach and Burketown sometime in the near future.
Over the six days away we flew 2,275 nautical miles. I clocked 27.6 hours in the cockpit and averaged 18 litres per hour in my 85HP Jabiru 2200. Peter logged 26.8 hours and his turbo charged 115HP Rotex 914 averaged 20 litres per hour. Avgas prices ranged from $1.65 to $2.50 and my credit card was the most used card to purchase Avgas. Believe it or not, I had full strength Telstra signal above 2,000 feet in all places except the Lake Eyre region, allowing live weather radar on my iPhone for the majority of the tour.
If you have dreamt of touring Australia by air and have a sense of adventure, get started by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org.
SEE MORE PHOTOS BELOW...