Instructor Darren Friend is trying really hard to look like he’s working. His head is firmly thrust into the force of a mega-litre waterfall, behind which he eventually emerges like a drowned rat, grinning like a maniac and calling everyone else to come try it.

He’s got students clambering up sharp and slippery rocks to secure the best diving ledge, others swimming haplessly against a roaring current to avoid being smashed on submerged logs and one who’s just floated off downstream yelling something about she’ll see us two miles down the gorge.

A half day’s flying across Queensland’s upper channel country has brought this little team in four light aircraft – two C182s, a Piper Dakota and a C185 – to the tropical oasis that is Adels Grove in the Lawn Hill National Park. We are so over the dust. After our three days flying through finely crushed muesli since leaving Sydney, we are definitely over the dust.

A successful formula
It’s late September and we’re on another safari with Curtis Aviation, based in Sydney’s south-west. We told you all about last year’s trip in our P-Platers story, but such was the response that we thought we’d bring you the sequel. It’s a service that I wish I had access to when I was a student and is a highly successful formula in anyone’s language. In fact if you or anyone you know is thinking about learning to fly, or just needing to get cross-country hours up, these student safaris deliver the most supportive, challenging and fun environment going.

Here’s how it works: Curtis staff work out an itinerary around Australia that’s achievable in about 10 days, (including a Public Holiday) so a week off work is all that’s needed. The planned route is, let’s say, malleable. Different waypoints and surprise diversions are a speciality of the house. The concept is to offer navigational and procedural experience to students over 40-50 hours of flying, the “Pilot In Command” changing with each leg. One or two instructors accompany the tour across three or four aeroplanes, so it’s aimed at PPL and CPL students.

Against the forces
Our eventual group numbered 13 in four aircraft. Instructors Darren Friend and David White held the whole thing together, which took a bit of doing with this mob. As became evident after a few days, when you combine the naughtiest kids in the class with joke-loving teachers, it’s a sure fire recipe for mayhem. Lucky there were a few antiques like me on the trip to add dignity to the proceedings and remind the ferals that the culture of our nation was at their fingertips and deserved embracing … or something.

As you’ll see from the map, our route took in an enormous chunk of Australia. What should have been memorable outback scenery for those first two days was decidedly not. We left Sydney in a howling nor-wester, at times reducing our groundspeed in the C182 to a dismal 60kts. A tea clipper would have made better time to Dubbo. Each pilot had to therefore be totally diligent with fuel calculations. As we proceeded northwards and to more remote towns, checking and double-checking of fuel supply outlets was vital. Have they got enough for four planes? What do they take – Carnet? Cash only? Credit card? Don’t always believe the ERSA – make the call. Even then, things can go pear-shaped. “Whaddyamean you’ve just sold the drum of fuel you promised us two hours ago?”. That was a handy piece of news. Always have a Plan B up your sleeve.

Beautiful one day…?
By the time we got up into Queensland, it was a roaring dustbowl. Emerald was our first planned overnight stop, but approaching St George the dust thickened to a point where we all called it quits and decided to land there for the night and hope for better viz tomorrow.
This was the first of many good lessons in practical decision-making. Though a no-brainer due to the conditions, the boys saw no good reason to press on as planned, given the unlikely odds of a swag of blonde princesses waiting open-armed at the Emerald RSL.

Indeed, they had their hands full here, all needing to remind themselves of legal VFR viz requirements, last light scenarios, crosswind limitations, fuel supplies and overnight security at an unplanned airport.

We made slightly better time on our second day, picked up our friends in their privately owned C185 at Emerald, and all flew on up to Undara, home of the famous Lava Tubes ( Always a worthwhile stopover – good natural strip, tents out in the wild, roos out your window, roos on your plate, if you like, and a bush breakfast with kamikaze kookaburras next morning.  

You’ve gotta love the outback. We called in to refuel at Georgetown (halfway between Normanton and Ingham) and the Mayor was there to greet us. A good thing too, as he’s also the refueller, and a damn nice bloke.

On the way to Adels Grove, we called in at Burke & Will’s Roadhouse for lunch. To my great disappointment, they had gentrified their famous blackboard menu and wiped off the, “Bloody Big Burger – $12”. There weren’t even any cattled-up road trains at the bowsers; what’s going on? Anyway, all good fun landing at these little dirt strips – we were now looking forward to our next few days in Gulf country.

The 13th parallel
It seems if I’m not talking about dust on this trip, it’s wind. After a fantastic night at Adels (see – don’t even think about coming up here and NOT staying a night here), it was blowing dogs off chains when we landed at Burketown the following morning, and the TAF for Borroloola was horrendous too, in fact, over our crosswind limit.

Here comes another diversion; there goes our neat flight plan – what’s new? On the upside, that headwind along the Gulf beach gave us bonus time to check out the wild brumbies, that impossibly beautiful curling river system and even a few laidback crocs on the banks.

Groote Eylandt turned out to be an unexpected highlight. The Dugong Beach Resort where we stayed is brand new and gorgeous. More on that in the next issue.

Throughout the 10-day safari we continued to cop more than our fair share of interesting weather. So it was always vital to get the day’s area forecasts and TAFs before setting off. We always had a mobile handy to bring up an internet connection and upload what we needed. We also had three laptops on tour with us, so printed-out NAIPS forecasts were often handed around also.  

The backseaters in BMX passed the time flying over Arnhem Land with some inflight Karaoke. Don’t get me wrong, it’s knockout scenery up here, but you can still look while you’re singing. So a bluetooth mobile full of songs, talking to a Lightspeed headset gave me Meatloaf in stereo at 4500ft. We’d all just been treated to a morning of postcard flying over the northern tip of Groote. A lady pilot had tipped us off to make sure we didn’t miss the gorgeous little archipelago of tiny islands and isolated white beaches. The mood was great, the team loving the day, but things were just about to take a slide.

I’ll have what they’re having
If a moment can sum up the mood of an air safari, this would be it. Let me put you at the scene. It’s just after lunch that same day; we’d spent an hour or two on a Yellow Waters croc cruise and our fleet is taking off from Kakadu’s Cooinda airstrip. It’s hot. It’s 41°C worth of hot, and we’re loaded up, so we’re grateful for the generous 1400m of strip fast disappearing under our nose.

Up a few thousand feet searching for cooler air and we’re not happy campers. The visibility is appalling. Not only are we flying straight into the afternoon sun; but toss in a generous dose of Top End bushfire smoke and leftover haze from the week’s blockbuster dust show and we’re not talking bright and breezy times here.

This is Day Five and we normally wouldn’t fly in the heat of the afternoon but we have only our final leg to do today, 100nm up to Darwin, so we make an exception. The viz hasn’t improved, so we descend to 2500ft and stay there – at least we can see the ground, if not a horizon.

The Dakota had gone on via Jabiru, so we were down to three aircraft as we got closer to Darwin controlled airspace. Aah, Darwin CTA, the controller who scored this afternoon’s shift was a lucky, lucky man. He was actually a teensy bit cranky, no, let’s call him overloaded, when we first contacted him so we got the feeling things may not go so well for us.

Granted, he had a bit on his plate, so when we all reported inbound without a flight plan and would love to submit one now thanks, he wasn’t happy. In fact, after holding us for ages outside controlled airspace, he wanted to then know if we were LAHSO-approved, which to us sounded like Lava-approved and made as much sense. The things you learn, hey? Anyway, his next pearler was to insist we deliver our flight plan requirements as per the official form. Nothing else would do.

In this heat, and on hearing that request, the pilots’ stress meters were maxing out, until someone in BMX managed to find the magic form under a packet of jubes
and deliver what was required to the satisfaction of the controller, a delivery involving lots of phonetic and numerical specifics. In we went.

When the bloke got around to requesting a flight plan from our next aircraft, AQA, student pilot Scott had heard BMX’s speal and knew his limitations. Keep in mind that a further unfortunate ingredient to all this was that his instructor’s ‘Press to Talk’ button was inop this day. Scott’s reply to this very busy international airspace controller was swift and memorable, “We’re with that other plane. Can we have what they’re having?”.

Since BMX’s call, there’d been about 17 transmissions involving four airlines, the RFDS and a flock of helicopters, so you can imagine the response. The thing is though, Scott wasn’t actually trying to be cheeky here; optimistic maybe, and definitely lazy, but quite genuine in his request.

From this point, AQA’s place in the queue seemed to slip somewhat – go figure. But quick composure and thereafter strict adherence to good procedures had us all through the airspace, landed and tied down without further mishaps.

The lessons learnt that day were many, but Darwin wasn’t finished with us yet.

It’s a hotshot airport, this one, so ASIC cards are vital. In fact, being the first one to reach the exit of the GA apron, with bags in hand, and quite frankly hanging out for a very large and freezing Marguerita at the nearest bar, I copped a grilling from Mr Save Australia Singlehandedly who lives inside the Security intercom.  

Holding my ASIC card up to an invisible camera, I had to recite into the speaker what my grandmother eats for breakfast and reel off a plausible CV on my seven fellow travellers, before he’d let us OUT of the airport. A reminder of such misplaced taxpayers’ dollars to this hot and bothered team did nothing for the ‘Welcome to Darwin’ campaign.

A poultry affair
Things to do on your day off in the Northern Territory capital: visit the Aviation Museum and the East Point War Museum, eat your way through sunset at the Mindil Markets, go diving with the crocs in the famous Crocosaurus Cove. Okay – the boys can go do all that; I’m off to hunt down a decent flat white, trawl through the pearl exhibition, then lie motionless beside the hotel pool. It’s 35°C and 110 per cent humidity; I’ll do what I like.

Can I just say, thank you Lord, for not guiding me to the Croc Cove with the boys. It was probably the humidity, who knows? I’ve found there’s a certain danger in travelling with the erratic missile that is the 20-something male. Give him a break from an arduous menu of flight planning, staying on track, and sweating through countless diversions across our outback, and it’s quite alarming what he’s capable of.

Whatever the reason, Mark Lia, one of the fledgling student pilots in the group, (GFPT with 36 hours) approached his day off in Darwin with mischief on his mind.

To spare you the long version, he caught a taxi over to the other side of Darwin after tracking down a fancy dress hire place. He turned up at the Croc Cove in a massive bright yellow and orange Chicken Man Suit, with full-on beak and webbed feet, performed a one-man Chicken Dance for the stunned tourist audience, then hopped into the cage to be submerged into the croc’s lair. And this man wants to grow up to be a pilot.

The lure of remote area flying
This was an adventure, not a holiday. Indeed, the rest of the week was crammed with loads of flying (like Darwin to Ayers Rock in a day). After our day off, we’d pre-flighted in the dark at Darwin, hoping that bloke wouldn’t be up in the Tower yet, and were rewarded with a magnificent dawn take-off and a sunrise to die for.

The Tindal military airspace was inactive so we were in and out of the CTAF to refuel in no time and heading south towards the Tanami.

I reckon the Tanami Desert is where you really feel the absolute remoteness of this country, that insane vastness where landmarks are rare and homesteads a bonus. Flying over this country in a light aircraft and seeing the landscape from a few thousand feet is a unique and very special privilege that these kids certainly got a feel for.

On a less positive note, I give a major thumbs-down to the jail cells they call rooms at the Outback Pioneer Hotel at Ayers Rock. That establishment is overpriced, over-regulated and overrated.

It offered not a semblance of the Aussie hospitality I’ve become used to in the outback; Lord knows what impressions overseas tourists must leave with. I’d pay half the money and stay 80 miles down the Lasseter Hwy at Curtin Springs cattle station anyday.

From being strangers to one another on Day One, this group had bonded better than wisdom dictated. Taking off at Wilpena Pound and then staying underground in PJ’s at White Cliffs for our final night was pure genius and went a long way to readying us for the foulest weather that VFR allows for our flight back over those predictably pesky Blue Mountains and home into the Sydney Basin.

A sensational safari, but then again, when does flying in the outback NOT deliver?

Chicken Man
Now, meet Mark Lia, aka Chicken Man. As Mark puts it, he’s a diesel mechanic, not a journo, so he says it how it is as he explains the appeal of air safaris from a student’s perspective. What do four planes, a dust storm and a six-foot chicken have in common? In a nutshell, this was the deal: On September 26th 2009 three fully loaded bug-smashers take off from Camden into the pea soup we would call home for the next three to four days. We saw the lava tubes at Undara Station; got bashed about by a waterfall at Adels Grove; had a spectacular flight over the Gulf of Carp to Groote Eylandt for a few beers by the pool; got a day off in Darwin; took the been-there-done-that photo at Ayers Rock; got some top pix of Wilpena Pound from the air and spent a night in a pretty comfy cave on the way back home.

Don’t think just because good planning, airmanship and serious safety is the focus that a Curtis air safari is a long and boring nav because we sure managed to cram in some fun along the way with stuff like this:

• Losing some bark in a slippery rocky waterfall at Adels Grove.

• Watching Shelley (aka Mother Hen) losing her patience with the bus driver. It was only 37°C – we were happy to wait another hour really.

• Having some beers and a few laughs around the pool on Groote Eylandt where later that night a local who’d spent too much time on the eylandt was telling me how the world is gonna end in 2012. No more beer for him.

• Our day off in Darwin (what a party town). A good day for me to track down the six-foot chicken suit – gotta keep myself amused somehow.

• Darwin at night – the place comes to life. One club in particular caught our eye. I’m not sure if it was the awesome aircon system or the fact that it was Ladies’ Night. But me and Mick weren’t complaining.

• A well-earned pizza at Ayers Rock then down to the pub to pester the female backpacker population.

• My faithful sidekick the whole time, Swear Bear, who would always spring to life whenever there was a lull in the conversation.

• A thousand more funny moments including bad impersonations, movie quotes and just generally taking the micky out of one another.

The concept
As a student, I highly recommend the Curtis air safaris. Going into one as a low hour GFPT student, I strongly believe that the only way to learn is to put ya life on hold and go out there and live it and breathe it for a week, hang around people that will do nothing but fly, plan to fly, tell old flying stories over a meal, then still not be over flying at 9:30pm in the middle of the desert when they’re trying to explain to us the finer workings of an ERC. Thanks Daz (Darren Friend).

Then just when you think you’ve got it all sorted, out comes Daz at brekky, “OK guys, I know were supposed to do be going to X today but it makes more sense to just go to Y instead. Everyone happy? OK cool.” Crikey, where’s my ERSA, thanks a lot pal.
You’ll also be surprised how much you’ll learn in the cross chatter over the dinner table. That can be a lesson in itself.

And although weather, winds and viz problems leading to diversions, constant in-flight fuel calcs and flight planning would plague us throughout the trip, I found it all to be an excellent learning experience and one that could one day potentially save my life.

As a student who is hoping to do a lot more flying around the outback, I think you’ve got to, “cut your teeth on the hard stuff”, so to speak, or it will take you by surprise and without experience at a later date. I mean, what’s the point of a school getting its students just flying, say, from Sydney to Wollongong 50 times then taking on the outback solo.

This is where I believe these safaris are a priceless experience – both the awesome places you visit and the training you receive really are second to none. Thanks so much to everyone who made it happen.

Safari statistics
Total hours flying: 45
Total distance: 4500nm
Days away: 10
Day Six: rest day, no flying
Fuel Stops: 13
Carried: 24 WACs + 11 sundry charts, ERSA,
AOPA Airfield Directory, Pilots Touring Guide.

For further information contact Curtis Aviation at 


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