• Flying over Wilpena Pound in a Piper Dakota. (Shelley Ross)
    Flying over Wilpena Pound in a Piper Dakota. (Shelley Ross)

On the one trip, Shelley Ross was lucky enough to take in both Wilpena Pound and Groote Eylandt, two different but equally sterling destinations.

Old stuff isn’t really impressive unless it’s seriously old. Okay, so admittedly we haven’t uncovered a T-Rex or Moses’ basket or anything; this is just rock, but it’s knock-your-socks-off rock. We figure 800 million years on the planet being layered, eroded, sculpted, scoured and buffed by the elements puts this particular bit of earth onto the A-List of Old, no questions asked.

Wilpena Pound is in South Australia’s Flinders National Park, about an hour’s flight west of Broken Hill, and I’ve personally been wondering what the hell a Pound is for about 15 years. I’ve flown near it but never over the top of it to have my curiosity satisfied, until recently. Verdict: I think you’d better come on out here and see this one.

Truthfully, it’s not a stand-alone destination – it’ll need some backup, but that’s what I’m here for. There are plenty of distractions all around here to fill a memorable week or long weekend fly-away and, as usual, I’ll give you a choice of beds to rest your head on, put a fine meal and your drink of choice within reach, and steer you to an airstrip nearby.

Nature’s own

As if the Flinders Ranges aren’t remarkable enough with their strikingly coloured quartzite and limestone outcrops, they are merely the support act for Wilpena, the drawcard nestled in their midst. What you will see from the air looks like a massive natural amphitheatre, 17kms long by 7kms wide. A formidable escarpment of sheer rock up to 1500ft surrounds a huge circular basin – home to a whole host of animals, birds and vegetation and once a natural corral that graziers used for cattle needing higher ground in times of floods.

Our group of 10 stayed at the newly refurbished Wilpena Pound Resort, which was great for a one-night stop-over. After a pretty long flight down from Uluru that day, we all fell happily into king-size beds in surprisingly glam four-star rooms. There’s a decent restaurant for breakfast and dinner with big open fireplace, Poddy Dodgers Bar for that beverage I promised you, and the most helpful staff I’ve encountered in ages. There’s also a swimming pool, Visitors Centre and general store where we were able to buy lunch for our next airborne leg.

If you’re flying out from the east coast, fill up at Broken Hill – makes life easy – before continuing to the Pound, 150nm further west. Wilpena Pound Resort does have its own airstrip, from which the local scenic flights operate, however for first timers that’s a short and tricky strip to negotiate due to surrounding hills. We opted to land at the safer alternative, the nearby Rawnsley Park airstrip, a short drive from the resort, from which we were gladly given transfers.

The charter pilots out here get airborne early, making the most of the calmer conditions in the mornings before the easterly wind picks up, and you will hear them on the local 126.7 frequency doing their thing usually at around 4500ft. Chief Pilot, Matt, recommends we fly a clockwise pattern around the rim should there be traffic about, but is happy to answer any queries by visiting pilots if unsure of local procedures (Ph: 0408 089 173). Popular tourist periods like Easter will see them operating virtually all day, such is the demand for this incomparable view from the air.

Try to overfly the Pound at sun-up or sun-down. As with most geological formations in our outback, this 80km2 stunner will appear that much more spectacular bathed in the various hues and tones the rising or setting sun will offer.

Get on your boots
The most dramatic view of the Pound is certainly from above, however its unique and beautiful landscape is also on show down at ground level and the entire area is well set up for bushwalkers of all levels.

I recommend a morning bushwalk whilst you’re there. We found the walk from near the resort through the surrounding bush and up to the viewing platform really enjoyable. Once you reach the Old Hills Homestead on the way, storyboards will teach you all about the history of the area and the extraordinary hardship faced by the pioneering Hills family who called this place home over a hundred years ago. Talk about stoic. I’m never complaining about anything again in my life.

Here’s the gist of it. Having obtained the property lease in 1901, the Hills were determined to make a go of farming, a hitherto untried venture. Before they could start carving out an existence from such harsh and remote land, they first had to carve out a road which ended up being a 10-year long labour of intense proportions. During this time, they were beginning to have limited success with crop cultivation inside the Pound, but life was hard and conditions unimaginably crude.

Then, you wouldn’t believe it, there was a massive flood in 1914 and the entire road they’d built virtually by hand through the almost impenetrable Wilpena Gap was completely destroyed. I nearly cried when I read that bit. I can’t leave you hanging, so the ending tells how the little family didn’t have the fortitude to start all over again, so sold their homestead to the Government, and it wasn’t until the 1940s that its tourism potential was recognised.

You will also find accommodation at the nearby Rawnsley Park Resort which gets a great wrap from pilot friends of mine who are partial to a touch more luxury on their safaris, however I’m yet to lay the head down at this one. Additional overnight options in the area are the opal town of Andamooka and the popular Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary.

Still on the subject of beds, there’s also a relatively new kid on the block, though at $790 a night (per adult, twin share) we’re not talking kid’s prices here. Arkaba Station is a 60,000 acre sheep station nestled on the southern edge of the Flinders Ranges and offers its guests a taste of “wild bush luxury”. Australian Flying has yet to crease the linen here at Arkaba but it sounds like the perfect choice for those who  wish to be eased into the outback with champagne in hand and spa bath at the ready.

While you’re in the area...
Whilst you’re here, I’d urge you to visit the Prairie Hotel at Parachilna, (40nm south of Leigh Creek) either for lunch or (preferably) for an overnight stay. We’re so excited about this outback classic, we devoted an entire feature to it in Australian Flying’s Sep/Oct 2009 issue, and also at www.flyingtheoutback.net. Suffice to say, the publicans, Ross and Jane Fargher, have nailed it with providing a stylish oasis of accommodation and dining, completely unexpected at this old Ghan rail-head on the western plains of the Flinders.
Wilpena Pound is another of Australia’s geological jaw-droppers and certainly deserving of a diversion to take in its sheer arrogant stance in the middle of nowhere.

Wilpena Pound Further Info
Wilpena Pound Resort Ph: (08) 8648 0004
Rawnsley Park Resort Ph: (08) 8648 0030
Prairie Hotel, Parachilna Ph: (08) 8648.4844
(Phone for airstrip details)
Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary Ph: (08) 8648 4846
Arkaba Station

Groote Eylandt

It’s one of those places that pilots should visit, just because they can! If you’re up in the Top End, do yourself a favour and sneak across the pond for a night on the understated Groote Eylandt.

Although tourism has only recently been encouraged here by the Aboriginal Land Council, we’ve ensured the island is quite civilised and, as usual, we won’t be landing you in a place without a decent wine list, internet coverage and those blissfully slidey hotel sheets.
Lying just 50nm off the western shore of the Gulf of Carpentaria, Groote was originally discovered and named by the Dutch (its name means “big island”) and its ownership has now returned to the resident Anindilyakwa people.

It’s the largest island in the Gulf (about 50kmx60km), a high achiever in the world of manganese mining and its population is therefore mostly miners – a cheerily filthy and bloody thirsty lot.

The airstrip, at nearly 2kms long, will give none of you any stress; aerodrome operator Groote Eylandt Mining Co has catered for much heavier and faster hardware than ours dropping in. ERSA has all the details you’ll need to operate safely in and out of here.
Away from the bustling shipping port of Alyangula where the loot is loaded onto massive ships from impossibly big road trains hurtling back and forth along adjacent roadways, Groote hides some beautiful untouched beaches and bays along its shores, particularly vistas just made for pilots, like the stunning archipelago up on the north coast, around Northwest Bay and inside of Chasm Island.

Dugong Beach Resort
As a group of 13, we found welcome respite from the world at the brand new Dugong Beach Resort. As I said, Groote hasn’t made it onto the list of hot tourism destinations yet, so you’ll not be greeted with an overflowing choice of accommodation options. None of that matters though because you’ll be happy at the Dugong. Brand new and superb, the Dugong Beach Resort offers sophisticated luxury accommodation right on the beach, about half an hour’s drive from the airport. Transfers are easily arranged with the resort. You’ll pay a bit more (remote never means cheap) but you won’t be thinking about that as you soak off the steam in the tropical outdoor pool, and are treated to a complimentary spectacular sunset that evening on the deck. There’s a great indoor/outdoor restaurant and bar for all meals and the staff will gladly help you with internet access and island tours.

There are plenty of reasons to spend a few days up here, not the least of which is to put your feet up in an enviable tropical setting; and then there’s the outstanding sport-fishing. The stars of the show up here are the big fellas, so if you’re into fishing, brace yourself (literally) for a date with some very agitated locals like Marlin, Sailfish, Bluefin tuna, Spanish Mackerel and Giant Trevally. So if you can swap the headset for a rod and tackle, then I’d strongly encourage a workout on the back of an offshore fishing boat.

From here up to the Gove Peninsula, and all around the Gulf coast actually, you’re in God’s own country. Purpose built, ET’s Escape Sportfishing Lodge, right next door to the Resort, caters well for big or small groups of anglers. Have a look at their website (see below) for accommodation and charter options.

But wait, there’s more
So what else is around here? The entire length of the Gulf coast offers sensational low-level beach flying, with good refueling stops at Burketown, Borroloola and Karumba. However, if you plan on using Karumba be sure to double check that the site operator is on duty, or you could be up for the $50 callout fee.

Gove may well be worth a visit too, though Australian Flying hasn’t dropped in here to date. Way up on the north-eastern tip of Arnhem Land (but less than an hour’s flight away), Gove is a popular haven for visiting yachties and fishermen. Reliable sources tell us the little Gove Yacht Club on the edge of the beautiful Melville Bay lends itself rather well to a refreshing ale or 10 should the reliably high temps be getting the better of you. The Gove strip is 2200 metres long and is regularly serviced by Qantas jets on the Darwin/Cairns route. Full details are in ERSA.

The town of Nhulunbuy, 12km from Gove, is a working mining town set in a beautiful location and surrounded by pristine wilderness. From here, you could then peel off and head across the incredible landscapes of Arnhem Land towards the falls and deep gorges around Jabiru and Cooinda. This of course has now brought you into the magic of Kakadu. Internationally celebrated, and deservedly so, Australia’s most treasured wetlands and unique ecosystem need to be visited in your lifetime. No argument.

Groote Eylandt Further Info
Groote Eylandt WAC 3110
Airstrip details in ERSA
Dugong Beach Resort Ph: (08) 8987 7077

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