Emerald – Longreach – Adel’s Grove – Lawn Hill – Winton – Kingaroy
After more than 5 years of flight training and 220 flying hours around south east Queensland I felt it was high time that my wife Sigi and I attempt our very first long distance air safari. It was early in 2016 and I’d read about previous aeroclub flyaways to Adel’s Grove in north western Queensland so when I received an email from the club announcing such a flyaway for June I thought it’d be a great opportunity to spread our wings while enjoying a bit of moral support from other club members, both during preparation and during the trip itself. Adel’s Grove is located on the eastern boundary of Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park, about 1800km north west of Brisbane. It’s a small pocket of private property, planted out with a range of exotic plant species by a French-Australian botanist called Albert de Lestang in the early 20th century, and has been run as a low key resort since the 1980’s. The name comes from Albert’s initials – A de L.
As the departure date drew closer, however, one after the other of our fellow travellers withdrew. Eventually Sigi and I were the only ones left and had to decide whether or not to do our first long distance trip on our own. By this time, I’d already reserved VH-ROC, the aircraft I’d been flying mostly over the previous 12 months since receiving my PPL, I’d bought all the latest maps, and planned all the flight legs. As we’d be flying over officially designated “remote” areas we needed a survival kit, first aid, additional water and rations. This was just in case we were forced down in an out of the way spot. The aircraft is fitted with an emergency locator beacon but in the Australian outback it could take time until Search and Rescue locate you. We’d take two days to fly up and two days to fly back, with a three night stop in Adel’s Grove and one night in Longreach each way. I’d contacted the resort at Adel’s Grove and aerodromes along the way to confirm availability of AvGas and access to mechanical repair services, just in case. So we were pretty well all sorted. So after a brief discussion we decided it was still on.
Sigi had been bit nervous in the days leading up to our departure, only having flown with me on a few occasions, the furthest being to Hervey Bay, about 60 minutes up the coast, so I was pretty impressed that she ventured out to Redcliffe with me that sunny Thursday morning for a 5 hour flight into the outback. We parked our car next to the hangar and loaded our bags into the ROC. The sky was blue and enticing so, after pre-flighting the plane, rechecking the weather via Naips online and submitting the flight notification on the Ipad, we started up and taxied over to runway 25. Soon we were climbing away from Redcliffe into the cloudless blue yonder and setting course for Emerald.
We passed over my “aerial stomping ground”, tracking over Kilcoy and Lake Somerset and on past Kingaroy and Wondai, where I’d gone on my first solo cross country flight more than 2 years previously. I’ve flown back and forwards over this country so many times I treat it like my backyard. It’s a very picturesque area too with rolling hills and rivers and farmland.
As we passed over Wondai we left that familiar territory behind and struck out into the south eastern interior, a part of Queensland that neither of us had been to before. Farmland stretched to the horizon, interspersed with towns like Cracow, with its mine, Theodore with its good looking sealed strip, the Dawson Range escarpment cutting across our track like a gigantic blade and the South Blackwater coal mine.
After just over two hours we began our descent into Emerald. A Qantaslink flight announced its departure to Brisbane on the area frequency and the CTAF as we approached. An RAAF pilot announced he was 30 miles to the east and about to carry out a practice instrument approach over Emerald in a C17 Globemaster. I mentioned we were 20 miles out and agreed how we would avoid each other as he overflew at 3500ft. We could see him in the distance passing over Emerald, turning and heading back in again from the west. We descended to 2000ft and passed under him as we entered the circuit and landed on runway 15. I checked that we had sufficient fuel left for the trip to Longreach, put the ASIC ID card round my neck, secured the aircraft and we walked over to the terminal for a coffee. It was a strange but satisfying feeling sitting in the departure lounge full of RPT passengers waiting for their flights as we drank our flat whites, knowing that we’d arrived “under our own steam” and would depart again the same way.
After the break we headed back to the ROC. We’d parked next to a FoxBat, a small plane made in Ukraine and the owner, a grazier, was preparing to fly back to his property about 30 miles west of Emerald. We chatted with him and his son, who was dropping him off at the airport. It turned out the son had done his PPL at Redcliffe, and is currently undertaking CPL training in Rockhampton. The farmer said he used the FoxBat on his property. With a very short ground run he can land it and take off from most of his paddocks. We watched him taxi to the runway and take off. Sure enough, it lifted off after less than 100 metres of ground run. We departed 10 minutes later and as we overtook him over Sapphire he called us up on the radio and wished us a pleasant flight.
Flying to the north of the main highway, we passed over the Drummond Range, the settlements of Alpha and Beta (yes they really are called that) and on to Barcaldine. Abeam Ilfracombe we spotted Longreach airport in the distance. We descended and joined downwind for Runway 22, turned and touched down lightly not too far down the runway. With about 1.5km of runway remaining we then had to taxi for what seemed like ages to reach the apron at the far end!
With Longreach being the first Qantas base in the 1920s, it’s now home to the Qantas Founders’ Museum. The collection includes one of the early 747s flown by Qantas and the first Boeing 707 they bought. Our intention had been to visit the museum that afternoon but by the time we’d refuelled the plane and secured it, it was after 4pm so we decided to leave the visit until our return journey.
Across the road from the museum we checked in at the Kinnon and Co motel. A grazier family, the Kinnons have developed their tourism business in Longreach as a sideline, specializing in “outback experiences” such as Cobb and Co coach rides, visits to their operating cattle stations, bath tubs under the stars and cruises on the nearby Thomson River. After a brief swim to cool off we headed off along a nature trail that runs alongside the road into downtown Longreach.
Located on the Tropic of Capricorn, Longreach is an interesting outback town with about 150 years of history. Its railway station is 100 years old this year and there had been a special celebration the day before with the Queensland Governor arriving by train from Brisbane in a 100-year-old Vice-Regal carriage. More than 200 people had gathered at the station to cheer and welcome him. The tour was arranged to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Queensland Rail and the Governor was hoping his outback visit would boost morale in the drought-stricken region. Little did he realise that less than a week later the area would be deluged, giving the locals even more to cheer about. After a couple of award winning steaks that boosted our own morale we walked back along the nature trail to our motel for a good night’s sleep, checking out the starry, starry night as we went. The outback really is the best place to observe the stars. Fascinating!
Day 2 took us to Adel’s Grove. We departed Longreach before 8am and headed north, generally following the main highway to Cloncurry and passing over Winton and McKinlay (the pub was used in Crocodile Dundee as the Walkabout Creek Pub). Landing at Cloncurry we discovered the bowser was out of action. Our lesson for the day was: phone up the fuel agent if you need AvGas and check its availability before you finalise your flight plan each day. It wouldn’t have helped in that case if the bowser had just broken down but was sound advice for the future. Luckily on this occasion we could easily divert to Mt Isa for fuel. So we took off again and flew west over the hills, passing over the Ernest Henry Mine just west of Cloncurry. Ernest Henry is a copper mine developed by Mount Isa Mines in the 90’s and while working for MIM I’d heard lots about it but never seen it. Finally I did – from 4500 ft.
Twenty minutes later we were preparing for a landing into Mt Isa from the south. We joined downwind and landed on runway 34, taxied to the bowser and topped up with AvGas. The local ARO, Andrew, drove up to us and introduced himself, took my ASIC details and asked whether we had hi-vis jackets. He explained that they’re about to introduce a new requirement for all crew airside to wear hi-vis and it will appear in the next ERSA. It’s something we’ll need to keep in mind for future visits and be aware that more aerodromes will introduce this requirement over time.
While we had a coffee and sandwich in the terminal I planned the final leg to Adel’s Grove. This would be the most remote yet, flying over uninhabited country for more than 100 miles. Luckily the ROC has a good Garmin GPS, and we had the maps and OzRunways to help us locate landmarks along the way. OzRunways is a great help in planning and conducting flights around this huge country. It shows clearly the route you have to take, calculates fuel requirements, weight and balance and shows your current location on the map. It can be used to submit flight notifications as well so is a one stop shop for all flight planning activities. After submitting the flight notification and phoning Adel’s Grove reception to tell them to expect us in about an hour and a half, and buying the day’s newspaper, we were ready to head off. Adel’s Grove wasn’t in the Garmin’s data base so I input the lat/long co-ordinates and we were set. Taxiing out to the runway we heard a Virgin flight and a flying doctor approaching so waited at the holding point for them to land. We then backtracked down to the end of the runway, turned and headed off to the north.
Passing over the George Fisher Mine just north of Mount Isa we flew parallel to the Barkly Highway, the only sealed road linking Queensland and the Northern Territory, until it curved off to the west. We continued further north into a remote and largely barren landscape, passing over Lady Annie Mine and the Gunpowder region.
It’s a long way between any signs of civilization up that way but there is great natural beauty. It must have been incredibly difficult to navigate in those remote regions in the days before GPS with so little in obvious landmarks.
After about an hour we passed over the Gregory River and were soon on our descent into Adel’s Grove, with the nearby Century Zinc Mine acting as a giant visual homing beacon.
There was a great view of Lawn Hill Gorge and the surrounding country as we approached the resort and did a couple of circuits.
We made a 300 ft overfly to check out the condition of the strip from the air. It’s a gravel strip and seemed to be in good condition, albeit a bit narrow. A windsock near the parking area was hanging limp, indicating calm conditions. Perfect for landing on the narrow strip, I thought – no crosswind to contend with. After a smooth touchdown we were directed to the parking area by the minibus driver who was there to meet us. While he drove Sigi to check in I secured the ROC.
Twenty minutes later he was back to take me to the resort. They have a variety of accommodation types at Adel’s Grove including ensuite single, twin and double rooms. We’d reserved a pre-erected “glamping” tent. It had its own deck, flooring, comfortable double bed and electric lighting.
After settling in we explored the resort grounds and along the creek and went for a quick dip at some rapids nearby. I dropped off the newspaper we’d bought in Mt Isa at the reception and there was an outpouring of gratitude. I’d been advised to take the day’s newspaper with us to remote strips as it’s something that the locals really appreciate and this was certainly the case. It appears that they don’t get that many fly in visitors and even less who bring them the day’s newspaper.
We booked in for a sunset viewing on “Harry’s Hill”. Harry was a local identity who used to take visitors to this vantage point covered in termite mounds about 2km away from the resort to tell stories about the region while the sun set over the hills.
Harry passed away some years ago but the resort carries on the tradition complete with a toast to Harry’s memory. So as the day drew to a close we watched the sun disappear over the horizon while enjoying drinks and nibbles – the end of another perfect blue sky flying day.
Day 3 was our day to visit Lawn Hill Gorge. First up though was a chance to check on the ROC, top up the oil and walk the airstrip to check its condition, all 1200 metres of it.
A good, hard packed gravel strip but with soft ground on either side. Not good if you taxi off the side I’d been warned on the phone a few days earlier. Apparently they’d had a bit of rain two weeks before and one aircraft was bogged when he strayed off the runway and had to be towed out. I spotted three Jabirus at the far end. Majestic tall grey birds with red heads and black wing tips. Disturbed as I approached, they soared away into the crisp morning air.
I spotted three Jabirus at the far end. Magnificent tall grey birds with red heads and black wing tips. As I approached they soared away into the crisp morning air. On my return to the tie down area it occurred to me that the windsock was still hanging limp even though there was a fair crosswind blowing. On a closer look I discovered the reason – it was caught on a steel beam – that’s one reason why it indicated calm conditions on landing! Lesson for the day: don’t automatically believe every windsock you see! One of the resort maintenance guys drove past so I told him and he climbed up and released it to flutter in the breeze.
After breakfast on the deck in front of our tent we arranged a lift to Lawn Hill National Park, about 10 km away. The creek flows through a very beautiful gorge with cliffs about 20 metres high. It’s separated into an upper and lower gorge, divided by some waterfalls. It’s known to be inhabited by crocodiles. Unlike the man-eating salt water crocodiles near the coast of northern Australia, these are only “freshies” i.e. freshwater crocs. They are relatively small and only bite humans if provoked. They can give you a nasty bite however so there were plenty of signs warning against them.
The lady at reception had reassuringly told us “I wouldn’t worry too much – I haven’t seen any yet and I’ve been here since Saturday!”.
At the national park we rented a kayak and headed off up the creek. The Lawn Hill Creek flows through a very beautiful gorge between cliffs that are about 20-30 metres high.
It’d been 37 degrees two days before so we were lucky that it was only about 27 and a bit cloudy so good for paddling and walking. On reaching Andarri Falls we had to lift the kayak out of the water and walk around a short track to the top of the falls and continued in the upper gorge.
We were on the lookout for crocodiles but were out of luck. The consolation prize was a tortoise, scambling up a rock out of the water as we passed.
After about a 2.5 hours return trip we surrendered out kayak and headed off for a walk around the top of the gorge. That warmed us up enough to enjoy a swim the in “croc infested” waters!
Back at Adel’s Grove we had dinner on the deck and chatted to a few other travelers with their own travel stories. Most of the clientele were “grey nomads”. These are retired people, usually couples, traveling around the country in four wheel drives and caravans. They are usually well equipped and many travel for months and months at a stretch. Some had even taken on jobs at the resort, either at reception or in the bar and restaurant to pay their way for while and have a break from travelling. Most were impressed with the fact that we’d flown in. One lady told a story how she had participated in an air race around Queensland in 1988 prior to Expo and concluded the trip with a fly past over Brisbane on Expo opening day.
Day 4 was spent around Adel’s Grove. We had intended to fly up north to Burketown on the gulf but the wind was unfavourable so we gave that a miss. Instead we hired another kayak and headed up the creek from the campground. It was a very peaceful stretch of water.
This time we were in luck, spotting a reasonable sized crocodile sunning itself on a log. It was about one metre long and an impressive specimen. I sure wouldn’t want to be bitten by it!
Some wild pigs crashed through the bush on the other side of the creek as we were walking back to the campground and a lone kangaroo hopped past. We enjoyed one more outback dinner on the deck before retiring. We had a long flight ahead back to Longreach in the morning.
Day 5 and we were rolling in the ROC down the runway at Adel’s Grove soon after sunrise, heading south to Mt Isa and Longreach. The plan was to stop at Mt Isa for fuel and a coffee, then fly direct to Longreach. The weather report had indicated there may be some showers in Longreach in the afternoon and because we wanted to spend time at the Qantas Founders Museum anyway we decided it best we get there as soon as possible. We couldn’t resist a couple of passes over Lawn Hill Gorge though after takeoff, as it was such a lovely morning. The trip to Mount Isa was very smooth with no other traffic except for a REX plane heading out to Cloncurry. We listened to the AWIS weather, noted the northerly direction of the wind and planned another touchdown to the north. As we headed downwind Mt Isa town and mine was straight ahead of us.
Touching down about 9:15 we refuelled the plane, had another brief chat with Andrew the security guy, then locked up and headed over to the terminal building to have our coffee, buy a sandwich for an enroute lunch, check the weather forecast again and submit the flight notification for the next leg. This all took about an hour so we didn’t start up again until 10:25 and took off to the south east, tracking direct to Longreach.
As we flew over another very remote part of the country, with no man made landmarks, the GPS and OzRunways were invaluable. The first discernible landmark was the railway line from Mt Isa to Townsville. It makes a large loop around the southern end of the mountainous area that forms the mining region between Mt Isa and Cloncurry. I’d planned to fly at 7500ft but some clouds started to appear and were just at that level so we descended to 5500ft. As we continued the clouds started to get lower so we flew lower, until when we were about 100 miles out of Longreach we were down at 1800ft and the clouds were looking even lower ahead. There was some drizzle on the windscreen as well and we could see moderately heavy rain falling up ahead. Also by now we had a 30 knot head wind which was slowing us down no end.
Now this turn of events had always been a possibility, albeit a slight one, as the morning weather report had indicated some showers were expected at Longreach, so we decided on our “Plan B”: divert to Winton. The chief navigator, with the aid of OzRunways on the Ipad, pointed us in the right direction and off we flew, descending to circuit height of 1400ft as we neared the town (the clouds were still getting lower). We spotted a magnificent wide sealed runway and joined downwind for runway 16, noted the windsocks were practically horizontal (meaning at least 15 knot winds) and somewhat crosswind. Turning onto final at 500ft above ground level, our flight computer showed that we were flying into a 30 knot headwind even at that level, meaning that our touch down ground speed was only about 40 knots instead of the normal 70. We parked the ROC on the apron and sat in it for a while as the wind rocked us gently to and fro. A small helicopter departed into the clouds in front of us but as the wind continued to blow and increased further in intensity we decided to head into the terminal building.
The Winton aerodrome is of course a fairly low key affair. The terminal was warm and dry however and the caretaker Bill came past and kindly offered to make us a cup of tea or coffee. Given that the temperature had dropped below 20C by now we agreed and soon he was back with a thermos of hot water and some tea bags. We chatted as we drank our tea and ate the sandwich we’d bought in Mt Isa. Bill and his wife Ivene were from Deagon in Brisbane but had been out in Winton for a few years as their daughter had moved out there. “We haven’t had a storm like this for ages. It’s been blue sky for weeks.” was Bill’s observation.
It started to rain and after a while the “storm” worsened somewhat. The wind picked up some more and rain fell at 45 degrees across the car park. Referring to a new weather forecast we discovered that rain was expected to continue all through the rest of the day and the night until the morning. We cancelled our hotel in Longreach and booked into a motel in Winton for the night. I went out to secure the aircraft for the night by now having to wade in about 10cm of water to secure the tail of the aircraft to the tie down cable.
Ray and Jan from the Outback Motel were only too happy to pick us up from the airport and take us into town. Winton is famous as the place where amongst other things, the first Qantas board meeting was held, Waltzing Matilda was performed in public for the first time, and Lyndon B. Johnson while a soldier during WW2 spent a night after the troop carrier he was in “crash landed” nearby. They must have had a bit of a storm that day too!
After checking into the Outback we went for a walk around the streets of Winton, inspecting some unique artwork at Arno’s wall. A local artist of sorts, Arno has constructed an interesting wall along the side of his house.
It’s up to 2 metres tall and includes all manner of machinery that he’s rescued from the local tip over the decades, embedded in concrete. He’s also established a park next door to his house for the use of the general public and appears to be quite a character about town.
Ray recommended we have dinner at the Tattersalls Hotel down the street from the motel so we headed off for a couple of steaks. The “Tatts” was a classic Australian outback pub with characters galore, a mixture of locals and travellers.
The varied clientele was entertained by “Sax and the Single Girl” who was a really good saxophone player. The steak was great as was the Merlot. We swapped aviation stories with a couple from Mudgee who had also diverted to Winton in their Cessna because of the bad weather. They were on their way to Sweers Island in the Gulf for a bit of fishing. The rain was a big talking point around town because the main roads were cut so people couldn’t get in or out. Not at all normal for this time of year!
Day 6 was time to head for home. After a hearty breakfast at a cafe in downtown Winton Ray drove us out to the airport. We met up with Bill and Ivene, who in addition to providing hot tea could supply us with AvGas. The sun was out, the clouds were dissipating and all looked good. The wind was still 10-15 knots and somewhat crosswind but it was fine for takeoff. So we headed off to Emerald, climbing to 7500 feet and passing over some scattered clouds along the way.
At Emerald there was a quick pit stop to top up the fuel, grab a coffee and croissant, submit the flight notification for the next leg and we took off again, tracking direct to Redcliffe. Once again there was a bit of cloud around that irritatingly hovered around the 5000ft level, so we had to remain around 3500ft. We passed over the Blackwater Coal Mine, Theodore and Cracow and the clouds eventually thinned out a bit so we could climb to 7500ft again. Making good time we were on track to arrive at Redcliffe at 4:45 with 40 minutes to spare before last light. Over Wondai, where I flew to on my first solo cross country flight a couple of years ago, we entered familiar territory and thought we were home and hosed. Just at that moment, however, we noticed some bad weather brewing on the horizon. Clouds had gathered east of Kingaroy over the ranges near Lake Somerset and Kilcoy and we could see heavy rain ahead. Normally we would wait it out or head north east to fly around it but with last light only an hour away we didn’t have enough time, so we diverted back to Kingaroy and landed. Surprisingly, there was an RAAF Bombadier Challenger jet on the tarmac that dwarfed our Cessna 182. I rang the aero club and told them we wouldn’t be back until the morning, booked a motel and caught a taxi into town. Finally after flying to Kingaroy so many times I had an opportunity to get to know the town and have a meal at the RSL!
Day 7 saw us wake to a cold grey day in Kingaroy. We’d arranged with Darren, our taxi driver from the previous day, to pick us up at 6:45 before he finished his night shift, thinking we could be off the ground by 7:15 and back in Redcliffe before 8am. As he drove us to the aerodrome Darren filled us in on his night’s work with no time to sleep and so much work on he had to call in the boss to help out. Who is getting taxis in the wee small hours in Kingaroy we wondered?
Arriving at the Bjelke Peterson airport we noticed that the weather gods weren’t playing ball. The sky was overcast with a ceiling at about 1000ft and there was low cloud covering a nearby hill. I recalled a story from my instrument theory course last year of a tragic accident involving a light aircraft flying into that very hill in low cloud some years ago. This was not a good time to be flying. A single engine aircraft appeared out of the cloud and passed overhead at circuit height, enroute to somewhere, and disappeared into the clouds again. Not my idea of fun. We decided to wait for the clouds to lift. The weather report indicated that would happen before 10am.
The RAAF challenger jet was still on the tarmac and the crew were busy getting it prepared for departure. We had a chat to the pilot who invited us in to have a look at how our taxes are spent. Very nice it was too with plush armchair type seating for about 10 people and breakfast under preparation. The spot we’d tied down for the night would be direct in their jet blast on departure so the RAAF pilot and I agreed it’d be best to move the ROC to the far side of the apron to watch them depart. They of course would have no trouble with the low cloud and could climb through at 5000 ft/min to cruise at 40,000ft if necessary.
It turned out that Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce had visited Kingaroy for the night while on an electioneering trip around the country. He turned up just before 8am and soon after he boarded, the jet taxied down the runway, turned, started rolling, accelerated and blasted off into the clouds, leaving us to ponder the advantages of an instrument rating over the Visual Flight Rules.
By 9:15 the clouds were starting to burn off and the sun appeared so I finalised the flight notification for our final leg and started the engine. At 9:30 we too were rolling on runway 16. I’d planned a roundabout route in order to avoid the cloud that was still hanging over the ranges on the direct track to Redcliffe. This meant flying first to the north east via Kilkivan then east to Gympie and then south east to Redcliffe. It would take about 75 minutes rather than 40. At first though, on climbing to 3500ft it looked like we may be able to fly direct to Redcliffe above the clouds but after climbing further to 5500ft we could see a wall of cloud over the ranges ahead so decided to stick to the plan and fly the long way around. Heading for Kilkivan at about 3000ft we flew over, under and between clouds. One advantage of flying at 3000ft or below is that, under the Visual Flight Rules, you just have to remain “clear of cloud”, rather than maintaining 1000 ft vertical separation and 1500 metres horizontal separation from them.
Approaching Gympie the clouds lifted and we could climb back up to 5500ft. By the time we passed the Glasshouse Mountains it was clear blue sky. Soon we were on final into Redcliffe – with a 10 knot cross wind as our final challenge. Having completed many cross wind landings in Redcliffe over the years it wasn’t a problem.
We touched down, taxied to the hangar and shut the engine down. The safari was over. It was a good week, and it was great to gain so much experience with remote flying to unknown aerodromes and airstrips with different weather conditions. Having travelled from one corner of Queensland to the opposite one it made us appreciate even more just how big and diverse this country is.