Let’s fly down the Murray, Darling

Mudgee – Wagga Wagga – Mildura – Lake Mungo – Darling River – Louth – Lightning Ridge

Murrumbidgee towards HayAustralia’s three iconic rivers, the Murray, the Darling and the Murrumbidgee drain around one seventh of the continent. The Murray-Darling river system from its source near the Queensland/NSW border to its mouth in South Australia is the third longest navigable river in the world, after the Amazon and the Nile. The water from these rivers has opened up thousands of square kilometres of otherwise inhospitable country to cultivation through irrigation systems that have been operating for well over 100 years. I’ve been fascinated by these rivers since first going on holiday to the Riverland in South Australia and north-western Victoria as a child. Earlier this year, on numerous trips from Brisbane to Adelaide, I noticed that the standard IFR route uses Mildura as a waypoint. As we passed over Mildura I’d look down from 30,000 ft to see the confluence of the Darling and the Murray at Wentworth and think how enjoyable it’d be to follow the Darling from its source to where it flows into the Murray then retrace the route of the Murray and Murrumbidgee upstream. The seed of an idea for a flying holiday that would put my recently acquired private instrument rating to good use was germinating.

We had known for some time that our daughter Sonja would be working in Mildura for a few months from August so that seemed a good reason for my wife Sigi and me to fly down the Darling to see her. I chose October as I reasoned the weather in SE Qld and northern NSW should still be relatively stable while the weather down south should have warmed up a bit.

I booked ROC, the club’s C182, for Monday 16th with a plan to fly across to Bourke and to stay somewhere on the banks of the Darling for one or two nights and then continue to Mildura, returning via Wagga.

However as the date of departure approached, Brisbane and SE Qld was hit by unseasonal heavy rain and strong easterly winds. My delight at having a 40 knot tail wind was tempered by the severe turbulence Sigmet that covered the whole of the south east corner of Queensland from Kingaroy down to the border, centred over the Lockyer Valley. This unfavourable weather was meant to clear by Monday but we ended up having to wait for 3 days.

Clouds to WaggaFinally the winds abated so we could depart Redcliffe on the morning of Thursday October 19th. Due to the forecast weather patterns I reversed my original plan, deciding to travel clockwise rather than anticlockwise around NSW. Our first stop would be Mudgee, about 3 hours to the south on the west of the Great Dividing Range. There was plenty of cloud as we headed out of Redcliffe so it was a great opportunity to make the most of my instrument skills to make it through to clear air south of the border. ATC cleared us direct to Amberley at 6,000ft and we climbed into cloud above the lowest safe altitude. After reaching 6,000ft we remained in cloud for about one hour until we were almost at Stanthorpe. It was good IMC practice. After crossing the border into NSW it was nothing but blue skies with the occasional puffy cumulus cloud as we tracked via Inverell and Gunnedah and on to Mudgee. Perfect flying weather.

ROC in hangarMudgee is a pretty little town nestled within a ring of hills. It has a number of small wineries located within about 5km of the aerodrome. Very convenient for fly-in wine lovers. We stayed overnight at the Hangar House. It’s an amazing property adjacent to the taxi way that was originally intended to be a flying school but is now a Bed & Breakfast with enough space in the purpose-built hangar to park ROC along with a Partenavia belonging to Alex, the owner. Alex told us that about 20% of his guests are fly-ins. He understands the problems of fly in guests who have no ground transport so kindly lent us his car so we could drive to a winery about 5 minutes away, where we tasted a few wines and shared a charcouterie platter. It was great to sit out on the verandah at Lowes enjoying the sun.

Sadly the good weather didn’t last. A cold front went through overnight and Friday morning greeted us with cloud covering the tops of all the surrounding hills and steady drizzle that occasionally turned to rain. The forecast indicated it would ease by lunch time so we waited. And waited. Our plan to fly on to Wagga that day didn’t look too promising and we thought we might be stuck in Mudgee for another night. Normally that wouldn’t be so bad but Alex told us he had no rooms that night and that Mudgee was pretty much booked out for the weekend.

ROC at MudgeeSo I pre-flighted ROC , submitted another IFR flight notification, this time to Wagga Wagga via Temora, and waited for the weather to clear. After about another hour the rain stopped and the cloud lifted. I decided to take off and orbit above the aerodrome to lowest safe. Once above lowest safe we could track to Temora, climbing through the clouds. I checked with ATC that the flight plan was still valid then taxied out to the runway. After take off I made a couple of orbits over the aerodrome as we climbed and before we reached our lowest safe of 4700ft a gap in the clouds appeared in the direction of Temora so we headed off and soon were well above lowest safe. We continued to climb to 6000ft in and out of clouds. More practice at flying in IMC. Gradually the clouds started to thin out especially in the direction of Wagga so I amended the flight plan and, after advising ATC of my intention, tracked direct to Wagga. That’s one of the good things about flying IFR. You can not only fly through clouds but can change your mind along the way and ATC help you get to where you want to go. You just have to let them know where you want to go and they provide you with weather and traffic information.

Eventually we were flying over a layer of clouds and we could see the western edge of the frontal system in the distance. By the time we were abeam Temora it was blue sky and clear of clouds below us as well. We descended into Wagga, passing over the Murrumbidgee and followed a few other GA aircraft in.

Departing WaggaAfter tying down the aircraft we wandered across the apron past about 20 REX training aircraft. Wagga is the headquarters of REX so they train their pilots and store their aircraft there. We were met by our friend Trudi who drove us into town by the Murrumbidgee to a park where they had various stalls set up selling local produce and nibbles and drinks and live music. It was very pleasant to be relaxing in the sun again after our gloomy morning at Mudgee.

Phil Trudi Sigi at TemoraOn Saturday morning we were up early. We wanted to fly with Trudi to Temora, about 30 minutes north, and to visit the aviation museum, before continuing our trip to Mildura in the afternoon. Trudi has started to learn to fly in Wagga and was keen to see what it’s like to fly with a PPL rather than just doing circuits and drills. After a quick breakfast we took off for Temora around 10am and after a smooth 30 minute flight landed on RWY 18 and taxied to the parking area next to the museum.

Engineering workshop TemoraThe museum is a private one that specialises in military aircraft that are all restored and fully functional, including two full scale Spitfires. They have monthly flying events where the various warbirds are put through their paces. We didn’t have a lot of time there but were able to see all the aircraft and also a display on Leonardo DaVinci’s machines that was visiting at the time. It was a very professional setup with some really interesting hardware on display.

Soon after 12 we were taking off and heading back to Wagga. We landed, taxied to the AvGas bowser and filled the tanks ready for the trip to Mildura. We said bye to Trudi and taxied out, took off and climbed out to the west over the town.

Murrumbidgee near WaggaFrom Wagga we tracked west, following the Murrumbidgee as it meandered its way past Nerandera, Hay and Balranald. The green pastures gave way to wheat fields and finally to irrigated vineyards as we approached Mildura. We landed, tied down the aircraft, and caught a taxi into town and enjoyed a refreshment at the Mildura Brewery, one of the establishments created by Stefano de Pieri, Mildura’s own Heston Blumenthal. Sonja joined us for a late dinner after finishing her shift.

Murray east of MilduraSunday morning dawned disappointingly. Mildura, a city famous for its blue skies, had a grey one. Overcast with cloud at about 2000ft. We had intended to fly first thing to Mungo National Park about 30 minutes to the north but, given the weather, we decided to have a casual brunch while waiting for the clouds to clear. We dropped into Stefano’s Café, another of the establishments that Stefano de Pieri created. By the time we’d finished brunch the clouds had burned off, the sun was out and there was the clear blue sky that Mildura is so famous for.

Mildura CBDI prepared ROC for the short flight and then taxied out to RWY 18, backtracking most of its length as there’s no separate taxi way. We took off to the south and turned to climb over the CBD and the river. After about 30 minutes the Mungo Lodge airstrips appeared in front of us. We continued on to the Walls of China, a line of sand dunes that curve about 30 km around the northern edge of the dry bed of Lake Mungo. After following the dunes from one end to the other we headed to Mungo Lodge and landed on one of the dirt strips. After a quick look around the lodge, a cup of coffee and a chat on the deck we prepared for our return to Mildura.

Mungo lodge plane parkAs we headed back to ROC we noticed a couple of emus strolling across one of the runways. This was a bit of a concern. Bird strikes are never good but an emu strike would be especially bad, even on the ground at low speed. So Sonja and Sigi kept a good lookout as I taxied to the active runway. I practised a soft field takeoff, flying just above emu height to pick up speed before climbing away.

Mungo LodgeAbout 10 miles north of Mildura we tracked west towards Wentworth so we could view the confluence of the Darling and the Murray from the air. It looked much better at 4,500 feet than at 35,000! We orbited over Wentworth where some local traffic was doing circuits and then tracked to Mildura.

Monday was a non-flying day. I wanted to refuel ROC ready for our departure the next day, though, so drove out to the airport in the morning. The refuelling business had recently been taken over by a US company and they hadn’t set up automated credit card facilities on the bowser yet so I had to call the supervisor to help me. He unlocked the bowser and as I refuelled chatted about how he recently had to refuel a plane for one of the customers because the pilot wasn’t able to refuel it himself. And the reason? He was 92 years old and didn’t feel safe on the ladder. He said the elderly gent was travelling around the state in his private plane with his wife who was about the same age. Impressive!

We drove over to Trentham Estate on the NSW side of the river for lunch. This is a winery we visited a couple of times in the distant past. It really impressed us then and did so again. They had a good selection of wines to taste and made a couple of platters for our lunch. The gardens looking over the river are great and the weather was perfect for a picnic.

Merbein River at SunsetOn Tuesday it was time to depart Mildura. We were heading to Louth, a town of approximately 50 people on the left bank of the Darling River about 100km south west of Bourke. Just after 8am we drove out to the airport. When you’re flying into an outback town I like to take the day’s newspapers with me as the locals don’t get them very often and appreciate them when they do. It worked in Lawn Hill last year and given that Louth really is “back of Bourke” it was likely that the newspapers would be a hit there too. So before departing we bought a couple, along with flat whites to provide our morning hit of caffeine.

After starting the engine and watching a QLink Dash 8 arrive from Melbourne we taxied out to runway 36 and took off to the north. Soon we were cruising at 6000ft while roughly following the course of the Darling River. We were definitely on our own out there. No other aircraft within cooee. Just us and ATC. There were a number of properties hugging the Darling along the way and a few airstrips associated with them and occasional mines but no sign of activity. Our first waypoint was the town of Menindee, about one hour from Mildura, on the shores of Menindee Lakes, Broken Hill’s water supply.

Look no handsFrom Menindee we tracked direct to Louth, just over an hour away and descended to 5000ft. ATC advised that there was another aircraft carrying out survey work for a new instrument approach at Wilcannia. The pilot was flying at altitudes of up to 5000ft and could potentially fly across our path. Closer to the capital cities ATC would keep us separated by referring to radar but there’s no radar or ADSB coverage at 5000ft that far out. So ATC ensured that the other aircraft descended below 5000ft before we were too close to it. All done simply, smoothly and professionally. At times like that you have to love IFR.

Continuing along the Darling we passed over Tilpa, a one house town with a bridge over the river and a sealed runway. There seems to have been a project out west to install sealed runways in key locations to allow the Royal Flying Doctor to fly in with the larger aircraft they use these days.

Darling River CurvesAnother 10 minutes and we started descending into Louth, known in some quarters for its annual races. Not quite as famous as Birdsville maybe but still very popular amongst the NSW outback population we’re told. Back in Mudgee a friend of Alex had told us that she went to the races this year and had a great time.

Louth aerialWe orbited over Louth at 2000ft and checked out the sealed strip from above. Cath, the owner of the local pub, Shindy’s Inn, had told me on the phone that I didn’t have to worry about kangaroos and emus on the strip as it was fully fenced, and so it was. A real bonus in such an out of the way place. We wouldn’t have a repeat of our Mungo Lodge emu encounter. Once again some good infrastructure installed for the flying doctor.

Louth runwayTackling a slight cross wind we landed smoothly and taxied to the tie down area. Following a quick call to Cath a 4WD arrived to take us the short drive to the pub where we’d booked a cabin for the night. Our cabin had a deck overlooking the Darling. The river flows through a deep tree lined channel between levee banks and you could see that the water level is much higher at times of flood. Originally we’d thought we could go for a swim in the river but after Cath told us she hadn’t swum in it the 20 odd years she’d lived in Louth and wouldn’t recommend it we decided to give it a miss. The temperature was only about 30C so we were quite happy to settle into the pub for a drink and lunch instead.

Louth is not big. It’s really just a river crossing and road junction with the pub, a school, the race track, a cricket oval, a somewhat decrepit church, a post office that has been converted into a B&B and about 20 houses. And the bitumen only stretches to the edge of town. Then it’s a 100km drive on gravel to Bourke. There were about a dozen people in the pub. Locals in high vis vests , some grey nomads and a young guy doing a tour through NSW on his Yamaha trail bike.

Kangaroo in the streetApart from the races Louth is famous for its cemetery so we wandered over to check it out. The main reason for its notoriety is the grave of Mary Mathews, the first wife of one of the early pioneers . At about 10 metres, the granite memorial towers above all the surrounding gravestones. Mary died at age 22 after having 4 children. Thomas Matthews married three more times but 17 years after her death, and after being married to his second wife for about 15 years, he had the memorial erected for the wife he still missed. The story goes that his second wife didn’t mind too much!

Back at the pub we had a couple of beers with the locals. When they heard we’d flown in and I mentioned how good the airstrip was one complained about the deterioration of the service provided by the flying doctor.

Rock and Sigi at Louth“They used to fly in small planes that could land on any dirt strip on any property. Now with their King Airs and Pilatus’s they need long sealed strips and so people have to drive from miles around to places like Louth. Not good!”

That was one angle we hadn’t thought of.

Oh, and the newspapers were a great success!

Wednesday dawned with a clear blue sky. It was time to head home. We’d be following the Darling and its tributaries across northern NSW. Cath took us out to the airstrip and wished us “bon voyage”. It was a short VFR hop to Bourke where we filled up with AvGas then headed off IFR to Lighting Ridge. I’d lodged a two stage flight notification with a guesstimated 90 minute stopover in Lightning Ridge. As we climbed to 7000ft we were identified by ATC who notified us that a Piper Chieftain was coming towards us a mile or so to our right descending into Bourke. We kept a lookout but didn’t spot him.

Bourke viewWe passed over some pretty desolate country on the way out of Bourke. Not much in the way of farming out that far. Officially the Darling begins about 50km east of Bourke at the confluence of the Culgoa and Barwon rivers. A large number of tributaries flow into these rivers further east with the Border Rivers around Stanthorpe and Inverell generally considered the headwaters of the Darling.

About an hour out of Bourke we descended into Lightning Ridge. Overflying the airstrip I noticed some workers with a truck parked next to the runway threshold. One of the guys called up on the radio.

Lightning ridge runway“Hey mate are you planning to land here?”

“Yes sure am.”

“Ok we’ll get out of your way.”

“Thanks.”

After shutting down we wandered over to the terminal building and considered how we’d get to town. A pinup board had a hand written sign on it. “If you want a lift to town call the Outback Resort and they may help you out”. So I called and explained that we wanted to get into town for some lunch.

“Oh we don’t have any taxis in town love but our handyman can pick you up.”

5 minutes later Barry the handyman appeared and drove us into town.

Lightning Ridge is an opal mining centre and has a largely itinerant population. A sign at the edge of town says: “Lightning Ridge – Population ???”. There are thousands of claims and mullock heaps spread around the town and reaching out up to 50km according to Barry. The town has thermal baths and a few opal retailers and jewellers with some great designs for sale and a couple of nice cafes. Barry drove us to one of those. A light breeze blew through the shaded verandah as we tucked into our steak sandwiches. It was a perfect day. Apparently the tourist season was coming to an end though as the 40+ days would soon arrive. Barry returned at the agreed time and drove us back to the airport.

“Thanks for the lift Barry. How much do we owe you?”

“Oh I reckon twenty bucks would keep the boss happy.”

Clouds near GoondawindiWe returned to ROC and were soon cruising at 7000ft on track for Goondiwindi. The land gradually started to green up as we approached the border. Banks of puffy cumulus clouds appeared ahead of us with their bases just below 7000ft so we flew in and out of them like passing though waves of fog. It’s great to fly into a cloud and pop out the other side and take in the new vista. Another plus of flying IFR. Over Goondiwindi we turned towards Brisbane and were soon passing over Wellcamp Airport on one side and Toowoomba on the other. Brisbane Centre passed us over to Amberley Approach who gave us a clearance into Redcliffe at 7000ft. We flew over Lake Wivenhoe, the upper reaches of the Brisbane River and Somerset Dam and were transferred to Brisbane Approach for our descent into Redcliffe. The sky was blue, visibility was for ever, it was a great homecoming.

Lake SomersetWe landed, emptied ROC of our belongings and dropped the keys off at the aero club. One of the instructors asked where we’d been. “Mildura ,eh? You know that’s where ROC comes from? It used to belong to a geologist who lived there. He chose the call sign.”

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