Central Australia flyaway

Longreach – Alice Springs – Uluru – Arkaroola – Broken Hill – Dubbo

In July 2018 I took part in the biggest aero club flyaway to date. It was to be the “trip of a lifetime”. From Redcliffe to Ayers Rock via overnight stops at Longreach and Alice Springs. Five aircraft containing 13 very fortunate individuals embarked on an odyssey to central Australia. After three nights at Yulara resort to explore Uluru and the Olgas we returned via overnight stops at Arkaroola in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, Broken Hill and Dubbo. Branded “the Rockers”, the whole group had a great time with each having a different view of the nine day adventure. Mike Cahill flew his Cirrus MSF with me as co-pilot. Stephen White piloted his C182 TRE with 1st officer Maureen and 2nd officer Madeline. Sam Keenan was in command of his Piper BHN supported ably by Tania, and their two girls Ava and Georgie, while Andrew Pearson and Mick Gardner shared pilot duties in ROC and Ashleigh Hodge flew FRF with Margot Logan as navigator. This post is lifted from the September 2018 AirChat magazine, in which we compiled an article composed of contributions from various members of the contingent describing what for them were highlights of the trip.

Desperados

Redcliffe to Alice Springs: Ashleigh Hodge – FRF

It was an intense first couple of days on our fly away to Uluru for Margot and me in the club’s Piper Archer VH-FRF. Day 1 was a Saturday and our plan was to fly initially from Redcliffe to Roma, where we would refuel, and then head to Longreach for the night. The departure morning was not ideal. We were caught by significant cloud cover and, after making an attempt to get through to Roma, spent 4 hours on the ground in Kingaroy waiting for it to clear. Eventually the weather improved and we made it to Roma, by which time the other four aircraft had long departed and it was too late to continue to Longreach. So we decided to stay the night in Roma. On arrival in Roma we were fortunate enough to meet Col, a local instructor and motel owner, who helped find us a room for the night and gave us a lift into town. We kept the rest of the group, who all managed to make it to Longreach that day, up to date by Messenger, a handy little app for such situations.

We planned to leave at first light the next day to meet up with everyone in Longreach and then continue onto Boulia to refuel before flying the next leg to Alice Springs to spend the night. We were up at the crack of dawn and headed out to the airport. Unfortunately we couldn’t get the plane started in the cold wee hours of the morning and ended up needing to jump start the battery. Thankfully our new friend Col from the previous day came to our assistance. I gave him a call to see if he could help us start the engine. To our delight he was shortly out at the airfield helping us get the plane started. 

Longreach

We eventually got up in the air and headed for Longreach, where we made a quick stop to refuel. Mike and Phil were waiting for us in MSF, having used our delay to check out the Qantas museum. We then headed on to meet up with the rest of the Rockers at Boulia where we had another refuelling stop.

Approaching Boulia

From there flew on to Alice Springs, our destination for the night. It had been a long day. After over 7 hours of flying it was safe to say I was knackered by the end of it all. But it had been a great learning experience.

Boulia

Being a Sunday night there were only a few restaurants open in the Alice and a lot of visitors looking for somewhere to eat. Luckily we were tipped off about a BYO Italian place over the other side of the Todd River. After a stop for a predinner drink at a pub on the way we had a great Italian meal there before getting an early night so we’d be fit for the flight to Ayers Rock.

Alice Springs

Alice Springs to Ayers Rock: Sam Keenan – BHN

On the Monday morning we convened for breakfast in the heart of Alice Springs, and with the excitement of our trip still building, everyone was in great spirits.

After returning to the hotel to collect our bags and ordering two taxis to the airport, most of the group loaded into the first maxi taxi, whilst Tania, Ava, Georgie and I awaited the second taxi which never came.

The view from Anzac Hill

Unfortunately we missed out on a drive up to Anzac Hill for a view over the city, which we were quite looking forward to. By the time a taxi on a fresh booking finally arrived, we rushed to catch up with the others at the Alice Springs sign on the way to the airport for a group photo.

At the airport, the flying conditions were again looking perfect (CAVOK, CAVOK, CAVOK…), and we scurried around releasing tie downs, checking fluids and loading bags. Following a short taxi, we shot into the crisp air for The Rock. Some flew via Kings Canyon and some direct. Fortunately, we all avoided Pine Gap (the highly secretive US/Australian joint military facility and prohibited area).

Kings Canyon

After a (relatively) short flight, we were able to spot Uluru on the horizon. It really was impressive, and I suppose it is also a pretty reliable positive fix? Semi-convenient free coaches run between the airport and the township, and we jumped aboard, ready for a few days of relaxing!

Ayers Rock:  Mike Cahill – MSF

We arrived at the red centre early afternoon after a pleasant flight. On our way out of Alice Phil flew us over Simpson’s Gap, and then set course on a flight route that took us over the old Lutheran mission at Hermannsburg and Kings Canyon, where we carried out an orbit to gain a good view of this amazing formation. We spotted Uluru and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) on the horizon soon after leaving Kings Canyon. As we passed over Lake Amadeus we were cleared inbound by Ayers Rock Radio. All aircraft were secured and we took the bus to our accommodation for the next few days, The Lost Camel. It was school holidays and Yulara village was packed to the rafters with people.

Several of us walked around the rock on Tuesday. It was a 10km walk that put the size of Uluru into perspective.

Unfortunately, the rock climb was closed due to high winds at the summit so those who were eager to climb it were disappointed. We decided to fly a dusk scenic around Uluru and Kata Tjuta. There was a burn off out to the east that evening and the resultant smoke made visibility pretty poor so that we couldn’t get any good photos of the rock. We decided to do a sunrise scenic the next morning and luckily the smoke was gone by then. After scraping some ice off the wings we flew the second scenic with great results. 

Olgas

Wednesday was spent in different ways with some people doing camel rides and other activities while others chilled out, did the laundry or caught up on some work. We all enjoyed the activities at Uluru and the down time.

Arkaroola: Tania Keenan – BHN

By Thursday our time at the Red Centre had come to an end and we headed south, passing Uluru on our way to Coober Pedy where we refuelled.

From there we tracked to the southern end of Lake Eyre.

We were on our way to Arkaroola, a hidden gem in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia. The Arkaroola airstrip is a little hard to spot.

We descended over some breathtaking rocky scenery until it suddenly popped into view as we passed over a ridge at 1500 feet only 1 mile out.  The gravel runway is 750 metres in length, with a creek either end, and a rise at the southern end, followed by a gradual decline towards the creek at the northern end. Needless to say, the landing required focus. The aptly named “international airport” was dry, flat and desolate. You could easily think you were standing in a crater on Mars; unlike Mars however it would be quite hot in summer! Compared with the tourist hot spot of Uluru, we felt like we were really staying in the outback this time.

Arkaroola airstrip from Google Earth

Our host Doug was expecting us, having been listening on his VHF hand held radio. While we waited for him to arrive we unloaded and poked around the couple of planes on site while keeping a close look out for local wild animals.

Arkaroola airstrip

We loaded our gear into Doug’s bus and he drove us from the airstrip to the Arkaroola Village (a motel, restaurant, shop and camping area) along a gravel road that wound through the surrounding hills. As he did he provided a running commentary of the nature reserve he has called home for over 40 years. Doug pointed out and named the flora and fauna and pointed to caves, animals and a former bat “guano” mine as well as numerous historical points of interest. I realised we had been oblivious to how special this place is and its historical significance.

Doug’s family, “The Spriggs” were pioneers of the geological history of Australia. It was Doug’s father Reg who discovered fossils from the Ediacaran period! And geologists travel from all over the world just to study there.  Reg and his wife fought long and hard to lease and then purchase the land from the South Australian government, and to protect it from uranium mining. It has been a wilderness sanctuary run by the family since the 1970s. 

The evening was ‘BBQ night’ with open fires, great food and the opportunity to meet other campers, pilots and guests. 

At 8pm we were driven up to the Dodwell Observatory to do some stargazing with our host Joe. Joe arrived in Arkaroola back in the late 70’s to deliver a parcel and never left. Although it was a really cold night the star gazing was really informative. We saw Mars, Jupiter, twin stars, a dying cluster of stars, new baby stars and many more.  We could have stayed there all night if it hadn’t been for the imminent threat of frostbite!

Friday dawned clear and crisp. Breakfast was relaxed and hearty, with a bit of flight planning mixed in. 

We headed out to the strip and after a quick pack and the standard pre-flight we were up in the air for another CAVOK flight to Broken Hill. 

Departing Arkaroola

Broken Hill:  Maureen Hollyoak – TRE

Leaving Arkaroola we were off to the east heading across Lake Frome, a large salt lake, towards the New South Wales border. The dry, parched land that had been a very constant feature since we had left Brisbane continued as we flew towards Broken Hill. 

Silverton

The big feature of Broken Hill, the mullock heap, appeared on the horizon after about an hour. 

In 1844 explorer Charles Sturt identified a broken hill in the otherwise fairly flat country and gave the place its name.  In 1883 a boundary rider named Charles Rasp noted mineral deposits that he thought was tin.  He and six mates formed the Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP) to raise capital to start mining.  The ore deposit formed 1,800 million years ago and is the world’s largest silver, lead and zinc mine – hence the nickname Silver City. More than 800 men have lost their lives in the mine over the last century and the miners’ memorial is a solemn reminder perched on top of the mullock heap. The town always had a strong union movement. The so-called Barrier Industrial Council was formed to protect the workers’ welfare rather than the company profits.  There are still environmental issues related to heavy metals in the dust with many children in the town still having higher lead levels than is considered acceptable by health authorities.

Our local tour guide met us at the airport and took us for a 6 hour tour around the town. After a quick lunch the first stop was the mine area itself. There are currently two mines operating on the lease with 2 million tonnes being taken out annually.  The huge timber beams used in the old shafts are Canadian oregon that was imported over a century ago. They apparently still look as good today as when they were laid.  Can you imagine the enormous task of importing these timbers all that way?  Apparently this oregon is the strongest timber that exists.  Based on the number of rings much of this timber looks to be over 1000 years old.

No longer just a mining town, Broken Hill is home to the world’s largest acrylic painting. The 12m high x 100m long canvas was painted by local artist Ando. The “Big Picture” details a wide variety of local scenes around Broken Hill and is a great achievement for the artist and the community.

Broken Hill has a great history, including the only shots fired in anger on Australian soil during World War 1. The Battle of Broken Hill was a fatal incident which took place in 1915. Two men shot dead four people and wounded seven more who were heading to a New Year’s Day picnic on a special train to nearby Silverton, before being killed by police and military officers. We were shown where the battle took place and the two men were defeated. There is a replica of the ice cream cart used in the attack on the picnic train.

It seemed a good spot for the obligatory group photo.

Another artistic feature of “the Hill” is the “Living Desert Sculptures”, our last stop for the day.  Some local councillors managed to arrange for 12 sculptors from all over the world to descend on the town to chisel 12 sandstone blocks into interesting sculptures. We viewed them from the top of a hill overlooking town as the sun sank in the west.

Our tour over, we all descended on the Palace Hotel, our accommodation for the night and we were in for a real treat.  The hotel was built in 1889 with a vision of providing fine dining and coffee to the community.  By 1892 the owners realised that fine dining and coffee didn’t provide enough income to keep them in business, so they joined the scores of other licensed hotels selling alcoholic beverages.

Palace Hotel

The hotel gained new popularity and notoriety when the cast and crew of the film Priscilla Queen of the Desert came to town in 1994 and filmed scenes in and around the hotel and the town. Many of the characters stayed at the hotel and it is still possible to visit (and even stay in) the Priscilla Room – which is gorgeous.  The Palace has been associated with the film ever since and still contains some of the props used including an enormous high heel shoe. It’s the reason why the town celebrates a “Broken Heel Festival” in September each year, with performances from the nation’s best cultural personalities plus showgirls, Bio Queens, Drag Queens & Drag Kings. It’s a far cry from the mining culture that originally made the town wealthy.

To top it off, the day we were in town was Friday 13th July, so all the waiters were dressed up appropriately, adding to the great atmosphere of the place which was certainly the centre of town that night and I suspect every weekend.

After a great sleep in our palatial rooms of basic (some might say retro) hotel style we were up ready for the next adventure.  After breakfast we were off to the Royal Flying Doctor Service base. 

We were shown though the centre and gained an understanding of how the work comes and goes.  The Broken Hill base covers a “mere” 640,000km2 area.  They have four Beechcraft King Airs worth $12,000,000 each.  One was on a retrieval while we were there. It was clear how the costs mount up with just one retrieval over the minimal retrieval distance costing $10,000.  The government provides significant funding however a large proportion is still raised from mums and dads fundraising all over the country. 

It’s a humble reminder how all of us might need their service one day.  We all need to think how we can contribute to this amazing service.  They are always looking for pilots so anyone who is sick of their day job and has a commercial license could go join them for a rewarding and adventurous time.  I had to keep reminding Biggles (Stephen White aka CEO) that he had an important job to do presently and not to put his hand up quite yet.

Medical chest with numbered medicines that doctors could prescribe to patients over the air
The original MSF

With the RFDS behind us it was off to the refuelled planes ready for our next air adventure enroute to Dubbo over more dry, parched country – a stark reminder that 90% of New South Wales is in drought.

Dubbo to Redcliffe: Mick Gardner – ROC

We spent a chilly night in Dubbo prior to our final leg home to Redcliffe. Sunday morning started off freezing cold at -5 degrees, so we knew we didn’t have to hurry out to the airport. The planes would be hard to start if we got there too early. We walked two blocks to a cafe only to find out they were fully booked. We found another cafe around the corner that was also full but they at least offered us seats outside. Outside? Did we hear right? In sub zero temperatures? But by this stage we were hungry and desperate for coffees so we sat outside under some gas heaters that sort of worked for a while which wasn’t too bad.  Andrew asked the waitress for the biggest coffee they had and to all our surprise they didn’t disappoint. A few minutes later the waitress walked out with a “Bucket of Coffee” (supersize mug) so the morning started off with a few laughs and nice food.  

After packing our bags most of us headed off to Dubbo airport in a Maxi Taxi while Sam, Tania and the girls stayed in Dubbo to visit the Western Plains Zoo.

With clear blue skies we were eager to get home but decided to stop in Tamworth to stretch our legs and have a toilet break. TRE was the first to depart followed by ROC, FRF and MSF. With only a 60 minute flight time we arrived in Tamworth, home to the Australian Defence Force flight school. It’s a D Class aerodrome so we had the tower to contend with.

Heading to Tamworth from Dubbo

Ready for our next coffee we discovered that the Tamworth Airport Terminal is being upgraded so the coffee shop was closed. The pop up café that’s meant to be its replacement during the upgrade was also closed for the weekend so we were out of luck. TRE didn’t muck around and departed pretty well straight away while the rest of us had a chat deciding what was the best way to plan into Redcliffe as we had Brisbane airspace to consider.  

Departing Tamworth

After a while we also headed back to the planes and departed on Runway 30R as Tamworth has parallel runways. It was about a 2 hour leg over some high terrain and we noticed a few bushfires along the way.  

Between Tamworth and Inverell

Our track took us over the top of Amberley RAAF base which was not active and from there we requested clearance through Brisbane airspace which we were granted, much to our surprise.  

Passing over the NSW/Qld border and the Scenic Rim

One by one we all arrived safely back at Redcliffe. After unpacking the planes we ended up debriefing over a drink or two at the club on what really was a trip of a lifetime.  

On descent past Gold Creek Dam, Enoggera Dam and The Gap

All of us would like to thank Sam Keenan for the work he put into arranging the trip. It was a very professional effort and all went smoothly because of it. The camaraderie that built over the trip was exceptional and it was great to share a week of fun and adventure with such a great group of people. We all learned a lot along the way but mostly shared some great times and places in a way that not many people have the opportunity to do. It highlights how fortunate we are to be members of such a great club that promotes trips like this, allowing less experienced aviators to mix with, and learn from, those who’ve been around and flying for longer.     

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