South eastern Australia explorer

Dubbo – Mount Gambier – Port Pirie – Port Lincoln – Stawell – Bendigo – Griffith

I’d always wanted to fly from Brisbane to Mount Gambier in South Australia. It’s my birthplace and where I grew up and first went flying with dad as a teenager. Finally the time came. On Anzac Day 2019, after our annual aero club dawn service and flight up the coast, Sigi and I headed south. We were vectored around Amberley as the RAAF were sending out numerous F18s for ANZAC fly pasts, but once past there we flew via the Spicers Peak in the Scenic Rim and Inverell to Dubbo for an overnight stop.

As soon as we passed about Tenterfield the country became increasingly drier. You could see the effect of the ongoing drought.

It was an uneventful approach into Dubbo. We tied down the plane and caught a taxi into town.

We had booked the motel in Dubbo that we’d stayed in during our Central Australia trip in 2018 but this time we had more time to explore the city. We had a good walk along the river and past the war memorial, decorated for Anzac Day.

On Friday morning we had a short hop to Griffith to refuel and visit the aero club before heading further south. They had free tea and coffee so I just had to have two cups of tea, a decision I was later to regret.

Crossing the Murray the head winds increased to 30 knots. We cruised at 4000ft as the winds were stronger further aloft. It’s pretty flat over the Wimmera so not a lot to see apart from salt lakes and Horsham, with the Grampians in the distance.

The wind was stirring up a lot of dust so the visibility wasn’t the best either. I’d originally planned to land at Horsham and refuel but the winds weren’t favourable for a landing so we carried on. As we headed south from Horsham the cloud cover increased and we were in and out of clouds at 4000ft.

Those two cups of tea had ended up in my bladder so I was pretty keen to get to somewhere where I could relieve myself and hoping we wouldn’t be delayed on landing. As we approached “the Mount” the clouds cleared and the sun appeared. We heard an RFDS plane landing on RWY18 via the RNAV so thought we may have to do the same. There was a special weather alert for Mt Gambier for winds from 240 at 25kt gusting to 35kt though but I knew they have three runways and one of them happens to be RWY24. So we did a straight in approach on RWY24 and it was a smooth landing and an equally smooth rush to the public toilet for me while Sigi minded the plane. On the ground at 3pm we had 12C and those 25-35kt winds to deal with while tying down the plane. Dubbo had been 29C. This is a big country!

On Saturday morning we took mum and dad out to the airport to introduce them to MSF. They were suitably impressed with the plane but I think dad was secretly wishing he could be flying with us too.

We spent some time at St Mary’s and then took mum and dad down to Port McDonnell to their favourite cafe.

We also went for a couple of walks around the crater lakes while we were there.

After a great weekend with mum and dad, Sigi and I went our separate ways on Monday. We drove out to the airport and she flew with Rex to Melbourne to attend a course on lymphatic cancer. I preflighted MSF and took off up the coast in MSF. I’d wanted to fly to Port Pirie for a while so took the opportunity to meet up with Chris and Janet Fountain and take them for a flight over to Port Lincoln, somewhere I’d never been before.

It was overcast at Mt Gambier but well above lowest safe so I took off IFR and climbed through a thin layer of cumulostratus clouds into blue sky, settling in at a cruising level of 8000ft. The cloud lasted until near Kingston and after that I had a clear view of the Coorong .

The last time I flew into Pt Pirie was in early 1979 with Dad when I first was planning on studying metallurgy. I think we flew direct to Pirie back then and avoided Adelaide airspace but this time, flying IFR, it was easy to fly right over the top. I tracked via the Murray mouth and had a wonderful view of Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert.

From there it was on over the mouth of the Murray River.

Next was the Fleurieu Peninsula and soon I was passing McLaren Vale as I headed direct for a waypoint overhead Adelaide International.

I wasn’t planning to stop there, passing overhead at 8000ft with a wonderful view of the city below.

Glenelg and West Beach were on the left as the autopilot turned the plane to head up the eastern side of the Gulf of St Vincent.

It didn’t seem long until I was overhead Port Wakefield at the top of the Gulf of St Vincent, and starting my descent into Port Pirie.

Chris and Janet were waiting for me and after tying down the plane we headed into town. They agreed it would be good to fly down to Port Lincoln the next day. I’d never been to Port Lincoln so was keen to visit while I had the chance. They’d been before but were happy to fly there for a change.

The weather for the trip to Port Lincoln the next day wasn’t as kind as for the trip to Pirie. There was a 25 knot north westerly wind blowing, gusting to 35 knots, and a cold front was approaching from the south west with showers forecast for the evening. There was also moderate turbulence forecast. Chris told me he has a history of being sea sick and air sick while Janet had sailed a lot from a young age with no problems so Chris was in the front with the vomit bag while Janet could enjoy the business class comfort in the back. The flight took us first up the east coast of Spencer Gulf to Port Germain, where a narrow point allowed us to cross the gulf and stay within gliding distance of the coast (no life jackets required). We flew over Whyalla and its steelworks and followed the coast south west.

Soon we were approaching Port Lincoln. It’s a very attractive bit of coast at the southern end of Eyre Peninsula around to Coffin Bay with lots of peninsulas and islands scattered around. Unfortunately the strong winds had blown up a lot of dust so the visibility was poor and we couldn’t really appreciate the view properly. The wind was 25 knots gusting to 35 as we landed on the north south runway, tied down the plane and took a taxi into town. With a population of only 16,000 Pt Lincoln is not exactly a metropolis but a pleasant enough coastal town with a fair bit of wealth from the tuna fishing industry. Amongst other things it’s famous for Dean Lucan, who won gold for weight lifting in the 1984 Olympics, and Makybe Diva, the first horse to win the Melbourne Cup on three occasions. There’s a statue of Maybe Diva on the foreshore.

After a lunch of locally caught Tuna steak, we headed back to the airport as the weather forecast indicted that we’d need to be back in Pirie by 4pm to avoid the rain from the approaching cold front. Taking off into a 30 knot headwind didn’t require much ground roll and we were soon tracking back up the coast, over the top of Whyalla and crossing the top of the gulf.

Arriving on the eastern coast we turned south and descended into Port Pirie.

Both Chris and Janet coped with the flight really well and seemed happy to have had the chance to see that part of the country from the air.

By Wednesday morning the cold front had passed over Pirie. There had been some showers overnight but the sky had cleared. I was planning to meet up with Sigi in Bendigo on Thursday so had one more day to kill, and decided to drop in on my friends David and Rita who have a sheep farm and olive grove (redrockolives.com.au) near Stawell in the Grampians region of western Victoria. I’d originally planned to fly over Adelaide again via the IFR routes but the weather over Adelaide was not looking good with quite a bit of cloud and some possible thunderstorms so I decided to skirt around that by heading south east to the South Australian Riverland and then direct to Horsham.

It was the right decision. As I climbed up to 7000 ft I saw the weather to the south of me including some towering cumulus but it was all pretty clear across to the Riverland.

Turning at waypoint “Trump” I headed to Loxton, passing Morgan, Waikerie and Lake Bonney, then on over Pinnaroo and the Big Desert to Nhill. The tailwind increased to about 35 knots on the way and the ground speed topped out at 200 knots as a result.

Scattered cumulus gathered as I headed south so I was in and out of them as I descended into Horsham. There was a 30 knot north wind blowing on the ground so it was good that Horsham has a north south runway.

After refuelling it was only a 15 minute VFR flight to Stawell which also has a north south runway in addition to an east west one. David and Rita met me there and we headed into Halls Gap for lunch at a brand new micro brewery and coffee at a local art gallery.

I checked the weather and it looked fine for a flight over the area north of the Grampians. I had been planning to take David and Rita for a flight over the Grampians themselves but with a 30 knot north wind it was perfect conditions for creating Mountain Waves to the south so I decided to stay north. That suited them as they wanted to see the farm and olive grove from the air as well as Stawell city. Back at the airport we started up and taxied out only to find the north south runway had been closed – work in progress! So there was only the east west runway open and a 25 knot northerly blowing. What to do? We taxied back to the apron to consider our options. I didn’t plan on attempting a landing with such a strong cross wind. Rita was very keen to go for a flight and was heading to Geelong early the next morning so this would be her only opportunity. A little voice in my head said “Don’t get pressured into something you don’t want to do. Look for a compromise.” After another check of the NAIPS weather it was clear the wind was abating and should be around 15 knots after an hour. So I told them that we could take off and should be able to land in an hour but if the wind was still more than 15 knots we’d have to fly over to Horsham and wait there until the wind dropped later in the evening. They were happy with that option so off we went. It was an interesting joy flight.

Climbing out to the west we did a couple of orbits over the olive grove and a couple over the farm then around the Black Range nearby, and over the top of Stawell then east to Ararat. By the time we arrived back at Stawell the wind had dropped to about 10 knots so it was a pretty straight forward cross wind landing (as we have at Redcliffe on many days). All in all a very interesting day with lots of useful experience in dealing with changing conditions, challenging weather and human factors.

On Wednesday evening a fairly severe storm passed over Stawell. There was a very impressive lightning display that lasted for over an hour and driving rain that totalled about 50mm in less than 2 hours. By morning though it was blue skies again and we had a magnificent view of the Grampians nearby.

I only had a 30 minute flight to Bendigo planned so we went out to check on the property after breakfast. That part of Victoria doesn’t get a lot of rain so this was a major windfall (or rather, rainfall) for all the farmers. It’s not usually that heavy though so there was minor flooding and quite a bit of fence damage but the main thing was that the dams had filled quite a bit and the drought had broken.

David said in one night they received enough rain to last them for two years! And it was just a week or two before olive harvest so perfect timing. He’d just finished building a new dam at the olive grove and it had received a nice amount of rain overnight.

After lunch in Stawell it was back to the airport and I was off to Bendigo, where some low cloud was still hanging around from the night before. What better excuse to practise an RNAV instrument approach?

I didn’t actually need an excuse because the cloud was at 1400ft so I really had to do one. It was a good one though as it was mostly clear heading for the first waypoint (Sierra Charlie) and I only entered cloud as I turned over Sierra India towards the runway, popping out again as I descended through about 2000ft.

They’d had a bit of rain so the runway was pretty wet but there was still a strong north wind blowing so the touch down was pretty smooth. After refuelling and tying down the plane on a soft patch of ground I unloaded just as Sonja and Sigi turned up. We drove into town to our AirBNB, which was a really well renovated heritage house. It was great to see them both and we drove into town to visit the local Art Gallery that had a special exhibition with original portraits of the British Royal Family from the Tudors to the Windsors. Afterwards we had a great meal at one of the fine eateries in Bendigo.

Friday was time to head north again but first we had to explore Bendigo with Sonja. We wandered around the central area and through the botanic gardens, climbing a hill to an old head frame from the gold mining days. It gave us a good view over the town.

Bendigo was founded in the gold rush and you can see the buildings from the 19th century dotted around. They also have a tram that still runs and a heritage tram that is an information centre.

Sonja was keen to get back to Melbourne so she dropped us off at the airport and we were soon on our way to Griffith. The flight took us over Echuca on the Murray River and into the Riverina irrigation region.

Echuca

Griffith was founded in 1916 and owes its existence to a sophisticated irrigation system that channels water from the Murrumbidgee River, which in turn is fed by the Snowy Mountains to the east. It has a strong Italian heritage and there are quite a few orchards and vineyards around along with other horticulture.

Griffith

We went for quite a long walk down the main street and central area. The city was designed by Walter Burley Griffin who also designed Canberra, and you can see some similarities in the layout with circular streets and wide avenues.

Griffith RSL Club

They celebrated the centenary in 2016 with a sculpture event. Seven sculptors from around the world gathered for two weeks and created seven sculptures that are intended to reflect the city’s water related heritage and they are displayed in one of the parks. There’s a few good Italian restaurants so the day finished with us having some perfect al dente pasta at one of those.

Saturday was time to head home. After breakfast at one of the famous Italian cafes we headed out to the airport and were soon tracking for Parkes through clear blue skies with an occasional friendly cumulus to fly through.

We spotted “the Dish” from the air as we turned over Parkes and headed for Gunnedah.

Parkes

While refuelling at Gunnedah we checked the weather and chatted with another pilot who was on his way from Toowoomba to Scone. He told us the weather had been a bit “iffy” in Toowoomba but was clearing to the east but to expect some cloud. That had shown up on the forecast so we were ready to experience some IMC as we reached Brisbane.

Departing Gunnedah

Sure enough, as we headed north at 9000ft the clouds gathered and by the time we were over Inverell we were in and out of puffy cumulus.

That dissipated crossing the border into Queensland and was replaced by a solid layer of stratus at lower levels. Soon we were at top of descent for Redcliffe and air traffic control vectored us as we descended into the clouds down to 5000ft. Then it was IMC basically all the way to Redcliffe but being stratus was smooth with very little turbulence. ATC were kept busy with various aircraft doing instrument approaches into, and departures out of, Brisbane international below us.

IMC over Brisbane

There was a bit of rain on the windscreen but apparently quite heavy rain falling below us. This was one of those times that I was really grateful for all the instrument training I’ve done over the past few years and the theory courses I did with Bob Tait. That, along with the GPS and autopilot in MSF, made it pretty straightforward. Finally ATC allowed us to descend out of the cloud and we became visual at about 3000 ft about 3 miles south of Redcliffe. It was then a simple orbit down to join a mid field crosswind for RWY 25 as there was quite a strong westerly blowing. Another smooth landing and the trip was over. As we put MSF away the clouds cleared and the sun reappeared. By evening it was glorious weather again. I think we were fortunate to have had the opportunity to arrive over Brisbane in such conditions and it was certainly another learning experience to add to the many other ones we’d had over the previous 9 days.

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