First flight to North Queensland

Gladstone – Bowen – Charters Towers – Undara Lava Tubes – Emerald

In late May 2019 Sigi and I spent a week exploring North Queensland in MSF. We originally planned to spend longer and explore more, as shown on the map below, but we had to cut short the trip due to a family emergency. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable introduction to North Queensland and inspired us to return the following year.

We took off from Redcliffe on a cool morning into clear blue skies, climbing IFR to 7000ft and passing over the Sunny Coast, Lake Weyba and Noosa.

The Air Traffic Controller was having a really busy day, dealing with numerous aircraft at once as we passed Maryborough and Hervey Bay.

Lake Monduran, near Gladstone

After 90 minutes we landed at Gladstone for a pit stop and coffee. No sooner was the cup drained and we were off again, this time to Mackay, another 90 minutes, passing over Rockhampton at 8000ft and skirting around the edge of the Shoalwater Bay military area, which was active with some sort of exercises. As we headed north the clouds built up so we descended to 6000ft but by the time we were approaching Mackay we were in and out of cloud. Luckily we were able to descend out of it above lowest safe and do a straight in visual approach on RWY 32.

There was no other traffic in Mackay (apart from the service van who was inspecting the runway) so the air traffic controller was very relaxed and chatty and keen to help us as much as he could. Great service from ATC. On the ground we refuelled the plane and had some lunch on the deck of an airside clubhouse, enjoying the increased temperatures and the humidity.

Soon we were rolling down RWY32 again and headed for Bowen via Prosperine, with the Whitsunday Islands on our right hand side. Once again a fair bit of cloud but we only climbed to 4000ft and didn’t have to fly through much of it. After 25 minutes and we were descending into Bowen, did a circuit to check the wind sock and landed.

Then of course we had to get into town from the airport didn’t we? Normally it’s a call to the local taxi company but not this time. We’d brought our own transport in the form of two Dahon folding bikes that had been stowed in their covers on the rear seat.

In about 5 minutes we had them out, unpacked, unfolded and ready to go.

It was about a 30 minute ride into town and along the foreshore, a good chance to stretch our legs after sitting in the plane for a few hours.

We checked into a motel near the beach in downtown Bowen and enjoyed a walk along the beach followed by dinner at the pub.

The next day brought us to Undara Lava Tubes via Charters Towers. We had planned to fly via Innisfail so we could pass over Dunk Island where dad’s cousin lived for many years, but we woke to a cloudy sky and the weather along the coast was forecast to be wet so we headed inland instead. There were a few spits of rain and a strong tail wind as we cycled out to the airport and loaded the bikes into MSF. A local skydiving group were going out for jumps over Queens Beach so we agreed to stay well clear of them, as they’d have difficulty knowing where they were going to land with a 20 knot wind blowing. The tail wind helped us fly to Charters Towers in record time, passing over the Burdekin River and Ravenswood Gold Mine on the way.

There weren’t really any spots to park on the apron but the local LAME let us park in front of his hangar and kindly offered us his car to drive into town. He was amazed when we thanked him and told him it wasn’t necessary as we have our bikes in the plane. So we unpacked the bikes and headed off for a look at downtown Charters Towers and some lunch.

The cafe at the Stock Exchange Arcade was a top spot. We chatted with a couple from Melbourne whose son is the Australian rep for Pilatus aircraft. Part of his job is to fly the aircraft out from Switzerland to Australia with their new owners. Not a bad lurk!

Then it was back to the airport for our flight to Undara. The clouds had rolled in by then and we climbed out into an overcast sky and at 6000ft we were in the clouds. An attempt to get under the cloud at 4000ft was aborted as moderate turbulence started to toss us around so we climbed back up into the soup and continued in IMC until we emerged into a drizzly hazy mist with about 20km visibility. So once again the investment in a private instrument rating has been well and truly demonstrated as invaluable for trips like this. We descended and the Undara strip was clearly visible ahead of us and we buzzed over it and the resort nearby, then landed, passing a couple of grazing kangaroos as we flared. They were far enough to one side to not pose a problem. As it started to drizzle Heather from Undara pulled up in her minibus to drive us the 4km to the resort.

They’d rung in the morning and we’d agreed if it was raining we’d buzz the resort and they’d come out for us. We had hoped to ride of course but with the rain increasing in intensity that wouldn’t have been too pleasant.

So the weather turned on us and a cold snap extended all the way from South Australia up to northern Queensland. Despite the plans for enjoying the tropical heat we discovered we were sitting rugged up in 18C temps in FNQ. Mind you we were at 2500ft about sea level.

The next day was spent exploring Undara, doing walks and visiting the lava tubes. We woke to a sunny morning and Heather cooked a bush brekkie for us.

We did a short walk to Atkinson’s Lookout and the Bluff to get some views over the surrounding countryside.

Then we joined a group visit with guide Alan who drove us to one of the lava tubes, climbed down inside and walked through.

With a diameter of up to 15-20 metres these are impressive natural structures. On the way back Alan stopped at the “Undara International Airport” and checked out the runway condition while we checked that MSF was enjoying its day off.

After lunch the clouds gathered again and we had another 90 minute walk spotting a variety of kangaroos and wallabies and taking in more views of the surroundings. Later it was off on trip to a ridge to watch a spectacular sunset and visit a bat cave (lava tube). Some 20,000 micro bats live in the one cave apparently and up to 34 pythons feed on them in the trees at the exit during the wet season. No snakes in sight today though.

Heading back to Undarra Central we had dinner and a couple of drinks to end off the day.

There are a number of old railway carriages that are used for “upmarket” accommodation. We’d decided however that we’d rough it by staying in a glamping tent. It was comfortable and we had extra blankets to keep us warm. Although it was not the best weather the lava tubes were interesting and the accommodation facilities were quite good. However I’d suggest that you wouldn’t need more than two nights there as there isn’t a lot to do once you’ve visited the lava tubes.

We retired to our glamping tent and pondered some news I’d received from my brother who was in Mt Gambier with mum and dad. Dad was not doing well and my brother suggested we break off our trip and head home.

We had intended to fly over to Mareeba the next day and then back to Karumba and home via Winton but after hearing the news about dad we cancelled all our bookings and headed south to Emerald via Charters Towers, where we refuelled. One overnight stop in Emerald where we used the bikes to ride into town and back out again and then it was a quick hop back to Redcliffe.

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