Southern Explorer Trip

Orange – Tyabb – Melbourne – Ballarat – Stawell – Mount Gambier – Aldinga – Adelaide Hills – Arkaroola – Flinders Ranges – White Cliffs – Dirranbandi

On 16th March 2022 Sigi and departed in Cirrus MSF on a “southern explorer” trip. The trip included both IFR and VFR legs and though it was mostly in VMC, the PIFR came in very handy, especially when we did encounter IMC conditions. There were a few instrument approaches, mostly just for practice but one was in IMC almost down to minimum descent altitude. There were also some night circuits, a couple of scenic flights and some landings in some very remote places.

The trip had its genesis one evening in September 2021 at a charity ball in support of Brainchild,  a marvellous charity that helps families with children suffering from brain tumours. There was a silent auction and one “prize” was a three night accommodation package at Mt Lofty House in the Adelaide Hills. This is a high class hotel incorporated into an historic 19th century mansion. I’ve been aware of it for many years and had often thought it’d be a great place to stay so, given my love of the Adelaide Hills region, I thought I’d bid for it, not thinking I’d win.  Surprise, surprise! Mine was the top bid. So, the next challenge was to decide a time to stay there. We elected to go in autumn, a beautiful time in the Adelaide Hills, and built a three week flying trip itinerary around this “anchor”. The aim was to fly first to Tyabb, near Melbourne, to visit our daughter and various friends, and then to Stawell to overnight with some friends, and then to Mount Gambier, to visit my 96 year old mother. From there, we’d fly to Aldinga, a convenient base for the Adelaide Hills/Mt Lofty House and, after our stay at Mt Lofty, we’d continue via various stops in South Australia and New South Wales back to Redcliffe.

Brisbane had suffered record rainfall in the week prior to our departure. I’d tipped 1600mm of rain out of my rain gauge over 72 hours! So there had been quite a lot of devastation along the river systems, including the Brisbane River. The 16th March dawned fine however and we took off from Redcliffe IFR for our first stop – Quirindi. From Redcliffe we tracked past the TV Towers on Mt Coot-tha and over the Brisbane River, that showed definite signs of damage on its banks from flooding.

From overhead Amberley, we tracked for Inverell then through the Tamworth controlled airspace. In one of the few glitches I’ve ever noticed with ATC I actually had to remind the controller that I needed a clearance as we were about 1 nm from the boundary. He then cleared me quickly through the airspace and on to Quirindi and the RNP approach.

Tamworth

So why were we flying to Quirindi? I’ve stopped there before and it’s basically an easy place to land with almost no traffic and a good place to have a toilet stop and drink/snack. It also has RNP approaches that the RAAF trainees use when they’re flying out of Tamworth so it’s a good place to practise instrument approaches. So even though it was practically CAVOK I decided to use the opportunity to practise via waypoint WG – it went ok but was not perfect. I could do with some more practice.

On the ground in Quirindi

After a sandwich and a toilet break, we took off for our next stop – Orange. I attended a Cirrus workshop event there in 2019 and thought it would be a good place for Sigi to see and as it’s just over half way to Tyabb it seemed a good place to stop for the night. Orange also has RNP approaches so I did another practice, via waypoint WC. This time it went very smoothly.

Unfortunately, finding accommodation in Orange hadn’t gone so smoothly. It was very heavily booked (due to a major expansion project at Newcrest’s Cadia gold mine we were told) so we booked into the Millthorpe Boutique Motel  in the quaint village of Millthorpe, about 15 km from Orange Airport. It was a great little town to explore on foot, once we’d arrived by taxi. The taxi was a bit of a trap though. I’d phoned up the taxi company the day before and asked whether we could catch a taxi from the airport to Millthorpe and what the approximate cost would be. My thoughts were that if it was much more than $40 each way, I could hire a car for 24 hours instead. The operator told me it’d be $30-40 so I thought that’d be fine. Only once we climbed into the taxi and were heading to Millthorpe did the driver say “Did they tell you about the surcharge?” It turns out that if you take a taxi from the airport in any direction away from Orange they charge you a $30 surcharge. Similarly if you catch one back from Millthorpe you pay the surcharge. This is because they’re unlikely to get a return fare. I don’t mind paying such a surcharge but when I ring up specially and ask for the fare to Millthorpe and they don’t tell me about the surcharge I get a bit annoyed. I could’ve hired a car for less and we could have driven into Orange for dinner. You live and learn.

Pym Street, Millthorpe

Anyway, we had a pleasant walk around Millthorpe, with its old railway station and pubs. It’s on the Great Western Railway route from Sydney to Dubbo and the XPT train passes through in each direction once per day. The old Grand Western Lodge that used to house passengers in the railway’s heyday is still there but currently closed due to Covid, or so it seems. Hopefully it will reopen soon.

Grand Western Lodge

We had dinner at the only place in town that opens on a Wednesday, the Millthorpe Hotel, another old building that oozes charm. After another walk around the other end of town we headed back to the motel for an early night.

The next day we were at the Millthorpe Providore across the road from the motel just after 7am. Great breakfast and lots of locally made foodstuffs to buy. Our taxi arrived and sped us back to the Orange Airport, with another “did they tell you about the surcharge?” interchange.

We took off into a clear blue sky passing near the Cadia Valley Gold Mine as we climbed to cruising level.

Cadia Mine

From there we flew to Cowra and on to Young. I’d planned to fly at 8000ft but as we went further south the clouds gathered and descended, so I requested traffic for 6000ft and we descended to stay below them.

Young

From Young we tracked to Wagga Wagga then Albury, passing by Lake Hume, Beechworth and Lake Eildon before descending into Tyabb on the Mornington Peninsula.

Lake Hume
Beechworth, with Mt Hotham on horizon

It was starting to spit with rain as we descended and the light was fading, even though it was around midday. Tyabb is a private aerodrome surrounded by farmland about half way down the Mornington Peninsula, south east of Melbourne. The runway doesn’t really stand out. Five miles out and I still couldn’t see the runway. Then suddenly, about 3 miles out there it was, straight in front of us. We flew over the top, checked the windsock and decided to land from the north. Pulling up at the bowser we saw our friends Beate and Colin waiting nearby. They came over and helped us remove our bags from the plane as I was topping up the tanks. I wasn’t paying attention to their movements until Beate caused a taxiing 172 to stop in its tracks and shut down. She was about to walk straight into its spinning propeller! I then asked Sigi to act as chaperone while I finished my fuelling duty.

Tyabb is home to the Peninsula Aeroclub. With approximately 600 members and 18,000 movements per year, it’s a very active place so you’re best to book your parking ahead of time. I’d rung the flight school the week before and booked a space on the grass alongside the clubhouse for four nights. It think it cost me $5 per night. The clubhouse was built in 1995 and has a very pleasant first floor bar and restaurant area with panoramic view over the runways and apron. In recent years the club has had its fair share of problems with the local council, who were trying to restrict their activities, and even shut them down. However, the aeroclub recently won a court case and even had costs awarded against the council so feel vindicated and more secure in their future. The club has quite a few flight instructors and many hangars on site. They have also put on a few spectacular airshows in recent years (prior to covid) and it’d be great to attend one in the future. The land for the aerodrome was donated by Doug Thompson, one of the original club members, in 1961. He also built the Peninsula Motor Inn and Tyabb Fly Inn Restaurant and associated conference centre on site for visiting aviators. A ten minute taxi ride away is an Avis depot at Mornington. We hired a car there for a couple of days.

Tied down in Tyabb

We spent two days on the Peninsula at Rye with Beate and Colin, including 9 holes of golf at the National Golf Club.

The National

That was followed by two days in Melbourne where we helped friends to move house and did a lovely walk around the Yarra Bend Park with our daughter.

On Monday 21st March it was time to depart from Tyabb but not before Ian Johnson, one of the Aeroclub directors, kindly took me for a tour of a private collection of warbirds that is stored there. They belong to Judy Pay, another director, who owns an aviation maintenance business on site. All of the planes still fly at least a couple of times per month. Thanks Ian for being so hospitable. Ian also put me on the mailing list for the weekly Tyabb newsletter so that I am now being kept up to their activities.

We took off from Tyabb and flew south west at 1500ft, passing over the National Golf Course and Rye, then on along the coast to the Port Phillip Bay Heads.

Rye and The Dunes Golf Links

It’s a great coastline that continues on past Barwon Heads and Torquay to Anglesea, where we did an orbit to have a good look at the town, where we’ve stayed with friends on numerous occasions, and waggle the wings to Sue and Ramon (see Agnes Water story) who were expecting us, then headed northwards and climbed to 4500ft, direct to Ballarat.

Anglesea

The reason for going to Ballarat was to attempt to refill my oxygen bottle. We’d been using oxygen on the way down whenever we were above 7000ft. As mentioned in an earlier post Sigi tends to get headaches above 7000ft without oxygen and I find that my concentration is heightened if I have enough oxygen to keep my blood oxygen level above 90% so a bit oxy above 7000ft is good for me too. I’d calculated we’d need to refill it about half way along the journey so I’d been ringing around Western Victoria and South East South Australia to find someone who’d be able to top it up. A company at Ballarat airport was the only one I’d found. Sure enough, the level was getting close to refill time so in we went and I walked over to their hangars, only to discover that they didn’t have the right fitting for my bottle. Never mind, I’d also found someone at Aldinga near Adelaide who said they could refill it so we’d wait until then.

We took off again for the short hop to Stawell where we’d stay overnight with our friends David and Rita. On the way we flew over the Great Dividing Range near Ararat and Mt Langi Ghiran.

Mt Langi Ghiran

David greeted us on landing and after tying down the plane we drove to their sheep farm, where Rita was awaiting us with a late lunch. With time to stretch our legs we explore the farm, and the neighbouring Black Range, we had great views of the Mount William Range in the Grampians in the distance.

After the overnight stay with David and Rita we clambered back on board MSF for the short hop over the border to Mount Gambier, taking the opportunity to practise an RNP instrument approach that passed directly over Coonawarra, the wine district with the famous “terra rossa” soil. Once again, there was only scattered cloud but, given that we were passing that way anyway and the fact that you can never practise enough instrument approaches, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Once again, it all went smoothly.

Mount Gambier apron

We spent four nights in Mt Gambier with my brother Alan, who was visiting from Sydney, and visited mum each day. She wasn’t doing particularly well but we were able to have some lovely chats with her and share lots of memories.

One evening I decided to make the most of the clear weather and fly some night circuits to retain my currency. Normally I’d need to drive 45 minutes out to Redcliffe but it was only 10 minutes out to the Mt Gambier airport and the runway is considerably longer and wider than the Redcliffe one, making it all a bit easier. Mind you, it was a new experience for me landing there at night time. I did a couple of circuits before last light to familiarise myself with surroundings. Once it was dark enough I took off for four more in the dark. They all went very smoothly.

We departed Mt Gambier on Sunday 27th March for Aldinga, in the Southern Vales near Adelaide. It was perfect day for flying, with clear blue skies so I submitted a VFR flight plan to follow the coast all the way up to Victor Harbour. We initially headed south over the city of Mount Gambier and the crater lakes then further to Port MacDonnell on the coast. From there we followed the coast past Southend, Beachport, Robe, Kingston and the Coorong to the mouth of the Murray River.

Mount Gambier City and Blue Lake
Beachport
Robe
The Coorong

It was spectacular scenery as we continued over Goolwa and Victor Harbour then headed inland over the Fleurieu Peninsula to Aldinga. There were a couple of other planes flying in and out of Aldinga and one doing circuits on the cross runway. He kindly suggested I use the longer sealed runway, for my landing while he would stay out of my way, so I did.

Aldinga

On landing I carried the oxygen bottle over to Aldinga Aero, the local LAME workshop where I handed it to James for refilling. He promised to have it done by the time we returned on Wednesday.

Adelaide Biplanes is a business based at Aldinga. They offer joy flights in a variety of planes, but, more importantly, have a very pleasant café on site with shady garden and seating overlooking the runways. Very civilized.

I’d arranged a hire car from Lonsdale Auto, a local company who actually drop the car off for you at the airstrip and pick it up from there when you return. Martyn arrived soon after we’d landed and handed over the keys to a somewhat dated but very serviceable Ford. We were soon heading for the hills (literally) and found ourselves at Mt Lofty House, just outside Crafers, about 4pm.

We were welcomed warmly with a glass of bubbly at reception. After unpacking we took part in a tour of the historic house and gardens, with another glass of bubbly, at 5pm. It’s had an interesting life, including being totally gutted in the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983. Now it’s really hitting its stride as an upmarket getaway for anyone who likes a bit of luxury and fine food. They recently excavated a wine cellar that is now full of special bottles of wine.

It’s also located next to the Mt Lofty Botanic Gardens and numerous bush tracks, including the famous Heysen Trail, that traverses the Adelaide Hills from south to north, so makes it a great base for exploring the region on foot.

Mt Lofty House

For dinner, however, we decided to drive via Sterling and Aldgate to the Bridgewater Inn, with its great beer garden.

Bridgewater Inn

The next day was blue sky and after a hearty breakfast at the hotel with a panoramic view over the Piccadilly Valley we headed off on foot to find the Waterfall Gully trail. This heavily trafficked (and quite steep, but sealed) walking path leads from Waterfall Gully on the edge of Adelaide’s suburbs up to the summit of Mt Lofty.

Adelaide CBD from Waterfall Gully Track

It’s very popular with superfit runners. We approached it from the summit, so in reverse. It took us about one hour to reach the base of the track where the (unfortunately closed due to Covid) tea rooms are located. So we turned around and headed back up the hill. It was actually easier going uphill than down.

Waterfall Gully Track

At the top we headed back to Mt Lofty House for a quick break before driving via backroads to the Jurlique Farm near Echunga, where they growing the various botanicals they put into their creams and perfumes. Their factory is in Mt Barker these days but the outlet is still on the farm. Sigi bought a few things then we headed to Nairne, a few km away, for lunch. The reason for going to Nairne was that one of Mt Lofty House’s partners, the Howard Vineyard, is located on its edge. They do wine tastings so I just had to imbibe, trying a variety of whites and light reds from their own vineyards.

I couldn’t decide which were best so just bought a couple bottles of each variety and we headed back to Crafers via the freeway.

That evening was our chance to sample Hardy’s Restaurant at Mt Lofty House. This is a top notch hatted location where they do really great food. Needless to say, the four course degustation menu did not disappoint.

The next morning greeted us with fog covering the Piccadilly Valley as we enjoyed our breakfast. It was magical as the fog gradually dissipated and the valley was exposed.

We decided to do another walk. This time a circuit around Mt Lofty Summit, that is part of the Hans Heysen Trail. Hans Heysen was a famous South Australian painter who captured the local landscape particularly in the Flinders Ranges and lived in nearby Hahndorf. The trail took us first through the Mt Lofty Botanic Gardens, where the deciduous trees were just starting to turn.

Mt Lofty House Gardens and Piccadilly Valley

From there it was a casual stroll through the Piccadilly Valley followed by a steep ascent up to the top of Mt Lofty, where we took in the views from the scenic lookout. Most people had driven up but we felt pretty good having climbed at least the last part. On the way we passed Carminow Castle, built in 1885 for Sir Thomas Elder and later owned by Sir Langdon Bonython.

After lunch we drove to the Hans Heysen House, on the outskirts of Hahndorf. This is where the famous painter lived for many years and produced thousands of paintings. We went on a guided tour of the main rooms, where the Federation era “Arts and Crafts” décor allowed us to experience the lifestyle of another age. And of course there were opportunities to view many original works of art by Hans Heysen, his daughter Nora, and other artists that are represented in collection.

Back at the hotel we took part in a wine appreciation course with one of the Mt Lofty sommilliers, who explained some of finer points of the wines grown in the Adelaide Hills. Later we met up with my cousin John for a casual dinner at the restaurant downstairs. He instantly agreed he’d have to bring is bride Jo up to Mt Lofty House for dinner in the near future.

Wednesday 30th March dawned with a bit of cloud. We packed our bags and headed down to one last breakfast as we watched the beautiful sunrise over the Piccadilly Valley. Driving out of Mt Lofty House we felt that it had been a really worthwhile albeit expensive visit. We were specially pleased that the money we’d paid for our stay had gone to a very worthwhile charity. Having said that, I think we’d like to go there again some day.

We drove back to Aldinga and left the car in the car park, gave the keys to the Gaylene at the cafe (who’d pass them on to Martyn), and met up with James who filled the oxygen bottle. Then, with a full oxygen bottle and full fuel tanks, we loaded the plane and took off, back to Mt Gambier.

Originally we’d planned to fly to Kangaroo Island, but Alan told us that mum had taken a turn for the worse so we decided to head back to Mt Gambier instead. The weather forecast had predicted cloud and some moderate showers of rain in Mt Gambier so I’d decided to fly IFR. As we headed into the south east corner of South Australia the clouds gathered and I prepared for an instrument approach. It was good that I’d practised the RNP approach the week before as it made it easier the second time round, in IMC conditions.

We passed over Coonawarra and descended at 500ft/min, entering the cloud at about 4000ft AMSL and raindrops started to hit the windscreen as I sat there, waiting patiently to emerge from the cloud. The instrument approach has a minimum height of 730ft AMSL, meaning that if I couldn’t see the runway threshold by the time we reached 730ft I’d have to abort the landing and climb out for a second attempt. Finally, at 800ft AMSL we popped out of the cloud and I could see the runway (through light rain). We landed smoothly and taxied to the apron just as it started to pour. We decided to wait in the plane until the rain eased, about 20 minutes. That was really the only rain we experience the whole trip. It just so happened that it occurred right when we wanted to land. Very good instrument practice.

Sunrise in Mt Gambier
Autumn colours

Alan picked us up from the airport and we drove into town. We knew that mum was not doing well but we were very glad we’d got back when we did. She slipped away that evening. She was 5 weeks short of her 97th birthday.

The next few days were a whirlwind as we arranged the funeral and my other siblings, cousins and mum’s grandchildren arrived from Adelaide, Melbourne, country Victoria and Sydney. We did our best to celebrate mum’s long and happy life at a ceremony on 7th April. It was a sad occasion but it was a chance to catch up with many relatives who we don’t see that often, especially over the past 2 years.

On Saturday 9th April I did a couple of scenic flights with six passengers. They were my daughter, two of my nephews, two nieces and Ethan, the boyfriend of one of my nieces. We flew over Mount Gambier city and its crater lakes then headed for the coast and the mouth of the Glenelg River.

It was a lovely day with a few friendly clouds around and they all seemed to enjoy it. Except that Ethan told me after we landed that he’d felt like vomiting the whole time!

Note to self: “Always ask first time passengers whether they have flown in a light aircraft before and whether they are prone to motion sickness. Also, ask them how they’re doing 5 minutes into the flight. And be prepared to return for an early landing if they’re not feeling well.”

Anyway, Ethan managed to avoid making a mess and said that apart from that he really enjoyed the flight.

Alec, Carl, Emma
Ethan, Holly, Sonja

On Monday 11th April it was time to head north again. It was overcast in Mt Gambier but we climbed through the clouds and were soon in clear air above the clouds on our way to the Clare Valley Airport. On the way we passed inland from the Coorong.

From there our track took us over Murray Bridge and Mannum and the Barossa Valley, where a gliding competition was underway.

Mannum on the Murray River

ATC asked whether I’d like to climb to 7000ft to get above the 6500ft ceiling of the gliding comp “box” so I did.

Descending past Clare

After landing at the Clare Valley aerodrome we refuelled and then ate our sandwiches while inspecting their really impressive clubhouse and airfield. The airfield was only built a few years ago and it is a very impressive addition to the area, giving fly in visitors ready access to the Clare Valley wine district. The club even has a couple of loan cars available for fly in aviators. I left a few Redcliffe Aeroclub AirChat magazines in the clubhouse for them to read.

Club members have installed a novel windvane near the clubhouse. It’s a Tobago TB10 that was donated to the club by Flight Training Adelaide. It actually spins with the wind and has lights to illuminate it at night time. Special.

On takeoff we headed for Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges. This iconic geological formation is impressive from the ground but even more so from the air.

Wilpena Pound

We flew right over the top and then tracked for Leigh Creek to top up our fuel.

Leigh Creek

From there it was a 25 minute hop via the Gammon Ranges over to Balcanoona, a lovely sealed strip in the middle of nowhere. It’s next to a National Parks station but it was our destination so we could access Arkaroola Village, one of the highlights of the Flinders Ranges. It’s pretty inhospitable country around there and so it’s comforting to know that ATC are looking out for you. One way of making sure you’re ok is to maintain a Search and Rescue Watch (SARWATCH) over you while you’re flying IFR. The only thing is that you have to cancel it before or when you land. That’s ok if you have radio or mobile reception at the airfield but that’s not the case at Balcanoona. In fact, the ERSA says that the reception is only down to 5000ft above sea level.

Gammon Ranges

So, to play it safe, I cancelled my Sarwatch overhead the field at 7000ft, where I still had radio contact with Melbourne Centre, then had to do a couple of descending orbits down to circuit height before we could land.

On final at Balcanoona

Given that there’s no phone or radio coverage at the strip, I’d phoned up the reception at Arkaroola Village from Leigh Creek, and asked for a car to meet us there at about 3:30. I’d also flown over the top of the village (2 minutes prior to landing) in the hope that they might hear us (just in case they’d forgotten). The owner of Arkaroola, Doug Sprigg, is a pilot and generally very accommodating for visiting aviators so I didn’t really have any concerns but it feels a bit strange when you land in the middle of nowhere and are waiting for a car to appear in the distance.

Tied down at Balcanoona

While we waited we tied the plane down. There were two others parked there so we weren’t alone. Sure enough, just after 3:30 a cloud of dust in the distance signalled the arrival of our 4WD. It pulled up and Pierre introduced himself. Originally from France, he’s lived in Australia for about 40 years and worked all over as a driver. He’s been at Arkaroola for about 5 or 6 years I think.

It was a 30 minute drive to Arkaroola Village, where we were shown to our motel room and settled in with a couple of drinks admiring the rough mountainous terrain that surrounded us. Dinner was at the excellent restaurant.

The following day, Tuesday 12th April, we had a “Ridge Top Tour” to Sillers Lookout on the eastern edge of the Flinders Ranges. Our guide explained the history of the Arkaroola property and how it became one huge nature reserve after many years of prospecting by various companies for minerals including uranium ore. The track was in the process of being graded after they’d had record rainfall and was not particularly smooth.

It was also very steep in places. In the end it took us 3 hours to travel 21 km.

Sillers Lookout

Back at the village we had a cooling swim in the surprisingly refreshing pool and later climbed up the hill next to the village for a view as the sun set. After dinner there was an astronomy talk using some high technology telescopes with views of the stars projected onto a couple of large screens.

The next day we did a couple of bush walks near the village. There was a transfer organised for 9am but given that it was heating up we thought it’d be better to start earlier. After a brief chat with Doug, the owner, he offered to drop us off about 5km along the road, at the start of the Acacia Ridge walk. He was taking some other visitors to the airstrip for a scenic flight around the area.

Acacia Ridge

As the chief pilot, and having grown up in the area and studied geology, Doug takes all these flights personally so passengers get a really impressive description of the area they fly over. As we walked along the track they flew over the top.

Walking down Acacia Ridge towards the village
Arkaroola Village from Griselda’s Hill

That evening was a barbecue for all the guests where we met up with a few other travellers, none of whom was travelling by light aircraft.

On Thursday 14th April it was time to depart the Flinders Ranges and South Australia. After breakfast I submitted my IFR flight notification at the village, knowing that I wouldn’t have a mobile signal out at the airstrip. One of Doug’s drivers drove us out and waited patiently as we untied the plane, did the preflight checks and started up. Their policy is never to leave the guests until the plane has taken off and disappeared into the distance which is great. I wouldn’t want to be left stranded there with a plane that wouldn’t start and no means of communication.

We took off and I orbited above the airstrip as we climbed to 5000ft so I could contact Melbourne Centre on the radio and make my departure call, before setting course to the north and climbing to 7000ft. We passed over the Arkaroola Village once again then turned to the east. The Beverley Uranium Mine appeared just east of the ranges and we heard a FIFO plane making its approach from the south. There is a small processing plant that leaches the uranium ore and produces yellowcake (U3O8) for export to the USA.

Beverley Uranium Processing Plant

Further east we passed the northern end of Lake Frome, one of the huge salt lakes in northern South Australia.

Lake Frome

The country was fairly featureless as we tracked for White Cliffs, an opal mining town in the far west of New South Wales.

White Cliffs

Once again I’d phoned up the day before to make sure that someone would meet us at the airstrip. I rang again as soon as we were on the ground and a car turned up shortly after we’d tied the plane down and removed the things for an overnight stay.

Ardi, the manager of the Underground Motel, was originally from Iran. He was probably mid 30s and has lived in White Cliffs for about 8 years. He gave us a bit of a run down on the town as we headed in. We dropped into his “dugout” – an old underground residence that he’s restoring to make into an AirBNB. It looks like it’ll be great. Meanwhile, we were staying at the motel, where we dropped our bags and Ardi dropped us off at the pub for lunch.

Underground Motel

White Cliffs mixes tourism with opal mining, offering visitors a unique perspective to outback living. As he’d left us, Ardi had suggested we do a “dug out” tour at 2pm and an opal mine tour at 3pm. So we did. There are around 100 dugout homes still in use in White Cliffs, making them fascinating to visit. Walking up to the “White House Dug Out” we found ourselves in what appeared to be a bit of a junk yard. The owner Lindsay White welcomed us into the house and we were literally gobsmacked. It was like walking into a Vogue magazine. The beautifully carved residence that Lindsay shares with his partner, artist Cree Marshall and that they have renovated over the past 5 years, has something at every corner that caught our eyes — an ornamental wooden harp, the towering tree stump standing at the centre of the circular kitchen, and recycled geometric floor tiles. Everything is made from second hand materials, and therefore, according to Lindsay, the fitout was amazingly cheap.

The tour was $15 each and Lindsay said most of the fee is donated to the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

He is currently working on the outdoor part (ie the “junkyard” including a spa bath with a view) so welcomed us back in one or two years once the work is done.

200 metres down the road is the Red Opal Café. Opal is still being found at White Cliffs and what better way to get an insight into the historic diggings of the 1890s than by visiting an underground working opal mine? After a bit of a spiel about opal mining in the café, owner and miner Graeme walked us down an access tunnel into his mine and showed us how he finds the elusive stones using modern mining techniques. He shared stories of mining that he started at age 14 under the tutelage of his father and the number of brilliant opal “pineapples” he’s found, that have only ever been found in White Cliffs. Most of the stones sell at a gem fair that’s held annually in the USA. Graeme and his wife Sacha sell their biggest rocks there. They regularly go for tens of thousands of dollars each and some have fetched up to one million US$.

Pineapple opal

White Cliffs and Graeme feature in an ABC TV Backroads episode from 2018.

Graeme demonstrates his bucket elevator

We caught a lift back to the Underground Motel with a friendly family from Lightning Ridge and were in time to catch the sunset from the top of the “stairway to heaven”. That’s a long set of stairs that leads to the roof of the motel and provides a clear view out west towards South Australia. Beer in hand we admired the view, noticing the airstrip in the distance.

Stairway to heaven

Dinner was at the motel where the cook’s teenage nephew was trying his hand at waiting on customers, one of the problems of full employment and lack of backpackers to fill the gaps. It was a bit of a mix up and the food was not as good as at the pub but it was still passable.

Friday the 15th April was Good Friday. It was time to head for home. We rose early and walked around town as the sunrise lit up the hills with a magical light.

One of the local residents, Doug Tropey, has an outdoor gallery of welded art, so we walked past there to enjoy his hundreds of small sculptures and a few big ones.

Back at the motel it was a simple continental breakfast. I submitted my flight notification and Ardi’s girlfriend took us out to the airstrip.

Not long after we were climbing out and tracking to Burke, where we could refuel. There was an AirLink RPT aircraft on the tarmac so I had a quick chat to the pilot who had to wait there for 4 hours until the scheduled flight back to Dubbo. At least he had a pleasant enough terminal building to spend his time in.

Taking off again we headed to Dirranbandi. The main attraction there was that the airstrip is only 300 metres from the main street so it was an easy walk into town. On the descent we passed by Cubby Station and its enormous dams.

Although it was Good Friday, the Café 22 was open for business (we’d checked their Facebook page) and was a great spot for a bit of lunch.

We couldn’t resist the Dirranbandi Bakery too, famous for its Russian delicacies including a quite different type of vanilla slice. There was a sign up declaring that they support Ukraine, just to set the record straight.

Dirranbandi

After a short walk around along the main street we were back at the aircraft and taking off once more, this time direct to Redcliffe. We passed over Wellcamp Airport at 9000ft and then with cloud building as we approached the coast, descended into Redcliffe through about 20 minutes of IMC under the watchful eyes of ATC.

Wellcamp Airport

We popped out of the clouds at about 4000 ft and found ourselves visual over Lake Samsonvale.

Lake Samsonvale

Putting the plane away we agreed it had been a really good trip and demonstrated once again what a great aircraft the Cirrus SR22 is for touring around the country. Thanks again to owner Mike for giving us the opportunity to use it.

1 thought on “Southern Explorer Trip

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