Articles, Training

Cirrus in the Outback

Posted on Sep 1, 2019 by Eric Keys

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The Cirrus life to me is to explore Australia in comfort and style. Ours is a vast country, slightly smaller than the United States but with a fraction of the population and infrastructure. For many Australians, retirement means buying a Caravan and towing it to see the features of this great land girt by sea. For my wife Regine and I, using our SR22 G5 means the best of the Outback is only hours away.

The news that the usually bone-dry Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre was filling with water signaled the opportunity for a new Outback adventure. I’m told the lake only fills once every 10 years, so it only took a couple of phone calls to find friends willing to tag along. Our first stop was Arkaroola, in the Flinders Ranges, before flying over the lake and then returning via Andamooka and Port Lincoln. Four nights away for a trip that would take three weeks by road.

Any trip to the Australian Outback requires careful planning. Will fuel be available? What about ground transport? I have a parachute, but do I have the supplies I need as I wait to be rescued? When traveling in remote areas, I am reminded of Keith Anderson’s ill-fated attempt to rescue Kingsford- Smith. As Keith was refueling his Westland Widgeon in Alice Springs, his mechanic urged him to leave one can of fuel behind and take some water. Anderson replied, “No thanks, petrol is worth more to me than water.” One can only speculate how he may have regretted that decision as he and Bob Hitchcock perished in the Tanami Desert. I know as soon as I miss my SARTIME (through Australia Services, the time selected by a pilot for the initiation of Search and Rescue action), people will be out looking for me, but I always carry food and at least 10 liters of water.

The weather gods smiled upon us for our departure with the Bureau of Metrology promising five days of fine weather. I planned to enjoy tailwinds most of the way by flying anticlockwise around the forecast high-pressure system. We departed Essendon and tracked to Mildura for fuel before we ventured into the Outback proper. On departure, a slight detour allowed us to overfly the junction of the Murray and Darling, Australia’s two iconic rivers, before heading north to Broken Hill.

The Royal Flying Doctors Service (RFDS) base in Broken Hill is a regular stop whenever I have passengers new to the Outback. The Clive Bishop Medical Center welcomes visitors with a historical display and a tour of the center to explain the essential health care the service provides to the remote areas of Australia. On this visit, I learned the original hangar is being transformed into a display of historical RFDS aircraft, including Australia’s own Nomad and a de Havilland Drover. From Broken Hill it was a short flight over Lake Frome to the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary.

Australian geologist Reg Sprigg established Arkaroola as Australia’s first private Wilderness Sanctuary in 1968 and lays claim to be one of the world’s greatest geological open-air museums. It is also home to rare Australian wildlife. The area is renowned for its clear skies, making it home to no less than six observatories. The sanctuary is now run by Reg’s children, Doug and Margaret. Doug is a well-known Outback airman and always has time for visiting pilots. We spent two nights at Arkaroola enjoying bush walks, the unforgettable ridge top and observatory tours. An unexpected treat was the impressive display of solar shots by “PK,” a self-proclaimed guerilla astronomer who was in residence. Arkaroola is currently suffering from three years without rain. This meant that our pre-dinner entertainment was watching the staff hand feed the Yellow Footed Rock Wallabies and offering euros to avoid this endangered species suffering a terminal decline. In what seemed like no time at all Doug was driving us back to the airstrip for our flight over the Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre.

Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre is about an hour flight from Arkaroola, with a quick refuel at the old coal mining town of Leigh Creek. No trip to the lake is complete without overflying the Maree Man, a modern geoglyph ploughed into the desert by persons unknown. Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre is 50 feet below sea level and is the largest lake in Australia on the rare occasions it fills with water. The rest of the time it is a large dry salt pan. It was a surreal experience as we flew for an hour over this large expanse of flat, shallow water, largely devoid of life. It’s not until we reached the Warburton River at the northern end that we saw pelicans and other bird life. The radio was a constant stream of position reports from the scenic flights operating out of William Creek and elsewhere. The staff at Wrightsair (a scenic flight and charter specialist) are always happy to provide advice on local procedures and the latest conditions for anyone not familiar with the area. After viewing the lake, we stopped for lunch at William Creek on the Oodandatta track before heading south to Andamooka via the Painted Hills, a series of mesas providing a spectacular change in scenery.

The Andamooka airstrip was closed in 2013 after Western Mining built an all-weather runway for the Olympic Dam mine. Visiting pilots should note that the operator requires three days’ notice of any visit. We took a hired car from the airport for the last 30km to the old mining town of Andamooka.

Andamooka was built after opal gems were discovered in the 1930s and reached its peak in the 1980s when the Olympic Dam mine was developed. The development of the new town of Roxby Downs saw the relocation of many local services causing the population to decline and local businesses to close. Two surviving businesses, the Dukes Motel and Tucker Box Restaurant, offer friendly, albeit dated, service. The town itself has an “other world” feel of a bygone era when anyone could stake a claim and dig for opal. Its cemetery displays the unique humor of people who work and party hard.

Port Lincoln, the fishing capital of Australia, famous for its tuna, kingfish and oysters was our last stop before heading home. On our way there we flew over Wilpena Pound, the iconic geological landmark of the Flinders Ranges and refueled at the steelmaking town of Whyalla, which sits at the northern end of Spencer’s Gulf. As we approached Port Lincoln, I was kept busy tracking all the RPT (Regular Public Transport) and flying school traffic in the circuit. The greenery was a welcome change from the dry and dusty conditions of the Outback. We finally managed to clear the dust from our throats after we found the Beer Garden Brewery at the end of the main street. Later that evening, we treated ourselves to a magnificent seafood dinner for the last night of our Outback adventure.

Heading home we flew eastward enjoying views of Kangaroo Island, the mouth of the Murray River, the Coorong, the Blue Lake of Mt Gambier and the Twelve Apostles along Victoria’s great ocean road. The whole trip took five days, 14 hours of flying and we gained a lifetime of memories.

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