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 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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