Aircruising in Northern Australia
Over the past few years I have seen some fantastic sights from the air – coming in low over Los Angeles early evening with millions of lights twinkling below; flying close to the snow-covered slopes of Mt. McKinley in Alaska; looking for polar bears on the tundra of northern Canada; gazing deep into the crevasses of glaciers in the High Arctic on Svalbard; seeing New Zealand’s Southern Alps and Milford Sound from the air; following the coastline of the Australian Antarctic Territory, and over-flying my favourite Pacific island, Lord Howe. But nothing had prepared me for the trip I took early July this year when I flew in a small 8-seater Cessna low over Australia’s Northern Territory and the “Red Centre”.
We left fog-bound Melbourne, flew through a brief snow-storm and headed to a warm and sunny Alice Springs – well, warm during the day, freezing at night! The Alice has certainly grown in size since I was last there 40-odd years ago. It has been described as “a town surrounded by hundreds of miles of desert in every direction.” True!! However the changing colours of the nearby MacDonnell Ranges remained as fascinating and as beautiful as ever whilst tourists still flocked by the dozens to catch the sun shining straight down into the narrow Standley Chasm at mid-day.
Our next flight took us further north to a newly-opened de-luxe fishing camp (the Point Stuart Wilderness Lodge) in the Mary River Wetlands. Some of the group fished for barramundi whilst others kept an eye open for crocodiles. We saw plenty of crocs the following day, plus numerous species of birds, as we quietly floated down the peaceful Mary River. The pet of the Camp was Rocco, the baby brahman bull abandoned by its mother and adopted and fed by the Lodge owners.
Off the northern coast of Australia lies Bathurst Island, the traditional home of the Tiwi people. We had arranged to fly across to the island and, even though it was a public holiday, the local tourist guide opened up the magnificent church and museum. Tucked away in a corner of the latter I was fascinated to see the original HF radio which had been used to warn Darwin in 1942 that Japanese planes had just been sighted on their way for the first bombing of Australia. The message was received but ignored for various reasons, with disastrous results. We were also told the delightful story of the local Preacher who had 150 wives – young girls from surrounding villages kept coming to him asking him to marry them so they could avoid marriage to the old men their tribe leaders had picked out for them. The ex-prospective husbands then returned happily to their villages with a pig or cow instead of a wife whilst the Preacher passed on the girls to more suitable younger men.
Back on the mainland, the city of Darwin (capital of VK8) was our next stop. Seeing this bustling thriving city today, it was hard to imagine how it looked during the war and after being flattened on Christmas Eve, 1974, by Cyclone Tracy, though the comprehensive display of photos in the museum tells a very graphic story.
We next touched down on the carefully tended landing strip of another fishing camp on the edge of the King George River, far away from any towns. After a choppy crossing to the mouth of the actual river, we quietly glided down it between high redstone layered walls reputed to be 1-1/2 billion years old. The variation of the colours of the stone was amazing. The head of the river came from a waterfall under which we sat, toasting our surroundings in champagne!
On the north-west coast of VK, Broome is another thriving city – to me it seemed to be full of tourists, but then it was school holidays. Broome is the centre of Australia’s pearl industry, and the large, tranquil “Japanese” cemetery where the early JA divers are buried was fascinating to wander through. Next to it is a separate cemetery dedicated to past missionaries, with headstones showing where they had originally come from and where they served in VK. Our overnighter was at Cable
Beach Club Resort, a HUGE 5-star complex where one could easily get lost – and I did! Just before sunset the kitchen provided us with a couple of platters of scrumptious snacks plus champagne while we sat on the beach watching a string of camels pass by, silhouetted against the setting sun.
Our last fishing camp stopover Home Valley was a brand-new set of cabins ruled over by Chloe, a lovable dog who had a passion for playing pool. As soon as someone picked up a pool cue, Chloe would race to the opposite end of the table, stick her nose up there and try to nudge the ball. Very cute!
“The Red Centre” could not be passed over without a visit to Aboriginal land – Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas – just 48 km west of Uluru), both very special places to the Aborigines and are considered one of the great wonders of the world.. Sunrises and sunsets at both places are very spectacular, changing the rocks from dark (black) to bright (red) in a short time – I also remember from years gone past that it is very cold at that time of day/night –hi! The new 5-star hotel much more appreciated than a tent! This trip was the first time I had seen the rocks from the air – much easier than climbing Ayers Rock which is now forbidden.
Coober Pedy has certainly changed! Even the main street is paved nowdays! But we still slept underground – the hotel was set into the side of a hill and was quite warm with comfortable rooms. And Coober Pedy is where I saw the one and only TH3 on the whole trip but, unfortunately, I didn’t have time to go and visit. It is world famous for its underground homes, churches, shops and other
tourist attractions. We were shown over a sample underground home – no way, thank you! When seen from a plane the surface is like that of the moon with large holes about 1 metre in diameter. There is even a golf course though the “greens” are fashioned from soft stone, not grass.
Then back home – we flew a total of 7749 km from the bottom of Australia (Melbourne) to the top (Bathurst Island), out west to Broome and back through the “Centre”. I saw country I would never have seen from a bus or car. It was a great experience, and we were treated royally with 5-star accommodation which included 3 bottles of wine on the table to go with each evening meal!
Unfortunately I appeared to have brought home with me a couple of nasty bugs which settled into
my bloodstream and meant a 6-week stay in hospital before the docs. could persuade them to leave me alone!! However, I also brought home some happy memories of good company (there were only 9 of us plus pilot) and wonderful scenery.