Plane to see this rugged brown land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - News -

AN ac­ro­bat­ics pilot I barely knew, Ian Cust, had spent the win­ter run­ning joy flights out of Broome in West­ern Aus­tralia in an open­cock­pit bi­plane painted with the liv­ery of the Red Baron. When he in­vited me to ac­com­pany him on a 3000km transcontinental odyssey to Gee­long in Vic­to­ria, it was an ad­ven­ture too good to pass up.

‘‘ The rains are com­ing,’’ he said by way of greet­ing in Broome, and I knew that we would soon have to leave. At 4am the fol­low­ing day he handed me a leather hel­met with ear­muffs and showed me how to climb up the fuse­lage with­out dam­ag­ing the avi­a­tion-grade pa­per from which much of the plane was con­structed.

His cock­pit, po­si­tioned to the rear, was sparsely dec­o­rated with lev­ers and di­als. I sat in front, wedged be­tween the ra­tions and wa­ter. The en­gine started and the mango-scented trop­i­cal air was over­whelmed by ex­haust fumes. The pro­pel­ler wound up to a blur and we took off into the predawn glow, leav­ing be­hind the sil­ver man­groves and the moon. Cust pointed at the colours and tex­tures of the earth blend­ing like an oil patch on a drive­way. It was vast and bor­der­less. Oc­ca­sion­ally I felt a tap on my shoul­der as he reached the short dis­tance be­tween our cock­pits to pass me an ap­ple. Like bom­bardiers, we watched our dis­carded cores fall thou­sands of feet.

The desert airstrips we landed at were marked by shred­ded wind­socks. When we ar­rived nois­ily at Balgo Mis­sion, on the border of the Great Sandy and Tanami deserts in WA, we were the star at­trac­tion. The whole town came out to see us, packed pre­car­i­ously on car roofs, win­dows long since gone.

Dur­ing the day, the wind and heat and noise of the open cock­pit leached us of our con­ver­sa­tional pow­ers for the evening to come. We sat mutely in the homes of strangers kind enough to take us in and re­hy­drated on wa­ter tast­ing of dust.

When we crossed the McDonnell Ranges and landed at Mount Dare, it was mid­day and al­ready 49C. The cows on the run­way moved grudg­ingly when we buzzed them but the bar­man was alert, cheery and al­ready at his post. Two of the town’s res­i­dents had driven into Alice Springs, leav­ing Mount Dare with a pop­u­la­tion of one. ‘‘ I’d of­fer you a pie but we just chucked them out as they were too mouldy. You can have a schnitzel sand­wich though,’’ he of­fered.

Back up in the air I could taste the brood­ing storm. We flew through clouds to moisten our tongues. A tap on my shoul­der; an ea­gle soared along­side. It eyed us cau­tiously, then banked away to safer skies. When the storm hit, we were above Lake Eyre, flooded to the size of an in­land sea. The cloud had the shape of a nu­clear catas­tro­phe. Light­ning flashed off the tips of our wings. The pro­pel­ler sprayed us with greasy rain­drops. The up­draft hauled us dan­ger­ously sky­ward faster than we could fly at the ground.

We made it to earth just min­utes ahead of the main del­uge and spent fran­tic mo­ments belt­ing metal stakes into the brit­tle earth with sledge­ham­mers to tie down the plane, then stood drenched and ex­hausted. Our four-day odyssey held many more ad­ven­tures. The ex­cite­ment we felt found ex­pres­sion in a tap on the shoul­der, a pointed fin­ger, a thumbs-up.

When the trip was over and we re­moved our ear­muffs in Gee­long, all Cust said was, That was all right.’’ Some jour­neys are be­yond words.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.