Plane to see this rugged brown land
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.