Into and over the outback on a two-week aerial safari
TAKING to the skies in a Cessna 404 Titan ( wing span 14.12m; length 12.04m), I’m heading off with eight fellow adventurers bent on exploring the outback.
We leave from Melbourne’s Essendon airport with Air Adventure Australia on a 14-day trip that will see us visiting cattle stations, billabongs, towering outback red-earth monuments, desert and wetlands. With our small group and small plane, there is a particular tone to this trip. We cruise at 8000ft on most legs or 3000ft when the flight is very brief, so it feels more like an overland journey than an aboveclouds commute.
The watercolour abstraction of Lake Eyre, the wrinkled ancient claypans and weird parallels between outback art and desert landscape are tantalisingly close beneath us. Our flirtation with the land is sustained by short legs (one a mere 15 minutes), ground visits and four two-night stays.
Setting out, we fly over Bendigo, Mildura and the Murray and Darling rivers, while tour leader Diana passes marked maps and notes pointing out landmarks. Our first touchdown is at Broken Hill for refuelling and coffee. Our first full visit is for lunch at Muloorina Station, between Lake Eyre and the Strzelecki Desert in South Australia. Two fourthgeneration daughters of this cattle station tell us about family history and life on this remote land, baked and seamed like red rawhide.
More than 100 bird species here include wedge-tailed eagles, parrots, little green budgies and three brolgas that turn up every winter.
Steaming bore water, at more than 50C, gushes from deep down. A timeless-looking shelter of tree stumps and thatch, relic of the camel depot once here, still stands.
Skirting the old Oodnadatta Track, we fly on over red-brown earth washed with green, sandy ochre and white-frosted salt pans towards Cooper Pedy, our first overnight stop.
There are strange treasures tucked into Coober Pedy’s weird lunar landscape. We discover clumps of vivid wildflowers, an underground mining museum with original subterranean kitchen and camp bed, and the Serbian Orthodox church of the Holy Prophet Elijah, built into the red-veined cliff face and rich with icon- faces of the prophets on arched panels of backlit glass.
Elaborate figures sculpted in wood, or into the church’s cliffface walls, are by a New Zealand wood-carver. Coober Pedy’s famed underground dwellings are largely above ground, but under earth, burrowed into rock faces and hillsides.
As sunset gathers on our first day in the outback, it is pure pleasure to sip cool Coonawarra bubbles above the dramatic iron-red Breakaway Ranges. We’ve left our ostrich feathers and rhinestonestudded platforms at home (luggage restrictions), but feel just as light-headed as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, when she strutted her stuff against this otherworldly background, as strange as everything else in Cooper Pedy.
The following morning we head for Alice Springs, the old Ghan Railway line beneath us and the Simpson Desert off to our right. Networks of dry river and creek beds lined with dark trees look like the complex veins and arteries of a vast leaf, or lung.
The Finke River is a serpent of dry earth with slender etchings of water like the last snow left on roadsides in very different climates.
As we approach the town, the Macdonnell Ranges smudge the horizon and the white-domed cluster of the controversial Cold War defence research facility Pine Gap is a tiny mark at their feet.
Out of Alice, we drive between the Ghan Railway line and the Todd River, then through red rock, bleached grass and white gum trunks against a pale sky and horizon of mauve peaks; it’s Albert Namatjira country. We pass a road sign to Hermannsburg, where Namatjira was born, into the Lutheran Mission’s Arrernte community. The landscape seems to echo his paintings.
Reaching Standley Chasm, we walk between the towering redochre walls, an idyll of wildflowers, pools and shaded, rocky paths. Some in the group are slower than others and we wait while everyone, at their own pace, reaches the innermost point of the rock defile, a moment no one who comes here should miss.
From Standley Chasm we drive to Alice Springs Desert Park and, after a cafe lunch, wander off on paths of our own to explore constructed habitats, including a meandering billabong quietly rustling with wading birds. A raptor display and a nocturnal house of shadowy, big-eyed desert creatures should not be missed.
Our third morning finds us circling Katherine Gorge and Katherine River, heading for Point Stuart for a two-night, bushcamp stay and a cruise in the Mary River Wetlands, between Litchfield and Kakadu national parks east of Darwin.
Setting out from Rockhole Billabong, our cruise is quietly eventful. Waterside pandanus clumps shelter gangs of plumed whistling ducks. Slender white necks crane imperiously above a j ungle of broad leaves and hot-pink lotus flowers. Herons and egrets skim across the bow of our boat.
We spot sashaying, longlegged jabiru and brolga, magpie geese, white-bellied sea eagles, kites, darters, ibises, dottrels, terns and Burdekin ducks. The quiet water echoes with birdcalls. Lilies and other flowers are everywhere (we taste fresh lotus seeds and stalks and cress-like water spinach). And the crocodiles. There are so many, but Fang — maybe 7m long, perhaps 75 years old, and as black as night — is the grandaddy of them all.
My fellow travellers continue on from Darwin, our next stop, for two days at Faraway Bay on WA’S northerly tip, more station visits, Broome, Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Meanwhile, I head back to my desk in Sydney. I imagine a note hastily pinned to my door back home: Gone fishin’ instead of just a-wishin’ . . .
But I have one more visit, a 15-minute flight out of Darwin to Bathurst Island, and it will stay with me. Our Tiwi guide, Trevor Tipungwuti, says his ancestors used to paddle across to Darwin to make war. How times have changed. This island, population about 1500, is a haven of peace. People are at work painting and carving, and traditional practices continue alongside Catholicism.
‘ ‘ The missionaries brought Aussie rules as well as Christianity,’’ Trevor says.
Football is a religion here. And, on our left, the new crocodile-free area is the recently completed swimming pool.
There is no grog and no fast food, but Trevor thinks he might open a Trevor Mcdonald’s Bush Tucker Takeaway. We share billy tea and fire-baked damper and later lunch, like a Sunday School picnic, on trestle tables in the open air. Above all we make new friends. We don’t spend time in towns on this Air Adventure Australia tour. Alice Springs and Darwin are largely bypassed in favour of surrounding country.
Stays are at good local hotels or bush-camp accommodation, interspersed with more luxurious moments such as a two-night stay at Cable Beach Club Resort & Spa in Broome and a good dinner (despite some forgotten dishes) at Essence Restaurant, Rydges Darwin Airport Resort, truly more a resort than whistlestop digs. Judith Elen was a guest of Air Adventure Australia.
Passengers enjoy a drink at sunset after arriving at Home Valley Station in Western Australia’s East Kimberley region
The Serbian Orthodox church of the Holy Prophet Elijah, built into a cliff face at Coober Pedy
Fang, a grandaddy of a croc in wetlands east of Darwin