Low-fly­ing ad­ven­ture

Into and over the out­back on a two-week aerial sa­fari

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - JU­DITH ELEN

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

PIC­TURES: JU­DITH ELEN

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

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