The sky’s the limit – See the bigger picture on an air safari

Some of the many islands that make up the Buccaneer Archipelago.

Rod Pascoe

Availability of comfortable 4×4 vehicles, camper trailers and motor homes along with improved roads and accommodation, has enabled Australians to go almost anywhere in this big brown land.

Whether travelling all the way around the country or shorter trips to somewhere closer to home, we have all taken a road journey at some time. Every year by road and, frequently off-road, an increasing number of Australians have access to spectacular destinations with magnificent flora and fauna, historic locations and artefacts as well as meeting like-minded people on their adventure of a lifetime. However, not content to do what most of us do, I have found a growing band of people taking to the sky to see the great Australian outdoors from a totally different perspective.

But already you’re asking: ‘How does this story relate to me? I don’t fly or own an aeroplane.’ Answer: All you need is an interest in travel and flying. Many flying clubs host activities where pilots with their family and friends gather at some destination within a couple of hours flying time from home.

This could be as simple as a day trip from Canberra exploring the south coast of NSW then landing in Moruya for a seafood lunch or something a bit longer such as flying to the Birdsville races. These organised activities may involve five, 10 or more aircraft and are also intended to attract non-pilots to the joys of flying. Some may eventually join a club and learn to fly while others literally just go along for the ride.

Longer flying quests are regularly set up by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). One of AOPA’s objectives is to bring the aviation community together with arranged flying activities such as air safaris. But, as George Higgins, AOPA’s Assistant Events Coordinator, explained: “Not everyone who comes on one of our air safaris is a pilot or indeed owns their own plane. In fact, air safaris serve a multitude of purposes apart from the camaraderie and great touring exploits. Not everyone has been in a light aircraft before but they are all interested in flying and travel.”

Since 2016 AOPA have been coordinating trips to Coober Pedy, Cape York and surrounding islands and the Great Barrier Reef. AOPA’s most recent air safari was a 14-day trip to the Kimberley region of Western Australia that kicked off from the Northern Territory town of Katherine. Although Katherine is accessible by commercial airlines, Higgins said the magic is all about the activities once you arrive there. “You get a privileged view of the country’s most spectacular scenery that you don’t see from the road or from 35,000 feet in a commercial jet,”he said.

Flying to the Katherine assembly point was an venture on its own with most travellers flying hundreds of kilometres from their home bases to be there. For some, this was their first exposure to long-distance cross-country aviation.

Once the 28 people and 12 aircraft assembled at Katherine, the escapade began with a welcome dinner at Stormy’s Bar and Bistro. This brief diary account of the next 13 days reads like the perfect way to experience Australia’s wilderness.

The next day was spent exploring the Katherine Museum, Katherine School of the Air and visiting Top Didj Cultural Experience and Art Gallery. The schedule was capped off with dinner against the magnificent backdrop of the Nitmiluk Gorge.

On the third day part of the group headed to the Bungle Bungles to make the Cathedral Gorge guided walk and the remainder to Home Valley Station for a two-day stay. There was also the option of a fishing charter to catch barramundi.

The group that went to Home Valley Station travelled down to the Bungle Bungles and arrived in time for the Cathedral Gorge and Domes guided walk, which included a stroll along the sandy bed of Piccaninny Creek.

The following day the combined group flew to Derby via Halls Creek for the night. This spectacular route provided the opportunity for some aerial sight-seeing of the Purnululu National Park. Afternoon sight-seeing followed in Derby ‑ the Derby Wharf, Wharfinger House Museum, Mowanjum Art Gallery, Norval Gallery, Old Derby Gaol and the Boab Prison Tree.

On day seven the group flew to Cockatoo Island and on to Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm where the greatest volume of water passes through the Horizontal Falls. After this, they flew over the Buccaneer Archipelago, a spectacular area consisting of 1000 rocky islands. That evening, at the Cygnet Bay lookout, they enjoyed a seafood barbecue while the full moon rose across the exposed tidal flats, creating the impression of a staircase leading to the moon.

After breakfast on the eighth day the group took a guided tour of the Borrgoron Coast to explore the tidal flats and forage for oysters. The highlight of this tour was the emergence of a reef with a cascading waterfall on the outgoing tides.

On the ninth day the group left the Dampier Peninsular and flew to Drysdale River Station for a stay of three nights. Around 6am some opted for an additional cruise to experience the power of the world’s largest tropical tides in Escape Passage, cruising among the giant whirlpools and standing tidal waves.

On the next day there were a couple of options. Some of the group made an early start to the aptly named Faraway Bay for a boat cruise to the majestic King George Falls while others flew to Kalumburu and made a detour to overfly King George Falls.

The 11th day was another early start for the visit to Mitchell Falls, one of the Kimberley’s iconic waterfalls. The first aircraft arrived just before 9am for helicopter rides. The scenic opportunities continued on the flight home, with one route tracking to Mount Trafalgar over Prince Frederick Harbour, following the Prince Regent River until Mount Hann before ending back at Drysdale River Station.

The next day was a relaxing session of flying to the iconic El Questro Station. After settling in on arrival, most took a leisurely stroll following the Pentecost River, leading to a collection of safe, shallow swimming holes for a dip.

The next day’s highlight was the full Emma Gorge tour, which started with a guided walk up Emma Gorge, a soak in Zebedee Springs, a ‘beef or barra’ lunch at The Steakhouse followed by an afternoon on a Chamberlain Gorge cruise.

The final night of the Kimberley air safari was spent in Kununurra. The short flight from El Questro provided plenty of time for some shopping and sightseeing. The Barra Shak was the venue for the final dinner.

AOPA’s George Higgins says that while some aircraft are privately owned others are hired from flying schools. “When people enquire about joining an air safari, pilots are asked if they would be prepared to take passengers. This is the opportunity for non-pilots to join a once in a lifetime aerial adventure,” he said.

Accommodation, ground transport, some tours and meals are booked by AOPA and paid for up front. Participants can book and pay for additional activities along the way such as cruises, tours and helicopter rides.

Doing your own thing

Mitch and Anna met at a flying school about six years ago where they both planned to make a career in commercial aviation. However, neither went that far. Not that they have any regrets about cutting their flying course short after both gained their Private Pilot Licences. Now married and running a printing business, they say they have it better than their commercial airline counterparts; they fly where they want, when they want and with who they want. Their goal is to use their flying skills to one day circumnavigate Australia in much the same way as many grey nomads do in four-wheel drives.

The couple don’t have an aircraft of their own. Instead they are part of a group of seven people who share a Cessna 182 single-engine four-seater. This syndicate of owners works in much the same way as a time-share holiday apartment or a houseboat. This system functions well and for one member, who has young children, scheduling around school holidays has never been a problem for others in the group. Owners each pay a seventh share in all costs associated with the aircraft such as maintenance, registration and insurance.

While both agree that the air safari concept is a fantastic holiday experience, neither have been able to lock into a pre-planned tour due to the uncertainties of their business commitments. Up to now most of their holidays have been three or four-day trips visiting family and friends in northern and western NSW. Their last trip was a three-day excursion into western NSW to Broken Hill via Orange and Narromine.

They used the Broken Hill trip as a dress rehearsal for a much bigger itinerary where they plan to fly north from Sydney to Tamworth to spend time with friends then north again to Brisbane. From there, inland to Mount Isa via Roma and Winton. From Mount Isa they will fly west to Tennant Creek and follow the Stuart Highway south to Alice Springs and Coober Pedy.

Using their cross-country navigation skills they will fly onto the Flinders Rangers in South Australia and then back home via Broken Hill. They will drop into Dubbo to spend time with other family members. They have estimated it will take 15 days although their plan will be flexible enough so they can shorten their track to make up time but both are confident that a September trip shouldn’t present any weather delays.

The only cost of running the aircraft, other than their syndicate obligations, is fuel so they can spend as long as they like on the ground ‑ when the engine is not running. Some council-owned and privately-owned airports do require a small landing fee to cover maintenance of facilities. As with most things in life the more thorough the planning, the better the experience.

Anna finds one of the most satisfying aspects to any flight, long or short, is in the planning and she relishes taking on the task. She slaves over maps and aviation publications that contain all the information required for flight planning, airports and airstrips, airspace restrictions and limitations.

Once all the preparation is done in the weeks and months leading up to the departure date, Anna and Mitch will arrange accommodation and ground transport at their landing points. Making sure fuel is available when they arrive there is also vital and they may have to make arrangements to have fuel trucked in to a remote airstrip. Aviation publications will also show where specified processes need to be followed around specific locations; many of which are popular tourist attractions. Fly Neighbourly Advice tells aviators about special procedures around sensitive areas and zones that are to be avoided for one reason or another. For example, how high you must fly around Uluru and in which direction.

Flying or driving to your destination involves many of the same considerations ‑ time off work, cost, what to pack, do you travel self-supported or in a group? Where to stay and for how long and what to do when you are there. Flying away on a short weekend trip or for a longer holiday is available to anyone with an interest in flying and travel.

Higgins said it all: “Flying in a light aircraft is something that everyone should experience some time in their life. Either as a pilot or as a passenger, the view from up there is sensational.”

Some council-owned and privately-owned airports require a small landing fee to cover maintenance of facilities.
When flying in Designated Remote Areas, rules apply to make sure everyone is safe should the aircraft make a forced landing.
On approach to Mount Isa airport.
This oil rig appeared from nowhere.
The better the planning, the better the experience.
The Kimberley air safari route.
The magnitude of the impressive World Heritage-listed Bungle Bungle Range is best appreciated by air.

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