Somewhere beyond our Cessna 172's windscreen, the world must still exist. Somewhere out there must be a sky, a horizon, stars, and-a few thousand feet below us-an arid landscape dotted with spinifex grass, red sand ridges and dry river beds winding their way across the vast, uninhabited stretches of the Simpson Desert. At the moment, however, I have to take all that on faith, because the only thing I can see beyond the dimly-lit instrument panel is an impenetrable ocean of moonless black, with no lights, depth, color or contrast to differentiate ground from sky, or even give us any sense of movement. It all feels slightly surreal, in fact, as if I've suddenly been transported from an actual airplane into a simulator chamber where I could simply push the "pause" button and step outside for a quick break.
Of course, even if I could see the stars here, they wouldn't be much use to me in terms of navigation. Because the North Star and all the constellations I know are buried far beneath the horizon, along with the rest of the northern hemisphere. And if the night surrounding me is blacker than any sky I've ever even imagined, it's because I'm flying over one of the more remote places in the world-the wild, rugged landscape of the Australian Outback.
I'd always dreamed of exploring the Outback one day. But the impetus to actually make the trip happen occurred this past September when a couple of Australian pilot friends invited me to come to Australia and fly with them to the Birdsville races in southwest Queensland-a legendary annual Aussie event (and fly-in) that combines an Outback beer-fest with formal, Kentucky Derby-style thoroughbred horse racing. And then one of them, who happens to be a CFII, offered to accompany me if I wanted to do some more flying around the Outback after that. It was too good an offer to refuse. So I packed up my duffel bag, a sleeping bag and some sturdy desert boots and headed off to see how the reality of the Australian Outback compared with the fantasy land of my teenage dreams.
The Birdsville horse races attract not only the entire town (a population of about 50), but several thousand people from all across Australia. That attendance figure is especially impressive because getting to Birdsville from any of Australia's population centers requires a journey of two to three days over muddy, rutted, and otherwise unimproved dirt roads. Unless, of course, you have an airplane. The Birdsville races are also Australia's biggest fly-in, attracting up to 350 aircraft each year. And one look at all the mud-covered road vehicles that straggled into the dusty campgrounds there was enough to convince me all over again of how valuable a pilot's license can be-especially in a part of the world where the number of paved roads can still be counted on one hand, and towns are spaced several hundred miles apart.